Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out To find a dream and a life of their own A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone Many precede and many will follow A young girl’s dream no longer hollow It takes the shape of a place out West But what it holds for her, she hasn’t yet guessed She needs wide open spaces — Wide Open Spaces, The Dixie Chicks
My summer journey is always the same. The trail climbs through deep forests of conifers, pines, birch and aspen into mountains that heave out of the ancient earth and cut across an entire horizon with jagged, saber-gray lines. The air is thin here, as elevations soar from 4,000 feet to heights almost three miles above half mile. Below these eagle’s nests of granite, an endless steppe of prairie grass sighs. It is a gulf stream of constant motion, bending and bowing to relentless winds that bullwhip down from lonely ridges and high passes. It seems that a benevolent, shadowed hand is constantly caressing this hard, muscular place.
To walk in these blue shadows is to be a character in a Russian novel, dwarfed by circumstances beyond your control, mesmerized by the sheer magnitude of nature and seduced by a relentless drumbeat whose percussion of life and death creates an irresistible cadence for every living thing.
I pass along a rapidly moving creek that disappears around a quivering stand of cottonwoods and aspen. It is a glorious day. It is a moment in time where the brief promise of wide open spaces and a chance to live more deeply intermingle and move the soul. I consider a time where there are no roads or people. It is not too hard to imagine anything here. It is the cradle of possibility.
Out west, a day is a sinewed, maverick roan that is impossible to fully tame. It is not enough just to hold on. A true westerner must dig in his spurs and bring each moment to heel. It is a land of tall tales and pregnant exaggeration that constantly antagonizes the imagination. It inspires, engulfs and transforms everything while never really changing its own relentless cycle of life.
Each summer pilgrimage to the Western mountains is a drink from the deepest and coldest of natural springs. It reminds me that I will barely bend a blade of grass in the years that I walk this earth. The great sculpted mountains endure as silent sentinels indifferent to the foibles of governments, business and individuals. When the last financial instrument or currency crumbles into dust, these massive displaced plates of earth will remain unmoved.
The West remains my reckless, wild-haired companion relentlessly tugging at my spirit and whispering to me to follow her into a twilight of mountains and high alpine meadows. Lavender lupine, blood-red paintbrush and soft purple columbine color the edges of this world. I always return to her and find myself wrapped in her swirling hot breath and relentless gaze. She is my oxygen and my midwife. Each summer, she delivers me into the world and I am reborn.
Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life. — John Muir
I am not alone in my love for the West. For centuries, people have found redemption, resurrection and rebirth in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada ranges. The Rocky Mountains of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana remain the grand portal that all Americans must navigate to find the Eden of opportunity that awaits somewhere off to the west. The Teton Valley is, by all definitions, the front door to Mother Earth herself. The cathedral of peaks known as Le Grand Teton literally translate from French to mean “the large bosom.” It is a sacred place — a gateway to Yellowstone and the northern wilderness of Montana and Canada. To the south, the peaks are called the Sangre de Cristo — the “Blood of Christ.” Native Americans drew deep satisfaction from their connections to the mountains, rivers and forests. There was a common belief that these places brought sacred connection to the Great Spirit and healed the People. The prominent Tetons were called “The Four Grandmothers Standing Tall” by the Shoshone, who saw the mountains and wide open spaces as a centerpiece to a connected ecosystem where man and nature lived in symbiotic harmony.
What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset. — Eagle Chief Letakos-Lesa of the Pawnee
There are those who come to the West wanting to become someone else and those who make a living off of being exactly who they are. A real cowboy loathes talk, loves action and speaks in grand hyperbole. “That canyon was so big, why I could yell Good morning’ at 9 o’clock at night and nine hours later, my echo would return to wake me up.” It is a kingdom of balance and diversity. The equilibrium is found in the eddies, channels and cut banks of Wyoming’s ancient Snake River that changes each day as water levels rise or fall. Balance is heard in the cries of osprey and bald eagles as they clasp cutthroat trout with black razor talons. It is fields of sage and wheat grass which move rhythmically in hot mistral winds while great moose, elk and bison move like phantoms across the grand plateau. It is the serene silence of a glacial lake fed by a thousand silver veins of frigid water as it cascades through stands of blue spruce, aspen and cottonwoods. A great owl swoops across an open marsh in search of an early dinner. A trout rises to a mayfly as the river becomes a boiling cauldron of feeding fish. A bison bays a lonely cry across an open plain. It is an anthem of renewal and return. The Tetons are the bones, skin and sinew of mother earth herself.
No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied — it speaks in silence to the very core of your being. — Ansel Adams
If a person finds cause or passage beyond the spectacular Rockies, he or she will encounter the Sierra Nevada, which stands as a serrated knife-edge before gently sloping to the San Joaquin valley and the Pacific Ocean. The Sierras explode into view from the bleak high deserts of eastern California’s Owens Valley. They are the spine of California and its headstone, marking the deep fissure of earth which was its birthplace and perhaps one day might be its epicenter of destruction, the San Andreas Fault.
The heart of this magnificent expanse of mountains is Yosemite. One of the United States’ first national parks, Yosemite is a massive national monument of polished glacial domes, snow-fed waterfalls and meadows of white-tailed deer, black bear and beaver falling like celestial steps to the deep gorges carved over thousands of millennia to become the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Photographer Ansel Adams captured the essence of this “range of light” giving physical form to the words and journals of Scottish naturalist John Muir, who viewed these mountains as his living companion.
Each western summer eventually loses its vitality and slips into a deep, frigid sleep. The first snow comes surreptitiously, scratching at cabin doors in late September, early October. Winter lingers until the rebirth of the people and the land the following June. The mountain summer never really goes away. It hangs in the air, a dusty perfume of sage and smoke that instantly reminds of warmer days and greener grass. She is our past, present and future all intertwined across a horizon of wide open spaces.