I was doing my fifth circuit of the small city park when I spotted the woman with the snow-white hair. She was holding a small child up to one of the hardy desert pine trees that punctuate the perimeter. As I power-walked by, the wild-haired little thing gave a cry of delighted wonder. She slapped the bark of the tree and kicked the trunk with her small, ineffectual foot. I left the two of them looking up in wonder through the needled branches.
I was happy to think of the myriad pleasures and lessons from Nature that the child would, like all of us, go on to experience. And I delved into the depths of my own memory to recall the time in my youth when I first confronted Nature as a wondrous, awe-inspiring force.
I was five when my parents piled my four siblings and me into their pink and white, jet-ship of a Dodge and relocated us from Minnesota to Phoenix Arizona. It was July of 1961. Of that trip, I mostly remember being condemned for three endless days to the middle of the back seat between my two brothers and older sister. Yet, my first intimations of the power of Nature date to that first remembered journey: my mother pointing to the sky on a midnight rural highway in North Dakota, calling us to “Look!” as shimmering curtains of emerald and gold rippled across the heavens; my brother Jack at age ten standing dangerously close to the edge of a precipice in the Rockies, below which sheer walls of pine-encrusted rock cascaded down and down and down to a winding thread of river; a sea of buffalo and choreographies of antelope under immense skies, clouds sailing above like voluminous ships.
Over the next decade and a half, we made the round trip from Arizona to my parents’ home towns in North Dakota three or four times. Eventually it was just my twin and me in the back seat, equipped with Almond Joys and Paydays, Juicy Fruit and Spearmint gum, Planters peanuts and playing cards. Up and back on different routes, passing from Arizona into Utah or New Mexico, on to Colorado, through Nebraska or Wyoming, and then into South Dakota. For three days we journeyed, straight as an arrow over flat eternities of desert; skirting towering rock formations and deep, layered, chromatic terraces; climbing vertiginous, pine-ridged Colorado peaks and plunging precipitously into cool, deep valleys. After the mountains and meadows of South Dakota, the fecund farmland of North Dakota finally welcomed us into her ample arms, her prairies rippling to the horizon like the gentle swells of an infinite sea.
I will be thankful always to my parents for giving those experiences to me. I am sure no one needed to educate them on the importance of taking their children out into nature.
I had a chance to revisit those vast, dramatic landscapes last August, when my North Dakota cousin Tommy invited me along to ride shotgun in a car he’d bought in Arizona and wanted to drive back up north. Tommy is a talented photographer, so I’ll retrace that trip photographically with you here. Note that there are no cute and furry creatures—I dislike anthropomorphizing animals. (Though I admit to taking multiple shots of a pair of mountain goats in the Black Hills the year before on a trip with my sisters.)
This short tour of the West and the flash that follows were inspired by this week’s prompt from Carrot Ranch: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about wild spaces. Is it a wilderness or a patch of weeds in a vacant lot that attract songbirds. What is vital to the human psyche about wild spaces? Bonus points for inducing something cute and furry.
The post and flash were also triggered by the ache in my heart for those separated from the beauty of nature. The shells and tiny mouse skull in that very top photo were collected by my son, now serving time in a minimum security prison on a drug-related charge. On trips we took to the coast years ago, he was always the one to find unbroken anemones or sand dollars, buffed and scoured sea glass, even a melon-sized moon snail in Washington that, much to the consternation of the park ranger, he began to dig up before he realized the shell was still occupied. Always an avid naturalist by instinct, his world has shrunk to a stark space devoid of all natural grace except wind, flat land stretching to the horizon, and sunlight. Even the stars at night are drowned in the glare of megawatt lights.
But not for long…
Here’s a flash on nature…
He didn’t look back. Not as he walked to the car. Not as we circled back onto the highway. Behind us the towers melted into the horizon.
The road steepened. Pines appeared, grew thick, drank the sunlight. Outside a mountain town we stopped.
Resin and rain keened the air. Wind soughed in the high branches.
I waited while he walked into a clearing. He tilted his head. Palmed the rough bark. Drank the sweet air. When he returned, needles fell from his hair.
“Any place you want to stop?” I said.
“Nah,” he said, looking straight ahead. “I’m fine.”