I watch her from across the crackling fire. She’s wearing a worn out t-shirt with a picture of a small child looking up at a tree and asking, “Will you be my role model?” Her eyes dance in rhythm with the flames. Sparks fly when she speaks. I feel myself thriving and growing in her infectious energy, like a seed planted in nutrient rich soil.
She’s a great storyteller, full of motion and emotion. Last night, instead of simply telling her story, she acted it out with a series of hilarious interpretive dances. She went on for hours. I couldn’t stop laughing and my sides ached afterward. She has a wild imagination and an intellectual sense of humor. Conversations with her are like a roller coaster ride, always thrilling. She intrigues me with her incessant drive to live, experience, feel and above all, laugh.
Her name is Elori, but I call her El Train. We met in early September. I was in the midst of an internal struggle, suffering from a classic modern aliment called, “the unhappiness of not being happy.” I couldn’t figure out why I was so sad and it both frustrated and frightened me. Determined to drive the lurking shadows from my mind, I had done everything I could think of to help myself. I tried yoga and meditation. I explored religion and divinity. I ran miles and miles. Over the summer, I devoured prodigious piles of self-help books and wrote dark poetry. I fasted for days on end trying to trigger a mental epiphany. What I hadn’t realized was how far out of balance my perspective had become. I had tipped the scale of light and dark too heavily toward the dark side.
Exasperated and looking for inspiration, I signed up for a National Outdoor Leadership School adventure course, a ninety-six day long journey in the Rockies. It sounded completely insane and I was nervous, but I wanted to shed my skin and wake up in the wilderness each morning. Maybe I was walking into the wild in a Chris McCandless state of mind, counting on nature to illuminate me. What I hadn’t counted on was catching a ride aboard the El Train.
She was laughing when we first met. Laughing hard. Red cheeked and nearly out of breath, she introduced herself, “I’m Elori and yes, that does rhyme with celery.” We were assigned to the same cook group and soon discovered a shared love for soupy oatmeal and mint hot chocolate. We spent the next few weeks hiking in the Wind River Range. Through rivers and meadows, over passes and on top of peaks, we slowly bonded over Thoreau, Wayne’s World quotes and the Minnesota hip-hop scene.
She’s funny and consistently lives with a smile on her face. About halfway through our adventure, she acquired a terribly painful skin disease called impetigo. Her face was covered in quarter-sized boils that burst open and dripped a thick, yellow fluid. She was advised to apply the wrong type of medicated ointment, so instead of helping heal the sores it turned them black and crusty. When I touched her skin, it literally felt like asphalt. It hurt her to move her face, but this little roadblock did nothing to stop the El Train from tootin’ on full steam ahead. She drew a smiling face on the backside of her hand and held it up to her mouth whenever she wanted to let me know she was doing her best not to laugh.
She gave me just the push I needed to add a little weight to the bright side of my scale, inspiring me to see the light in my own life and hold on to what’s good.
It’s funny. Last night she told me that I am an inspiration to her.
This is the last night of our NOLS adventure. Tomorrow, we’ll go our separate ways. I’ll be flying home to spend Christmas in Alaska and she’s off to celebrate Chanukah in Israel. We’ll walk different paths into our futures. In the comfortable silence of our last night together, the Grateful Dead song, “He’s Gone” comes to mind. And it rings the crystal clear truth, “nothin’ left to do but smile, smile, smile.”
From across the fire, El Train looks over at me. In her eyes, I see laughter and love. I see compassion and companionship, and I know my eyes reflect the same. “Sierra!” she bursts out and begins singing one of our favorite songs, “Hey ma, what’s up, let’s slide, alright…cause we gon’ get in on tonight…” She stretches her arms out beckoning me to join her. I tilt my head back and laugh. My tongue recognizes this moment as a taste of simple happiness. I’m no longer dwelling in the deep darkness of the night. In the glow of the fire, I’m on my feet and dancing.