A few months ago, after 20 years, I moved from the West to the East, reluctantly, carting a truckload of artifacts and memories, literal stones and actual stories, each one a product of the forests, mountains or deserts of Bend, Oregon; Missoula, Montana; Argenta, British Columbia, and beyond.
My little 4-cylinder truck labored under the load, beetling along the Hi-Line out of Montana, looking like a cross between the Beverly Hillbillies and the Road Warrior. It was a tough go for that truck, 20 years old itself, but it was nothing compared to the weight that hung in my heart.
Having grown up in the East, I’d fallen in love with the West, unknowingly, as it turned out: fallen in love with every last stereotype and square inch of wide-open space and sky. I had honest-to-goodness horse crap on my honest-to-goodness cowboy boots (I myself am a fraud) and I didn’t ever want it rubbed or washed off. The West gets into you this way, takes hold of you like that — so deep and dirty and honest and clean that you can’t picture yourself anywhere else. I know I can’t. Still can’t. And I’m already here: and gone.
Traveling into North Dakota, on into Wisconsin and eventually to the uphills of Michigan, into trees that looked like some high school kid had swallowed a handful of mushrooms and gone after the forests with a fistful of highlighters, I had time to think about all I was leaving behind and why it affected me so. I’d come to love the place, surely, but I wanted to know why.
What was it about the West that had me so torn-up about leaving? I’d said goodbye to friends — and that was a loss I was mourning — but that’s not what I was thinking about as the Rockies fell away in my rearview mirror, as the sun set where it’s supposed to and I wasn’t there underneath it looking up. It was the loss of a landscape I was feeling, an end, pointed even as I was in the direction of perpetual beginnings.
It wasn’t until I hit Fenton, Michigan, that I knew. I pulled into the Holiday Inn Express parking lot, a desert of tar with not a stitch of worthwhile horizon to be seen. This after camping for the previous week — no tent, just a sleeping bag under a pot-lid of sky shot through with so many stars it was more white than black. With a coat-collar swear I huffed my road weariness across the blacktop and knew for a fact that there wasn’t a patch of grass within 1,000 miles that knew my tread. I had no relationship to anything I could see — and that’s when I knew.
We are creatures of intimacy. That’s what every relationship is about, even the sexual ones, even the bad ones. We all want to be loved and we all want to love. Intimacy is knowing someone, knowing them well, and knowing a place, a landscape, is no different. It’s analogous to home. We are sheltered by knowledge; knowledge provides safety. And I had come to know a place — imperfectly, poorly in many regards — but with real appreciation and dare I say devotion. Place, in many ways, defines us.
I couldn’t call myself a Westerner, not with a capital W, not with a straight face, and not to the ranchers I knew. But I knew, too, that you didn’t have to be a fifth-generation cowpoke or full-blood Native American to love the land and know it and call it your own.
I knew Argenta, British Columbia, because I knew every deer trail that linked every deer trail that linked every home in that off-the-grid hippie refuge of a glorious place.
I knew Potomac, Montana, because I knew at every hour of the day the exact shade and slant of light against the two big ponderosa pines that stood outside my cabin, knew the trees at 6 p.m., 6 a.m., and midnight.
And I knew Bend, Oregon, because sober or drunk I could fall off my bike and recognize the volcanic dust ground into my arm. That’s what landscape is. That’s what knowing a place is. It’s not just loving it. It’s not just liking it. It’s being able to predict when the osprey that nests over the river will be back. And getting it right.
Charles Finn is the editor of High Desert Journal. In affiliation with High Country News.