The Last Night in Zion Canyon

By Sara Karlovitch

I wanted to do something crazy during my final semester of college. After three and a half years at the University of Maryland pulling all-nighters to obtain not one but two degrees (in journalism and government) I wanted my fourth year to be something memorable. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and make the most of every day of my final few months.

So, I got a tattoo. I did my research and found a place near my apartment. Three hours later, I walked out with Smaug flying over The Lonely Mountain on my left shoulder blade. My dad has been reading The Hobbit to me since I was five. Every year we spend the few days after Christmas rewatching the extended edition of each movie. It was the first book I’ve ever loved. When I was studying abroad in Ireland in my junior year I carried a copy with me as I climbed mountains to see ancient tombs and kayaked the Celtic Sea. I carried it as I braved the Icelandic winter and the first time I saw London.
The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings have been an ever-present companion. I likened my adventures to those of Bilbo and Frodo- my life an epic quest that leads me to wander and wonder.

I was carrying a copy of The Hobbit with me when I found out they canceled my college graduation and would be sending us home for the rest of the semester. I was camping in Zion National Park with my cousin and roommate. We had been planning the trip for months and figured that removing ourselves from society for a week would be a good call. We monitored the situation closely the whole trip as we bounced from park to park in a rented white Ford Fusion.

A statement from the University System of Maryland came first declaring that every school in the system would be moving online. It was dripping with snark and was as coarse as the desert sand under my feet.

“This isn’t a break. It’s not a respite from the semester. It’s not a party” the statement put out by Chancellor Jay Perman said.

In our shock, my roommate and started to laugh. Of course it isn’t a party. Our lives were just snatched from us in one poorly worded post. No empathy was extended, no resources provided- just a scolding and the wagging finger of smugness.

The statement also canceled all in-person commencement ceremonies with similar brashness. “I think given our discussions about long-term distance-learning and given the state and federal guidance against gatherings larger than 10 people, it’ll come as no surprise that USM universities will not be holding traditional, in-person commencement ceremonies,” the statement said. Seniors were not offered an apology.

When it rains in the desert it smells like wet clay- something akin to a middle school art class. When it rains in the desert the clouds hang low over the canyon walls- seemingly tangible wisps of vapor- like dragon’s breath. Usually, it makes me feel very small. Like a speck of dust- born and gone in a single instant. My life feels inconsequential in comparison. It’s the most empowering feeling- to feel small. What goes on in your own life is nothing compared to the magnificent eternal beauty before you. My life will rush by like the Virgin River. It will flow, sometimes at a trickle and other times as a violent torrent.

However, at that moment, the only thing I could feel between those misty, lonely eternal mountains was grief. I pressed my forehead against the white cold Ford and sobbed. I sobbed for my friends, for my parents who would never see their oldest child graduate despite giving up so much to get her there. I sobbed for the girl I felt like I had a real chance at a relationship with- but time and distance now made it impossible. I sobbed for the first generation and Dreamer students- some of whom crossed literal deserts to be where they are now. I cried for the way the sun looks like as it sets over campus- the sky a wash of oranges and purples so magnificent you would think it was a dream. I cried for the way the grips on the rock wall would heat up and burn your hand in the summer. I cried over how soft the couches in the LGBT Equity Center are and how the grass on the main quad smells after they cut it.

I felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff and the sandstone beneath my feet had begun to crumble. You’re falling and need something to hold onto, but every branch and rock was out of reach. So you continue to tumble into a dark, dark place. Two weeks later, I’m still not sure I’m at the bottom. There is something here to grieve- but I’m not sure how.

With grief comes anger, they can’t cancel it, not really. What a lazy, lazy decision. I felt like the university worked like a well-oiled assembly line- a precise timetable. A wrench was thrown into the system, and it was easier to discard us then build a new one to accommodate us.

With that anger comes shame. Shame that I’m here, sitting in the red mud thinking about myself, and not all the lives doing this will save. Not thinking of how I was able to go to college at all is a tremendous privilege in and of itself. But the shame doesn’t get rid of the anger and the grief. It only provides a thin, inadequate cover. You hide your grief with humor, with lies that you’re okay. It’s not healthy and not sustainable. Especially when your back in your childhood room, surrounded by memories of a you that are no longer you- a foreign creature with your face. In the long hours of self-quarantine it’s easy to forget all the work you’ve done to become the adult you are now.

Class of 2020, let yourself grieve. Cry and scream and hit things (responsibly) if you have too. Don’t let someone minimize your pain. You’re not a bad or selfish person for feeling this way. You’re feeling this way because you are a person and your life just went from one of cozy certainty and adventure to a cold, wet canyon of loss. Your pain isn’t less- it’s just different.

Let yourself feel this way for as long as you need it. Time will heal and shape us, like it shaped Zion Canyon. When this is over- and one day it will be over- take time to celebrate the person you’ve become. Go back to your campus if you need and do a victory lap- or simply gather with old friends to celebrate all you’ve done and how hard you have worked.

Standing in Zion National Park, in the shadow of that coming storm- with anger and grief and shame pouring out of me- I looked out at those amazing, unfeeling slabs of lonely everlasting stone. I thought of what Gandalf The Grey said to the hobbit Frodo Baggins as he sent him off on his adventure to destroy The One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. J.R.R. Tolkien writes in The Fellowship of The Ring:

‘“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”’

We cannot choose what we are given- only what we do with it. Give yourself the time you need, Class of 2020- then go with the current of your life the best way you know-how.

Featured Photo Credit: Sara Karlovitch, Bloc Reporter

Sara Karlovitch is a senior journalism and government and politics major and can be reached at skarlovi@terpmail.umd.edu.

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