Friday, May 16, 2014


Three years ago (when I last wrote a post), I would have asserted that I was and forever would be a plains person.  Sure, I'd fallen in love with an island in the temperate rainforest of coastal Southeast Alaska once and was beginning to develop a deep attachment to Black Canyon in Colorado, but those places were the exception more than the rule, no?  When I felt bored (or boring), I conjured memories of hiking through duststorms or skiing through blizzards. When I felt tired (or lonely), I evoked friendships with rabbits and ravens and an old dead tree.  When I closed my eyes, I dreamed myself into Arizona's Painted Desert (summer, just after sunset, land exhaling the day's heat; birdsong quieting in the soft warm air) or Wyoming's sagebrush basin (winter, just before dawn, sweeps of snow glowing in the moonlight; coyote yapping with lonely appreciation.) I was absolutely certain that plains were the place for me -- I felt an immediate kinship with subtle, sweeping landscapes; felt I belonged to places that were more sky than land, more emptiness than object (though not lacking for wonders!)

I vociferously championed this aesthetic. ("Subtle! Sweeping! Sky!" my attempts to argue and articulate the ineffable.)("And the SKY" Georgia O'Keeffe wrote a friend, "Anita you have never seen SKY")  More importantly/judgmentally, I scoffed at those who only appreciated classically "beautiful" scenery -- trite, bucolic river valleys or overly-ogled rugged ranges. Bah, Yosemite! Too touristy, Yellowstone! Really, all of you designers of tourism brochures and wall calendars, must you always favor the small-wildflower-filled-clearing-deep-in-the-shadowy-forest-at-the-foot-of-a-purpley-mountain scene? Shed your preconceptions for the sublime!, I'd tell anyone who cared to listen (and, for that matter, anyone who didn't), Leave behind your expectations; open to the experience of wild open plains.


Three years later, I'm slowly learning (or at least trying) to shed my own pre- (and mis-)conceptions and learn to appreciate the experience of any wilderness and every wildness. (I have more to say -- much, much more -- on the distinction between the two.  But save that for later.)

It took another season up in Alaska (farther north this time, into the rugged, remote terrain of Denali National Park) and then one in the first areas "forever kept as wild" (New York's Adirondack Park) for me to start to overcome some of my scenic biases/prejudices. 

It's fairly easy to appreciate Denali, though I still don't know how to explain the excitement and the allure. 
The Adirondacks are more challenging.

After spending last summer tromping through mud and swatting at bugs and shivering in the wind and rain ("rain rain rain rain" read most of my notebook entries; my waterproof sketchbook is full of drawings of clouds), I wasn't any closer to understanding why so many people (sooooo many people) are so deeply attached to those mountains.

But after I left the high peaks and returned to my "normal" life, I was startled to realize that I missed the view out over the endless green forest.  I longed to again hear the call of the loon.  I wanted to watch the mist rise up from the valleys and the sky reflected in Heart Lake. I had to ... go back?

I'm going back.

I don't yet know whether or not I've become a mountain person or if I just fall in love with every wild place.  I don't yet know what, exactly, I find most enchanting about the high peaks (I suspect it has a great deal to do with the view of the sky.)  I don't yet know what it is about the Adirondacks that has somehow seeped into my psyche (as well as that of thousands of people who return again and again, year after year), but, as Barry Lopez writes, "The land gets inside us; and we must decide one way or another what this means, what we will do about it."

Armed with camera, tape recorder, notebook, field guides, lots of books about "wilderness" and/or "environmental stewardship," even more books of Buddhist poetry, and several layers of rain gear, I hope to find out. 

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