I got a text a few months ago from my sister, a senior in high school, asking me, “What is the American Dream?” At the time, I was splint-taping my bruised and swollen fingers, fingers that barely had the dexterity to punch out my reply: “The American Dream is dead.”
I was midway through my first trails project as a crew member with the American Conservation Experience in Buckskin Mountain State Park in Arizona. The project had taken its toll on me mentally and physically. We were camped out for eight days at the park-affiliated campground, which straddles the Arizona/California border and is apparently the desert destination for the noisiest, most obnoxious motorized recreation equipment money can buy. The park knew its constituents well; the “campground” stretched its irrigation piping and yellow lines far beyond the paved compound, all the way out to the highway.
Our tents were set up unceremoniously behind the lavatory (complete with a half-dozen hot-water showers) on a plush plot of green, a selfless gift on behalf of the mighty, though dwindling, Colorado River, adjacent. I was fresh off nearly six straight months of wielding a chainsaw for ecological restoration projects—felling stringy, matchbox ponderosa pines in overcrowded stands, dirtying up a chain in the hairy belly of saltcedar along the San Pedro River—doing work that I felt really mattered, that felt somehow disentangled from the consumerist American dream of life.
My American dream is no dream at all. It is the stark reality of a freely flowing river, a banner of stars and the smeared cream of the Milky Way overhead. I’ve found myself living at the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, and in the remote fissures of the Absaroka Mountains in the Washakie Wilderness of Wyoming.
My last night at Buckskin, I dreamt of waking to a dry Colorado River.
For the past three years, I’ve threatened my own social accessibility and mental stability by experimenting with wildness, both physically and philosophically. It began the summer of 2014, when I moved in with my grandparents on their ranch outside of Cody, Wyoming, in the heart of the Absaroka Mountains. Born and raised in the suburban Midwest, I transitioned directly from one dream to another. I can compare my development and exposure to life to that of a piece of steel — molten, impressionable, oblivious in the safety of suburbia, then dunked, subdued and set in the cooling waters of wildness.
My American dream is no dream at all. It is the stark reality of a freely flowing river, a banner of stars and the smeared cream of the Milky Way overhead.
How do people go about deepening a story they don’t know the beginning of?
I’ve contemplated the conception of my wildness stranded up the cliff-embanked Castle Creek with my dog, Mesa. I found only my body, as a vessel for life. Shouting for direction in the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, I heard only dizzy distortions of the same question, intensified, echoed back to me a thousandfold.
I’ve found more direct answers in far less isolating, intensive pursuits. While reading D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow in Chaing Mai, Thailand, the roar of a million motorbikes faded to a nearly inaudible hum—I found my life revealed, clearly, in the character of Will Brangwen. Terry Tempest Williams’ words have woven together my own strangled thought-feelings of love and life—love of life. And Ed Abbey, the barbaric, masculine, self-critical genius, sat around the campfire with us that cold winter night in the Colorado mountains, sharing a bottle of cheap whisky and sentiments.
As I write this under the straggle-limbed influence of a richly ridged cottonwood trunk, I feel the changing of seasons. Bursts of life flurry forth in the late autumn of Pinedale, Wyoming. Reds, yellows, and oranges, painted over pockets of north- and northeast-bearing foothills, glow down on the bony streams, still recklessly teeming with feeding moose, thirsty willows and rising trout. The congregating sandhill cranes are a friendly reminder that livestock aren’t the only beneficiaries of alfalfa hay fields.
Recently, with more dexterous fingers and an evolving earth-humanist mindset, I redefined the American dream for my little sister, and for myself. That first summer in the Absarokas, when the roots of my passions were exposed, ugly notions of humanity arose with them and prompted subsequent hermitage, isolation, and varying states of misery. In disengaging so viciously with my upbringing, I neglected to address the innocent human tendencies that evolved from wildness to form the foundation of a (distorted) sense of place, community, home, in my Midwestern upbringing.
I was dreaming of a wilder world, a world in which I was not fully engaged.
The American dream is, in fact, dead. The American life awaits living—in the abundance of life’s forms, in the shared company of kindred spirits, in a place called “home.”
This essay originally appeared in High Country News, where it won the 2018 Bell Prize for young essayists.