I’ve been joking at work lately that I need an upgrade to my short term memory. I’m really good at writing things down, which has been even more critical lately since I struggle to remember the details of meetings I had just a week or two prior – there are so many incoming data pieces, decisions, challenges and threads of conversation. My home life is just as complicated and interwoven. I rarely drop balls and I usually try to be as reliable as sunrise, but before I left I failed to communicate to my husband that a) I had people ready to take our farm share b) he needed to feed the neighbor’s guinea pig. (You’ll all be happy to hear that Nova was just fine, since it turned out our neighbor’s plans had changed.) I find such lapses in myself deeply disturbing. There are many things and people that rely on my reliability.
When I landed in Washington for a week and a half of desperately needed vacation, I felt a great burden temporarily lifted. For a few days, I was beholden to no one but myself, responsible for nothing but myself. Of course, myself had planned a rather rigorous agenda of activities, but the price of failure was only my own disappointment.
That first day we landed, tired and thinly spread, I went by myself up the winding mountain roads to Longmire to stake my claim on a piece of the mountain for two nights. And I found myself considering how my wonder and awe had been eroded over the years. Here I was, three thousand miles from the point I had awoken in the morning. Here I was, in the home of my heart looking at the great giant trees who have stood sentinel for longer than the age of a civilization. Here I was, on the exposed bones of a giant volcano fire-God, now sleepily wreathed in ice. And where was my mind and heart? Everywhere but here. I watched my attention flitter and fly like the most frivolous child, returning not to amazement, awe and gratidutude, but rather to the mundane, mean and platitude.
I thought about how my mind used to be, as a kid. I know that I didn’t spend as much time in nature as my memory and stories would make it out to be. But yet. I also know how it feels to break a dandylion stem, and have the slick mucilagenous ichor of that hollow frame slide beneath my fingers. I know the best way to walk only moderately sliced into a blackberry bramble to attain the ripest fruits. I know not only how the underside of a sword fern looks, but how its octopus-sucker spores feel rough and unmoving to the touch. And I know that in comparison to the high-growing bracken fern, sometimes taller than my youthful head, hiding dens of small girls and deer under shadowing leaves. When I was young, I really saw. And I was awed and amazed that I was *here* and got to see *this*.
For years coming home, my passions for place and awe would fly home with me – like an ancient Icarus able to take wings and fly across the clouds with a pace nearly as fast as the setting sun t chased. I was back. I was home. Here was that one Starbucks I’d loved as a girl. Here the view of Mt. Rainier that had stricken my heart with its beauty. But in recent years, that sense of wonder has dimmed. I’ve chased sunset and sunrise across the continent too many times to be impressed with it anymore. I’ve risen on one continent to sleep on another a few too many times. There are too many Starbucks, and their sugary drinks are less interesting to me. The mountain is hard to see in this hazy, fire-strewn sky.
And this year, for the first time, I saw that distance and lack of awe and was greatly grieved by it. There is no gain to such a loss of marvel.
As a parent, I’m a huge proponent of the “growth mentality” – which echoes that ancient thought that we are less who we are born to be and more who we choose to be. Driving highway 12 past the firs and vine maples, I made and affirmed my decision to be a person who notices. A person who sees things. And a person who marvels at their beauty.
By the time I got to Longmire, I had stilled my attention enough and awoken my wonder sufficiently that the rangers asked if I was ok. Something of it was showing on my face, I think. With a back country permit in hand, I slowly slowly walked the Path of Shadows, to remind myself. I sat still and looked at the lovely framing of Mt. Rainier by Rampart Ridge – made of the volcanic floes stopped by glacial ice. I smelled the sulfur of the hotsprings. I touched the broad needles of the fir with familiar fingers. I contemplated the daytime darkness of the preserved cabin. I marveled at the craftsmanship still on display in the round river stones used to for the wells – themselves harkening back two thousand years to Greek baths. I listened to silence, and I made the silence play in my head.
Two mornings later I awoke late and gazed at the most glorious beauty on my way to the high latrine. I looked over this mountain valley in the few glorious weeks in which it is open and unsnowed and covered by flowers. In that entire valley were only two humans living, myself and my son. And my heart was filled with wonder. He walked with me around that lake, and we sat on the far side, perched on warm rocks above the clearest of mountain pools. He told me his favorite hymn, which is also mine. And we sang it together. And my heart was filled with love and awe.
I am down off that mountain now. Into the clarity and quiet of that mind, I have put in the highest art. I have filled my eyes, my ears and my mind with new materials (even as I have filled my lungs with smoke and my belly with good foods). Sitting under the ancient ponderosa pines near the babble of ash-filled Lithia Creek, I am readying myself to return to that world where my mind is too small to hold all it needs to hold, and my attention is bespoke by the employer who makes such cross-country jaunts possible in the first place.
As I go to close the book on my vacation, and lay down both the mountains and the Muir, I hold firm to the ground I have reclaimed. I will be and wish to be that person who notices, who marvels, who takes the time to see and know how astonishing and lovely this world is.