• Chambray Shirtdress: Target
  • Burgundy Tights: HUE
  • Red Scarf (worn as cowl): Malo, mommed
  • Brown Riding Boots: Franco Sarto via Zappos
  • Brown Woven Belt: LOFT

Last week, Lex asked me about my adventures with crocodiles that I teased a while back. The resulting tale sweeps broadly enough to link together this outfit (and yet another analogous-reds combination), forty days of wandering in the desert, new parenthood and yesterday’s misadventures. If it had a twee soundtrack, it would be the stuff that Wes Anderson films are made of…or a reason to call the Society the for Prevention of Cruelty to Metaphors. It’s also something I’ve never shared. Here we go:

* * *

It’s mid-July of 2004 and though it’s “winter” in the Northern part of Western Australia, you wouldn’t know it: here, “winter” means no flooding, soaking rain, a few extra hours in the morning before the temperature tops 100F, and an entirely different cast of hazardous characters. It is the most beautiful place I have ever been, desolate and open and undisturbed, but also terrifying, like a hot version of Antarctica, like living on the moon. We are deep in the King Leopold Ranges of the central Kimberley, where we have been for some fifteen days. Other than the morning we hiked out to the road to meet the re-ration truck, we have seen no other humans since we left Broome. We have seen no other humans because there aren’t any: the population density of this part of Western Australia is .247 people per square kilometer, vastly outnumbered by sheep, kangaroos, cows (feral and domestic), and snakes. We’ve been assigned random spots along the banks of a stream for twenty-four hour “solos,” so here I am, all alone with a copy of David Amsden, my journal, and a camera. Probably, there are pictures of my desperately swollen feet to mark the occasion sitting on a memory card somewhere in our house.

* * *

I am, at this precise moment, more alone than I have ever been in my life, and more than I ever will be again. Six months ago, in what I have to fairly describe as a fit of late-adolescent pique, I decided to follow through on a longstanding ambition to take a National Outdoor Leadership School course, and because I was petulant and generally pretty aggravating and sick of being in Charlottesville and nineteen, I picked the one that sounds furthest away and most dramatic in the catalog. Broome, the tiny town on the northern tip of Western Australia we left from, is nearly 14,000 miles from home: it is almost literally as far away as I could possibly go.

Of course, life has changed since then. Whatever the great crisis of the winter of my second year of college was, it has more or less subsided, I’ve wrapped up the term and come home, and I’ve met D., and with the heady self-assurance of being young and strangely more reckless than either of us usually are, we’re oddly serious and confident about each other almost immediately. When it finally comes time to get on a plane and fly half way around the world, I am excited but also almost mournful. I land in Auckland after a day and a half worth of plane flights and feel like I’ve landed in Lost in Translation without the ironic distance.

I wander around New Zealand for three weeks in a haze of late-teen angst and insecurity, staying in hostels and riding buses through a landscape that really does look exactly like the establishing shots in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Thanks to cheap international phone cards, I talk to D. most days. I climb a mountain that appears in the opening sequence to The Two Towers, and jump out of a low-flying airplane, but those are both tales for another time. I watch a lot of rugby, re-read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in anonymous restaurants, and don’t drink even though it’s legal. I write in a journal. A lot.

There are twelve of us on the course, and two instructors. Eleven women and three men in total. Mostly American college students, with two friends finishing up a year volunteering with Americorps and doing this as a stop on a world tour they’re taking together. We fall in and out of alliances, but no one can get voted off the island. We are it, we fourteen strangers, in the desert, for 35 days.

We start out with hazard training. The take us to a snake farm and try to teach us to identify poisonous and non-poisonous snakes (and because there are 10 college girls and snakes, there are embarrassing pictures). The highlight of the afternoon is the trip to the croc park, though, where captured, ancient saltwater crocodiles laze about in caged sections of a muddy stream. They look like dinosaurs. We talk about how to identify one in the water without disturbing it, about safety precautions when setting up campsites and gathering water. An attendant torments an eighty year old croc with a ball. The croc suddenly leaps from the water and runs for the large, pink ball, which deflates in his jaws. The image haunts me. A few times during our 35 days in the bush we see eyes in the water, and one night a small monitor lizard wakes me up running up the beach to the rock I’m sleeping on. I won’t forget them. Ever.

The NOLS philosophy doesn’t generally involve a lot of explaining why you’re being asked to do what you’re doing. There’s also a resistance to the use of technology that’s either quaint or incredibly aggravating, depending on your point of view, so here we are, wandering in the desert with topographical maps and compases and nary a GPS or a marked hiking trail in sight. Every day, when we divide into two groups to hike to our next campsite, each group is given a “snake beacon,” that will send off an alarm to summon a Medivac if necessary. We take on increasing leadership roles in baby steps: first rotating who leads the group with an instructor to assist with navigating, then being “leader for the day” with no instructor assistance but the instructor present, then off on our own in groups of six for the day, with instructions to meet at an X on the map by evening, then, eventually, on our own in groups of six for the last five days.

* * *

The first day that I was the “leader for the day” was oddly like my first days as a parent. I muddled through in a haze of self-doubt, worrying that I wouldn’t do “well enough,” with no idea what well-enough meant. I remember wanting nothing more than for someone to make decisions for me, to tell me I was “doing it right,” for feedback of some kind that would guide me. I wanted absolution for my unknown and assuredly myriad failings, to have someone show me what to do and how to do it. Unsurprisingly, whatever it was I was looking for—in either case—was not forthcoming.

I’m an ambitious person, but I’m also an instinctual conflict avoider. If something doesn’t work out well, it often doesn’t take me long to develop a once-burned, twice shy approach to insulate myself from the possibility of future failure. I change course, radically if necessary, to try to give myself the best shot, to evade the hot, buttered boiling sensation of having screwed up. I do my best to fight this instinct, but there’s no denying I feel it. Even yesterday: I received some mildly disappointing news and remember that feeling flooding my senses, the desire not to even try again, to close doors, to hide.

But there is no running away in the desert, and there’s no “doing it right,” either. There’s only getting from here to there, only finding the X by nightfall. You have to live with the person you are and the things you do every day, to keep putting one foot in front of the other in the face of embarrassment, failure, misstatement, sunburn, severe aggravation. There is no such thing as conflict avoidance, and there is no one to make decisions for you. It doesn’t mean you do everything perfectly—we miscalculated our remaining food supply and ended up so hungry we fought over the crumbs out of the packet of cake mix our instructors gave us to celebrate my 20th birthday—but you do it. And you discover, at the end, that you’ve been doing it all along.

* * *

I’ve never written before about this time in my life, though that in and of itself is a strange realization. Physically, those days changed me: I broke my wrist when I tripped carrying a 70-pound backpack, I may have gotten a mild case of Ross River Fever, I came home with some stress-related GI problems that have never really gone away. But more than that, it very much was the emotional turning point in my life, the moment when I began becoming the person I am today, when my life began to take the shape it now more or less holds.

I didn’t plan on it being the case. Or at least, not in the way I expected. In my teenage frustration I had planned on exhausting myself to the point of clarity, on drowning out the noise in my head with the clear air of long, difficult days. And I suppose that happened, but the real kicker was what all that noise was replaced with. At some point, maybe after that first miserable day trying to lead the group or maybe on that dark night with the monitor lizard or maybe that morning that we were out of food and the stream had run dry and we had to keep going, anyway, I stopped being the person who always ran away and started being the person who ran towards things, who trusted her ability to put one foot in front of the other and keep going.

I am not always that person, and I certainly wasn’t yesterday afternoon, but I’d do better to remind myself—as a parent, as a scholar, as a friend—that I can be, that I pride myself on being the kind of person who solves problems in life, who makes things happen. Someone who doesn’t just want, but does, who doesn’t wait for things to happen to her. Who remembers that there’s no one coming, but knows that that’s okay, anyway.

* * *

If you’ve read this far looking for the kicker of how this relates back to the outfit I’m wearing in these photos: the folks from the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Metaphors did indeed call, and suggested that stretching it any further was just inhumane. So I’ll just say this: the aesthetic reminds me of those dusty days and the baking sun, of a climate for which there isn’t really a right thing to wear to protect you from the heat and the vegetation and the sun and the snakes all at once. Call it outback-inspired. Call it a very, very odd kind of power dressing, drawing on a very strange, and often hidden, source of power.

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  • Rebecca Barnes

    I enjoyed reading this so much!  Funny, a couple of my coworkers and I were just talking about (literally, 30 minutes ago) about how tumultuous ’19′ is.

    That dress is gorgeous!  I like the colors you paired it with.

    • S. of Narrowly Tailored

      Thanks so much, Rebecca! Isn’t it just? My little brothers are finally getting out of that stage, and I just cringe at my memories of what I was like then! Oh, to be so angst-riddled and full of possibility… ;)

  • Terri

    oh, I like the origins of this aesthetic…you need to write a book!

    • S. of Narrowly Tailored

      Thanks, Terri! You are so sweet to say so!

  • Simply Bike

    S, you are such a talented writer! You’re wasting time in law school, what are you doing?! Kidding aside, this was a wonderful post, I loved reading it and I hope there are more narratives like this in the future. Also, I just saw this on Literary Mama today, calls for submission for non-fiction pieces and I think this would be great to submit to it. I would strongly encourage you to go for it! :

    (Just remember to give me a shout out when you’re a published author! :)

  • M.

    This was great! 

  • Kiwi

    I like your story, but being a New Zealander, I am not sure what the conection between Auckland and snakes and crocodiles is….we don’t have any here!

    • S. of Narrowly Tailored

      I was in NZ at the beginning, but then headed to west Australia…where there are plenty of both!