As I look over the shear mile of a drop that separates myself and Yosemite’s Half Dome, I am overcome with a feeling similar — if not exact — to my junior year high school league championship swim meet.
I immediately frown until I am able to understand why this bitter nostalgia causes such a sour taste in my mouth. I begin to comprehend the extent of the feeling and the fight-or-flight responses shoot through my body, making my heart race and my body tense.
My hands wind up behind my back as if my shoulders need to be loose, because at any moment, I am to leap off of the cliff and fall into the valley below me. I fall nearly a mile to the pool below Yosemite Falls on the other side of the valley and my hips start undulating as my eyes close and my body slowly takes over from my hips, upwards to my fingertips, and up to the rostral sides of my brain.
These sensations that cause my unsettling nostalgia, stem from a feeling that occurred moments before my 100-yard butterfly race, — where I was going to destroy not only a league record that had lived a longer life than I had, but also break a school record—one that belonged to my sister, Rachel’s old boyfriend, former Friends’ League Champion, and my self-proclaimed, “nemesis,” Max Gilbert. This was the record that meant my whole, sixteen-year-old life and it was time for it to fall.
Our team had won nine previous league championships, and I had built three years of imagining this moment on top of what was going to be our tenth year championship. I was the second seed in lane five, but I wasn’t racing the kid who was seeded first. Rachel had not only been my role model growing up, but she had kept me out of trouble and put me back on the right path at every chance she could. I was racing the kid who swam this same race four years ago—and I wasn’t doubting my first-place finish.
Minutes from now I was going to kneel on the middle, first place podium as they put the gold medal around my neck, stand up proud and tall, and point to my sister in the stands above the pool. This was for you, I would mouth to her silently and she would grace me with her pale, blue eyes, and give me a grin — as if to say, you did it, Oliver — realizing that this — the past three years of brutally pushing myself — was all for her. She had left the waters of high school swimming and gone off to college, and for this reason it was my first season without my big sister training in the lane next to me. My love for the sport we shared had taken a big hit and although I had already had committed to swim at the collegiate level, I so greatly wanted this to be my last race. My time had come.
At sixteen years old, I had felt the entire universe was created to give me this moment, and nearly three years later at nineteen — nearly three years of increased training to try to get back the powerful rage I had running through my veins during my 100-yard butterfly race — I still can’t say that moment hadn’t been given to me.
I remember Yosemite’s view from Glacier Point the same way I remember that race from FSLs; I remember it through the pictures that were saved, and through the stories that were told to me, and through my own thoughts and passive words that were placed in a hurried scatter, attempting to fill in the void that occupies my memory. A void that somehow takes up such an important moment in not only my life, but the life and the history and the momentum of all of humanity.
I understand from having somewhat-completed my Biochemistry major that my memories — that everyone’s memories — are just calcium ions dancing from one post-synaptic terminal to another. But I’m unable to channel them in the right direction and to the right beat. I’m unable to get the calcium ions to dance where they need to dance, and flow where they need to flow, in order to let me remember what I need to remember.
I routinely watch video replays of a sixteen-year-old boy with a Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture tattooed onto his back, coming less than five-hundredths of a second within the record — winning first place gold, pushing the score ahead to beat the Westtown School boys, getting Friends’ Central their tenth consecutive league championship title, and at the same time, losing to a kid who swam the same race in the same pool with the same goals—and the same outcome: a loss to the league record by eight-hundredths of a second, all four years prior to my sixteen year old self.
I am floating above the Swarthmore College natatorium, silently. I scream to myself, tuck your head, and push your knees, and kick!, in a desperate attempt to shave off such a small fraction of a second. But every time — as I watch the clock narrow in on :55.79, while the boy with the LOVE tattoo on his back narrows in on the wall — the clock seems to skip and flutter five-hundredths ahead and the boy seems to slow down and stutter and the screen flashes :55.84 in bright red.
I fall to my knees in front of a granite structure that took hundreds of thousands of years of a glacier receding to be carved. In high school, while researching a Muslim-designed palace in central Spain, I came across the words of a Mexican poet, Francisco Asís de Icaza. On de Icaza’s first visit to Spain, (and La Alhambra, the palace in Granada, central Spain) he came across a blind man who lived amongst what some have described as the most beautiful man-made sights. De Icaza was inspired to write,
It’s clear to me that de Icaza had never been to the American West. The poor, poor poet had never seen Yosemite, or Southern Utah, or any state labeled, Forever West — as the lines below the Welcome to Wyoming sign once read to me in front of The Rocky Mountain Range as I hurdled nearly one-hundred and twenty miles per hour across the South Dakota border on Interstate-90. Although the pictures don’t do any of The West justice, I would rather see the Yosemite Valley—just once in my life—and remain a blind man at La Alhambra forever, then to never experience the Half Dome at all.
I thought I could never feel what I felt behind the block of lane five in the minutes prior to that race again. It takes more than five-hundredths of a second to blink. I knew during that race I had to give my everything — give an actual 100% — and I did.
“‘Where do you want to go?’ A cabby asked me, as I docked at a port in San Francisco.
I gazed at the towering buildings and glistening city and without a hesitation, I replied,
‘Anywhere that’s wild.’
The next morning, I headed east towards Yosemite.
-John Muir, 1868