I’m so nervous. Lauren and Hannah, literal angels that the universe has placed in my airplane row on the flight to Salt Lake City, patient as ever, describe how it might go, what I can do. Lauren says “How exciting is it to meet the love of your life for the first time” and as I shake my head at her, I can see she is thinking of her lover by the look in her eyes.

Pfsh, that isn’t what this is about.

You pick me up in your sports car, blue with golden wheels. It’s a stick shift and I chuckle at the fact that you’re proud of that. I’m too nervous to eat, so the only thing I can stomach are fries. We have some trouble finding my airbnb, but in the end make it there without issues. You pay for my dinner – fries with a milkshake – and we drive up to the capitol, to have dinner with a view. We sit down beside some monument. What is this, I ask, I have no idea, you respond. It’s colder than we expected but the view is pretty nice. In the end we end up chatting in my apartment, timid still, no touching, very shallow. We hug, kinda awkwardly.

My sleep isn’t deep, hours spent jet lagged in the dark, curiously imagining the days to come.

The pioneer memorial museum, run by descendants of the official pioneers, is the first magical place I discover in the city the next day, only a short walk from my Airbnb. I spend hours in there, observing the overwhelming amount of artifacts that have stood the grips of time for so long. I marvel at the sheer variety of things the pioneers had brought, some seemingly useless; organs, dolls, delicate lace fabrics, candelabras, china, art, tools, sewing machines. At the same time I try to put myself in their position, knowing that if I had to move my entire existence, I would like to take as many of my belongings with me as possible.

I didn’t realize how much I missed the States until I came back. It’s been 2 years since I left California and since my last visit to this country that is so connected to my childhood in back and forths each summer with childhood memories of iHop and made up songs. There’s something about here that makes me feel so at ease, unlike other places I have lived in. In the UK, I never quite fit in, because everyone always asked me where I was from. In Utah, I get asked if I’m from Provo. My brother asks me what it is about it, that I love, and I cannot tell you. Because it’s true, I am so deeply critical about a lot of things here and yet I just feel so at home and it’s a feeling I didn’t realize was missing from my heart until I felt it again.

At night we get pizza at your old work, a place that you’re so incredibly familiar with, and take the first trip in our adventure vehicle up the mountains to watch the sunset. The guard rail pops in the sun and we wonder what the sound is. You explain the geography to me, no, that isn’t a fire, it’s a polluting factory, look at how low the lake levels are. I get absolutely destroyed by mosquitos and I can’t quite grasp the fact that this situation is the reality now. I’m here. We’re here. It’s real.

I‘m cursing at the skies for making me feel this way.

We enter Arches through a back entry, which, as you tell me, used to be the main entrance when Arches National Park had just been established. Our first hike is the one to Delicate Arch. I don’t know what to expect and I certainly, deep down, did not expect a hike that long – and it isn’t even that long. Like three miles. Long enough for an untrained person like me. You ask me if I’d like pictures of myself under the arch, but I’d rather just people watch and laugh at other German’s accents.
When we get back, we have breakfast on the ground in the parking lot, next to our car. I have toast with nutella – what a surprise – and you have cereal, which will be our daily breakfast/dinner/snack the next few days.

My sunglasses are broken – one of the little nose pads has fallen off. I forget about this fact and push my sunglasses up frequently to look through my viewfinder or just to appreciate the view better. My hair gets tangled up and I can’t remove the sunglasses and so many times you patiently untangle the sunglasses from my hair. I apologize each time for it. Your hands are warm.

During the drive to Canyonlands, you explain the park and its three parts to me. You have seen two of them, but the Needles and the Maze are harder to reach, so we are only visiting the Island in the Sky. You tell me “You’ll know why it’s named that, when you see it” and, oh, I do. From so far up high we look over the Green River, or really, over its cliffs, because the river is so low we can’t even see it from our spot. We walk along the cliffs and watch the others, as well as spot old mining roads and bikers on their motorcycles down on the lower plateau.

At Dead Horse Point, I want to know the history of its name. You don’t know the answer, so I consult Google. “Did you know that Dead Horse Point got its name from the cowboys who used the natural corral as a space to capture wild mustangs? They would chase them until they arrived in the corral and often, left over horses would die of exposure, right in view of the Colorado River down in the canyon.” Despite your frequent reminders to hydrate, I – similarly to the horses – have not been drinking enough. I get dizzy and a little confused, and dehydration in the desert is dangerous, so I lay down on a bench in the shade while you go out to shoot some pictures and fetch me some water. This is the first time that I get unsure about this situation, as I imagine what I would do if you’d just leave me out here now. No phone, no wallet, no water, just me and my camera.

But you come back, of course you do, you always do, and you bring fresh water and a snack and I make a joke that at midnight on Halloween you can hear the dead horses neighing up here. I like making you laugh.

I never went on this trip in pursuit of love. I went in pursuit of life, of experience. Yet, I fall in love in more ways than would be obvious. I love how the heat carries me down capitol hill as I walk downtown for a new day of exploring. I love sitting next to the water fountains at city creek between blue lemon and Deseret books, watching the birds, reading a book. I love how sage smells. I see the light. God, do I see the light, during the most incredible sunsets I’ve ever seen. I fall in love with the night skies and the feeling of waking up in the middle of nowhere, running around in just my underwear bathed in early morning light. The first night in the desert I can’t sleep, so I hold your hand while you sleep, listen to music and stare into the starry night sky (albeit, a blurry night sky, since I’m not wearing my glasses). It makes me cry, the combination of factors, but in a good way.

I wake up to sunlight streaming through the car’s windows. Our air mattress has deflated and we’re glued together in the middle of a sticky canyon of air trapped in plastic walls. We unstick from each other and from the mattress but don’t get up yet. Instead we enjoy the moment for a while, the still somewhat cool air flowing through the open rear window. It’s getting hotter though as the sun rises, so I jump out and run around. The sun warms my bare skin, no socks in these shoes, hair down, I’m free.

A lot of our trip is spent with me asking you questions. What was it like growing up in the LDS faith? Tell me about your family. What is your best trait? What is your worst trait? Why aren’t Canyonlands and Arches combined? Sometimes, you reply with questions back. What is my best trait? Resilience.

Our second night we experience the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen, at a location we decide to keep our secret. We race there, nearly missing the last rays, but the universe decides to reward us with a sunset longer and more colorful than we could have imagined. The rocks are warm and after shooting a little, I decide to just lay down on the warm stone and enjoy the moment. You’re still taking pictures of me, my hair looking like fiery strands in the bright, orange light. This is the first time I see you nerd out over light in a way I have never seen anyone do but myself. It’s fun and a little weird, but also affirming in a way. The only downside of shooting here is by the time we arrive at our motel for the night, all the restaurants are closed. I laugh at the motel concierge – she tells us “If you are interested in dinner, we are open until 9:30pm and it is now….9:21pm.”.

The next morning we wake up, in a white bed full of sheets and blankets and pillows. It’s a little confusing, the dimly lit room so different to the small, sticky space that is the back of your car. We pack up and I iron my first ever piece of clothing – the long yellow dress I bought specifically for this trip that has been crumpled up in my tiny carry on. We drive down to Monument Valley – the only place I thought I wanted to see. It’s beautiful, but in the end I feel more guilt about how settlers destroyed native’s lands than ability to enjoy being there. We drive into the tribal park and it feels so heavy, to think that this is the tribe’s livelihood, yet we shouldn’t want to be there in the first place.

The rest of the day is spent driving. We speed through capitol reef – I would have liked to see more of it. The colors are so different here compared to Arches and Canyonlands. The rocks are a lighter sand-like color, the greys even slightly blue. The greens of the shrubbery light up differently against the lighter colored rock and the ground somehow looks like it would be soft to lay on.

*the three portraits of me in the third row below were taken by Dave Cawley

I learn a lot about you on this trip. How you hate slow drivers. How you can read a map upon first glance, how your fingers play along to guitar riffs when listening to your favorite songs. Maybe it’s unintentional. How you hold open every door for me, unless I’m faster, and the way you laugh in excitement over teenage years stories with your friend. How you nerd out over sunsets and how much about photography we can teach each other. The way your skin lines up in perfect sun rays around your eyes when you smile or squint, and how a single eyebrow raise can send me into an abyss of nervous smiles. I know that you love the smell of burning cedar. How you have an answer to all of my questions besides the one that I want answers for most.

Near Boulder we are not sure where to park for the night. We cross Hog’s back and I take my favorite picture of you. I spin around on the highway, my yellow dress flying around me. You can hear the cars from ages ago, so I’m not scared to stand in the middle of the street and look down the side of the road, which descents down thousands of feet on both sides. Or so it feels like. It feels like Icarus close to the sun, it feels like flying, without the falling. It feels like you could touch heaven from here.
Some of your favorite places are already taken for the night. Instead of continuing to search, we stop at a free one and jump out to take more pictures of the sunset. The sky is all kinds of pastel colors, blue, lavender, rosé, and the shadow of the earth creeps up the horizon. You look at me with a mischievous grin and suggest we take pictures pretending you’re kicking me off the cliff, as a hint to all the fears my trip had been met with by other people. The results send me into a laughing fit, the one that brings you down to your knees and leaves you breathless. I send the pictures to my family, but they don’t appreciate them very much – for obvious reasons. I still think they’re funny.

At night we get pizza, the cold air of the fan above me making me nauseous, so we switch places. “This is the sexiest pizza I have ever seen”, I say and we remind each other to tell our families that we’re fine, we’ll be back in civilization soon, before we head off again. 

We sleep in a wooded area near Bryce, the reflections of firefighter’s trucks between the trees remind me of the Slenderman computer game I used to play in high school. I’m nervous, but you say I don’t have to be. I make a joke about hearing the highway from where we park and not sleeping in my underwear in case I needed to run off at night. The stars twinkle between the branches and the next morning you thank me for my bravery. I didn’t have to run off at night and instead we pack up to shoot the sunrise at Bryce. It’s cold and I layer up in all my clothes and two of your jackets. Of course I forget my tripod. A guy tells us about how he dropped his camera down a cliff this morning and a random lady ruins my self portraits. I admire how you shoot with so much knowledge about the geography and our cameras, feeling slightly self conscious at the touristy sort of snaps I seem to be taking in comparison. But I know what to do when it comes to portraits of us, I jump around you, setting up my camera on my backpack, so wobbly that other tourists watch in fright of my camera reliving the same fate as the other man’s. I pick up some German here and there. You suggest I join them, met with a shocked glance from my face, oh god no, why would I. 

We go hiking afterwards. 

The hike in Bryce is not a long one, yet I struggle. It’s hot, already, even though it’s early in the morning, and the thin air is making it difficult for my body to adjust. You’re fine, you don’t even seem to be feeling warm at all, even though you’re wearing more layers than me. I try not to feel stupid in comparison and to focus on the natural beauty around me instead. There’s little chipmunks running around in search of food and I tell you how I used to want to have a pet chipmunk. We quietly complain about the loud French tourist group and discuss gift giving in relationships. It’s interesting to me how Bryce is so different from the other parks we’ve seen, even though when you really think about it, it’s all just…rocks. But they all feel so different, depending on time of day, location and your perspective. Walking the Queen’s garden trail makes me feel tiny and I don’t yet know how much tinier I will feel in the canyons of Zion.

Zion starts off rough. It’s hot and we’re not sure of our plans. It takes us forever to find parking and while we search, I already feel overwhelmed by the amounts of people running around in this national park after the silence and emptiness of the desert. Our options include another hike to a sunset overlook, or hiking through a river-filled canyon, which would require us to take a shuttle bus filled with tourists. By this point, the temperature has passed the 100 degree mark and it’s not even noon. I’m so unsure whether or not to keep my laptop in the car or take it with me that I get grumpy and whiny and I apologize about a thousand times for that. But in the end we go. And I’m so glad we did.

On the shuttle, I try to focus on myself, tune out the masses of tourists and your legs touching mine. I’m here by myself, looking out into the wilderness, passing other shuttles, nothing else matters. Before we get to the part where we can actually start hiking in the river, we need to walk a path following the river, along its sides. Like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse, we follow the masses of tourists and in the heat, that’s almost how I feel. You’re worried about me, you say, wondering if I’m not enjoying myself. The reality is, I am, so much, but the overwhelming chatter of so many other people around me is too much and I wish it was just us here.

Together, we agree on the fact that a permit-regulated visitation system should be implemented in all national parks. Especially seeing how tame the animals are here – fat squirrels not flinching at the kids feeding it with bread and all kinds of human foods, a deer and her fawn chilling on a meadow only separated to groups of people taking pictures by a measly little fence.

And then we get to the part where the river fills the canyon and we step into the water. It feels funny, walking on slippery stones with the pressure of the current pinning back my shins. As we go in deeper, the canyon walls draw closer and at some point, we are submerged up to our hips in water. The further we go, the thinner the crowd, which feels so good. Less people means less splashing of water, so less worrying about my equipment. It means space to watch you climb up on rocks and squat down in the water to get the best shot. It means quiet to focus on the beauty of nature. We’re such snobs, I say, as we laugh about someone asking us if our Canons are waterproof and imagine a world in which we’re the only ones here, so much space to get the all the shots we’d want.

At some point, even the best river hike has to end. We turn around and just walk back. You hold my hand so I don’t slip, and we have a conversation about appreciating the moment and not trying to question everything. We have to remind each other of that, every once in a while.

You say Grafton ended up being one of your favorite moments. For me, each day kept on getting better with you, and better and better than the last, and Grafton was the perfect ending in another perfect sunset‘s lights. The cemetery was sad to see, a rosary wrapped around a single wooden beam, a pioneer plaque on a woman‘s grave, a toy horse on that of a child. 

The town however, was filled with the ghosts of the dead in a way so different a cemetery could ever be. You tell me I‘m beaming, as I take in the sights of this farming land below the big, red rocks, the porches in front of the houses, the nails in the window frames, the church bell atop the church roof – which also functioned as the town‘s school building. I take in the old fences and oil barrels, we joke about murder basements and I marvel at the leftover fireplaces. And then – what a coincidence! – a woman from California walks up to us. Her name is Laura, and her great grandfather lived in one of these now abandoned houses. Her grandma went to school here, she tells us, and she herself was just on the way to help her daughter move on campus, here in Utah, and then came down to see where she had come from. I silently thank the universe for this gift of perfect timing. The sun is setting as we drive to your friends’ house, talking religion and its pros and cons. You tell me about the FLDS and your own religious upbringing, and ever-curious I storm you with questions borderline too personal.

Your friends, Brooke and Craig, and their family welcome us into their home late at night. They are about to finish watching The Phantom of the Opera, a movie I have never seen and know nothing about. Afterwards, the kids go to bed and we sit on the couch and chat until the seriously late hours. It’s lovely seeing you with people who have known you for such a long time compared to me. You show me a funny video that you guys created during university and I watch you guys reminisce on times long gone.

Next morning I wake up earlier than the rest of the house and spend some time rearranging my suitcase. Before we head out for breakfast, Joseph, the youngest son, insists on showing us his Minecraft

You always make sure I complete all the things I had planned for this trip. You ensure we stop at Michael’s so I can buy my sister the stickers she has been talking about since I had booked my flights. Without my knowledge you stop at Target – because we need things, but also because you know I wanted to go there. I get my Jamba Juice on our last road trip night because of your taking me there. The Jamba Juice stands on my kitchen counter as I lay in bed after you drop me off, listening to me cry after four days of intense existence.

“I wish you hadn’t left.” I text you.

Our last night is just time. Talking. Answering questions we haven’t had the chance to yet. “Fine follows through”, you say. For anyone who knows me, you’ll know that I have always struggled with feeling like I never finish anything, so hearing this is a delight. I listen to your heartbeat and I don’t even cry when you leave.

I don’t cry.

This isn’t over.