“When I return to Alaska,” Casey says, “I don’t want to forget this view.”
“Take a picture then,” I say, not trying to sound rude. I just can’t see this mountain landscape like Casey sees it, though I wish I could. I’d love to appreciate the lake at the foot of the mountains beneath a clear blue sky, to not fear that appreciating the beauty would be cliché. But I can’t turn it off. It’s not just because I’m from here. I’m thinking about how many people have thought and said the same faux-transcendental things about this place. I’m thinking about how many people have used it to feign introspection, to pretend to have an epiphanic moment, only to leave the canyon exactly as they were before they came. I’m thinking about how this rock we’re sitting on molds so perfectly to the human bum. How it’s positioned right where the trail forks around the lake, dividing the horizon in thirds, and how this center view surely must have been curated by some state employee.
Casey lowers her phone. “Don’t you just love it,” she says. “The way the wind brushes your skin like canvas.”
I feel it all right, and I appreciate it too, but mostly because the sun is high and hot and I’m sweating. It’s the same wind we felt yesterday, and the same wind we felt back at university in Alaska. What’s more special about wind in Utah?
“It’s like the flowers grow tall and yellow to honor the sun,” Casey says. “What do you think, Andrew? You think that’s possible?”
“God works in mysterious ways,” I say.
“I wish my students could see this,” Casey says. “A picture won’t do it justice.”
Had she forgotten that I was once her student? How this sentimentality is exactly what she beat out of me?
“Oh hey is that a moose?” Casey points to the edge of the lake where, yes, it appears a small moose has waded into the water. “No antlers,” she says.
“Must be female,” I say, “Or an adolescent male.”
“I wish I’d brought my notebook,” Casey says. “There’s something super interesting about how a moose’s affect shifts when it leaves the cold tundra and enters the sunny mountains.”
How do you do it? I’d like to ask, but the truth is I already know. It’s not that she knows better than me how to separate life from work, or how to reconcile that while others maybe have known this spot, she hasn’t, so it’s okay to feel what they felt. It’s just that she’s not thinking about those things. Not thinking about the artificiality, the cliché, the sentimentality. She’s just visiting her old student and appreciating the view. What’s so wrong with that?
Casey swings her backpack around front and drops her phone in an open pocket. “I’ll probably never see those photos again,” she says.
I can’t help myself. I say, “You know, a picture’s worth a thousand words.”
And the moment the words take flight I hold my breath. She watches me, as if questioning what I said, and I wonder: do my words hurt her? Do they knot her up inside? Do they haunt her the way her critiques, though they molded a stronger writer, haunt me?
Casey ducks down to extract a half-full Nalgene from her bag. She takes a long drag, water dripping down her shirt, then replaces the cap and tucks away the bottle. She stands and jostles the bag in place, looks up once more at the mountain, then checks her watch. I’m on my feet, panting slightly, when she asks, “Ready to move on?”