Pasayten Wilderness, Washington State, October 1991:
“Hiking Haystack Mountain, I follow my shadow down a trail of loose rock and horseshit, coming to a place I didn’t mean to find. I meant to wind up at the summit or somewhere else on the ridge now behind me. Keep going to that better place along the curving trail. Not here where a small bird glows silver as it flies between conifers…”
Twenty years later, I sit in my writing room, read an old journal, try to remember that place, that day, but I’ve walked many trails.
“I drop my pack and sit where winter sunlight warms rock. A white moth alights on a stone and opens its wings to the sun. A chipmunk stops, then races with tail held high into a patch of shooting stars. The purple flowers crumble like parchment… If I continued on I could find that other place, that better place, that right place…”
When I wrote that, only a few years had passed since I put a continent between me and my upstate New York home, where friends and family swore they knew everything about me, no surprises to ponder, no questions to ask. I left believing that with the freedom of a fresh start, I’d find my true self in a new place.
“As I sit in this place, at this moment, the world is spinning on its axis, shooting out and returning in an elliptic orbit around the sun. That sun has its trail through the galaxy. That galaxy takes its own journey. There is no other place like this, no moment like this. But it’s not my place. What’s that green lichen slowly spreading across shadowed rocks? What snapped that twig? What red spider, no larger than the point of my pen, scurries across the page? What’s humming, for just a moment, as it travels through this silence? Perhaps if I knew, I’d have my place…”
Sitting in that sharp sunlight, I paid my freedom’s price: loneliness. What’s “place” but a fancy word for home? What’s home without spouses and lovers, friends or foes, children, neighbors, colleagues, strangers and everyone else moving through life with you? If I didn’t have a place where I was known, then I wanted to know where the wind blew, what tracks crossed the trail, an encyclopedic knowledge that could conceal how out of place I was.
“There are the names, of course, but I want something more, an older, deeper knowledge…”
Now my three-year-old daughter pushes my door open. So many trails; did I find that better, right place? Not if it means knowing everything living here beside me. Home is simply where I choose to stay and figure it out. I try to find my freedom in the weathered intimacy that grows after sharp questions overturn familiar ground, and a wilderness of possibilities takes root. And so my daughter and I explore wolf fur kept in a Tibetan bowl, brittle pinecones, and six black feathers, each with oblong white markings, that I found the day I buried an old friend. I want to tell her what bird it’s from, but is she old enough to be introduced to field guides, binoculars, this vast world we walk through?
My daughter pulls my hand. I shut my old journal. I open the door. Isn’t it too soon for her to seek her place? Or are we always doing that, no matter how happy we are? A good home nurtures a question, or two, or more. Keeps the place from getting boring.