One of the best ways to get to know a place–if you can’t live there and immerse yourself in its textures, rhythms and tastes, the cycles of its seasons, its sounds and smells, its characters and their stories–is to find a reliable guide. Not necessarily someone who has studied the place and can discourse exhaustively. Someone who has come by their knowledge by experience, some of it perhaps hard-won, some ruminated over for years, some in a burst of light as brilliant and deadly as lightning spearing down from a summer thundercloud. Recently, I’ve come across books by two writers who are just those kinds of guides to two very different terrains: Living on Wilderness Time by Melissa Walker, an exploration of wilderness in America, and Where the Crooked River Rises by Ellen Waterston, a portrait of central Oregon’s lonely high desert country.
At age 51, Melissa Walker, an English professor, wife and mother of two grown children, woke from a nightmare about trying frantically to catch a plane after having lost her ticket, a nightmare where “a faceless woman handed me a piece of paper with the words ‘Hurry up and die,’ scrawled across it in longhand,” realizing,
“The more I hurried the closer I came to–what? Death? I took a deep breath. I’d been in a hurry all my life. And if hurry wasn’t killing my body, it surely was killing my spirit.”
So the Georgia native whose father loved to tramp in the woods, whose mother taught her her to pay attention to birds, and whose grandmother was a proper southern lady who “secured her silk dresses at the throat with a diamond bar pin” and also loved to fish and camp, set off to liberate herself by exploring the nation’s wilderness system–alone.
Living on Wilderness Time chronicles the months Walker spent on the road traveling from Alaska and California to the borderlands of Arizona and New Mexico, from the high peaks of the Rockies in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana to Florida’s tangled swamplands. The object of study–the American wilderness system–became the teacher, showing Walker who she is and what she loves, forcing her to face and live with her fears and to trust her instincts, whether about camping alone, meeting moose and grizzly bears, or about how to live, period. Along the way, Walker falls in love–with every wilderness area she visits–and emerges changed, recognizing her limits,
“Loving is meaningless until it turns into action, and that morning [in the Gila Wilderness] I knew that in the time I had left on this earth, there was only so much I could do, only so much I could love. It was time to choose with care.”
Where Walker searches for herself in wilderness, Waterston looks for her place in the territory she has come to claim as home, one of the West’s “great empty” places, a sea of sagebrush most people drive through in a hurry, eager to get somewhere (else). In Where the Crooked River Rises, she paints a portrait of the high desert country from multiple perspectives, as a rancher–that “eastern” girl who came west with her husband and ran the old Hackleman Place on the Crooked River of the book’s title; as a mother who bore and raised her children there; as a “desert rat” who eventually came to see the desert as teacher, as she writes in the Prologue:
“I have found this Great Basin to be at times, a harsh teacher, but it has also been compassionate, humble, loving and in love, straight up and forward, all the things I strive to be in any given day. … This high desert land repeatedly reminded me that my trajectory is one among many, not to take it too seriously. … To frame every wish as a prayer. To say thank-you more than anything else, no matter what. The sermon is not new, but the preacher, in a cassock woven of pumice and rabbitbrush and bunchgrass and volcanic rubble, is unexpected.”
A thread of regret, of pain, of loss–of home and voice–runs through Where the Crooked River Rises from Waterston’s own history in this high and harsh and unexpectedly beautiful landscape. It’s not the main subject of any of these immensely readable pieces, but it is one of the gifts that makes this collection so thoughtful, so deep and so wide.
On a personal note: Richard’s recovering well from the latest brain surgery of less than two weeks ago. He’s juggling, doing yoga, fixing things around the house, and resting and meditating. And we’re considering our options, beginning with a consultation with his radiation oncologist this Tuesday. Life continues, one grace note at a time.