Wild Kingdom

Etosha National Park, Namibia – August 2015

So often, the things that we seek in earnest are already with us. Right by the side of the road. The safari truck jerks to a halt and backs up. We were so focused on the road ahead that we didn’t notice the lioness. Camouflaged, but not hiding. Lounging. Languid and amused.

Two more become visible. A male and another female. The lion’s face rises above the grass. Proud to the point of comical. So sure of his own worthiness. It doesn’t matter how many males he battled, if any, to win his females. Success has everything to do with whether we feel we deserve it.

A slow, luxurious sweep of my eyes across this alien landscape. The monochrome grasslands. The salt pan that can be seen from space. So spectral and magnetic. That mesmerizing shimmer on the horizon. It’s as if, no matter how far you walk, you will never reach it. But the truth is that it already surrounds us.

I deserve this.

**Bay City, Michigan – Spring 1973

A little yellow house. The last house on the road. Nothing but open fields beyond. Images flicker on the television. Two men in a faraway place. A jungle in South America. I stare at the screen. The show is called Wild Kingdom. A man named Jim wrestles a tapir while an old man named Marlin talks. I want to be Jim when I grow up. In Bay City, there are no jungles or tapirs or people with painted skin. My little brother Billy presses his leg into mine, as if to anchor himself. He’s almost three years old, but does not speak.

My mother rocks my baby sister Penelope. “In Africa, the bugs are as big as birds. In China, the flowers are as big as a person’s face.”

I wish she would smile like that more often. “Can I go there?”

Her smile fades. She shuts off the television. “It’s too far away. Go outside and play.”

I stand at the edge of the field behind our little yellow house. A soft spring sun shines down. The smell of thawing mud fills the air. Across the brown expanse, the horizon ripples. A warm, dusty wind blows. It is the Kalahari Desert. But what is beyond? I step forward. Billy follows. Our boots sink into the mud. We push ahead. Exploration is never easy. Jim wouldn’t turn back. We sink up to our calves. The mud holds us prisoner. Quicksand!

Billy opens his mouth and wails. The sound of his voice is so unfamiliar that I panic.

My mother flies out the door, long brown hair streaming behind her. When she gets to the edge of the field, she bursts out laughing, puts her hands on her hips, and shakes her head. “Oh, it’s not quicksand. Calm down.” When she lifts me up, my little brown cowgirl boots stay in the mud.

It’s funny, the long ago images that persist. Those little boots didn’t survive that adventure. My mother washed them off, but the leather was ruined and they had to be thrown away. I was heartbroken. Curiosity comes with a price, but that did not deter the backyard expeditions.

The lioness rolls on her back in a playful frolic. A collective “Aw!” moves through the group.

I lift my hand to my mouth and sink my teeth in. One of the college boys gives me a look. I smile and shrug. “I’m just making sure that I’m really here.”

A conspiratorial smile in reply. “I pinched myself earlier. We’re really here.”

I shake my head and sigh. I did it. I really did it. Even with all of the strange and remote places I’d been, Africa always seemed out of reach. Somewhere deep inside, the dream never died. There is always a way. If you believe.

Childhood summertime afternoons. That sweet time before the lies people tell us become that which we believe about ourselves. My best friends were twin boys who lived next door. After the boisterous games of Marco Polo and Dark and Stormy Night, we’d float on inner tubes and stare up at the clouds. Drifting in the silence of endless possibilities. A life ahead to fill. They weren’t sure what they wanted to be, but they both wanted to marry Farrah. I was going to visit every country in the world.

Questions wandered into my mind: Where do birds go when it rains? What does a mango taste like? These provoked boy giggles. You’re so weird, Julie. The questions deepened: Where does the sky end? What is time? Fearful silence replaced the laughter. After that, I modified the questions: Snickers or Milky Way? Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley? Who loves Farrah more? I did not want to be banished from their pool. Okay, so some questions were best kept to myself. But the answers were out there. Somewhere. Far, far away from Michigan. I figured out that there were some that I’d never know the answer to. I’ve continued to wonder just the same.

What the hell is time, anyway? And what obligates us to agree on its existence? I wonder what my travel companions would say. I stifle an evil giggle as I picture the looks on their faces. Bite my lip. I do not want to be banished from the truck.

The internal journeys have mirrored the external in their intensity. I set the mind loose to gallop across the savanna, the steppes, the tundra. Landscapes exotic and vast and without obstruction. Unrestrained, fearless. Go. Seek out new frontiers in the wild kingdom. Theories, solutions, possibilities never considered. When they begin to warp into delusion, I herd them back to safer territory.

The power of the imagination.

There I am at twenty-three years old. Sitting in a dark basement. November gloom pressing against the tiny window. Jimmy Buffet on the stereo. Take me away from this abyss of broken dreams. Please. Behind closed eyes: iridescent aqua sea and palm trees. Sun on my face. Soft sand between my toes. During the song “Son of a Son of a Sailor”, the phone rang. It was an invitation to sail through the Grenadine islands with complete strangers. Months earlier, while I was still living in Los Angeles, I had responded to an ad for a travel assistant in a Bangkok newspaper. In the turmoil of my return to Michigan, I had totally forgotten about it. The man had already found an assistant, but there was room for one more on the sailboat. Would I like to join them? I accepted without hesitation. A crazy risk, but I had nothing left to lose.

On the last day, when we reached Mustique, news was waiting for me: my father had died. I used to think it was a cruel joke to receive that gift of light only to have it end with such unbearable grief. Now I know that it was the glimmer of light that kept me alive during the aftermath. Whenever my belief in miracles wavers, I conjure this memory.

Looking back, the exploration seems so effortless. The spontaneous opportunities, the unexpected money. I’ve been almost everywhere I’ve wanted to go. There is more to come: North Korea, Easter Island, and, yes, even Antarctica. They will all come to pass. How is it that some dreams materialize while others remain elusive? How to maintain that daydream softness? A “what if” without desperation. Such a delicate balance. It is okay to have everything that I want, in every facet of life. There is enough. If only I could feel the truth in this.

The roadside princess rises and strides towards the salt pan with purpose. She knows the way through the place without shadow. The purity of emptiness. Vessel of creation. What treasure lies within? My mind takes off in pursuit.

The second lioness follows and then the lion. Oblivious to his obedience. It would never occur to him to venture there alone. Even if he did, he’d be lost.

**The quicksand scene is an excerpt from the memoir. I remember the episode with the tapir, and I clearly remember this quicksand incident, but were they on the same day? This is one of the trickiest things about writing such long ago memories. It seems that it’s acceptable to splice some things together, as long as they both occurred.