I try to put into words all the reasons why I am drawn to this landscape, drawn out into the spareness and rough-hewn humility of it, why I choose to live my outdoor life here and plant my home roots here. The paragraphs I’ve written over the years seem inadequate, murky, unrefined. So I’ll try again.
I was born skinny, scruffy and scrappy. I came into this world like the mule deer does, bracing against a hard wind, slick and wide eyed on knobby legs. I learned to walk. I learned to run. I’ve done my share of running. I’ve blended in and I’ve stood out, defined against the burn of the sun, sharply sky-lined in fearsome definition where the volcanic table meets the sky. I’ve been chased, I’ve had my hocks bitten but I’ve never been hamstringed. I’ve never gone down on all four knees and surrendered. I’ve fought. I’ve lived. I’ve had peaceful times too, effortless times on gentle days when the green-up is rich in my belly and warm in my blood stream.
When I look out at this land, I see a reflection of my interiors, of the topographies of my heart. I see the steppe, the grand sweep of it that looks utterly without dimension until I put my boots down it in and begin to walk, rising and falling with the sagebrush, passing through the coulees, scrambling down the rumbling cliffs, teetering for balance on the sudden edges of the canyons. I see this range relentlessly unfold into crumbling magnitude — where others see emptiness, a world without trees, a wasteland, I see thrumming life, a forest of oldgrowth sage, a complex and delicate ecosystem of critters with impossibly strong wills to survive. It’s a tough place to do our living and dying but I’m bound to it now, as a caretaker, as a keeper of the herds and the coveys. My food comes from here, this place feeds me and some day my bones will feed this place, too.
I see the hard line that falls between darkness and light, the canyon face cut in two as the dawn pierces the night. I see the river and the springs eat through stone, the inconceivable green of the seeps where they warm the winter earth and melt the snow, the lifeblood of this land, the great gatherer: water. I see all God’s creatures come and drink deeply and I drink, too.
There is a great horseshoe bend in the river, fenced on one side by walls of current-chewed stone. I sit on a rock in the center of it all, the water prattles by, swirling in and out of itself yet carried strongly in the true direction that makes it whole. Up high on the rim I see a gash in the cliff face where red mafic rock spills forth like blood that won’t clot. I am sheltered from the wind here, I shed my coat like the rattlesnakes have shed their skins on the rock shelves. I hear a canyon wren.
There’s a game we love to play when the dogs are sleeping. We choose a dog, place an article of food or a dog treat on the ground directly in front of that dog’s nose and wait and see if the scent permeates the dog’s dreams.
Today, Tater Tot hunted his heart out. He is curled up and passed out cold in the dirt beside the stove, breathing slow and heavy under the hot weight of a sagebrush fire. Robert reaches out and places a conglomerate lump of granola in front of Tater’s supernatural little nose and we sit in silence, watching and waiting, snickering to ourselves, smiling with squinty eyes at each other across the conical dark of our little home. Nothing happens. Robert grows impatient and begins to whisper at Tater. He says his name in a sing-song tone, he whispers all kinds of silly things, trying to pull Tater’s subconscious forth from the thick sand of sleep. Nothing rouses the pup. Finally I lean forward and I whisper gently, “Tater Tot, dead bird, fetch!”
Tater opens one eye, looks right at me, resembling a dragon on a hoarded bed of gold, he shifts once, catches a whiff of the granola nugget, reaches out, lips it up, crunches it once, swallows, immediately tucks his head under his rear feet and plunges back into sleep.
I slip out to pee before bed. The milky way spills forth over the canyons. The sage shudders in the wind.
While hunting last night the wind came up like a cat-of-nine-tails, raking at the grass, ripping at my vest and the damp corners of my eyes, turning the steel of my gun to ice. It was as good a place as anywhere to do my confessing, there in the spareness of tumbling and towering volcanic stone, there in my uplands cathedral. I muttered my darkness aloud to myself and the gale ripped the words from my mouth, proving their smallness, lifting the viscous spit of my black emotions into space and dissolving the wet muck of my soul somewhere in the great distance or dashing it to smithereens against the grit of dry stone. I felt the righteous violence of the air; God’s great spirit slapping my cheek while gently taking my hand to lead me forward.
The raven came over on stiff wings, tacking hard against the wind, feeling the impossible angles of the currents with every inky feather. I raised an open hand toward him, I saw him look my way and respond to my summons. He drew nearer. I spoke my prayers, bright and pure, up into the winter air and watched as he grasped them in his curved claws, carried them higher into the heavens, to deliver my praise, my joy, my gratitude, my hopes to Whom they are intended.
The clouds dropped lower, encircling basalt buttresses in ether and wisp, shrinking distances and time. A skittering of snowflakes clunked across my nose and cheeks, the hard snow of the uplands where everything spends its lifetime in toil, living so hard to thrive. I stood up straighter, my burdens dissolved. We walked on.
There was a coyote in a draw, barking at the dogs like a fellow dog, teasing them, teasing them for their tameness, occasionally breaking into a yipping howl to reveal his true nature.
There is a road less traveled, paved with thin air and pine needles; I rode it by his side, bumped up and over the pass towards the sky. There was a pool, out of the way, where the stream sliced granite, the cold water chilled deeper by conifer shadow and fern. There were fish, fractal rainbows painted with thick parr marks, spirits willing but mouths too small to swallow our flies down. There, we swam, crawled out onto the boulders, half-naked and primordial — Adam and Eve in a perfect garden for two. Time passed, every hour, every moment holy. We quit our fight against the seconds of the day, we quit our grappling with minutes lost, the hours of life were without expiration dates and we allowed them to slip, with grace, over our heads and shoulders in quiet benediction.