“When Treading Water Above a Bottomless Pit” by John Guillemette Jr.

Contest Winner for the Edwin Way Teale Award for Nature Writing (2022)

I moved to Oregon during the dreadful forest fires of 2020. I moved out of Oregon during the even more dreadful forest fires of 2021. I came and went in smoke so thick that nobody noticed. As my final act in Oregon before dragging my salty Pacific shoes to the Atlantic, I hiked an overlook at Crater Lake National Park to watch the sunrise. I know what’s important now; I make my own rituals. I sought blue waters for a ceremony of purification.

Where I stood, I could hardly breathe, perhaps because I ran too quickly up the trail and was struggling with the altitude, or perhaps the beauty was striking enough to suspend my body in wonder and my lungs in reverence. I’m sure it was a combination of both. Power and majesty draped over the landscape like a thick quilt. Everywhere I looked, I was struck by the magnificence of the silent mountain lake as the sun crept over its stony ridge and painted the world beyond in oranges and pinks and eventually a rich, all-encompassing blue.

The blue secured my place in the universe. It is a small place, and that’s okay with me. I can be small without feeling small. They say the human body is 70% water; that’s the same water that has been cycling in Earth’s atmosphere for millennia. I am water. I remember being vast, filling lakes like this.

The lakebed lies over 2,000 feet below the surface, making it the deepest lake in America. You could drop the Empire State Building in there and it would sink to the bottom and vanish from sight like a bar of soap in a bubble bath. Crater Lake is massive enough to rouse awe from afar and cause trembling fear from within. I clambered down another trail, descending dirt-packed switchbacks for a swim that would scare the tranquility right out of me.


In 1853, merchant Isaac Skeeters set out with a small crew to look for gold in the Cascade Mountains. Finding none, his crew returned to their township discouraged and unimpressed save for their discovery of Crater Lake, which they named “Deep Blue Lake.” Ten years later, again during a fruitless search for gold, a new party of prospectors stumbled upon Crater Lake. Their leader, Chauncy Nye, was able to publish a short article for the November 1863 issue of the Jacksonville Oregon Sentinel, which succinctly explains, “The waters were of a deep blue color, causing us to name it Blue Lake.”

Thankfully, after the lake’s third discovery, a journalist with a little creative gusto renamed it Crater Lake. I like to think that he did so out of necessity, that another discouraged goldminer approached him with a name like “Lake of Blue” or “The Deep Blue Hole,” and he pulled at his hair all night trying to figure out why his brethren were so lackluster. I believe that the language of a people is wrapped around their philosophy. Perhaps it is unintentional, done in the way a sleepwalking spider wraps a midnight fly.


I thought a really long run would afford me a decent duration of peace, so I ran as far as I could, to a distant city. I wanted to make it big as an artist. I commended myself for rejecting the American way, renouncing the unspoken codes of conduct that Americans are expected to live by. I cared nothing for a college degree, a full-time career, or a nuclear family. But I still desired the fruits of American conduct, so I hadn’t really rejected anything. I was only trying to short-circuit America. I wanted to give Uncle Sam a knickerbocker wedgie and then walk away with a nice house, a new car, wealth, and paparazzo trailing behind me. As it turned out, Portland was to experience many troubles in 2020, and a global pandemic is a bad time to expect every oyster to hold a pearl.

I had spent all my life avoiding a situation that I was dropped in the middle of anyhow. These days, I recognize such happenings as spiritual trials, brimming with meaning and purpose, but at the time I was just scared. I feared that my spirit would be stifled in a full-time work environment, especially one with a long commute, doing something uncreative. It wasn’t a baseless fear. I had encountered many older people with stifled spirits, and they scared me. I didn’t want to watch years fly by. I wanted to fly around with them. I felt something powerful in this world, in this life, and I did not want it to slip away.

I was flat broke and without health insurance after the third time I lost my job, just two months into my stay in Oregon. My bad habits were unchanged, my neighborhood dangerous and depressed, and I was living off rice and beans. The pandemic raged on, and restaurant work could no longer be considered steady employment. I filled a bag with extra breadsticks last time the restaurant closed, and I soon sought work somewhere that would remain open no matter how bad things got.

Alchemy is hard, turning a lead situation into an elixir for life, finding a silver lining where you are sure one does not exist. Many suffered worse than I, and sometimes it seemed that alchemy was a privilege beyond possibility for them. They came to the hospital where I worked as a janitor, wrapped in blankets of disease, alone and fearful. They lay trapped in their rooms, days and nights blending, some machine or other beeping an emotionless assessment of their health. Some died. It’s hard to imagine what your last sight on Earth will be, and it was the first time that I considered the bad possibilities: the lonely ones. I concluded that I would try to build myself to handle that if it ever came. It’s a test nobody wants to take. I wonder if it’s naïve to prepare for it.


Early one morning, I began to dress in my scrubs in the workplace locker room, a beige area with a drab couch and a low-quality radio. I’ve become one who turns off the TV or radio whenever I’m near it, provided that nobody else is around to object, but this time, I hesitated with my finger over the power switch. A fancy-sounding man was busy telling me how to express love.

For only $54, name a star after someone on Star Registry dot com! It is the ultimate gift you can give your loved one. We will officially name a piece of the heavens for someone dear to you. Since 1974, Star Registry has been naming stars for celebrities, royalty, dignitaries, and individuals just like you…

I laughed out loud, cried a little, and then, for whatever reason, I began to spoof customer complaint letters in my head while I worked. Surely, today was the only time and place in human history when someone could get away with a stunt like that.

Dear Star Registry,

It has come to my attention that since stars are so far away, it can take many centuries for the star’s light to reach Earth. Therefore, it is entirely possible that I have named a star that no longer exists, and you have sold me a fake wisp of old light. Please send a customer service representative to space coordinates 3,557.78, -115.33, 97.72 and verify the existence of my star.

Henrietta Walsh, Salt Lake City

It was all I could do to stay positive. I had never before heard such an obviously superficial advertisement. In the bowels of a hospital, where America’s single-serving citizens come to die, that which is superficial falls away, and we hope—intensely we hope—that there is something left.


I stepped into the blue, shivers coursing through my near-naked body, my toes insisting it was April at best, not August. I wanted to retreat and lie on the warm rocks that offered me the sunlight they had been collecting all morning, but I had to disobey that impulse. No part of my mind or body wanted to swim in that lake, but no part of my mind or body wanted to live the year I had lived either, and by living it anyways, I had discovered an incredible secret: I was neither mind nor body. These waters were surely deep enough to hold similar secrets, blue enough to conceal them by the thousands. Like my year, in which a slow adjustment was not in the plan, I dove under without further delay.

When treading water above a bottomless pit, I felt the ever-present and irrational fear that I was about to get eaten whole by a giant squid. I have always been afraid of deep water, and these depths were superlative, dropping off suddenly and fading into the atmospheric haze of infinity. I couldn’t help but imagine the worst. I paddled my hands through the blue, dragging my body as far as I dared, and then I swam farther.

Lucky for myself and others clad in our bathing suits, Crater Lake has no tentacled monsters living in its chilly waters, nor does it have much else. The lake was born an estimated 7,700 years ago in the aftermath of a violent volcanic eruption, and was filled over the centuries by many rains and snow. There are no inlets from other water sources, so aquatic life never migrated there unassisted, and no sediment or mineral deposits flow in. This is why the water is so vividly blue. Not a minnow nor an eel lives in the plummets of its igneous formations.

It does have invasive trout and salmon, both introduced by some white men who hadn’t screwed anything up in almost a week and were growing restless. Fishermen stocked it regularly for fifty-three years. Although this disturbs me in a philosophical sense, I am happy that the fishermen did not introduce five thousand trout, five thousand salmon, and one bloodthirsty Megalodon into Crater Lake. They kept things simple enough for me to swim around with some sense of security, and that much I appreciate.


The old name is Giiwas. “A Sacred Place.”

Thousands of years ago, atop the mountain Lao-Yaina, the temperamental Llao surveyed the land. He is the spirit chief of the Below-World, and on that day, he caught sight of Loha, the beautiful daughter of the Makalak tribal chief. Llao attempted to court Loha but was rejected, prompting him to swear vengeance on the Makalak people in fury and set fire to the land.

Flames ravenously consumed the forests and homelands were destroyed. In search of help for his people, the Makalak chief went to find Skell, the spirit chief of the Above-World. On Shasta Mountain, Skell descended from the sky and stood sympathetic to the plight of the Makalak. Skell and Llao waged an epic battle that caused landslides, and hurled massive fiery rocks across the sky. The atmosphere filled with ash, the following days were dark and explosive, and the Makalak tribe grew fearful as all the spirits of Earth joined the fight.

To placate the spirits and repent Loha’s offense, two medicine men from the Makalak tribe threw themselves into the pit of the Below-World. Their sacrifice moved Skell and renewed his vigor. He defeated Llao, driving him deep into the Below-World where he was imprisoned. Skell built the prison by collapsing the mountain Lao-Yaina inwards and then filling the abyss with deep blue water. This brought an era of peace to the land and created a vast lake of silent beauty. For many centuries, the Makalak people have visited Giiwas seldom and reverently, recognizing it as an area fit only for shamans, chiefs, and other spiritually, mentally, and physically prepared seekers.


Dear Star Registry,

I paid to officially name a star through your service, so imagine my surprise when I learned of a South American tribe in the Amazon rainforest who regards my star by another name. Their name for my star translates roughly to “Giver of Hope.” Please send a customer service representative down there and tell them that the star will henceforth be known as “Bart.” If they ask why, you can tell them that it is because I gave you fifty-four dollars, and that I really love my pet ferret. I’m sure they will understand.

Thank you,
Dennis L. Biggman, New York City


It left me in the dead of night as I tossed in cold sweat, by a chilly November moon, right after I had accepted the conditions by which I would carve out my living in Oregon. It could not remain; the circumstances were unbearable. It packed its things—my goals, my history, my identity, my fears—and it left. I don’t know where it went, if it left through the door or the window, or even what it looked like despite all the years we shared such tight quarters. My breathing became deep and full; maybe it left through my nose. My body was lighter, so maybe it left through the pores of my skin. Colors became brighter. Maybe it left through my eyes, peeling from where it had long rested as a dull film. I woke up the next morning with an empty mind, unconcerned, marveling at the ordinary beauty of raindrops on grass and the intricacies of black carbon on the morning toast I had burnt so thoroughly. As I readied myself for work and prepared some reserve oatmeal, I paid attention to all that surrounded me, and I was pleased by everything I encountered. I made up a little song as I walked around the house, impressed by a clementine’s textured peel and heart-warmed by the rays of the fresh golden sun. It was a stupid song, but in that moment, it was the best music I had ever heard.

I got a pep, in my step
I got a pep, in my step
Where’s my pep?
Where’s my step?
My pep’s right in my step!

The air begged me to participate in the great poem of life, the ongoing present moment to which I had paid little attention for many years, my thoughts preoccupied by figments of imagination. Briefly, I searched my brain for that thing that had left me in the night. It was gone. I felt no sense of loss, although I wondered if I should. Everything would be different from then on, and for whatever reason, this became abundantly clear when I spilled oatmeal on my car. It’s the image that I involuntarily conjure when I consider the word “metamorphosis,” although to the outside eye I’m sure it looks anticlimactic. A bipolar artist and drug addict hellbent on fame runs across the country, making mistakes, burning bridges, sleeping outside and on couches, until he accidentally drops a bowl of oatmeal on his car and has an epiphany. He is not bipolar; he does things differently now; he is a sober man who’s been in the same mood ever since, and it’s a good mood. The oats splattered against my windshield, the bowl broke on the ground, and I laughed an earnest laugh, a deep laugh that I had not heard resonate from my chest since childhood. I adjusted my song and went to work, my Tupperware of rice and beans in a lunch bag along with my hospital housekeeper’s ID badge, wedged beside the first of many paperback books.

I got oats, on my car
I got oats, on my car
Where’s my oats?
Where’s my car?
My oats are on my car!

I found the present moment everywhere, from the depths of sacred forests to the stale halls of a hospital. I admit it can be hard to bring such existential joy into the workplace without a few raised eyebrows from fellow humans. Once, when I was called to clean up a pile of vomit, I arrived so randomly joyful that some coworkers decided to designate me the permanent vomit-clean-up guy. It took time to shed that role, so now I try to look inconspicuous while I burst with joy.

I don’t know what left me that night, only I was sure up until that point that without it I would die, cease to be, and decompose. Remaining alive after its departure was a pleasant surprise.


I floated on my back, suspended in blue, my ears beneath the surface, absorbing the echoes of my own breath. I was terrified. When wading into Crater Lake, the cold water reaches your ankles, knees, waist, then down you go, into oblivion, the warping stone floor curving beneath itself, a cliff edge that plummets into distant rock formations, bending and falling, deeper and deeper. Sunlight tries to penetrate this unbelievable mass of water but can only ignite a stunning blue. You lose your sense of space. You lose your sense of self. This was what sent my possessor packing the night before I spilled my oatmeal.

It’s wild how some ideas can destroy you, landing salt on a sluggish brain until you purge them, or they purge you. The two-headed beast, pride and shame, disguised as opposites but tethered at the hip, held on as long as it could but in the end, it left me alone. The beast could not stand the idea of being submerged in the masses, lost and unseen, to wear the deep blue scrubs of a hospital janitor day after day: society’s cloak of invisibility. It could not handle being isolated so far from those who paid it attention, 3,000 miles from the benevolent ears that once caught its grievances patiently, as if trying to remove invasive fish one by one. It growled at my sudden disinterest in the vices that once lured me, the rocks on the shore that would fluctuate between hot and cold. Its skull-sized kingdom dropped into the blue, dissolving into the sacred place. It fled, and to my surprise, I remained alive, proving that I am not the two-headed beast. I am the blue.


Dear Star Registry,

As you know, I paid a little extra—two hundred pounds, to be exact—for the naming rights to that big star that we, as a planet, rely on for life. Historically, we have called this star “The Sun,” but that name was very boring. While I appreciate your willingness to help me rename this star, I do not appreciate the typo that I have found in your star compendium and on the certificate that you’ve mailed me. Thanks to your blunder, the sun will not be called, “The Thinker,” as I would have hoped, but rather “The Stinker.” Please rectify this error and do it quickly, or else “The Stinker” may present a sort of pride-issue for our planet.

Have a mediocre day at best,
Ms. B. Templeton, Liverpool


Understaffed and exhausted, the nurses at the hospital would often be too worn out to jump to a patient’s every concern. They were dealing with a global pandemic and sometimes the aftermath of political violence, so confused patients with dementia were usually ignored. Fear and depression, even hysteria, landed low on the priority list when the nurses were rushing from one life-threatening emergency to another. Sometimes I tried to fill these gaps, although I was instructed not to. I wasn’t qualified. For hospital housekeepers, some of the smallest acts of kindness are technically against the law. But here, laws too fell away. I tucked extra pillows behind tired heads or did my best to comfort patients with dementia, although they would soon forget their comfort. I learned Bible phrases in Russian once, during my lunch break, to share with a dying Christian who spoke no English. It turned out that he spoke Ukrainian, not Russian, but that was no matter. I’ve heard that the majority of human communication is done with facial expressions and body language, only a tiny fraction done with words, and I found this to be true. We communicated for a long time, but I wish I stayed longer. When I left, he was still distressed.

Life became simple for me, even when surrounded by humanity’s highly organized efforts to postpone death for as long as possible. Religiously, I kept the blanket heater stocked to the brim. If I could become the blanket man, he who always provided a warm blanket, then my highest purpose in life would be achieved.


In 1923, the slightly-ahead-of-his-time Edward Curtis photographed a Klamath indigenous man, descendant of the Makalak people, sitting on the edge of Crater Lake and looking out over the expanse of sapphire water contemplatively. Curtis was ahead of his time because of the above-average respect that he, as a photographer and ethnologist, showed the indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Sadly, the average was very low in 1923, and Curtis was unimpressed with the man’s regular clothing and suggested he dress in the traditional garb of a Great Plains indigenous chief. Edward Curtis made beautiful photographs indeed, and he captured some truly authentic glimpses into indigenous life, but he seems to have routinely regarded his subjects as if they were fleeting shooting stars: beautiful, natural, yet fated to disappear.

The name of the Klamath man in the photo is unknown; he told Curtis that he was not supposed to be there, that posing for a photograph at such a sacred place did not align with the tradition of his people, so he gave a pseudonym to conceal his identity.


I crawled out of the blue on hands and knees, shivering and dripping on the rocks. My name was still in those waters, sinking to the bottom, where the intense pressure would crunch the letters into dust on the lakebed. It was the name I had given myself, the artist’s name that appeared scrawled in the bottom right corner of many paintings that I would soon take off their frames and roll up. In that moment, I was happy to be nameless, but I soon questioned what name I should adopt, if only so people could send me mail. The thought disinterested me. I felt it deserved no mental energy, so I defaulted to my birth name; the name I had abandoned long ago because it was spun of fragile spider’s silk, identical to my father’s and tied to an ancestry that I took no pride in. But I no longer had any opinion of it. It was as good as any name. I decided that secretly, in the blue, I would remain nameless, but if people wanted to send me mail, they could address their envelopes to John.


Dear Star Registry,

It seems to me that your legitimacy as a company lies solely in the fact that so many people believe that you are legitimate. This concept intrigues me. Please share with me your business model so that I may put it to good use and get people to believe in other stuff like oneness and the interconnection of all things.

Sincerely yours,
A concerned human being

P.S. You might worry that this will lead to the eventual demise of your company, and it will, but I promise that you will enjoy oneness and interconnection too.


My exile ended after a year in Portland. My binding lease lost its relevance just as Oregon burst into flames. By that point, I could have remained an underpaid housekeeper forever with no complaints. The thought almost charmed me. Routine was my friend, and I desired nothing. Despite my contented self, it was time to return home and tie up loose ends.

When I came home, I was new. Or I was really old; I couldn’t tell for sure. It had been a year since I had walked around Connecticut. It had been two years since my discharge from rehab. It had been three years since I fell into a depression long enough to reduce a single sweatshirt, once new on a store shelf, into a pile of loose thread in a trash bin after many months of daily wear. Back then, my beard untamed and my hair a mess, I looked like one of those Neanderthals that anthropologists occasionally find frozen in icebergs.

It had been four years since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and nearly six since I built a tight prison from my unending thoughts. Strong were those cell walls. I had received my diagnosis because my actions fit the script, and if I needed it in some way, it was in the way a spaceship needs rocket boosters. Only once in space, launched off its tiny rock, do the boosters detach and drift away. But even here I am struggling to give credit to mission control when it was space that called me forth.

I don’t think I gained anything in Oregon that I did not already have. In other words, I didn’t learn anything, but rather remembered things long forgotten. I remembered that art existed long before people made a penny off it, and that I must stay in touch with the primal source of art if I wanted to make anything worthwhile. I also remembered that art is not life, but life is surely an art, so I would be wise to stay in touch with its primal source too: the present moment.

It is a very disorienting world that one must navigate today, perhaps more insidiously nuanced than any other era in human history. I could be wrong, and the DSM is getting longer for some other reason. Regardless, I have half a mind to barge into every psychiatrist’s office with a bowl of oatmeal in hand, give it to the patient sitting in a lumpy chair, and encourage them to run outside and drop it on a car, any car.

It probably won’t work. I don’t expect that it would, but I share a similar expectation of American psychiatry. If it were to work, then maybe people would begin to share my most controversial opinions: humans have to stop naming things; time is an illusion; despair can be a good thing.

People in the deepest pits of despair have a certain advantage over those who are above ground. They have an intense ultimatum to face: change everything or die swiftly. It’s sad to see, painful to live, and not always survived, but without such an ultimatum, desperations can be quiet enough to go unaddressed. They come from our fears, and they girdle our lives. These are the subtle desperations that are good for business, and somehow, I regard them as more dangerous than those writhing monsters in the deep pits. If it wasn’t so easy to propagate these quiet desperations to earn a dollar, I think we’d realize that we all have them, and that none of us need them one bit. Then what a group we’d be—letting go, together in the blue!

An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2022 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the full version of this piece.

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