Friday, July 29, 2011


I found this in my email account. I don't remember when I wrote it - sometime last year, probably. I'm pretty sure this is my first attempt at writing personal essays, and, though not really a separate genre, wilderness writing.


“’I sound my barbaric YAWP!!!’”

I spat the phrase through the cold mountain air and held my breath to hear it spat right back. The sky glowed with that liminal light that suggests equally either an imminent dawn or an impending dusk. Trying to capture such unbelievable beauty on paper after the fact seems like some sort of blasphemy . . . a vain repetition of the original statement made in its creation. Yet, somehow, it feels like I have this heavy responsibility to the rest of humanity. I have to convey this experience to those poor millions who have never and will never witness a cold winter morning in Spanish Fork canyon firsthand.

Nature always makes me feel like this – like I’m supposed to tell its story, even though I’ll never really be able to. There’s some sort of divine unobtainability that at once draws me in because of its mystery, and in the same breath sends me away because I simply cannot hope to understand it. But I keep trying, because if I can convey even one tenth of the majesty of a singing waterfall, or a quivering pine, or the gasp of autumn leaves underneath a worn old hiking shoe, I’d be more than satisfied.

That’s why I started to study English. If BYU offered a “Hiking and the General Outdoors” degree, I’d be the first to sign up. But they don’t. So English seemed like the next best thing. Let me explain: Years ago when Shakespeare first created his man Hamlet, he put into his mind one question – “To be, or not to be?” He could just as easily have asked, “To write, or not to write?” For me there’s no distinction. Existence in the physical world is founded upon the idea that we are to become little gods and goddesses and also that we need some practice before we get there.

But how much practice? How many times will I cut my soft pink lungs with frigid mountain air before I can adequately describe the taste of falling snow? How many times will I scrape my skin before I can convey the smell of blood and earth through ink and paper? How many times will I see the poetry of a bird in flight before I, too, can sing his song?

Standing atop Double-O arch, I found no answers. The rocks there were warm and living, smoothed by a loving wind. A sole black raven circled overhead, reading the drafts and swimming in currents that I couldn’t see. The thermometer read as high above 50 degrees as the winter canyon read below it. Past conquerors had carved their names into the red stone, letting me know the Steve had been there, and that J. H. plus M. P. equals love forever. Were they right? Did cutting a story into stone make it any more real? Who knows if Steve had actually been there? And are J and M still in love like they promised me? A tiny trickle runs from the base of my sweating water-bottle, carving its own story into the red stone for a heartbeat or ten until it vanishes in the hot air.

Are my stories doomed to the same fate?

Walking along an Oregon seashore, I had a similar impression. Along the beach were dozens of small holes. Perfect and empty circles marring the smooth sand. I walked until I saw one that wasn’t empty. A little mound of gel sat in the middle - a dying jellyfish. Or maybe it was already dead. And I was jealous of it. Jealous of a tiny mound of goo that may or may not have (ever) been capable of thought. Jealous because even if the little thing were to shrivel up and vanish, it would still have left a mark. And maybe, in a few million years, someone would find the little depression fossilized in the sand like those from its gigantic ancestors. Someone would find it and imagine its story: how it lived in the cool Pacific waters, and how it bred and how it was finally washed up on a beach where it sat in the sun until it died. But no one would know about the 19-year-old girl who stood over him and wept at the bitterness of life and its end before taking a picture to show her sick mother.

In a way, I’m on the same plane as that jellyfish. All I envied him was the story I had created for him. In reality the waves probably erased his last resting place. And even if it did survive to become a fossil, who can guarantee that it would ever be discovered, or be recognized for what it really was? The paleontologist digging him up will never really know what it was like to be a jellyfish. All they’ll see is the hole in the ground that holds the part of him that meant nothing. They’ll see a grave where he never lived and where he was never happy.

Is this what I love? A nature that swallows up stories? An earth that erases all tales in the telling of her own? No. I love a world that lets me tell my story with her. Or, rather, I love a world that allows me to be a spot, a letter, a word, a line in the great poem of existence.

An old professor of mine once read a passage about a woman who took a walk in the woods. She wandered off the path through some autumn leaves. She stumbled and fell to her knees, hands splayed in the wet earth to catch herself. But she didn’t get up. She stayed there because that was the appropriate position for worship. I didn’t write down the author of that book, or even the title, and have since spent hours looking for those few sacred lines. But even if I never find the book again, I have something better: I have been that woman.

Perhaps her story was really mine. Maybe it was never actually written in a place that anyone would read, but it comes to people who need it. I write it in the footprints left on a dusty trail, and in the grass bent over from the weight of a sleeping-bag.

It would be wrong to say that there is no poetry in these things I do. But it would be just as wrong to say that there is none in the things I write. The French have it right when they say, “J’essaie;” Self and the written word are inseparable. I will sound my barbaric YAWP! as often as I can – and if it echoes from these pages as clearly as it does between canyon walls, well, all the better.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Foxes and Mountains

The Fleet Foxes concert last night was so beautiful. The light of the dying sun bled red and gold down the hill's face, while a warm animal breath of wind teased leaves and hair.

O my mountains!

And this video is just because I am absolutely in love with Mountain Man right now.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Well, I'm back. I've been back for a while now, but I've been feeling fairly lackadaisical about writing. What else is new?

I'm worried about falling into the pattern of so many before me, back from a different country and incapable of talking about anything but the differences between here and there. Not everyone wants to hear about how much easier it is to be a vegetarian in England, or about Poundland, or the tragic, tragic Mud-Swallow situation.

And, really, that isn't what the trip was about. My major preoccupation, of late, has been the quality of human interaction in "natural" situations. I've been reading Walden, Desert Solitaire, and Into the Wild over the last week or so, and I really am fascinated by the "Wilderness Code of Conduct." So many people advocate the embrace of solitude in Nature. And having explored my fair share of this green earth, I'd agree that Nature itself (or, grant me my personification of divine femininity, herself) is a holy thing really experienced in moments of spiritual aloneness. A unique and beautiful communion.

What I struggle to comprehend, then, is the need for other people in the wilderness. People who really do enter Nature entirely alone end up in situations like Chris McCandless or Aron Ralston. The Wild is too big to tackle singlehandedly, so we set up rules of respect for fellow wanderers and for the land itself. To anyone who has ever found their way following a small trail of cairns, you know that you are a member of a community, regardless of whether or not you literally walk alone.

Maybe that's the appeal. Nature isn't a substitute for human interaction, but a sort of preparation for it - an extended metaphor, maybe. Because while on a basic level it's one step removed from the reality of humanity, it is, by that same character, simplified. Nature doesn't send mixed signals - it speaks boldly and loudly.

I need more of that simplicity and security in my life. I'm not going to end this post (as I sincerely was tempted to do) "I am going into the wild." Instead, I'll offer a thought on the beauty of travel: The best part of going away is the coming home. Yes, I'm currently a vagabond. But aren't we all, really? I'll enjoy my few weeks of homelessness as much as I have enjoyed the rest of my 21-year period of transience. And meanwhile, I'll just imagine how nice it'll be one day to finally go back home.