“…But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
– Thomas Merton
You might sit down. There’s a story behind every name, yours and mine; and here’s a part of it I think you ought to know.
On Nov. 13, 2017, Niels Tietze fell in a rappelling accident from Fifi Buttress in Yosemite National Park. He was a phenomenal climber, a mad maker of pancakes; one of those humans with a gift for seeing others and accepting them for exactly who and what they are. (This article from the Alpinist paints a far better picture of Niels than anything here.)
To understand how this fits into the story of our trail, walk back a few years into the meadowlands of Yosemite Valley, with the grasses waving gold between tall glacier-eroded cliffs, near the banks of the Merced. Imagine me: a wee lassie, struggling with depression like a bagel, newly sprung from the university scene, with no idea who I am or what I am doing. We can all wonder how a physics-oriented** human, drenched in sadness, ended up getting an internship as a backcountry ranger in the west of our vast turtle continent.
**For the record, kids… You don’t need a degree in the outdoors to work as a ranger. Or to be outdoors, in fact. Crazy stuff, I know.
There were four of us, all lasses that year (truly they are amazing people) and all certified EMTs, because the corridor we were assigned to had a high history of incidents and preparation is great. We lived in two canvas-walled cabins on the SAR site in Camp 4. Mostly, I patrolled the trails as a mediocre intern, functioned as a mediocre SAR tech when necessary, and existed as a mediocre socially awkward bagel* in camp.
*Truly nothing changes, my people.
There is no real way to write about folks who have touched your life. Every human I met that summer did; and they are all important. Sometimes, when trying to talk about important things, we lose our words- but hold your horses, dear reader. Perhaps I can tell it in this way, going backwards from the present.
You call me Sail because when Don Hudson asked how I would hike across the Atlantic, I said something like, “mumble snarfle sail or something snarfle grumble.” Then he said, “This is great!! SAIL AWAY. How’s that for a name,” and it was good.
I said, “sail,” because at a couple points in my life I was crew on tall ships, up in Maine, so that is potentially how I would make my passage. Truly they are beautiful, and when the wind sheets across the white canvas, sometimes, it is almost like flying.
I happened to crew on tall ships up in Maine, but only because I met a guy one night a while back, on El Camino in Spain, which I was on for ten days because I was then working in that continent. He commented that sailing was good for the soul, and I stared at him. He had worked on a tall ship, in Maine. I haven’t seen him since, but I contacted the fleet he mentioned, because I had been trying to figure out how I would learn to sail for eons before we met.
I had wanted to learn to sail tall ships, but only because I knew sailing was possible, even for penniless nomads like me.
This was because, not so long ago, in my existence as a despairing bagel in Yosemite, a friend named Niels Tietze enthused about sailing; and a dangerously named Darren had provided supporting evidence; and there I was, surrounded by loads of incredible people doing what they loved. So I lived in the Valley, and in the backcountry, and learned from the people around me, and thought to myself things like, “Self, now you see what is possible,” and, “Gracious me, I guess sailing is not just for people who own lake houses, well, heavens, there are still real ships out there,” and, “What ice cream should I eat by the river today.” (Only thinking of the important things, you know.)
When I was small, I had dreamed of sailing on ships and adventuring in the world, but I had also already decided it was impossible. It is good for us all that the people of Yosemite exist.
Nothing happens by chance, I think.
* * *
So that is a part of my story; but this is a part of yours:
What I mean to say is… Well, you, wandering about in your life – you shine like the sun.
Your struggles, and stories, and conversations- maybe every moment something of yours breaks in the waves and is gone, but sometimes glorious wonderful things can wash up onto the shoreline of another person’s life. It is like sea glass. You dropped a careless word, or came by and laughed, or maybe even thought you had left only shattered ugly pieces of things; but the ocean can make even broken ragged edges turn into something incredible. Trust in that.
And then, when we are gone, we are also remembered in this way: only as the bits and pieces that are left behind, washed up onto another beach. So we pick up the gleaming pieces the sea left on our shores, and tell the stories; and this is how our people are remembered. Sea glass. Incredible. Or driftwood, or round shells, or even just tiny grains of sand. Their gift to us. Your gift to me. Parts of our life we’ve given to others.
I’d like you to remember, please, that without the tiniest grains, we would have no sand-filled shore. You are shaped by every person you meet. That is part of what’s behind your name.
I guess, what I mean to say is, here is this piece of sea glass.
This is a part of mine.