When I teach Scott Russell Sanders’s “Cloud Crossing,” I present it to students as a narrative essay: A father hikes up a mountain with his eleven-month old son strapped on his back, discovers the remains of a burned fire tower, and hikes back to his car. Time, in the essay, moves forward chronologically with the momentum of a slow-pitched softball pausing midair as the narrator reflects on his older daughter, Eva, and parenthood more generally. I love the description of Sanders wrestling hunks of moss from his son’s hand and mouth. The essay is a clear example of a narrative. Students get my point.
Another more important reason I always thought I taught “Cloud Crossing” was to segue into the wasp nest of truth in relation to creative nonfiction. After twenty minutes or so of discussion, I tell the class that after Sanders gave a reading of “Cloud Crossing” back in the eighties, an audience member spoke up: “Wait a minute,” the man, a friend of Sanders, said, “I was with you on that hike.” Sanders, so the story I remember goes, agreed: “You were,” he said, “but you weren’t needed in the essay.”
For years I’ve been surprised at how deceived students look when I tell them this story. Early on in my teaching and writing life, I’d accepted that minor characters in creative nonfiction sometimes have to go. “Killed off” is a term I know I’ve used to get students’ attention. Last week, however, I was even more surprised—shocked might not be too strong of a word—when I emailed Sanders to confirm details about this story that I couldn’t verify. I wanted to know who that man in the audience was, what Sanders thought about leaving him out of the essay, exactly when and where this reading of the essay took place. I emailed on a Saturday; Sanders replied Monday morning: “The essay from which I omitted my fellow hiker is not ‘Cloud Crossing,’” he wrote. “It’s ‘Feasting on Mountains.’ Both are included in my first essay collection, The Paradise of Bombs…. The correction is important. On the hike described in ‘Cloud Crossing,’ I was alone with my young son; had anyone else been along, my experiences would have been very different; indeed, the essay might never have been written.”
Last fall when making final edits on my manuscript Far Flung, I paused when remembering a camping trip I had written about ten years earlier and mischaracterized in the book: there weren’t, as I had described, just my two children on that rain-filled trip we’d taken to Rocky Mountain National Park. There had been three. In the process of writing, I’d “killed off” a curly-haired little girl named Eliot, a friend of my daughter’s, who my husband and I had invited along. After my own kids, Eliot was the child in the world I knew best. I’ll always remember how she cried one of the August evenings we left Colorado for North Carolina. She was about five and wailing to the point of tantrum, as if she just then realized people you love can leave. Today Eliot is twenty-three. Her mother, one of the closest and most important friends of my life, has been dead almost five years.
After receiving Scott Russell Sanders’s email, I searched for my copy of The Paradise of Bombs and reread “Feasting on Mountains.” The experience was strange, almost emotional. Instead of concentrating on the narrator and his thoughts while hiking up Oregon’s Mount June, I kept obsessing over the friend who had been written out of the essay, the one who must have been right there huffing and sweating beside Sanders. My inside knowledge about the absent friend made a difference. While reading, I was no longer a teacher. I felt like one of my students, the dozens and dozens I’d told about Sanders’s hiking companion who had not made it onto the page.
I’m not sure how I mixed up an anecdote about “Feasting on Mountains” and assigned it to “Cloud Crossing.” In his email to me, Sanders wanted to make sure I got my facts about both essays straight, but most of what he wrote was instructive and comforting. “Feasting on Mountains,” he emailed, “was one of my earliest essays, written in 1979, and I was still learning the form; had I been more experienced, or more skillful, I might have been able to compose a twin narrative, one about the exchanges between my friend and me, the other about my inner brooding on the human (male?) penchant for violence… As one develops more experience in writing, one can handle more complexity.”
That camping essay was one of my own early essays. If Eliot ever reads it, I want her to know that fact, just as I want her to know about that trip she enjoyed but might not remember because she was so young when it occurred. Mostly—now that I don’t feel quite as guilty—I want to thank her. My camping essay ended up being about me accepting that neither my husband nor children share my own passion for sleeping in tents or eating around dirt. It was, I imagine, Eliot’s presence that allowed me to see that gap. She was the one helping me thread shiny poles through grommets while my own kids shepherded stuffed animals into a half-pitched dome and my husband eyed our station wagon like a getaway car. Creating any personal essay, like putting up any family-sized tent, needs collaboration in ways I haven’t thought much about yet. Whenever I read an essay, I realize the writer might have had help in the process of writing—someone responding to drafts, someone reading for typos. What I’m becoming aware of now is that essays are like tents after they’ve been put up and their rainflies staked down. At that point it’s not possible to see the poles holding them up. I’m not sure if I’m contradicting Scott Russell Sanders or offering another perspective when I write this: had Eliot not been along on that camping trip, my essay probably would never have been written.
Cassandra Kircher's essay collection, Far Flung: Improvisations on National Parks, Driving to Russia, Not Marrying a Ranger, the Language of Heartbreak, and Other Natural Disasters, was released May 1, 2019 by West Virginia University Press. Her nonfiction has been nominated for Best American Essays and a Pushcart, and has appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, South Dakota Review, Cold Mountain Review, Flyway, Apalachee Review, Permanent Vacation, and others. She teaches at Elon University.