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A Collective Amen

My hands are chapped, my fingernails are broken and my pointer finger is bleeding. Still though, I squeeze hard on the handwarmers buried deep in my down jacket. Northern New Mexico is proving to be an inhospitable place in early October. Attempting to find respite from the cold, I stand under a ponderosa pine with my fellow Southwest Studies group members. We are at the start of a hike through Valles Caldera. I still haven’t digested the icy orange juice or hash browns, a special treat for Valiha’s birthday. We ate in a hurry as we stood shivering in merciless wind this morning. As Georgia would say, “I can’t be arsed” to do the hike. I miss the heat of the bus. Reluctantly, I trudge slowly along the trail, following the river. I can’t relate to the wonderstruck awe of some of my group members, mostly the ones from tropical places who have never seen snow. Just a few months ago I hiked in the same valley with my sister and we enjoyed a picnic lunch on the bank of the river. The landscape is unrecognizable now. My feet slide on the wet granite and I link arms with Celeste for all five of the bridge crossings. At the end of the hike we arrive at a lookout spot and share a snack of sesame sticks and almonds.
During the evening, after a dip in the hot springs and a dinner of bean burritos, our group huddles under a cluster of pinons. We are camped on a mesa. The view of the moon is unrivaled. She hangs wan and slender. She reminds me to loosen my grip of all the things I can’t hold. She reminds me of the persistence of change. This year, like all years, I cling in vain to summer. I cling to the calls of cicadas, slow Sunday mornings, and the blessing of opulent sunlight against my skin. The moon pries my fingers from this, folds my fist around a mug of echinacea tea.
When our plates are cleaned, we grow silent. And then, in the dark, a candle lit cake emerges, carried by one of the leaders. Valiha’s face glows as she blows out the flames. We all help suck the frosting off of the eighteen candles. She asks us to give her a present: to take each other’s hands. We do. Then, she says a prayer: “Thank you God for the burritos we had tonight- those were tasty. Thank you God for these amazing people here with me. Thank you God for the abundance you provide.” We voice a collective “amen.” Although I’m not acquainted with the God that Valiha prays to, I resonate with her prayer. We all do.
In the night, swaddled in eight layers, tucked into a zero degree sleeping bag, I sleep soundly next to three girls I’m so grateful to have gotten closer to over the course of the week. From the surrounding tents people call out goodnights and iloveyous and see you in the mornings.

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