Why are wild places so vital to our existence?
I’ve pondered this question since my first trip years ago to Yellowstone National Park, and wrote a photographic post about the subject last year. Most people may not think of a national park as being “wild,” but I assure you, once you step off the main road or the shorter, more visited hiking trails and enter the back country, you are indeed in a wild place. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to experience it directly from the main road, such as when coming across a pack of wolves circling a group of elk cows and their calves, like I did one summer, or when you spot a grizzly bear at dusk, just off the road, pawing grubs at the base of a decomposing tree trunk.
Man’s presence is not needed for the wild to flourish, but I’m convinced we need wild places in order to flourish as human beings. We’re not separate from nature, we’re just another part of it. Wild places strip us of our modern contrivances and remind us how simple and present life really is.
Off the Beaten Path wrote about wild places recently and put into words exactly how I feel. She writes about viewing a grizzly sow and her cub:
For the first time I truly understood what a privilege it is to be able to visit a wild place; a place that provides a space for animals as wild as grizzly bears to live. That just knowing that these places are there adds value to our lives, even if we don’t go there often. This was an epiphany; and silly as it sounds, I realized that I hadn’t really understood why wild spaces are so important until that moment.
When I was still teaching fifth grade, I used to come back from our summer road trips to Montana and Wyoming feeling sad that most of my students had never experienced a wild place, and probably never would. I felt certain that if only I could pack them all into a bus bound for Yellowstone, get them on the trails, and let them spend time in the wild, it would change their lives. Children need to see that the earth is a living thing, that there are wild places with rules all their own, and that everything they think is important in life really isn’t.
Once in Yellowstone we mistakenly took a left instead of a right and wound up taking an unplanned all day hike up Sepulcher Mountain. For almost an entire day we never saw another human. The weather was somewhat stormy, and I remembered all the warnings I had ever read about hiking in the mountains during lightning. There is something life-altering about spending an entire day in nature, having to be alert and attentive to the possibility of death from weather or wild animal, and yet feeling so completely alive because of it.
We sat at the top and viewed the mountains around us. I had a profound feeling that I was at the center of the world, and that it didn’t matter what happened to the rest of the world, Yellowstone and the wilderness would always be there. It didn’t need us. It didn’t need me. Life would always continue, with or without man.
There was still snow at the top, and because we were lightly dressed we ran down the side of the mountain in our hiking boots. It felt like we were flying. Missing that turn on the road turned out to be one of the best days of my life.
I think back often on that day climbing Sepulcher Mountain. I can imagine the grizzly bears, the bison, and the wolves going on with their lives, oblivious to anything but survival. Life is harsh in the wild, but perhaps our own modern lives are just as harsh, if not more so, than anything we can imagine in the wild.
Perhaps the need to connect with wildness is why I love trail running. When I’m running on a trail in a beautiful location, even if it’s only half an hour’s drive outside the city, I’m always cognizant of the possibility of danger. I don’t want to get chased down by a bobcat or trip over a rattlesnake, but running through a forest or desert canyon gives me a sense of freedom and being alive like nothing else does.
So find someplace wild to visit. Spend time in the Needles in Canyonlands, or hike into the wilds of Alaska. Get out of the car. Walk. Make yourself a part of the natural world. Remind yourself that the entire world is your home. See what lessons wild places have to teach you.
They say home is where the heart is, and I believe it. I’ve written before about how being in Wyoming feels like home, even though I’ve never lived there. What is it about certain places that instantaneously feels like home?
I admit that home doesn’t have to be a place. People can also feel like home, and make the unknown places you visit better if that person is with you. But for me, home is a place, where things are open and spacious, inspire awe, and make me joyful to be alive.
For me, a place feels like home when I can be myself, when I don’t have to hide who I am or pretend to be someone I’m not. I can live in jeans and t-shirts, forgo almost all makeup, and not worry about having the latest hairstyle or making enough money. I’ve lived most of my life in Dallas and have spent most of that time trying to get away. Even though my closest friends and family are here, as are years of memories, it’s not where I belong.
The first time we drove out West to visit my then-husband’s family, I felt like I relaxed for the first time in my life, like being surprised to realize you’ve been holding your breath and tightening your shoulders. All that melted away when I saw the beautiful, sweeping grandeur of the West.
At first I thought it was just the landscape that made it feel like home, like finally being somewhere I could explore the outdoors and hike and run in beauty. But it was more than that. I lived in Switzerland for seven years in my early twenties, and despite its breathtaking scenery, I never felt comfortable there. I felt like an outsider, and it was a feeling that never left. Switzerland couldn’t have been more different from Texas in every way imaginable, and I was the stranger next door peeking in.
There is something about being in the West that speaks to my soul. I can understand traveling across the country on foot, next to a wagon, following a trail that leads to an unseen place to start a new life. I can understand taking that risk, especially if it brought me to a place where life was what I could make it, not what someone else told me it should be.
I don’t like crowds, and generally avoid large cities when I travel. I especially take to emptiness and lonely landscapes. I like having space. Most people find the places I love to be boring, a whole lot of nothing. Not me. I imagine lying in the grass, watching the clouds slide by, or viewing the heavens on a star-filled night.
I used to do a lot of that when I was a child. Being outdoors, with no particular purpose, may be my best childhood memory and the thing I miss most about being a child. Just being. Outdoors. Just enjoying.
Some places feel like more than home, they feel sacred. Utah is that place for me. I don’t really believe in energy vortexes and all that stuff, but there is a certain feel about all that dry, barren, rockiness that seems electric. It’s almost an unnameable mystery that makes me want to be there. I think of walking there, exploring, trail running, or meditating, of vision quests and being creative, living in a trailer, rejecting modern society, and making things with my hands.
Utah brings out my inner hippie.
Home feels like a place where you don’t care what others think of you, because you know most of the people around you either think the same, or you know they will be accepting of your differences. You speak the same language, so to speak. It doesn’t matter your political views, your stance on religion, or what kind of car you drive. When you’re outdoors, you’re a member of the same tribe.
Remember that old John Denver song, Rocky Mountain High, about “coming home, to a place he’d never been before?” It happens, and when it does, even if you can’t always be home, you know you can live anywhere because home is never far from your heart and mind.
I hope you find your home.
What do you consider “home?” Is it a place, or the people you love? Is it where you grew up, where you now live, or someplace else?
Sometimes a picture really is worth more than a thousand words.
I have always been a lover of words. As a child, I loved nursery rhymes and limericks, fairy tales and songs, and I lost myself in books. I learned early the power of words, how they could make you feel invincible, or hurt you worse than any other weapon. As I grew older, I loved writing and manipulating words, expressing sorrows, joys, and petty jealousies in long-lost diaries and journals. I went to college and analyzed and argued the classics, and became a teacher to convince children of the power of words.
It’s the unspoken words, however, that are the most powerful and sometimes tell the best stories.
And nothing tells a story better than a great photograph.
My dog, Shasta, is very high energy. Her looks tell all. After Christmas dinner, while everyone else is hooked up to their gadgets and distractions, and all she wants is a little attention.
In the summer, we don’t get much rain, but when it does rain it can be dramatic. Even if it spoils your Saturday afternoon plans of sitting on a restaurant patio, tossing back a few cold ones with your buddies, an unexpected rain storm can be a joyous occasion.
On the flip side, nothing says West Texas like a windmill and cattle next to empty railroad tracks on the Llano Estacado. If you follow 287 into Amarillo, this is pretty much what you’ll see, for miles and miles and miles.
Remember when you were a kid and you thought if you hid behind something, no matter how small, as long as you couldn’t see the other person they couldn’t see you either? And remember looking at the world through a balloon, and how the world suddenly became wrapped in yellow and you almost stopped breathing because it was so familiarly strange?
You don’t have to run a marathon to know they’re not easy. In most races the last mile is always the hardest, and at mile 25, with the end in sight, you sometimes need a little help. All you have to do is look at her face to know how many miles she held on, waiting for that hand to give her the strength to finish.
Photos capture things from the past. We remember the events, but we forget what it felt like to be there. Was it really that beautiful? Did I feel as small and insignificant that day as I look in the photograph? Did I gasp at the grandeur of the vista, or was I too tired to notice? Did I feel joy? Did I appreciate it then as much as I do now looking back at the photograph?
Words are important, whether spoken or unspoken. Words can paint a scene or an emotion, or they can twist and corrupt with their silence. Be careful what you say–or where you point your camera.
During our week of camping in the Tetons, followed by my daughter’s wedding, we were audience to the continually changing beauty of the Tetons. I wanted to post a few photos of the Tetons, to show how different they looked at various times of day, but rather than just “a few,” decided to post all of the best photos.
After unzipping the tent each morning, the Tetons were always my first sight. It became a game each morning to discover how the mountains would look that first hour of the day.
The afternoons were very warm, and the sunshine at altitude was intense. Everyone got sunburned the first day within the first hour. Each afternoon seemed to bring dramatic weather, with winds and dark clouds, though many times the rain never hit the ground.
The evenings were simply gorgeous. Each evening was different from the one before, depending on the clouds and colors. Our first night there, the Milky Way arced across the sky like a white rainbow.
There are places in the world that feel like home even if you’ve never lived there. Places that feel immediately familiar, where your shoulders relax and you sigh deeply. Places that deeply touch some part of your soul and beg you to stay. Places you yearn for when you’re away. Places where you don’t have to be anything other than who you are.
For me, that place is Wyoming.
I’ve traversed America countless times to return to Wyoming. Each time is like a homecoming.
On a flight to Oregon once we flew directly over eastern Wyoming. It’s expansive nothingness was unmistakable. I looked out the window and thought, “My heart is down there.”
I don’t think I’ve ever said anything more true.
For years, my family made summer road trips to Montana and Wyoming. My daughter worked as a park ranger in Yellowstone, then a geologist in Jackson Hole. This summer we returned for her wedding overlooking the Tetons.
On our first trips, Wyoming seemed so far away. Two full days of driving with two bored kids in the backseat almost didn’t seem worth it. The fights, the restlessness, the boredom. But once we got out of Texas (which is over nine hours of the entire trip), and the drive became more scenic, even the kids couldn’t complain too much.
Nowadays we avoid Colorado and sacrifice mountain views for the easy, monotonous drive through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. I ponder the emigrants of the 1800’s walking through these arid places, following their wagons, ready to start a new life. I wonder what it would have been like to be a woman, coming to such a place and raising a family.
This year we drove up through southern Utah, another place I think of as home. Still clinging to our stressful, fast paced city lives, we were anxious to reach Wyoming and help with wedding preparations, and made no stops in Utah. It was tough to drive past Canyonlands and Arches and not enter the parks. For me, southern Utah and the four corners area is like the center of the world, and if there is such a thing as “sacred space,” it is found in Utah.
Regardless of which direction we enter Wyoming, I’m in love the moment we cross the state line. From the lonely, empty landscapes of the east, to the mountains of the west, it’s all magical to me. The sky is huge and never remains the same. Weather changes are dramatic and sudden.
We camped on Shadow Mountain, across the valley and overlooking the Teton mountains. We camped five nights on forest service land, and I couldn’t have been happier. We had only planned on camping three nights, but the choice between a hotel room and sleeping outdoors was an easy one. Despite a fire ban, which meant no evening campfires, every minute spent on the mountain was priceless.
My daughter was married there.
The Tetons wear a different face every morning. Its face changes throughout the day. It’s fascinating to watch those changes. I could never grow tired of the view.
One could sit for a lifetime on Shadow Mountain and grow old, watching the changes sweep across the mountains, and know that despite the changes, nothing really changed at all. This is the mountains’ greatest lesson.
I used to think of Wyoming as being someplace far, far removed from my Texas life. It isn’t. Even if I never physically live there, I will always carry it’s songs and pictures in my heart.
When I’m back in Dallas, in my air conditioned house trying to escape the 100+ degree temperatures outside, I can close my eyes and imagine myself standing before the Tetons. I know all the roads that will take me there. I imagine one long road, a tether, an umbilical cord, between myself and the mountains. I know that at any moment, if my everyday life ever becomes too overwhelming or artificial, all I have to do is start driving.
I’ll be there soon enough.
The other night I had a dream about a grizzly bear. Anytime a grizzly bear shows up in my life, even if it’s merely a dream, I sit up and take notice.
A few weeks ago I read a blog post about grizzlies, and this morning Michael sent me a link to an article about a woman who survived a grizzly attack.
The power of the grizzly beckons and wants to be noticed.
One of my favorite blogs is Off the Beaten Path: Hikes, Backpacks, and Travels. The author is living the life I’ve always wanted to live. She writes about living in Montana and of the travels and sights her and her husband have seen, mostly out west. Michael and I have talked very seriously about selling our house, buying an RV, and traveling the western parks. If I had my choice, I’d settle down somewhere in Montana or Wyoming in my little RV and never look back.
Off the Beaten Path wrote a great post a few weeks ago about backpacking in grizzly country and her fear of a seeing a grizzly. It reminded me of my own grizzly encounter in Yellowstone.
Shortly after I met Michael four years ago, I mentioned to him that I was driving up to Yellowstone in a month. My daughter, a geologist who lived in Jackson Hole at the time, was flying down to visit us in Texas and we would make a mother-daughter road trip back up to Wyoming. I don’t know what possessed me, but I boldly told Michael he should fly up and see Yellowstone with me, that it would change his life.
I met him at the Jackson Airport a month later.
While we were in Yellowstone, towards the end of our stay, we wanted to take an all day hike off the main tourist trails. We chose a trail in the vicinity of West Thumb and Yellowstone Lake and drove over from our campground. When we gathered our gear and walked up to the trail head, however, we were stopped by a sign stating the trail was closed due to “bear activity in the area,” but that it would open up the very next day. Michael assured me that hiking one day early would be okay.
I hesitated. My daughter had been a park ranger in Yellowstone for several summers before she found full-time work in Jackson Hole. I had heard many stories of dumb tourists and their disregard of the park rules–sometimes with deadly consequences. I had also been a teacher for many years and following the rules was ingrained in my psyche.
I had a really bad feeling about going on that trail. Other than my guilt at not following the rules, it just didn’t feel right. I felt very, very strongly that we shouldn’t take that hike.
I told Michael I wanted to use the restroom before starting off, and headed over to the port-a-let. It was mostly just an excuse to buy myself some time. I came out and told him I didn’t want to hike the trail, that maybe we could find another one, apologizing for my timidity and trying to explain my hesitation.
We got back in the car and turned around to reverse. Just as we started to back up, a grizzly came sauntering out of the trees, not ten feet from the car.
Even in the car, I was scared. I’ve seen quite a few grizzlies from a distance, but never one even remotely this close. They are massive, with long claws–and despite their size, they’re fast. I was glad we had the protection of the car, but kept the motor running and the car in drive.
The grizzly ignored us as she went about eating vegetation in the parking lot. We were the only ones there, and felt honored to be able to be so close to such an impressive animal. We sat and watched her for a long time, and Michael took a ton of photos.
This experience only reinforced the certainty for me that I never want to see a grizzly on a hike, up close and personal. I’ve been on several hikes in the past where people have passed us on the trail and excitedly asked: Did you see the bear?!? My answer has always been the same: No, and I don’t want to see the bear!
I was so glad I listened to my intuition and we hadn’t gone on that trail.
We drove a ways and found another perfect hike to the top of Sepulcher Mountain–and we didn’t see a bear all day.
Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks are two of my favorite places on earth. I’ve spent many summers there, camping and hiking and visiting my daughter, who was a park ranger in Yellowstone for several summers, then a geologist in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Going to Yellowstone every summer was like going to church, meeting God everywhere you turned. Even though it’s one of the most visited national parks in the nation, once you leave the main road you truly are in a wild, untamed place.
Being there, to me at least, is like returning to sanity. Things make sense and the world is as it should be. When life back home becomes crazy with busyness and stress, I close my eyes and turn my thoughts to Yellowstone. Just knowing it’s there is enough.
Tibetans say that Mount Meru is the center of the universe; in my world, the center is Yellowstone.
We need the wild for renewal.
We need the wild to remind us who we are.
We need the wild to keep us from getting lost.
We need the wild to keep us humble.
We need the wild to remind us what is real.
We need the wild to take our breath away.
We need the wild to show us what we’re most afraid of.
We need the wild as a guide, showing us we don’t need anything more than we already have.
We need the wild to show us the way to stillness.
We need the wild to remind us that life goes on without us.
It’s week three of summer vacation. In years past, when the kids were younger, we would be well on our way on our annual summer road trip. Since we had family in Montana, most of our trips were out west to Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, and some trips we managed to squeeze in South Dakota, Utah, and the Four Corners area as well. Each summer our entire family became national park junkies, so for me, summer vacation still means road trip.
There’s something about a road trip that speaks to most Americans, especially a road trip out west. It’s part of our national mythology. Nothing stands as a symbol of American independence and hardiness more than the pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail. I can’t imagine the difficulties and hardships of traveling such a distance–especially for women, many of whom were pregnant or gave birth during the trip–but what a grand adventure it must have been! Whenever we’ve crossed the Trail in Wyoming, through landscape that is bare yet breathtakingly beautiful, I’m struck by the fact that very little has changed. Other than the thin lonely ribbon of highway that snakes past Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, and South Pass, the land looks much the same as it must have over a hundred and fifty years ago. When I’m feeling sorry for myself, I think of those pioneers optimistically marching across a harsh land towards a new, uncertain life.
My favorite national park may be Yellowstone. Yellowstone is a place that reminds me that nature doesn’t need us. Despite the hordes of tourists that clog the park in the summer, once you get off the road and hike into the interior you realize how petty and small your life is compared to the life all around you. When I’m there, I’m reminded how much we need wild places, places where grizzlies and eagles and bison roam free, to remind ourselves that we truly are a part of nature and the cycles of life and death. We’re not separate from nature, and wild places act as a balance to our man-made city wilderness. There’s also something exciting about knowing you’re walking on top of a massive active volcano that scientists say will–not if–explode again one day. When I’m feeling disappointed in mankind and yearn to leave the city, I think of Yellowstone.
If there is such a thing as sacred spaces, then southern Utah is that place for me. Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Natural Bridges National Monument are where I truly feel the presence of something holy and sublime. The emptiness and deep silences seem eternal there, and being confronted with the deep mystery of the universe at night when the sky lights up with more stars than you’ve ever seen before is beyond words. Canyonlands is a place to find yourself, a place to question all that you value and what you want your life to be. When I’m feeling lost and stressed out by the demands of work and relationships, I think of southern Utah.
If I had my way, I’d spend the rest of my life doing nothing more than traveling from one national park to another. In the meantime, there’s always summer vacation.