Isostatic Rebound: Recovering Wildness

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isostatic rebound n. The slow rise of continental crusts after thick ice sheets recede, and the crustal rocks are freed from their massive weight. Measured in thousands of years. Also called glacial isostatic adjustment. 

Driving north to teach at Ring Lake Ranch just before Labor Day weekend, I experienced an odd phenomenon as I went over the ridge that bounds the northern edge of North Park in Colorado. It was evening and the sun was near to setting. The light over the hayfields was golden and the air still. 

As I crossed the state line into Wyoming, I let out a long sigh and relaxed. It felt as if the world had expanded, the horizons stretching away. As if a spaciousness had opened both within me and without.

The landscape didn't change much at the Colorado–Wyoming line, but something in me shifted. I couldn't explain what happened exactly or what it meant, so I pressed on. 

A little over a week later after I finished my gig at Ring Lake Ranch in Wyoming's Wind River Range, I was on my way north to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park to continue my long-term project of hand-digging invasive weeds. I stopped at a favorite spot on the northern shore of Lake Yellowstone, sat on a rock, and looked south across the wind-ruffled expanse of the lake at the wildest part of our nation's oldest national park, the Thorofare Valley.

Yellowstone Lake with the peaks of the Absarokas on the left, and the gap of the Thorofare Valley in the far distance in the middle skyline.  

I walked most of the length of that wild and remote valley on a multi-day, solo backpacking trip years ago. One noontime on that trek, I watched, fascinated, as a grizzly bear stalked a sandhill crane; on several nights, I woke to the sound of moose thrashing through willow thickets perilously close to my tent. I went several days without seeing another human. I sang a lot, and talked out loud to Sadie, the borrowed dog who accompanied me that week. 

Looking across the lake last month, I remembered clearly how it felt to be on my own in some of the biggest wild in the lower 48 states, where I was constantly alert to the world around me, acutely aware that I was really just lunch for any one of the larger predators around, whether grizzly bears, mountain lions, or whomever. And that if anything happened to me, it was likely that I'd never be found. 

I walked through those days in a state of mixed terror and exhilaration, alive in a way I only feel when I'm in the wild. Especially when I'm in the wild alone. 

Looking across the lake with the feel of fall in the air, I realized that I need more wildness in my life. Over the decades of living with and loving Richard and Molly, I put the part of me which needs wilderness aside. Neither Richard nor Molly had or have the same deep need for time in the Big Wild as I do. Their idea of wilderness is that at the end of the day, there will be a microbrewery nearby with a good selection of Belgian-style ales, a hot shower, and a real bed. 

We went on precisely one backpacking trip as a family, when Molly was four and we lived in West Virginia. It was my birthday, and I was determined to celebrate in the wildest place around, so I mapped out a three-day, two-night trip in the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area. It wouldn't offer the solitude and rugged peaks of the northern Rockies, I knew, but I figured it would at least get us out to enjoy some wild nearby. 

Richard and Molly were so miserable the first night that I took pity on us all: we packed out the next morning, stopping on the way home for a "real breakfast," in Molly's words, and "decent coffee" in the words of her dad. I tried again a few times over the years, but they simply didn't love what I love about being out and away from humans. 

So I put aside the part of me who craves time away from humanity, time to refresh and recharge in the wild, time to be fully awake and present in my moments because I am reminded vividly that I am just a meal for some larger organism... Over the years I forgot I even need that time. 

Trail Lake at dawn from Ring Lake Ranch, with the peaks of the Wind River Range framed by the glacial valley. 

Sitting on the shore of Yellowstone Lake on that breezy, chill day last month, I realized that what I felt when I crossed the state line into Wyoming was my spirit expanding to fit the wide spaces around me. Wyoming is roughly the same size as Colorado, where Richard and I lived for decades. But the human population of Colorado is over 5 million people, while Wyoming's population is now less than 600,000 people, almost an order of magnitude smaller. With fewer people on the land, Wyoming is home to multitudes of pronghorn, sage grouse, elk, mountain lions, grizzly bears, and wolves. (Not to mention all of the smaller species, also more numerous in the absence humans.)

I thought about that realization as I worked up a sweat hand-digging knapweed for the next week and some, and as I visited friends in Cody. As I drove south toward home, my charming little condo in Santa Fe, I realized that I need more space and fewer people around me. I pondered what that would look like in Santa Fe. 

I stopped on Beaver Rim with its long view of the Wind River Range and the Absarokas beyond, country that I know intimately from my fieldwork years before Richard and Molly came into my life. Taking in that long view of the country I have walked and ridden over, spending days far from roads and people, I impulsively used my phone to check the listings of houses for sale in Eldorado, a planned community with abundant open space and trails where the plains meet the mountains southeast of Santa Fe. 

The view of the Wind River Range from Beaver Rim, a long fetch of open country. 

Standing there on the ridge looking at houses for sale southeast of Santa Fe, I spotted a photo of a small, Northern-New Mexico-style house with a steeply-slanting metal roof, dormers, and a windowed sun-space for solar gain, tucked into a bit of a hollow, a bit apart from its neighbors, backed up on greenbelt. And I knew it was mine because my spirit expanded looking at the photos of that house, the way my soul opened up when I crossed the Wyoming line on the way north. 

When I got home, I called my friend and real estate agent; we laughed about my realization and how much I've moved in the past five years. Then she arranged for me to see the place. In person, I could see it needed a good bit of TLC, but not so much it frightened me. And it still felt like mine, my place of wide skies and nighttime stars, of hikes or trail rides from the house into the nearby wild ridges. I'm scheduled to close on the place I call Casa Alegria on November 1st. I'll have a little work done right away, and move in over the next week. I can hardly wait (even though I've been too busy to even pack a single box!)

It's as if I'm experiencing isostatic rebound after the losses of the last eight years: Mom, Richard, and Dad, the latter just a year ago. It's been a slow process and a lot of searching, but I feel as if in that gradual rising as the immense weight of grief melts away, I am rediscovering myself. My heart and spirit are expanding into the space I am creating. And I like the me I am finding. 

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