From Issue II (2017)
by TYRA OLSTAD
THE WINTER I TURNED TWENTY-ONE, I fell in love. Not with a person—with a place. A wild place, a desolate place; a windswept, sunbaked, shrub-studded stretch of sandstone and clay. A place called the Painted Desert.
It was love at first sight—surprising, serendipitous. I’d applied for an internship in northeastern Arizona at random, knowing next to nothing about the Painted Desert or the national park through which it stretches. Before starting work, I read up on the area’s natural and cultural resources—fossils and artifacts, historic buildings and semi-desert sagebrush steppe, some undefined, indefinable thing called “wilderness”—but nothing could have prepared me for the moment I first saw the sea of sage-tufted, sandstone-capped, red-orange-gray-purple clay hills unfurling under an infinite sky. I felt dizzy with delight. And curiosity. Joy. I may have actually swooned.
Giddy with infatuation, I spent the next four months getting to know the semi-desert sagebrush steppe. I wanted to learn everything about it—its geologic history, its human legacy, the sociopolitical machinations that led to the preservation of Petrified Forest National Monument in 1906 and the legislation that allowed for the designation of the Painted Desert Wilderness Area within it sixty-four years later. I wanted to name the desert’s colors, recognize its moods, trace the landmarks and lifeforms of which it’s comprised. More than anything, I wanted to feel the landscape—to dance and crawl my way through its roadless, treeless, trailless terrain. During workdays I poured over maps and books and pestered park veterans to share stories and advice; on weekends I filled up my water bottles, strapped on my boots, and hiked out in search of petroglyph panels, petrified stumps, and a route to the dark volcanic neck that defined the distant horizon. At first, I felt desperate to see, do, and learn everything, but as the weeks passed, I felt less anxious to set and strive for destinations. Instead, I slowly learned the art of wandering: how to tiptoe alongside bobcat tracks and crawl with an eye out for fossil clamshells; how to amble down dendritic dry washes and wind blindly up narrowing arroyos. To clamber along cliffs! To tromp across great swaths of prairie! No roads, no trails; better yet, no goals and no schedules. I was free—free to wander, free to roam, free to sit and stare at the staggering beauty. I’d never met a place like this before. I’d never even imagined that such a place existed.
When the internship ended, I was supposed to move on—the world was bright with other adventures. But I couldn’t quite leave the Painted Desert. It had changed me. I’d gone from a polite, quiet, intensely diligent yet goalless eastern girl to a living, breathing wild creature.
The autumn before I turned twenty-three I returned to the Painted Desert. This time, the landscape harbored memories as well as promises—places I’d been, places I’d like to return, and places that beckoned with unknown possibility. In the waning weeks of September, I visited familiar landmarks as if stopping by to say hello to old friends. October was for exploring new terrain. November into December I read more eclectically, hiked more fanatically, ventured farther and wider, slept out under the stars and left maps behind. Had anyone asked, I would have said with certainty that I was head over heels for the Painted Desert—head over old, cracked, treadless, dusty boot heels for it.
Again the season ended and again I was supposed to move on. After briefly trying to lead a normal life working nine-to-five in a windowless office, May saw me return to the Painted Desert. That season—three intensely hot, luxuriously long summer months—I began to think of the park in terms of my favorite vista and my favorite camping spot, my favorite flower and my favorite time of day. I began to speak of it as “my desert.” Possessive, possessed.
Over and over, I left and was drawn back. Four seasons, then five: between semesters of graduate school, autumn afterwards, winter into spring. I developed new understandings, new vocabulary, new levels of obsession. In the spirit of Terry Tempest Williams, I swore the desert was a place of pilgrimage of solace and sheer beauty. In Edward Abbey-esque moods, I alternated between telling everyone that the Painted Desert was the most beautiful place on earth and ranting that for god’s sake, everyone should just leave it alone. The wilderness became not just a place that I knew and loved, but a part of me—a patch of earth that permeated my being. I dreamt of the desert each night and woke to greet it each morning. I meandered out to mesas on the weekends, then mentally retraced the routes all week. I shed my old shell and grew a sunburned, wind-scoured, clay-coated new self.
“Place-identity,” environmental psychologists call it. I’d gone from gathering a basic sense of place to feeling deep, affirmative place-attachment. But then I kept going. I found kinship with what humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan would call my rare “geographical double—the objective correlative of the sort of human being I am when the shallow, social layers are stripped away.” I lost track of what was the world and what was me. Synapses in my brain linked like branches of dry washes. My flesh filled with sand, my bones turned to dust. I sweated rain and breathed the wingbeats of wrens. By my sixth season at the park, I was alive only in and as the wilderness.
But of course, the wilderness didn’t care about me. No matter how often I went back—how many days I spent walking its cobbled clay skin and how many nights I spent cradled in its sandstone ledges, how many ravens I crawwwed at and how many junipers I caressed—the Painted Desert didn’t ever know I was there. It was a collection of inanimate abiotic elements and inarticulate wild beasts. I was a visitor who did not remain. Who left no trace. There was nothing meaningful I could do to or for the place. All I could do was love it, celebrate it, absorb its beauty and wildness.
The spring after I turned twenty-six, I left the Painted Desert intending to find meaning in other places and remember what it meant to inhabit the human world. Slow steps: South Dakota’s Badlands, Kansas’s tallgrass prairies. Up and down the Great Plains, I sought and saw landscapes that ought to have given me joy, but they left me feeling thoroughly lost and empty. I was unsatisfied in parks and miserable in towns. Not knowing who I was or where I wanted to be, I began to wonder, as did Annie Dillard at her beloved Tinker Creek, “Have I walked too much, aged beyond my years?” By the time winter settled in, finding me buried in schoolwork, lost in a nondescript, small Plains city, yes, I believed, “I’ve been there, seen it, done it.” Oh, Mary Oliver: “Sometimes the great bones of my life [felt] so heavy, / and all the tricks my body [knew] — / the opposable thumbs, the kneecaps, / and the mind clicking and clicking, / [didn’t] seem enough to carry me through this world.”
THE SUMMER I TURNED twenty-seven and a half, I fell in love. With a person this time—a wildlife biologist with a red-blond beard and sea-gray eyes and a mischievous grin that radiated adventure and broke my heart. I met him in the temperate rainforest of Southeast Alaska, where I’d gone to work at Tongass National Forest for the summer. He was a seasonal returnee, eager to show me around his territory. In just the first few days, we took a skiff skimming out across a saltwater bay, canoed over to small flower-filled islands, hiked up a steep slope to an icy blue tarn, and walked to a waterfall through moss-dripping stands of cedar and spruce. He taught me to identify and name Gymnocarpium disjunctum, Polystichum munitum, Adiantum aleuticum— oak fern, sword fern, maidenhair. My heart turned over.
Once Forest Service training and orientation wrapped up and the season got underway, I only saw him on the weekends. My work—as an interpretive guide, leading infrequent tourists into and safely out of the largest cave system in Alaska—was based at a small outpost on the northwestern shore of Prince of Wales Island, separated from headquarters by a two-and-a-half-hour drive down pothole- and puddle-pocked old logging roads. Aside from time spent crawling through the cool, dark, drippy cave (not an ideal job for an agoraphile and claustrophobe), I spent all week exploring the forest and shore, searching for wonders and accumulating stories to share when I drove back to town.
By all rights, I should have hated it there. It was perpetually cold and perpetually wet. Heavy rainclouds hung low, hugging the steep slopes of the limestone fjords, while, simultaneously, mist rose up from the salty shore and swirled through the thick, pungent forest. The palette was gray: gray-blue, gray-green, gray-brown, gray. Of course, there were days when the sun managed to break through and yes, there were black bears and salmonberries, bald eagles soaring through the sky and herons standing on the shores. Those weren’t things I’d ever cared about, though. I couldn’t see the horizon. I couldn’t watch storms build and break. I never felt warm and dry. It was nothing like my desert—my sparse, arid, open geographical double.
But how I could wander. Each morning I stepped out into the dewy glow of dawn and crunched down overgrown logging roads or squished and squeaked along the kelpy shore. Each evening I wound through old-growth groves and crashed through second-growth brush, roaming until lost in the late Alaskan twilight. I pondered muskegs and scaled limestone ledges. I met ravens and otters and loon after loon. In all of my journeys, I never feared running into another person. Although the area near my outpost was far from primeval (a legacy of heavy logging had left fields of dense brush punctuated by ghostly white stumps), there was solitude in spades. No one else had reason to be out where I was. I was alone. I was free. I began to rediscover what it meant to feel alive.
Twice, the wildlife biologist came to visit my stretch of woods. I dragged him to see my favorite spots—the grove of chocolate lilies, the ravine with the giant cedars, the little island whose every rock, shrub, and inch of shoreline I knew better than my own face. So many enchanting little secrets, so many glimpses of pure delight—I showed off my forest as though I’d created it myself. (“My” forest—I’d done it again, claimed possession of something unownable, someplace wild and free.)
Does he fully appreciate my little island? I began to doubt, watching him politely acknowledge then move on from each topographical and ecological feature, each little piece of me. Does he care about the birds? (If not, how can he know who I am; how can he care about me?)
As the months progressed, I became restless whenever I left my outpost to check in at Forest Service headquarters. Back in town, I spent less time watching films or brewing beer with the wildlife biologist, opting instead to slip away, out to splash in puddles and watch the mist swirl. Alone. We didn’t go for as many boat rides together, nor hikes. One August morning he woke to find me crying—crying about the rain, crying about the ocean; bleating like a feral fawn torn between town and forest. He didn’t know what to do or say. I was inconsolable, until I returned to my island, my ravens, the salty mist-gray edge of the sea.
When the seasonal position ended, I returned to some semblance of life in the lower forty-eight. For months, I thought only of the wildlife biologist—wrote letters, made calls, clung to any hope of reunion. As our conversations got more distant, I felt paroxysms of doubt and grief: didn’t he care if I ever came back? Had it mattered that I’d been there? Had I been just another person slipping into and out of his life?
The more I deliberately tried to forget the biologist, the stronger my memories of Tongass became. I shivered, recalling air thick with mist. I blinked dew off my eyelashes and heard water dripping in my ears. My tastebuds watered with thimbleberries, my sinuses filled with bog orchids’ sweet scent. Logging roads crunched underfoot, bears lurked around every corner. I craved rain.
Oh, I finally realized—it wasn’t him for whom I’d fallen; it was the place—the temperate rainforest and fjord-laced shore. I’d become limestone and cedar and maidenhair fern. I lived for the mist and the tide and the cry of the loon.
DO YOU UNDERSTAND? I asked a different biology technician—a taller, kinder one, with a dark brown beard and kind brown eyes and an intense, sudden smile that broke like sunlight radiating across a ridgeline at dawn—a year later. I didn’t just visit or work in the Painted Desert and Prince of Wales, I struggled to articulate the importance of these places, I learned them, I absorbed them, I became them.
I wanted desperately for him to understand. We’d spent the summer working together in a national monument on the high plains of southwestern Wyoming—him trying to eradicate invasive plants, me looking for fifty-million-year-old fish. (In hindsight, there had to be some sort of significance in our job choices—manifestations of our philosophies, immediate versus ancient, practical versus philosophical?) Fossil Butte was intriguing in its own right, but we’d gone away nearly every weekend, seeking more rugged, remote, and adventurous terrain—camping in Utah, climbing in Idaho, taking his motorcycle flying down open highways. He listened to my stories, forgave my exclamations, and took care of me when I was overcome with exhaustion or exhilaration. When he asked me to join him on a trip through the Southwest at the end of the field season, I jumped at the chance. I would have gone with him anywhere.
Arizona, New Mexico, Texas: we summited mountains and looped through ravines, ate over campfires and slept in the moonlight. Archaeological sites, biosphere reserves, UFO landings: we drove for hours each day, paying less attention to maps than to landmarks, following signs through quirky towns, up intriguing dirt roads, and to every patch of public land we could find. Caves, sand dunes, saguaros. Sunny mornings, afternoon monsoons, stars from horizon to horizon. One evening, when we were sitting together on a piñon-studded plateau in New Mexico watching the sky fill with shades of twilight, I couldn’t help but ask: Do you understand? Do you understand how deeply places change me? (Is that odd, I wondered, for a person to believe they’ve become part desert, part forest, shaped more by wild places than by society?)
He nodded yes, but I don’t think I had the words to explain. I don’t think I myself understood my topophilia—a blessing, a trait, a tragic flaw?
Tonto to Tucson, White Sands to Guadalupe: we saw stunning landscapes and met interesting people, but experienced everything at slightly different paces. I couldn’t quite keep up with him. I was a slower hiker, an anxious driver. I’m cranky without morning coffee and crave some semblance of routine. The farther we went and more places we saw, the more it felt like a whirlwind, a slideshow. After a month of park-hopping and blue-highway driving, we decided to linger at Big Bend. There, we planned for a multi-day backpacking trip—the longest, most extreme loop, of course—packed, and headed off into the Chisos for a grueling first day. Even though he was carrying nearly all of the water and the heaviest gear, he skipped right along. I struggled up each switchback. By the end of day two, twenty-odd miles in, I was barely able to drag myself into the designated campsite before collapsing into a bloody, sobbing heap. (Sobbing because I wasn’t strong enough or tough enough for him, for the world. Bloody because I’d been too exhausted to bother avoiding cacti and ocotillo overgrowing the trail. My skin was slashed open, as if the desert itself had risen up to attack me.) We bailed the next morning—left the trail at our water cache, began driving back to Wyoming.
Once we returned to Fossil Butte, he packed up and left for the winter. I stayed.
October into November, the blazing glory of the cottonwood and poignant bugling of elk gave way to a landscape devoid of everything but ice, wind, and snow. The world swept white: blinding during snowstorms, brilliant when the sun returned; white even at night, twinkling with starlight and luminous by the light of the moon.
The blizzards frightened me at first. Although I wasn’t technically in a wilderness, I was again on my own, far from town and beyond any help should I get lost or injured on my walk back from work or out skiing on the weekends. The cold, too, was unlike anything I’d known. Aching, omnipotent. My eyelashes froze together. My breath iced over. Zippers and shoelaces stuck, locking me into not-quite-warm-enough outer layers. Snow squeaked underfoot and sunlight cracked and fell from the sky. And the wind—pleading, howling, haunting, raging, the wind. It rattled the windows and whistled through my dreams, blew me off course then covered my tracks. Even more than the desert’s sun or the forest’s rain, that wind across the plains was a manifestation of pure wildness.
I loved it. December into January, I came to relish the cold, the crystalline silence, the flat gray sky and snow-draped horizon, sublime. Rather than let my heart scar over, I wanted the wind and ice to scour my soul clean, to erase every trace of who I thought I’d been. I wanted to live with simplicity and rawness, howling with coyote at a sliver of moon in the frigid pre-dawn. By February, I’d nearly become winter in Wyoming basin.
The biology technician and I continued to talk on the phone and write letters. I kept trying to describe what winter felt like, how it was changing me. I was stronger, tougher, more like ice. Cuts from Big Bend still criss-crossed my arms, but instead of blazing vividly red, they were pale, slightly shiny, fading back into my skin like dawn into day. When March rolled around, the biologist and I began discussing the upcoming summer season—would he come back to Wyoming? Could we return to places we’d shared? Discouraged by his ambivalence, I decided I couldn’t risk losing whatever it was winter had taught me. I fled Fossil Butte. South, to Black Canyon, Colorado.
WITH ITS SUPERLATIVELY deep, narrow gorge and uplands matted with tangles of scrub oak, Black Canyon was the antithesis of my spare, subtle plains. From first sight, I hated it. A few months spent fighting through thickets of scrub oak, scrambling along steep, unconsolidated slopes, and winding through tight, flood-prone ravines did nothing to help me appreciate the place, even though it contained large, remote, and ostensibly quite beautiful tracts of designated wilderness. It wasn’t until July—by which point I’d taken to sitting by the canyon’s rim, watching shadows skitter across crags, listening to the river’s thrum reverberate between rock walls—that I began to understand the park’s appeal. Slowly, slowly, two months then three, I finally found the best place from which to watch sunrise. I learned to identify constellations. I made friends with the ravens and came to an understanding with the grouse. I crossed paths with a mountain lion, who paused to glance at me with its golden eyes, then flicked its tawny tail before padding off on huge, silent paws.
The biologist, though—we continued to talk; we continued to visit. Climbing in Buena Vista. Baseball in Denver. Yellowstone for the Fourth of July. On a trip to see him back in Wyoming the first weekend of August, hours after dancing to the happy strains of Kemmerer’s bluegrass festival, he said he needed to pursue different paths and seek different experiences. (Without saying the words, he didn’t love me.)
Eternal, the drive back to Black Canyon. Meaningless empty plains and steep cruel mountains. Shadowy chasm cutting into earth’s thin skin.
As soon as I got to the park, I went to sit by an old, gnarled juniper at the canyon’s edge. Please, I asked the emptiness yawning between the cliffs, swallow my sorrow. Please, I asked the rock and sky, remind me of beauty and hope. Please, my pleas meant nothing to the silent walls of gneiss and schist, help?
My soul cracked open.
But then something new: echoes began to fill the void.
Rush and burble of the river; desperate cries of swifts and swallows. Gentle breeze, the juniper creaked. The next morning and all mornings thereafter sunlight slipped over the rim and spilled down quartz-rippled walls. Cumulus puffed into turquoise blue sky and occasionally accumulated into towering storms. Rain. Sage. Stars. By the time I left Colorado, late August, I’d become Black Canyon. I am the space between two-thousand-foot-tall walls of billion-year-old bedrock.
THIS IS HOW MY BIOGRAPHY READS: fossil-filled desert and rainforested shore; cold, bright plains and deep, dark canyon. The summer after I turned thirty, I met interior Alaska’s stolid mountains with their bears and wolves, their boggy carpets of tundra and glacial-melt rivers that literally swept me off my feet. Thirty-one, thirty-two: upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains, with their anorthosite ridges and Arctic-Alpine vegetation, their forests and ponds forever kept as wild. Thirty-three, thirty-four, such joy, such heartbreak—force of water bursting from the base of a glacier, fierceness of a momma moose protecting her calves, miracle of mist lifting to reveal a sea of blue-green peaks.
I turned thirty-five in December. Sometimes I wonder: is it time for me to stop having lonely affairs with the wild corners of the world? Am I shirking responsibility, fleeing commitment, not playing my proper role in humanity? Worse, am I not giving enough back to the wilderness—does it count, to just experience and absorb wildness? Do I need to, as Gary Snyder urges, “find [my] place on the planet, dig in and take responsibility from there”?
Probably. Eventually. For now, the more places I see, the more I love them all. The more I love them, the more I feel whole, strong, alive. Resilient, humbled, vulnerable. Wild. Free. In love.
Tyra Olstad is a writer, geographer, and former park ranger, paleontology technician, cave guide, and summit steward. In addition to one book—Zen of the Plains—she has published research articles, creative nonfiction essays, photo essays, and hand-drawn maps in a variety of scholarly and creative journals, including GeoHumanities, The Trumpeter, Orion, Written River, and Newfound. She currently teaches geography and environmental sustainability at SUNY Oneonta. Tyra is a prose editor for The Hopper.
Karen Boissonneault-Gauthier is an internationally published writer, poet, and visual artist. She has been a cover artist for Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Crack The Spine, and Wild Musette, and she has been featured in New York’s Calliope Magazine, WebSafe2k16, Toronto’s The Scarborough Big Arts Book, and New South Wales’ Long Exposure Magazine. She designs for San Francisco’s VIDA, supporting their Literacy for Life program. See more on her website kcbgphoto.com and follow @KBG_Tweets.