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Octyl Methoxycinnamate and the immense edifice of memory

Starting in college, I spent significant and special chunks of my summers and spring breaks outdoors. I led backpacking trips, canoed and rafted, and taught rock climbing. Whenever summer rolls around again, I think back to all those trips, all those adventures.

I think sunscreen must be like perfume and deoderant; once you find a brand, you stick to it. Thanks to my mom, I have had a mostly-endless supply of Skin So Soft SPF 30 with Bug Guard as far back as I can remember.

The sunscreen smells a bit of citronella, and every time I rub it onto my face, neck, arms and legs, as I do every day before I get on my bike and ride to school, I get vivid glimpses of memories from those summers. It’s the stuff I wore every weekend when I worked in [jpg], Orcas Island, and Squamish, as well as countless weekend excursions. I had it on, rubbed right down to my toes, when I dumped the raft somewhere in Lodore Canyon, on the Green River.

Skin So Soft was with me every time I took a group of incoming Whitman students out in the woods or up in the mountains as part of their orientation. The college organizes weeklong “Scrambles,” student-led outdoor trips, and along with good friends I led trips to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area (what a wonderful name; one day we hiked to the middle fork of the Salmon River, where the boatmen on a passing raft, pre-occupied with the bikini of one of the campers, ran themselves right aground); Nevada’s [jpg] (10 miles wide, 100 miles long, and well over 10,000 feet in some places, the Rubies are a spectacular, high, mostly arid place); and Idaho’s [jpg], where we rode out a magnificent thunderstorm near [jpg]. (I [jpg] and hiked in from a different location for my honeymoon.)

I was wearing the stuff when I fell and dislocated my shoulder at Vantage, Washington, and when I was eaten alive by no-see-ems while climbing in Naturita, southwestern Colorado. No-see-ems don’t just bite, they take out chunks of flesh, and Bug Guard didn’t help me that day. It was gruesome.

Some of the strongest memories come back from the summer that I split between Squamish, B.C., and Orcas Island, Washington. Along with a co-leader who became a good friend, I taught rock climbing to troops of middle school students. We started on Orcas, spent a day learning knots and safety, then drove north, through Bellingham and on to British Columbia, to Squamish—called Canada’s Yosemite, sometimes—where the Chief towers over the narrow valley. We climbed every day—every day it wasn’t raining—in the bluffs nearby. When the sky was clear, it was a glorious place to be, and my routine was simple: Wake up, breakfast, hike into the bluffs, set up ropes, and climb.

There is a physical and mental reward to rigging ropes. In most cases in the bluffs, bolted anchors at the top of the climb make for easy top-roping. We had a ready-made set of webbing and carabiners to anchor to most of these. Even in such cases, there was a nice tactile routine of checking safety lines, clipping to anchors, retying knots, and hanging ropes. In other cases, anchors were absent, and we slung webbing around tree trunks and slotted cams and nuts into the granite. These anchors were an enjoyable puzzle: Finding the right piece of gear and fitting it to the rock, adjusting lengths of rope and webbing, and testing it carefully before committing to use it. It’s technical, tactile, and intellectual at the same time, and is a pleasure distinct from the mental and physical challenges of the actual climbing.

I gained a quiet confidence that summer, deeply satisfied by the sense of skill I developed and enriched by the friendship that came with learning those skills alongside my co-leader. Seeing our campers push themselves amplified that reward many times over. (And with freaky adolescent strength-to-weight ratios, our campers often needed just a dose of confidence and technique to make up in spirit what they lacked in experience.)

I’m embedded in different routines now, routines that are certainly rewarding, but in different ways, ways that feel less profound most of the time. Every time spring rolls around here in Tucson, I find the sunscreen and remember summer. Looking back now, those years of summers came to an end with my months at Squamish and Orcas. I miss the long routines that I established in those seasons, when the beginning of summer meant something new, and the end was marked by a backpacking trip, another adventure in a new place.