Before I post the essay below (a talk I delivered as the keynote for the Rocky Mountain Regional Conference of the Association for Experiential Education at Utah Valley University on February 25th), I need to tell you what led me to write it—which will explain my long silence on The Bright Edge.
My father, Don Trimble, has lived in Denver since before I was born, moving with my mother from my childhood home to a retirement complex in 1999 and continuing to live there after her death in 2002. He spent his days listening to recorded books and sharing dinners with a small band of friends each evening. At 94, he couldn’t see much, hear much, or walk very far, but he still said, “All things considered, I’m doing well.” And he remained amazingly sharp.
Don began to decline in November, after a small stroke. We made the decision to move him to an assisted living apartment just a mile from our house in Salt Lake City. He agreed, feeling for the first time that his life in Denver wasn’t rich enough to keep him there.
On January 5th, my wife, Joanne, and I headed east across Wyoming in our red Toyota pick-up to pack up Dad’s belongings. Joanne and Don would fly back to Salt Lake. I would follow in the truck, pulling a U-Haul trailer filled with his furniture.
We spent the first night in Rock Springs. The next morning dawned cold and clear, and we headed east on I-80 on a spectacularly sunny day. There hadn’t been a trace of snowpack or ice for hundreds of miles. We sailed across Wyoming, commenting on how lucky we were to have perfect weather for a midwinter drive. I set our cruise control at 78 mph, my default speed when the posted limit is 75.
About thirty miles east of Rawlins, as we approached Elk Mountain, I noticed a glint of reflection off the road. We felt the back tires lose traction. The back of the truck was filled with empty boxes, packing peanuts, and bubblewrap. No weight over the back tires to help. We began to float.
We veered right. I corrected, but didn’t touch the brakes. We veered left. As we headed into the median—still at 78 miles per hour—I blacked out. The world simply clicked off. In a wink, everything ended. I now know that dying in a crash could be instantaneous and painless.
But I woke up, came to, returned to consciousness—with the truck resting on its side. I was curled up in a ball between the steering wheel and the snow a couple of inches away. The window was gone. The snow turned red as blood dripped from my head.
I wiggled the various parts of my body, and everything worked. I realized that I couldn’t be badly hurt. I called for Joanne. She answered, telling me that she was okay. And at the same moment that I woke up, people arrived at the truck. A woman held my hands. I couldn’t see her, but she told me that her name was Alexis; she was a nurse in Lander.
She asked me the date. I couldn’t tell her. She asked me the year. I wasn’t sure whether we were in 2010 or 2011. She asked me the president, and I said “Barack Obama!” with such gusto that Joanne knew then I would be okay.
Joanne remembers saying to herself as we rolled: “But what about our plan? What about Don’s going-away parties in Denver? What about the move?”
In that moment, everything changed. The ordinary became the extraordinary.
While I blacked out, Joanne remained fully conscious as the truck rolled three times before it came to a stop. She tells me that the accident was incredibly noisy, and she didn’t know what had happened until the people who saw us go off the road described seeing us go airborne as we tumbled.
Those Wyoming folks know what to do at an accident scene. Reaching through the smashed windows, they wrapped us in blankets and heavy coats. They pulled mittens and gloves onto our hands. They set up a windbreak with the plywood sheet that had been in the truck bed. So many people told us their own rollover stories over the next few days, we decided that the rollover is clearly the Official State Accident of Wyoming.
Within five minutes a patrolman arrived, cut Joanne’s seatbelt, and helped her out of the truck. He later told us that we hit a tiny patch of ice that he couldn’t see until he got out of his cruiser. He also said that once we lost traction, there was nothing we could have done. We were goners. He also told us we were incredibly lucky to have survived relatively unscathed. Moral: seat belts work.
Joanne had a bruised shoulder, an injured tendon. Shattered glass had showered my scalp, hence all that blood. But my network of scratches and clots was superficial; none required stitches. Once the EMTs and extraction crew had cut me out of the truck by peeling off the roof and once the ambulance had transported us back to the Rawlins hospital and once the ER doc ordered X-rays, we discovered that I had a collapsed lung.
The new plan evolves moment to moment, and we attempt to maintain a zen-like attitude of calm in its face. Two days in the Rawlins hospital (where 80 percent of their patients come from I-80 accidents). A chest tube to reinflate my lung and drain my chest cavity. Incredibly kind new friends in Wyoming who bring take-out Thai and Mexican dinners. Another kind couple who drive us to Fort Collins, Colorado. An old friend who meets us there and takes us to Denver. Other friends and family who help with donation runs as we sift and sort through Don’s stuff.
And we’re off. The plan has shifted. We’re two days late. But Joanne and my father fly to Salt Lake on January 11th. I follow the next day—the first day the doctors have said that flying is safe after my collapsed lung.
Don moves into his apartment, sparsely furnished for now. He arrives Tuesday night. He begins to settle in a bit on Wednesday and Thursday. We visit. And on Friday morning, we swing by to pick him up for his first appointment with his new geriatric doctor.
He’s not feeling well. He’s had severe diarrhea that morning. Once in the doctor’s office, he begins to vomit, as well. He had taken a round of antibiotics in December, and it quickly becomes clear that those strong drugs may have cured his throat infection but they also wiped out his healthy intestinal flora. He’s now been recolonized by nasty bacteria.
The doctor is concerned about dehydration, and he admits Dad to the hospital, wheeling him from his office at one end of Salt Lake Regional Medical Center to the ER at the other end of the building.
Dad continues to fight, as a cascade of illness descends upon him. The stress of the bacterial infection in his gut (Staph, Clostridium difficile) leads to a heart attack and a stroke. He comes down with influenza. The gout arrives, which makes even the smallest brush against his skin incredibly painful. His kidneys begin to go haywire.
After twelve days of hospital care, we know that Dad can never regain a quality of life that he would find acceptable. He might beat back a couple of these illnesses—only to be warehoused in a nursing home for a few months before something else gets him. And so he moved to a residential hospice, slipping away on his fourth day in that calm and soothing room.
Don had his wits until just a week before he died. He was still engaged with the lives of his grandchildren from his hospital bed, still hopeful that the doctors could cure him, as they had so many times. But when we told him that they couldn’t, he relaxed into a peaceful place. With shining eyes, he told Joanne, “I’ve had a wonderful life.”
MAPPING THE GEOGRAPHY OF CHILDHOOD,
GENERATION BY GENERATION
My father, Don Trimble, died on January 30th—almost exactly a month ago. Next week, he would have turned 95.
My dad lived an entirely successful life. He was a successful son, close to his parents and embedded in a wide circle of aunts and uncles and cousins in his childhood. He was a successful husband, married with glee to my mother for 54 years. He was a successful father, grandfather, and father-in-law. He was a loyal friend, a politically engaged citizen, and an accomplished scientist.
And yet I was struck by how many friends and family singled out one strand in my father’s life when they composed their sympathy notes. They noted his relationship with wild country, a connection he passed down to me, and a connection that my wife and I have strived to pass down to our two children.
You can’t be certain just how your kids will take to these experiences. Establishing a relationship with nature happens almost physiologically, growing from basic personality. Experience in the out of doors may allow such a bent of personality to blossom. To our great disappointment, we may not see that flowering. We may drag our sons and daughters on endless hikes and camping trips, and the inoculation may never take. We have no guarantees. We can only be enthusiastic experiential educators, teaching—as you all understand—by using the power of direct experience.
We can only play matchmakers between our children and the Earth.
If I am going to talk with you about my own experiental education, I must talk about my father. And that quickly leads me to my father’s death and to these cards from friends that make me think about how connections with nature have become a tradition in our family, an ethic carried from generation to generation.
One friend captured this emotional thread succinctly in her note:
Losing your father has brought back a flood of memories of my father. They are such large figures in our lives and, for both of us, that is where the deep connection with the earth began. All I can say is: what they gave us lives on and is passed on. It is the only eternity I know of, and it is a lot.
Where did this deep sympathy with the earth come from, this core value that my father so successfully taught? I’ve written about this in my most recent book, Bargaining for Eden, and in my essays in The Geography of Childhood. Many of the stories I’ll tell you today come from these books. In an effort to analyze the continuum of values in our communities, I’ve tried to understand the origins of my own values.
Not everyone sees the earth as holy, as a place of refuge, as a precious resource that demands restraint and grants relationship. What made my lineage of smalltown Westerners yield a family of conservationists rather than a family of capitalists looking at the earth as an inexhaustible menu of commodities to devour?
For my father, this journey started on a North Dakota wheat farm.
He was born in Westhope, North Dakota. West and hope—the destinies and desires of thousands of dreamers caught up by the frontier distilled in two words. The town, co-founded by my great-grandfather, had existed for just thirteen years when “Doc Charley” Durnin delivered tiny, premature Donald Eldon Trimble and kept him alive by incubating him in a shoebox placed in the office oven. March 6, 1916. Baby Don’s parents, my grandparents, were authentic pioneer offspring. I heard their stories as a child, and they brought the opening of the West close.
My grandmother Ruby Seiffert was one of the first white children—as the family stories always put it—born in that part of North Dakota in 1892. That family line makes me cringe, now, after listening to hundreds of Indian people during the last 25 years remind me that many, many Native babies were born in Dakota—Lakota country—for many centuries before my own ancestors turned up.
The Seifferts, Alsatian and Scotch immigrants, had made their way west through Canada, finally crossing south over the line to North Dakota in the 1880s. My grandfather, also christened Donald Trimble, came from forebears who followed the American frontier westward from Maryland to Ohio, then Iowa, then on to North Dakota.
This was the homestead era, and the Trimbles and the Seifferts claimed land for their own. Public land was simply unhomesteaded land, and that’s where the men went duck hunting in the marshes, where young Ruby Seiffert and Don Trimble courted by hooking the sidecar to my Grandpa’s Indian motorcycle and bumping over the Turtle Mountains to Lake Metigoshe for picnics.
In Wallace Stegner’s pithy words, the families who came west at this time were either “boomers” or “stickers.” The boomers followed their dreams, booming and busting but always refusing to knuckle under to the reality of the dry West, always refusing to stay put and “stick.” My great-grandfather Grant Trimble started as a boomer.
The bust came in 1912, when Grant lost all his money in the wheat futures market. While cleaning out his office he found the deed to an apple orchard in Washington that he’d won in one of his business deals and forgotten. It was all he had left. And so the Trimble clan moved to Toppenish, a small Indian-agency town in the Yakima Valley. My father and his parents followed in 1922, leaving behind my father’s pony—and a few chunks of flesh from his hand, lost to a threshing machine.
Unlike the tragic arcs of the boomers dramatized in Wallace Stegner’s books, Grant Trimble gave up his wilder dreams. He transformed the Trimbles into settlers—“stickers”—for the remainder of the twentieth century.
In my childhood my paternal grandparents lived at the far west of our family space. In my father’s hometown of Toppenish, my grandfather and his two brothers and three sisters all lived within a few blocks of each other. My grandmother’s family remained behind in Dakota, and she remained resentful about that wrenching move so far from her family for the rest of her long life.
The Trimbles stayed close, interdependent, with the special affinity that connects those with a shared past—in their case, the boom times back in Dakota. They were townspeople now instead of farmers who worked long days at physically demanding tasks; they became small business owners and gained weight. They took to calling themselves the “ton of Trimbles.” They would spread their Adirondack chairs in a backyard circle and sip iced tea, recalling their adventures on the Dakota farms and prairie, reliving the golden memories of their youth.
Those Toppenish backyards contained some of my first wild places. The great evergreen tree that sheltered my grandfather’s fishing boat, where I would hide in sharp-needled shade. A cement-lined fishpond. A dusty alley with hollyhocks and bumblebees. These are my fundamental memories, from a time almost beyond memory. I can tell just how primal because when I recall those explorations, diving deep into that ancient lizard brain where awareness begins with scent, I smell that dust and those pine needles as much as see them.
From Toppenish the Trimbles looked up to the western horizon every day to see if their mountains were visible—the sublime glacier-covered half-rounds of Mount Adams and Mount Rainier. These were hovering presences in their lives. Even more so for my father, who hiked and climbed with the Boy Scouts as a kid and reached the summits of these Cascade volcanoes before he graduated from high school. He told me a month before he died that those climbing trips were the most important experience of his youth.
My father was not only a strong hiker. He was a good sleeper on rough ground. He laughed with chagrin when he told the story of a trip that tested his ability to snooze through anything. One long-ago morning he was still sleeping soundly when his friends tugged him downhill and halfway into the creek that tumbled past the campsite. The sun was well up when Dad finally woke up to the hoots of his scout troop—his floating sleeping bag and soggy feet bobbing in cold mountain water.
As a teenager, he took road trips with his pals, saving his money for gas so that he could see the spiky saguaros on Picacho Peak in the Sonoran Desert, the Grand Canyon, the Great Southwest. When his family visited North Dakota, they detoured to Glacier National Park and to Yellowstone. He loved mountains, he loved the outdoors.
A scout leader who was an amateur geologist opened Dad’s eyes to the land as a place to learn from as well as to recreate. And so Don studied geology in college so that he could work outside—putting himself through school during the Great Depression with stints as a mucker in hardrock mines. That’s mucker with an “m”—the most elemental physical labor—the worker who goes underground to clear the broken rock and ore shattered by explosives.
After World War II deprived him of his home landscape during a three-year exile in the South Pacific theater, my father was delighted to be back on the road in the West. He had heard that the United States Geological Survey was hiring in Denver. At thirty, footloose and in need of a job, this sounded good to him. He moved, within two years married the office clerk-typist—my mother—and spent more than thirty years as a USGS field geologist.
Dad and his fellow geologists and their wives were my primary childhood circle. These scientists did field work in summer in wild country all over the West, then returned home to Denver in winter to work out the meaning of their notes and maps, eventually publishing their theories as monographs. Their work verged on exploration, beginning their careers less than fifty years after John Wesley Powell had supervised work in some of the same places.
The landscape where Powell and his fellow geologists first made their mark was the Colorado Plateau, that great maze of canyons carved by the Colorado River. My father introduced me to these places on family trips. Later I worked in the canyon country as a park ranger. Today my retreat—my Eden—rises on a sandstone mesa with views across public land to a national park in the heart of the plateau. My imagination travels far but always comes home to these canyons.
The anti-intellectual stereotype of masculinity in the West veers in another direction entirely—that of the Hollywood cowboy who turned up in the western movies and television series of the Fifties, a man of the land but one who is driven to possess, own, and dominate—quick to take up arms to defend his property. Americans fancy this ahistorical stereotype. We imagine these mythic heroes as our leaders—and we often elect to the presidency men who play to that myth.
My father and his friends, by contrast, were men who drank and swore but treasured clear thinking and well-spoken ideas. They socialized as couples, women and men together. With plenty of World War II footage on the black-and-white television screen of our living room, I knew what they had done in the war a few short years before. Now “going out with the boys,” for them, meant getting together with their sack lunches at the office to talk politics, argue theories, and banter. They saved their extra energy for climbing mountains and anonymous ridges, intent on deciphering the story of the landscape. Mostly irreligious, geologic time was their gospel.
Their fieldwork mixed the physical and the cerebral. They drove Jeeps and forded rivers and sweat-stained their hatbands. They mused in grand scale, comfortable with the millions and billions of geologic time, but they spent their days in physical contact with the earth, picking up rocks warmed by the sun, collecting rough horn coral fossils and knife-sharp chunks of obsidian, kneeling to measure grain size and the angles of rocks jutting from the surface of the planet. Mapping and photographing and drawing in their journals, these men made art while doing science.
And they accumulated stories. My father told of being cornered by ornery badgers, of encounters with lonely Basque sheepherders who wanted to talk but couldn’t speak a word of English, of vehicles breaking down sixty miles from town, of coming across a beached Columbia River sturgeon ten feet long.
He worked on the Navajo Reservation in Monument Valley during the early 1950s uranium boom and watched with interest as Navajo families circled through the rhythms of their lives and their sheep-centric economy. He and his field partner kept a permanent camp at the edge of the airstrip at Oljeto Trading Post for months. They played brutal practical jokes on Ed Smith, the trader. Ed hated snakes, and one story involved a dead rattlesnake that tumbled out of the mailbox and into Ed’s hands, to his horror.
Early on, my dad made authentic strides in his science, verifying the theories of J. Harlan Bretz about catastrophic flooding from glacial Lake Missoula creating the channeled scablands of eastern Washington. Channeled scablands: what an irresistible name for a landform.
In going through my father’s papers last week, I found a full-blown draft for a memorial to be published by the Geological Society of America after his death. Ever the precise archivist, he wanted to get straight the stratigraphy of his own life. Dad had written similar memorials for his friends, who dropped away one by one over the years, as he outlived so many of them. I think he must have thought, “I know how to do this, so I may as well write one for myself”—even if it was a little creepy, writing his own professional obituary.
Toward the end of this manuscript, he summed up his major accomplishments in one paragraph: Don Trimble mapped the geology of more than 3,500 square miles of the United States. He was the only US Geological Survey geologist to discover a uranium deposit (in Monument Valley, in 1952). He added greatly to our knowledge of the results of catastrophic flooding from Pleistocene lakes Missoula and Bonneville, and established a basic stratigraphy for late Precambrian rocks in southeastern Idaho.
This was his list, these are his words, his description of the work he judged memorable.
Part of the family lore came from his friends’ fieldwork, as well. Irv Witkind, for instance, famously woke up one night when his camp trailer at Hebgen Lake, Montana, started moving. He leapt out of bed, thinking the chocks must have shifted and the trailer was rolling downhill into the lake. To his delight (as a scientist), he found himself at the epicenter of the 1959 Yellowstone earthquake. He threw on his clothes and started dividing his time between helping survivors and measuring fault scarps. Two other cohorts of my dad predicted the Mt. St. Helens eruption.
During field seasons, visitors with special skills came to consult on Dad’s geological puzzles: a paleontologist to identify fusulinid fossils, a geochemist to gather samples to date using radioactive decay. This was dinner table conversation when I was ten, twelve, fourteen.
My childhood summers reeled out as adventures, their rhythms dictated by the fieldwork assignments of my father. When school ended each spring my parents and I drove west through Wyoming. In each outpost of home in Idaho or Oregon we rented a house in the town closest to my father’s mapping area.
Our summers had the open-ended allure of a vacation heightened by the dare of being on the road. By this time my father had already been driving the West for twenty years, and he plotted the family route from mountain to mountain and restaurant to restaurant. He loved the cool rise of the peaks as much as he loved the flake and fruit of homemade berry pies. As we drove he provided a running commentary on history, geology, and geography.
Isabelle, my mother, made sure we maintained our sense of humor and didn’t romanticize the emptiness too much. The three of us would croon “Why-O-Why, Wyoming” and dissolve in giggles. She teased my father and me when we enthused over landscapes she saw as barren “dirt,” when we rhapsodized about our love of the thunderous open spaces, no matter how nondescript.
My mother drove our Dodge, my father the government Jeep. When I rode with my mother, we looked for music on the AM radio, hoping for jazz. When I rode with my father, he told me stories. When we all rode together during vacations, we alternated between these diversions. Boxes of gear for the summer’s field season filled the rear of the Jeep and the trunk of the car: dishes, clothes, cameras, map cases, a Brunton compass, rock sample sacks sewn from white canvas and permanently scented with acrid basin and range alkali dust, my bicycle (and, once, in the rear window, my pet store turtle in a Skippy peanut-butter jar, forgotten and inadvertently boiled when we stopped for lunch one day).
Laramie was the first town out from Colorado: windy, railroad-dingy, a line of motor courts with cowboy neon fashioned into branding irons, bucking broncos, and buckaroos. On across Wyoming we drove, past broken-down gas stations that constituted most of the towns: Red Desert, Wamsutter, Point of Rocks, Medicine Bow. This run of the open-space West stretched as wide as the Cinerama screens in its cities, out to the limits of peripheral vision, where you knew it kept going. When something happened in that emptiness—a dust storm, a rainbow, a fleet of pronghorn dashing across the road so close I always remembered them actually leaping over the hood—it made my day.
On these long-ago evenings we would stop for the night at Little America, the motel and truck stop that punctuated the windy middle of nowhere in western Wyoming. Gleeful to be out of the car, we would shower off the sweat that came from driving before air conditioning became commonplace, with the windows open and my parents smoking.
While my mother and father relaxed at the bar with their before-dinner gin-and-tonics, and again, the next morning, when they lingered over coffee, I was free to wander around Little America, exploring.
I walked to the edge of the vast parking pads, where cement ended abruptly at the brink of what earnest ranchers in western movies called “Big Country.” From this frontier of the mid-twentieth century I stared into empty red-desert scrubland, the tantalizing space of Wyoming, and squinted up Black’s Fork toward Fort Bridger; shrinking under too much sky, I dreamt of the time when mountain men were the only Europeans for hundreds of miles.
In the beginning I needed this safe perch to confront the great North American space. I wasn’t yet ready to immerse myself in it. I looked in from the edge, from the road, from the car window, from motels at the periphery of crossroads towns—bunkhouses on the rim of wildness.
Never Summer Range, Snowy Range, Wind River Range, Horse Heaven Hills. Rabbit Ears Pass, Togwotee Pass, Lolo Pass, Chinook Pass. Longs Peak, Pikes Peak, Grand Teton, Mount Rainier. Some people remember from childhood the names of cherished baseball or football players. Others can recite still the multisyllabic names of molded plastic dinosaurs. My own remembered litany consists of place-names.
“Stevie, where do we turn?” my father would ask as I stared at the land charted in the folds of paper on my lap. My father, of course, knew which road to take at the next town. He also knew that I loved being trusted to help find our way.
During my childhood, the best highway maps of the western states came free from Chevron stations, in places like Rawlins, Wyoming, and Pendleton, Oregon. Stacked in wire racks coated with dust cemented in automotive grease, the maps waited for discovery, state by state. Down the road, I studied the air-brushed mountain ranges and passes and asked my father if I had them right: “Are those the Absarokas?” “The next bridge ought to be the Sweetwater River; tell me when we get there.” He pointed out Big Southern Butte and Twin Buttes, landmarks of the Snake River Plain, and I tried to find them on the map.
I searched the maps for the little red squares that marked “Points of Interest”; my questions about these cued my father’s steering-wheel lectures about western history and geology. “Maryhill Museum: what’s there, Daddy?” “What happened at Big Hole Battlefield?” “The map shows Crystal Ice Cave ten miles off the highway. Do we have time to go?” From my father, I learned about the differences between gneiss and schist, the route of Lewis and Clark down the Clearwater, and how Chief Tommy Thompson used to fish for salmon at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River before the dams.
Let’s make sure I don’t drift into mythmaking here. As a child, I wasn’t all that interested in geology. I often humored my father, half-listening, but couldn’t help but absorb at least some of his narratives. He cared deeply about this story; he was a born teacher, and he persuaded the USGS to publish non-technical bulletins he wrote for the general public about the Colorado Front Range and the Great Plains. He taught geology to families at Rocky Mountain National Park at the summer camp run by the National Wildlife Federation. My father’s passion for the rich landscape history that surrounds us continued to the end of his life.
That passionate connection to the natural world can begin with snakes, shells, or stars, birds, beetles, or blackberries. For me, connection started with the land itself, the bones and ligaments of the naked Earth exposed on the rocky surface of the arid West. Geography seeped into me, a bedrock awareness of landscape and place.
This attentiveness to landscape—I’ll call it geophilia in parallel to what E.O. Wilson calls biophilia—goes way back in our genes. We learn our homeland from stories, just as we learn nearly everything from stories. Anthropologist Keith Basso has noted in a wonderful book called Wisdom Sits in Places that Apache children in the Southwest constantly hear their elders link landscape features with the ethics of living correctly as an Apache. Listen to Benson Lewis, a Cibecue Apache elder:
I think of that mountain called “white rocks lie above in a compact cluster” as if it were my maternal grandmother. I recall stories of how it once was, at that mountain. The stories told to me were like arrows. Elsewhere, hearing that mountain’s name, I see it. Its name is like a picture. Stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you live right. Stories make you replace yourself.
Each summer evening, my father came home, picked the wood ticks from his clothes, and showered off the dust and reek of sagebrush. After dinner, hunched over the kitchen table, he painstakingly inked his penciled field notes about contacts, dips, and faults onto more permanent mylar maps. In winter, in his Denver office, he worked with the maps still more, writing about the geologic history he had untangled from the land he had walked over.
In my childhood, I chose my father’s lineage for my connections. Geology was the bedrock underlying patriarchy. Science was our religion, western history and natural history our tribal lore, the public domain of the West our Holy Land. Like my father, I took as my prophets the pioneers and mountain men, the explorer-scientists and writers journeying and journaling across the continent, and paid due respect to Lewis and Clark and to my grandfather’s pioneer energy.
A subliminal message ran through this history: that government was good. From Lewis and Clark themselves to Powell and the nineteenth-century surveys, to Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall’s invention of the modern concept of wilderness while working for the Forest Service—the stories that nourished me featured federal bureaucrats as heroes. I grew up with the assumption that civil servants did visionary work.
The visionaries’ disciples were the men of my father’s generation, not long back from the war, returned alive to family, to good work, and to the canyons and deserts and rivers and mountains of the West. These were the places that gave them their stories. These were the places that make us who we are.
My wife, Joanne, and I did our best to expose our children to wild country. We took road trips. Just as my father did with me, I tried to pass along my love of the country as we drove across the West.
When my son was eight, he and I drove from Santa Fe to Salt Lake City on our own. Jake and I rolled off along the bike path below Telluride, Colorado, pausing for an interval of kid activity away from the truck. (Yesterday was “Skateboard Day;” today is “Rollerblade Day.”) Across the San Miguel River, the mountain wall reared above the valley’s thread of meadowlands. Clouds softened the greens, the even light mapping the mosaic of forest trees.
I asked Jake to come to the fence and to look across to the oversized mural of forest colors. I started pointing. There: light green aspen. And, see, over there: dark green fir. Below, along the stream, a colonnade of Colorado blue spruce.
He listened. And then, wholly without guile, he said, “Why are you telling me this?”
A second-grader whose passions were soccer and rock-and-roll, he wasn’t thinking about where he fits into his home.
His question was fundamental, though. There we stood, enfolded by the New West: Telluride Mountain Village, townhouses, gondolas, cappuccino, and all. And I asked Jake to see past the pleasures of the asphalt path to the wildness of the mountain and forest.
I’ve thought about how to truly answer Jake’s question: why know these things? Why know that the crinkly twigs from these spruce make the best kindling in the Southern Rockies? That Pleistocene glaciers carved the flat bottom of this valley? That hundreds of these aspen trees connect underground in clones sprouted from a single seed ten thousand years ago—and that climate change threatens the survival of these historic clones? That our hillside drains into the San Miguel River, which flows into the Dolores, which flows into the Colorado, which dies repeatedly in reservoirs, resurrected below each dam, gradually drained of its wildness, as it crosses the continent in its descent to the Sea of Cortez? That the whole watershed is teetering on the edge of drought, endangered, carrying as much change downriver as it does snowmelt?
Just as we learn the nuances of the bodies of our lovers, slowly, tenderly, we walk over the land and listen to its stories to find our way to the heart of the West. To establish a relationship with this land, to live ethically here, we must think about consequences.
Why know the names of trees? Why know anything about forest ecology? Why know about the grace of rivers in an arid land? Because in the West, we will always live enmeshed in Place. The West is so big, so diverse, so dry, so fragile, and—still—so wild, that we need this understanding to distinguish between the old dualities and ironies: lie from truth, boom from sustainability, dream from desert, reality from romance.
That’s the greater truth behind the answer to Jake’s question. The simpler answer has to do with joy. The pure pleasure of being in the wilderness as a family.
When our kids were young, we camped for weeks each year, mostly in southern Utah canyon country and in the Great Basin in Nevada. Our general scheme: branch off the highway, take aim down a promising back road—turning down the less traveled fork at every junction until the road petered out, generally at a trailhead in remote country. Set up camp next to our truck, and settle in.
When our kids were toddlers, we counted any meander out of sight of the truck as a “hike”—even if that meant ducking behind a rock and pretending we were out of sight of the truck. We hung out in camp a lot, cooking and eating very well while giving our kids the freedom to explore.
We took hiking guidebooks with us, and over the years, as our children grew more capable, we began to walk further and further away from camp. At about the time our strength and skills evened out and we could contemplate following trails to their ultimate destinations, our children hit middle school and didn’t have much interest in hiking with us at all.
I spoke earlier of playing matchmaker between our children and the earth. How did this play out in our family? I’ll tell you two stories, one from each of our children at about sixteen.
Story one. First-born child. When Dory was in high school, she reluctantly accompanied us when we headed west to Nevada’s Schell Creek Range for an early season camping trip with her younger brother’s middle-school class. One afternoon we walked upcanyon until we reached the snow line. As the grown-ups poked around and the boys played in the snow, Dory grew impatient and bored and decided to take a short cut back to camp, hiking down a ridge on her own for perhaps three miles.
She rejoined us in camp, exhilarated. She was absolutely convinced she had heard a mountain lion on her walk downcanyon. She wasn’t scared; she was thrilled. And she is a good enough naturalist that I think she likely did hear a mountain lion—while hiking alone, at sixteen, through an isolated Nevada aspen grove.
Story two. The second-born boy’s first backpack trip on his own. Jake and two friends borrowed our truck and drove south to hike Buckskin Gulch in the Paria Wilderness on the Arizona line. Jake dropped his buddies at the trailhead and then drove around to the Paria Ranger Station. His plan: to leave the truck where he would reencounter it at the end of their 23-mile hike and ride his mountain bike back fifteen miles on pavement and dirt road to where his buddies awaited at the beginning of the hike. He would stash the bike behind a juniper and retrieve it after they finished their backpack.
This was a perfectly reasonable plan. But Jake hadn’t quite worked out every detail. As he pedaled back along U.S. Highway 89, night fell. When he turned down the Houserock Valley dirt road, with more than eight miles to go, he found himself riding through the wilderness in full dark, with no headlamp.
He said later that this was no big deal, that he could see the lightness of the road by starlight. Without mishap or fear, he rode through the starry night until he rejoined his hiking companions. The next morning, they slipped into one of the West’s great slot canyons, the Dive of the Buckskin.
And so I think our family trips took. Our kids may spend lots of time in many places other than the wilderness. In fact, Dory leaves on Tuesday for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. Jake heads for Nicaragua this summer to work as a project supervisor for Amigos de las Americas. But each of them continues to show an enviable level of comfort in wild country.
So let me end with this next generation. My father would like that. Dory is a writer; she is working on her twenty-first journal, adding to a bookshelf of journals that start when she was seven. She has begun an online writing project, with plans to write one essay each month during her twenty-seven months as a Peace Corps volunteer. This comes from the preface, a vignette about the end of her first summer out of college, which she spent as an environmental educator at The Mountain Institute in West Virginia:
It’s September, and the new moon comes. Forever without a flashlight, I pick my way along a rolling path through the hawthorns, feeling with my feet for the familiar contours, occasionally drifting too far to the left and catching myself up to my waist in goldenrod, suddenly crisp and yellowing as it earns its autumn name. I walk to the edge of the woods and lie on my back in the high grass– thick late summer grass, so tall it falls in around the edges of my vision like a frame. I fixate on the stars, stars like they are supposed to be, bright halos to the very edge of my sight, silent meteors streaking across the sky. Every time, I inhale sharp. Tell myself I’ll stay for just one more shooting star. Feel condensation gathering between my toes.
Between the shooting stars I focus and unfocus my eyes, let the sky blur to black, and soon I’m laughing– out loud, full and bright, dry summer soil packed under my fingernails and into the soles of my feet. Laughing because I’m alone, and it’s beautiful, and it all turned out so right. Because I didn’t know I needed this summer in the wild, didn’t know I needed to drink powdered milk and instant coffee from metal cups or spend my days sweating and cracking jokes and tromping through the woods with friends I didn’t used to know. When I said “I don’t know what I’ll do in West Virginia, I don’t know what it’ll be like,” I meant it. I didn’t know how badly I needed six months without judgment or regret.
The things we need the most are the ones so far beyond us that we can’t begin to comprehend them. We wander through life in search of dreams so distant we rarely have the words to ask– but sometimes, when we are very lucky, we stumble into these moments– stumble into love or trust or renewal or adventure– and suddenly the world explodes into color and we remember why the wandering is worth it. Life really wasn’t bad at all, before– in fact, sometimes it was lovely– but only when we strike upon one of these truly magical unknowable things, things so spectacular they’re impossible to imagine, do we really understand how wonderful it is to be alive.
Dory took four books with her to the Dominican Republic, three new ones—long novels, some in Spanish, to keep her going for a while—and one old standby to bring along a little bit of home and familiarity and wildness written into words: Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire.
Generation to generation, the journey continues.