Paris is Anywhere, Everywhere But Here | Teen Ink

Paris is Anywhere, Everywhere But Here

January 2, 2016
By ValerieW SILVER, Saratoga, California
ValerieW SILVER, Saratoga, California
6 articles 0 photos 2 comments

It is eighth grade, March of the year twenty-fifteen, and my classmates and I are currently on a bus to Yosemite National Park. As part of the annual middle school graduation trip, we are to camp out in the wilderness for five days and four nights. The list of what we will be doing includes seeing Half Dome (national icon for all hikers), climbing Yosemite Falls (national icon for all hikers), and hiking Yosemite Valley (national icon for all hikers).

My hiking shoes are light brown with red laces, much like Cheryl Strayed’s when she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in her memoir, Wild. In about an hour, they will be on the trail along with the many other shoes of the graduating class. We will head to our cabins, which are really just thick poles of metal wrapped in plastic covering. I know because I looked them up online. I also looked up hotels in Paris, London, and Rome--all places I’d rather be than on a bus in the wilderness. For a fleeting second, I think of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (big, tall, and très belle), which is then immediately replaced with Half Dome in Yosemite (big, tall, and very ugly).

I cringe. The bus shudders over a bump in the road, a freak of nature. Think Paris. When that doesn’t work--think London. Rome. By the time the eighth grade students of Miller Middle School arrives at the campsite, I have already mentally recited the names of more than twenty cities, along with their associated capitals.

A tap on the window, and then: “I see Half Dome!”

There’s a loud commotion, and then my fellow classmates are scrambling to peer out the window. I can barely make out a large rock looming in the distance above the frantically bobbing heads. For a minute, I imagine that the rock is Mount Rushmore and Theodore Roosevelt is smiling at me over his nose. You are here, he tells me. I know, I say.

But then another freak of nature hits the bus, and with a sinking realization, I know the bus has stopped. Theodore Roosevelt blinks his stony eyelids out of existence, and Half Dome is back, leering at me from up above, the physical representation of an obstacle. Before stepping off the bus, I give it my “beady” eyes, eyes meant to intimidate, deter, terrorize. What a joke--if anything, it’s Half Dome that’s terrorizing me. With this last thought in mind, I head into the orientation cabin with the rest of my classmates.

Orientation is brief, consisting of a series of statements. Showers can be taken once every two days. Cleaning duty will be every day after dinner. Hiking will be from seven in the morning to three, recreation from three to five. Then it’s dinner.  You get what you get, and you don’t get upset. If you’re one of those people that likes to take an excessive amount of showers, hates cleaning around the house, and is a picky eater, that’s unfortunate for you.

I’m one of those people that likes to take an excessive amount of showers, hates cleaning around the house, and is a picky eater. Thank you, Yosemite. You and I, we’re oxymorons.

Later that night, as we get settled into our respective cabins, I look at the moon and pretend that I’m gazing at it from my seat in a café on a cobblestoned Parisian street. To the faceless man sitting across from me, I say, “La lune est la plus belle en Paris.” The moon is the most beautiful in Paris.

The faceless man shifts a bit, and replies, “The moon is the same everywhere. You simply have an incurable sense of malaise.”

Malaise--the dictionary definition would be “a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify.” I much prefer Junot Díaz’s definition of the word malaise: “the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.” I suppose the faceless man is right. In California, the grass is always greener on the other side.

- - -

Day one of hiking in the formidable Yosemite wilderness. In the morning wee are sorted into our hiking groups. My group instructor is a slightly depressed-looking woman named Danielle, who tells us she hasn’t showered in a week and will be driving down to Los Angeles immediately after we leave.

“I majored in political science and international relations at American University,” she informs us matter-of-factly as we trudge up the hill, “I wanted to work in Congress. To be honest, I don’t know how I ended up here.”

Same, I think. I’m clutching my flimsy paper journal emblazoned with the words Yosemite National Park in bold green. We were told to write our experiences in the journal, and despite the unavoidable presence of Half Dome on its cover, it’s my lifeline, my one connection to the outside world. The paper was made in China. Street food, temples, Mandarin-flavored graffiti. I’ve already written a quote from my favorite memoir Wild within its pages: “The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in Northern California.” How apt. From her description, Cheryl Strayed is exactly where I am.

I don’t realize we have come to a dead stop until we have, standing in front of a hollow tree trunk lying on its side. As if someone gently pushed the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the tower just fell over. (We all knew it was coming.) My peers and I stand around the tree blankly, unsure of what we’re supposed to do. Some are panting, gasping for breath, their wheezes heard in the cold morning air.

“Today,” Danielle surveys us before speaking, “you’ll be climbing inside a tree trunk. Think of it as a perspective from the inner workings of life itself.” I zone out momentarily as she continues, picturing the elevator in the Empire State Building, going up, up, up to the top of New York City. Going up in the inner workings to get a view of life itself.

We line up behind the entrance of the tree trunk, and from my spot third-to-last, I can barely make out the heaps of dirt and mud caked inside the wood. When it’s my turn to go, I press my puffy jacket down to my stomach, lie down, and squeeze inside.
Most of my classmates have exited through the side of the trunk by the time I’ve entered. Outside, someone is yelling directions, though I can’t hear what’s being said. The dark face of the student in front of me moves a bit, then speaks, “She says that you can go through the second half of the trunk if you like challenges. She says it’s difficult.” I don’t respond.

As I get towards the light of the tree’s opening, I notice the so-called “second half” of the trunk--it’s considerably more constricting and tiny. To top it off, everything that I can see is black. For reasons unknown, I decide to follow Robert Frost’s advice and take the road not taken. The girl behind me shrieks a “what are you doing?” but I ignore her, ducking into the entrance of the second opening. Paris is waiting.

I realize I’ve made a mistake sometime around the third shimmy, when I realize the inside of this part of the trunk isn’t just caked with dirt and grass, but mud too. Sticky, goopy mud that makes noises when you accidentally press your hand against it. This is not Paris. My jacket has clumped up and prevented me from further shimmying down the trunk. I am suddenly conscious of how little space there is between me and the hard, knotted, wood of the tree.
“Can you move?” The girl behind (Casey, I remember) has followed me.

“I’m stuck,” I whisper.

“You’re what?” she says, then comes a hard shove on my head which only serves to further push me into the tree.

“Like that’ll help,” I tell her in irritation before pressing my hand into my jacket again and scooting a bit. Progress. I’m getting claustrophobic and feel the verge of a panic attack coming on. If I’m stuck here forever, I won’t have to start high school. Très bien.
With a final inhale of breath, I manage to squeeze my jacket and use my arms to propel myself out of the trunk. Everyone is still there. It must not have taken as long as I thought, I think with relief, but that relief turns into apprehension when I discover the mud coating my entire outfit, from puffy jacket to Cheryl Strayed shoes. When Casey and I walk over to Danielle, she appraises us with a glance, “Oh, good. You’re back. How was it?”

“It was--” Casey begins, but then I interrupt her with, “I got mud all over my clothes!”

“I saw,” Danielle states, in her signature matter-of-fact tone.

I stare at her in disbelief. “It’s mud. All over! I’m dirty.”

“It’ll wash off. Now,” she looks over her shoulder at the rest of us, “let’s get a move on.”

And at this moment I’m taller than trees, standing on a steep mountain slope in northern California, but at the same time I’ve never felt so completely, utterly, small.

- - -

Mud multiplies quickly in Yosemite. First it’s the spider caves, where we climb into a completely dark cave and try to blindly fumble our way through. (I pretend it’s the rock-climbing walls in Taipei, when you put one hand on a rock and put your foot on the one closest one after it.) Then the night walks through a certain part of the wilderness. (Strolls in downtown London.) I cling to my journal, writing in it whenever the opportunity arises. Walked six miles. Ate soggy eggs. Did bonding activity. It’s the sole reason I’m still okay; writing makes me okay. Yes, I have malaise, but it’s not absolutely incurable. As long as I have my journal in hand, I’m everywhere at once--Paris, London, Rome, Yosemite--nothing is beyond my reach.

The next time I pull out my journal, though, it’s ruined. My water bottle, one of those cheap ones you get at a festival after winning the Duck Toss, had leaked overnight and the entire journal now resembles nothing more than a mass of sopping paper, purple words bleeding into each other like couples that couldn’t bear to be away from each other. I stare at it for a moment, disbelieving. Three days of hard work. Three days of furious scribbling, three days of, “you’re writing too much.” Three days of partially-cured malaise.

“That sucks,” Casey remarks from her perch on the rock, her own pristine journal in hand,  “you’ve been doing so much in it. It’s practically half of your Yosemite experience.”

“I know,” I say. I wish I was somewhere else. Anywhere but here. 

Up above, Half Dome is laughing at me.

- - -

The afternoon of Day Four, our hiking group decides to undergo the terror of the tree trunk yet again. This time, I’m third-to-first, and I choose to go through the second half again. This time, though, I get through it seamlessly. After heading back to where my two classmates and Danielle are waiting, Danielle takes one look at me and says, “You’re dirty.”

“I know,” I reply, “It doesn’t bother me so much anymore.”

She turns away, but I can see her smiling. “That’s the point.”

- - -

The last night in Yosemite, the entire eighth grade class takes a night walk through the woods to watch an informational show on bears. An middle-aged man named Brett in a bright yellow jacket has us pet the hide of a dead bear, which he’s set on a rock in the clearing. “This one liked pizza a lot,” he jokes, “always eating it out of the trash. Drove park visitors crazy.”

A girl asks, “How’d he get into a human camp in the first place?”

“Well, it was kind of a forced thing. There were always humans eating out of pizza boxes, you see, and bears have a very good scent of smell. The bear’s natural instinct was to follow the scent of pizza, and it led him straight to the camp.” Gasps. “And the humans were scared, obviously, because it was a bear. Imagine their surprise when the bear aimed for the pizza instead of them. Once the humans realized what it was the bear wanted, they started purposely leaving the pizza out for the bear to find. He just kept coming back.” Brett chuckles, shaking his head, “Guess he really liked where he was.”

“I don’t get it,” someone says, “why would he come back? There’s so many other places he could be in Yosemite, I don’t think he’d want to be in a smelly, overcrowded, human camp.”

Brett frowns. “I think you have to see things from his perspective. There was something waiting for him, something good. Why would he go anywhere else?”

“But,” the person persists, “he didn’t know that there would be pizza waiting for him. If I were him, I wouldn’t want to be in an environment like that at all.”

It’s my turn to pet the hide. With my fingers splayed on the soft brown fur I imagine that I’m the bear, in a human camp. There’s pizza waiting on the table, but I’m noticing the overflowing trash can and the flies buzzing around leftover food on the ground. I smell something, something good, but it doesn’t seem to be anywhere close. I wish I was back home.

“It’s not about the pizza, it’s about adaptation. The bear had already gone to the human camp once, and there was pizza waiting for him. Naturally, he’d adapt to that environment--it gave him something. He’d be willing to stick around to get that something good, if only for a little while.” There’s a scoff, but I can’t help but think what he’s saying actually makes sense. There’s always something good. Adapt to the something good.

- - -

We’re walking back to the campsite after what others deem the “bear show,” and I’m looking down at my light brown shoes with the red laces, like the ones Cheryl Strayed had in Wild. They’ve gotten remarkably dirty since the day I first stepped on Yosemite ground in them, and I find that I don’t mind. They’re national icons already, battle scars. I eye the yellow circle my flashlight makes on the concrete path and pretend it’s the moon. La lune est la plus belle partout. The moon is the most beautiful anywhere. How apt.


There’s a shout: “It’s Half Dome!”

Looking up, I see Half Dome looming up ahead, the physical representation of an obstacle. The hundreds of flashlights shining on the rock create tiny circles of white and yellow, swirling in and around each other, making long arcs and short ones, some running up to the very top, the apex of life itself. Little craters like the moon. It’s très belle, and for a second, I don’t just see Half Dome--I see the Great Wall in China, Big Ben in London, the Colosseum in Rome. I see the Blue Domed Church in Santorini, the Taj Mahal in Agra, Mount Fuji in Japan. I see the Eiffel Tower in Paris, City of Lights. The surface of Half Dome is our very own city of lights.

The girl next to me sighs. “Isn’t it beautiful? I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Theodore Roosevelt is back, national icon that he is, but this time he isn’t in Mount Rushmore. He’s in Yosemite, and his eyes trace the outlines of trees, of the lights from the campsite far off in the distance, of the rocks and rivers that make up so much of the landscape. His eyes reach the tree trunk we climbed through, the stretch of land that our night walks consisted of; they illuminate the spider caves. And this, in all its entirety, is Yosemite.

You are here, he tells me.

“I know,” I say.

The author's comments:

All of us have a partially curable case of malaise. I was inspired to write something in the wilderness after hiking some beautiful trails in Northern California, and I wish I could go back. My own malaise, in a way, but I wanted to convey how anywhere can be everywhere once you want it to be.

Similar Articles


This article has 0 comments.