Earlier this summer my family traveled West. Colorado, Wyoming and Utah – we passed through each on our Wild West adventure. I’ve gazed into the Grand Canyon and I’ve walked among the Redwoods in California, but this was my first experience with Rocky Mountain wilderness. While beautiful, immense, natural, wild, powerful, all come to mind as perfectly acceptable adjectives to describe this place, the one speaking to my experience is surprise.
I didn’t expect the air to be so extremely thin in Denver or in the Arapaho National Forest and found myself gasping for breath most embarrassingly. I was happily surprised to encounter both scorching heat at the Red Rocks and snow on the mountains in the same day. When buffalo in Yellowstone walked so near our car that I could have touched their shaggy backs, I was incredibly startled. Tall, thin pine trees like spikes on mountains rising quite suddenly from the plains of Wyoming made my heartbeat quicken. Unexpectedly, an overwhelming sense of sadness and dread filled my heart while peering out at Denver from Buffalo Bill’s grave.
Of the unexpected, it was the emotional response to the wilderness and to the West, which surprised me the most. The West stirred a deep sense of powerlessness, which was not unexpected; odes to the Purple Mountain Majesties prepared me for an awesome and sublime nature built to intimidate and impress. The nagging and continuous sensation that we have irrevocably destroyed something far greater than ourselves was, however, quite surprising. John Muir wrote of the wild, “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” A melancholy harmony to my adventure’s boisterous melody, I could not shake the feeling that all I was experiencing – however grand – was a tattering thread in a much larger tapestry. From Natives to nature, the West is a checkerboard of reservations and preservations; a shout into an abyss of loss.
Yet, out of that chasm comes dizzying happiness. As travel can have both moments of inspiration and those of heartbreaking disappointment, so did the West conjure complete bliss while maintaining a pensive undertone. While hiking to Taggart Lake in the Grand Tetons, I moved at a slower pace than the rest of the group. Occasionally tripping over roots or rocks, I gazed up wondering if the leaves were green or yellow; they are an innumerable cascade of colors in-between. The air was the absolute definition of crisp – and perhaps a little too thin – and I breathed it in deeply. I was giddy, from lack of oxygen perhaps, but I was immersed in a world unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The blue and grey mountains through white peeling trunks, an icy river tumbling down behind me, it was the essence of freedom. No trucks rumbling nearby on a highway, no airplanes streaking through the sky, only deeper into that blissful wilderness where so many travelers before me have fallen in love with Mother Nature. The Mountains gave me pure joy and unadulterated thrill that day – surprising me at every turn with a new smell, a different tree, and especially, an undeniable sense of connectedness.
About the West I can say this: the American West is the last bastion of wildness, but it is more than that. It is home for millions of beings. It is our humanity. While so much of the natural world and indigenous lands cannot be reclaimed, the West stands not only as the important memorial to our dark past but it is Hope. Hope that we enjoy and thrive, but never let the melancholy harmony completely fade away.