Following Water

Following Water
by Ella DeCastro Baron


Yosemite National Park, Tenaya Canyon, 1995. The third morning of an amateur backpacking trip with my college BFF and her husband. I got lost.

I got myself lost.

I lost myself.

After I used the al fresco potty, I turned around and went down the hill to where I thought our two-person tents were pitched. Up the hill back to where I squat, down the other side. No tents, no Maggie, no Andy. Up again, turn a few degrees, down again. How could this happen? Boulders and brush, all looked alike (I was a nature bigot?) Waiting to be found, shouting out for friends. Indian summer sent me looking for fresh water.

I found a trickling stream and hiked along it. I was untrained in anything to do with the outdoors beyond frog-collection in the marsh next to our house. But in The Earthling movie, the grey sage in the wild tells the lost four year old kid, Follow water downstream. It always leads to people. The stream sinewed around the hill, the mountain’s base. I drank when I needed to sit, cry, choke, pray, try again.

All day, I heard distant echoes of a freeway? Small airplanes?  Animals but no hikers? Almost sundown, I found myself at the top of a salmon-colored, chiseled mountain bowl. The thin tributary became a cascading waterfall, with me at the top, off to the side. I inched down for hours, each measured scoot of my butt leaning or slipping into my heels. The clearance hiking boots and my college gym Stairmastered calves, bar-dipped triceps held me long enough to get to a precipice so steep, I couldn’t see below.

I heard the waterfall down, down, down. If I fell, where would I land? In a wide open pool? Or on boulders? If I let myself fall [I did not know how to let myself surrender into anything] there would be no do-overs.

This was not like my English-major essays; there were no revisions on rough drafts. Gravity and a slight hand, not sleight of hand.

I slipped and fell. I slipped and fell for survival, for rescue, for shame.

One hundred feet Fuuuuuck!
Two hundred I’m gonna crack my skull and pass out,
Three hundred nothing is flashing before my eyes.
Isn’t my life supposed to?
Or did it just?

Tumble, bruise, rip, smash. Splash.

“I’m ALIIIIIVE!” I screamed to no one, to me. My right foot wasn’t kicking as I tread the short distance to the side. My eyes saw a foot ripped off its ankle, bones tissue blood. Whose foot is that? Public school first aid training; I tied a tourniquet with a shoelace. What now? Get up. Be like Rambo.

Thinking I would have to somehow start a fire to cauterize my compound fractured ankle, stem the bleeding. How?  Believing the adrenalin would kick in and propel me to hike-hop to Half Dome. When? Being naively surprised when it hurt too much to even sit up.

I expected embedded generational wisdom to possess me, a will to live greater than me, inciting me to save myself. I opened myself to hear any ghost of a great uncle, a World War II Filipino soldier instructing me how to escape the Bataan Death March, to silently, painfully worm away in the night while the Japanese paced the other way.


“Jump off a cliff and build your wings on the way down.”

(Really, Ray Bradbury?)

Or is it more like “winging it”?


The moment it’s over, that I can’t fight the elements, overcome injury, find any wings, I’m ready. I shiver and crawl backwards on my soaked bottom and elbows, bleeding foot stiff at the knee, to large leaning boulders, granite hands tented in prayer. The sun is gone, and the chilling air meets me as I hide in what is supposed to shield me. Cower, coward.

Cower, cower.

My wet clothes never dry, so hypothermia begins. I want to fall asleep and forget everything. I pray to the un-saving God—the “good father” and “great physician” and “comfort in times of need” –I have had a good [enough] life.

I wonder,
I wander,
I want her.

That falling 24 year old, to feel her in this story. Every life move, I see her again. As art, maybe rough drafts are never fully re-seen, revised. Maybe if I label it “final draft,” it goes into the Cloud, an ether tomb.

Decades later, this latest counselor introduces EMDR. Another path to re-process Yosemite, bounce back and forward, past and present. Imagine you’re on a train watching it as you move along. Do not re-enter the memory. Let whatever you see, happen. It’s a way to quiet the noise, to use both sides of my brain, to move past talk-therapy into listening for what happened and what can still happen, even twenty years before.

I fall and fall again.
One hundred feet, Fuuuuuck!
Two hundred, waiting to crack,
Approaching three hundred, muscled memory re-engages, prepares itself.

This time, right before I see my disjointed ankle and vision tunnels, I zip high above the cascades. It becomes time travel—supernatural, in a Delorean, past lives, astral projection. I don’t care the mode. It’s real. The back and forth stimulation, as I “watch” the memory screen. Why keep rewinding?  I want to press in. I’m ready to ingest it all, to let all of me trip out.

I unroot. I’m propelled out and in, in and out. Extra-planetary. My bird’s eye confluence—

Night terrors; chronic skin eruptions; broken engagement; cheating; parents’ divorce; the American Dream lost in translation; healing prayers, losing religion; marriage, son, daughter, miscarried one, daughter; dying and dead fathers; recoveries; depression and panic; sleepless years; so many spirit starts and stops; how to care less, so I could care more.

Honolulu, 1997. I run out of health insurance just as the doctor removes my leg cast. Dormant, inherited skin disease erupts again, tandem torment to the PTSD. My last visit, he suggests, You definitely need a break. If you can move somewhere with fresh trade winds and salt water to dip in, your skin might forgive you and heal [interpretation mine]. My estranged sister opens her home in Hawai’i Kai. We haven’t really talked since our family’s divorce. Maybe God wants this now. She and her husband offer their Born Again generosity. I throw half of my bedroom into the dumpster, pack two suitcases, and fly.

I’m an infrequent Sun Academy tutor. I lap around the burger restaurant five days a week, serving breakfast, hot mugs, and bottomless water pitchers for tourist hangovers. I have no savings and don’t care. I earn enough to buy food, a monthly bus pass, a pair of sale rainbow-striped board shorts with a halter bikini, a Sector 9 longboard skateboard, and macadamia nut dark beer. New friends, locals and transients, exude and extend aloha.

I finally learn how to surf. The salt water burns, and I cry after each session as I apply ointment. But every few days, it’s tolerable again. It’s the best physical therapy covered by no insurance. I flex my rigid, metalled ankle each time I learn to pop-up and press into the borrowed, waxy longboard.

Weekday or weekend—every day in paradise feels the same.  Work breakfast shift, cross Kalakaua Street to admire Duke’s statue in front of the surfboard lockers, borrow a 9 foot, walk out to the left of Canoe’s break where only locals dare paddle. I’m brown enough to pass as kama’ina so long as I keep my mouth shut and fake being “a child of the land.”

Ka’eo tells me to follow him out to the line-up. He points his chin at an invisible wave (only his eyes see) building way out. He holds up his hand. I should turn and start paddling. The other surfers respect/fear him and submit. My back arches a little higher, and I start to dig, cupped hand over hand, slow then fast, faster. Slow again by a beat, try to match the wave’s pulse. It catches my board’s tail. In one move, I grab the rails, push up, my feet slide forward. I squat first, use my thighs to stand higher. My legs are fervent, shock absorbers settling into the ride. I steer the board right, press my front left foot down on the “gas.” I zoom down, escalator up, slice the wave as it begins to peel.

A local guy is paddling through, perpendicular. He’s making room for me. He smiles through full lips, throws his brown fist into air. Shaka. Later, in the line-up, he will congratulate, “Dat was a good ride.”

I suddenly forget to look over my shoulder. For once, I ignore the white wave cresting, ready to crash over my head. I’m fixed on the vibrating glass, my burning face pointed towards shore. The curled froth buzzes at my ear, a living cape bristling at my right shoulder.

I let the wind send me.


Ella deCastro Baron is a second generation Filipina American from the Bay Area who studied Literature and Creative Writing. She has been published in Fiction International, Sunshine Noir I & II, Lavanderia, Mamas and Papas, CityWorks Literary Journal and is co-editor of the anthologies, Hunger and Thirst and From Glory to Glory. Ella’s first book of creative nonfiction, Itchy, Brown Girl Seeks Employment (CityWorks Press 2009) was a finalist for the San Diego Book Awards. She teaches English and Creative Writing at San Diego City College, is a ‘spoken nerd’ storyteller, and dances hula. Ella hopes to continue bearing witness to her ethnic upbringing, her faith, her interracial family, and how it all may or may not fit together.