October 26, 2010
I once was lost while hunting the Medicine Bow range. I’d foolishly split from my partner – more foolishly still, left him with the only set of maps – and soon realized I’d gotten turned around. I’d felt an initial icicle stab of panic, then composed myself and fired up my GPS not knowing it was to be the only time it would ever fail me. I dutifully and confidently followed its directions back to “CAMP”, feeling calm enough to relish my surroundings before I realized that “CAMP”, allegedly fifteen meters away, was a cluster of large rocks I’d never seen before. I had a brief no-thought moment of surprise (followed by another frigid gut clench of restrained panic), then started planning my strategy for shelter, self-extraction or possible walk-of-shame rescue.
First step: assess. I needed to know where I was so I climbed to the highest elevation near me. The bald crown of a large hill, visible from my current position, did nicely. I hiked up to its clearing, then took a good look around at… green. Nothing but green. Pine tops as far as I could see – and I could see forever in all directions. I was adrift. A tiny bit of fragile flotsam on an ocean of green. A speck.
I remembered cutting across a logging trail and backtracked to it, eventually emptying out onto a larger forest access road and catching a ride in the proper direction. I made it back to camp – the real one, with a tent and truck instead of clumps of unfamiliar stones – without further mishap but I never forgot that borderline panicked feeling. And another feeling, just beneath it.
I was in love.
“Come West” was my advice to Tina Traster but those words don’t scratch the surface of my passion for my adopted home. They slide beneath it, wrap around it, roiling my blood, playfully dragging nails across my thoughts, making me smirk. I close my eyes and see wind parting the prairie grass, snow melting to streams that rampage through boulder-choked gulleys (amazes me still how water can move like mercury yet be so close to ice). I try to divine the messages written in the graceful cursive of raptors’ wings as they quadrant out the landscape for their next meal. I hear the chorus of coyotes on the plains, the bugle of a bull elk in rut among the pine.
This is my home.
The stillness feels like belonging, the silence between lovers and friends, comfortable with the simplicity of each other’s company. The emptiness fills me, not a void but a blank page, full of possibility. The granite giants above me, shot through with veins dripping autumn or bled white entirely, don’t care if I live richly in their palms or die broken across their knuckles. My insignificance somehow compliments their majesty and makes me feel alive, welcome.
The wind blasts the chaff from my soul and streams through my atoms, polishing them until I glide through life on ball bearings. Hot, it turns my flesh to jerky; cold, it slides between my bones and freezes my joints at rest. And when I let it in, when I let me go, it whispers to me of peace. Of timelessness. Of hope. Of second chances… and thirds… and millionths.
I have gazed through the distance at herds of antelope and they gazed right back, binocular vision calculating range likely better than I, knowing I was both a dangerous predator and slow, feeble pursuer. I have been surprised by the point-blank appearance of mountain goats on pencil-thin trails cutting across the face of sheer slopes, making me raise my hands in bemused surrender to the angry glares of the adults. I am a visitor here, friends, I willed my body to say, and mean your family no harm. Just another animal picking his way through the scree of his life. I have filtered water where streams feed liquid mirrors, watching in amazement as massive trout erupt to feed on hapless hatches of insects while the sunset’s lightshow plays out across the surface.
This is my West. Open and endless, welcoming and devouring, encompassing and scattering with equal aplomb. These are my mountains. Near-eternal reminders that everything we do in our life’s span is a child’s passing fancy. And I am blissfully theirs, for as long as they’ll have me.