I remember my first encounter with the infinite well. I was twelve and the world made the most sense to me standing safely on the periphery of everyone else. It was 8th grade and if there was anything I was more terrified of than being the center of attention, it was having to make decisions and confront that my safe, little world would eventually have to expand, much like the universe.
Escapism was a term that I did not grasp. It made me think of Indiana Jones fleeing the pit of snakes, rather than transporting oneself out of their reality, of which I was an expert in Algebra I. My math teacher told me once I possessed this quality, that I had an aloofness about me during class and needed to be more present. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but the world outside the dimly lit classroom was much prettier than long division.
The parent chaperone followed the caravan of cars in front of us. I sat shotgun because I didn’t know the other students in the backseat very well and didn’t want to be forced into interacting with them directly for ten hours. I had my earbuds in and my sleek iPod Nano played “New Slang” by The Shins. My dad had given me the CD and I’d copied the disc onto my computer so I could then download it to my iPod -- I thought I was very sophisticated. My dad also let me onto Bruce Springteen, UB40, Counting Crows, and Matchbox20, and I proudly displayed the CDs he’d handed down to me on my nightstand next to my bed. This was a pivotal year for music in my life. Anytime those songs get shuffled enough on my iTunes because I never deleted anything from that account, I am put right back in the passenger seat.
I remember my new found love for music more than a lot of other things about my last year of middle school. Maybe it was because I’d suddenly found a world I didn’t have to actively participate in, I could just listen. I was content staring out the window for all ten of those hours. I honestly haven’t lost the ability to stare out windows for hours on end on long road trips. But I am grateful for that now more than ever because I was the first one to spot Shasta.
I tugged out one ear bud as my gaze caught the horizon miles ahead of us. The snowy cap of Shasta loomed like a giant and the clouds danced silkily in the sunlight around it. The parent chaperone must have noticed that I’d suddenly taken my music out because she turned to me and smiled. Then she followed my gaze.
“Everyone, look,” she said, barely audible. The car grew quiet. “Shasta,” she breathed.
It was the first dramatic peak I’d ever witnessed. I think I was almost trembling because it’s massiveness actually set fear in me -- I’d never seen anything so big. I felt like a speck of dust, impossibly small next to this monolith. I took out my disposable Kodak purchased at the Walgreens on the way out of town, and took a photo I still have to this day, taped affectionately to the inside of the journal I managed to keep at the age of twelve.
I’ve never thought it happenstance that this peak has played a major role in my personal development. From the first moment I had to pause “New Slang” to focus better on the towering peak, I would be drawn back to Shasta for so many years to come. And what I love most about this meeting of Shasta is this first glimpse (unknowingly to me) into everything I was meant for. Each time I would return to Shasta, it would be more meaningful than the next. Each time I would have grown and changed, but Shasta would always be there.
We pulled over into an abandoned gas station a few more miles down the road. All of us were confused since we’d fueled up only an hour ago, and this place appeared to be out of gas. My science teacher, Mr. Stadille, hopped out of the mini van in front of us, wearing his signature checkered flannel and baseball cap. He strode across the empty lot with gusto to the open field behind it, carrying a plastic, yellow bat and two wiffle balls.
He waved the bats at us from the dust-covered field and all of us knew what to do.
Obviously, we were going to play wiffle ball in this abandoned gas station that looked more like a janky saloon out of the wild west movies. Because what else do you do on a 10-hour road trip? We took wiffle ball very seriously at our middle school -- or at least Mr. Stadille did. Anyone could play in the wiffle ball tournaments he held annually and it became the most even playing field us preteens had ever seen.
Hustling out of the car, I couldn’t unbuckle fast enough, as I left my little world behind me in the passenger seat. The warm air that enveloped me felt like a welcoming hug, as we all sprinted towards the field. My untamed hair that had been secured by a Yankees cap whipped about my face in a dry gust of wind, and I had to chase my cap across the abandoned lot. The gas station was suddenly teeming with possibility, as we realized the flat desert opening up behind it that seemed to go on forever. We drew lines in the sand to make up a haphazard field where the greatest game of wiffle ball the high sierra had ever seen would take place.
The next few moments of pure joy that ensued were some that I have never forgotten. We split quickly into two teams, the chaperones and teachers dispersing themselves evenly among us. No one seemed to care who made up each team. All we knew was that there was joy to be had and the desert held out its hands, beckoning us to partake in its dance. We kicked off our shoes and left world at the last stop sign miles behind us.
I adjusted my Yankees cap on my head and got ready to swing in one fluid motion.
With the first whistling pitch of Stadille’s curve ball (if you can believe he could throw one playing wiffle ball), we played. We played until the sun began to sink behind the high desert horizon, yelling and hollering when someone slammed it over the outfielders heads. We kicked up the reddish-colored dust beneath our feet and slid into make-believe bases. The sound of our hysterical laughter when Stadille called someone out in all his dramatic guise could be heard from across the highway. I collapsed in a heap of contentment next to my friends in our “dugout”, which we’d claimed as the spacious trunk of the minivan. I was positively spent with giddiness after hitting a home run over the cute boy’s head in left field.
I took it all in: the dust, the artful batting style of my friends, the laughter that left my stomach in the best exhausted knots, Shasta watching over us like a protective mother watching her children play from the front porch.
I don’t remember who won this ragtag game of ball on the side of I-5 North, in the middle of the desert that late August evening. But I remember how the dust felt beneath my feet, the green flannel I wore tied around my waist like a security blanket, the warm breeze that gave way to early signs of fall only a few weeks away, and the walls that came crashing down in my insecure, 12-year-old mind that were suddenly as make-believe as the bases we’d been sliding into all evening. No longer were we 8th graders on the cusp of everything, but infinite kings and queens who ruled the high desert plains, who didn’t care how dirty they got in the dust or where’d they sleep that night or if they even made it home at all. Our kingdom suddenly became the tumbleweeds, the pastel-colored sky, and the ever-reaching horizon that disappeared behind Shasta.
There was a mutual feeling of awe that this moment was positively all ours -- a feeling I would run after, step into, and fight for indefinitely. And it was all thanks to a joy I had never known, unbridled and catalyzed by the sheer wonder of playing a game of wiffle ball under the desert sky.