It was a chilly morning on the banks of the Green River. I rolled up my sleeping bag and stuffed it into my water resistant dry bag with my other personal belongings, including my river clothing, my toiletries and my headlamp. I ran over the checklist in my head of “Things to Accomplish” before leaving the campsite and embarking on the river journey.
I was in the Labyrinth Canyon in Utah on a packrafting trip with two college-aged river guides, a Holy Cross priest, a former Kellogg Institute associate professor, a Notre Dame alumni and videographer and six other Notre Dame undergraduates. WONDER 1 was the name we gave ourselves. We were the pilot trip of an experiential learning program called WONDER. It was our second day living on the river.
Sunscreen. That’s what it was. I forgot to put on sunscreen. I rummaged in my dry bag, found the tangerine orange bottle of Aveeno sunscreen lotion and applied it. Okay, sunscreen? Check. Next, on the list of “Things to Accomplish,” roll up my crimson red dry bag and try to remember how to strap it onto the raft. While I occupied my mind with the minutiae of my checklist, the beauty of the tangerine orange and crimson red canyons surrounding me battled for my attention.
With my dry bag packed and attached to the raft, I stood by the river. “We are going to try something new this morning,” Ilaria, the former Kellogg professor and founder of WONDER, announced to our group. “We are going to spend the first ten minutes on the river in complete silence, just looking at the beauty that surrounds us.” We grinned at each other, situated ourselves into our rafts and began floating down the river in complete silence.
Sitting in my raft, floating down the river, spinning like a pinwheel in a modest breeze, I started to think about my checklist again, but I quickly realized there was nothing to put on it. The things that I needed to tend to at home, such as loading the dishwasher for my mom, scheduling interviews for my virtual research assistant position or trying to keep up with friends, were out of reach in the Canyonlands of Utah. The only thing that I could do was sit in the raft and look at the canyons.
So there I sat, orienting my face to the sun, squeezing my eyes shut and scrunching my nose. Oh, how the Midwesterner in me loved the sunshine. After a little while, I opened my eyes and admired the canyons. The tangerine orange and crimson red of this natural creation shone even more brightly than that of my trivial belongings. I pretended that the canyons had been hand-painted by an Artist with a paintbrush and palette, that the distinct layers, uneven peaks and ovular holes on the canyon had been carved by a Potter using His wood carving tools.
In this space of silence and in this space of beauty, I recognized the call of creation. My mind had rediscovered a state of interior peace and it desired nothing more.
Throughout the rest of the trip, I continued to answer the call of creation — the call to let my mind be present with the beauty in front of me. This took on various forms, such as playing volleyball across the rafts with my friends Rich and Anna, singing “Wagon Wheel’’ at the top of my lungs with Frank and Jake — we paddled as fast as we could for the sheer joy of doing so — and jumping out of my raft and swimming from one bank to the other as prompted by my friend Jiale. In all of this, I had abandoned my checklist of “Things to Accomplish” and replaced it with a song my dad used to play in the car on school mornings, Francesca Battistelli’s “Free to Be Me."