A few years ago my ex-girlfriend and I backpacked through a spot called Red Box Canyon in the Angeles Forest. When we got to our campsite we took mushrooms and fucked and pranced around the forest and the river with the sun watching above. I was pretty sure the shrubs along the ridge were dinosaurs. She was sure the world itself was simply one stage among many in the history of the universe.
My experience wasn’t far off. I remember the darkness of the river and the roots of the trees that wound their way into goblin shapes and prancing faeries. I remember how good the sun felt when I escaped the constrictive water and was set free in a field beneath the sky. Those are simple memories. Highlights really. Like pictures of pretty places in a photo book. They aren’t what you took away from the experience, just reminders that you were there.
The place instead felt like home. It felt comfortable and safe. Familiar. That’s what I took away from it all. We could have built a cabin and lived there till the end. I wonder if that’s the feeling old settlers went for when trekking across the old west. I don’t know.
I felt that feeling three times in the last year. Three very specific moments. The first was in Tanzania. I had already climbed Kilimanjaro. I had already stepped off the airplane and watched 150 foot high dust devils whizz across the African plain. This was something else entirely. We pulled up to the end of a ridge on our first day on safari and I stepped out of the truck and looked across Ngorongoro Crater. It looked familiar. It looked warm. Despite the elephants and the lions and the hippos that populated this small little spot in the country, it looked safe. What I wouldn’t give for a chance to stuff my backpack with a tent and a bearbox and wander around that country. It felt like home.
The second was only a few days in to my hike across the Sierra along the John Muir Trail. For two days I had been trapped in Yosemite. The first leg of the trip was unsettling. The mountains peer over the trail like parents at a kid’s birthday party. If you’ll let me stretch the metaphor a bit too far: they’re like that person at a party who demands all the attention. Even if they’re funny and charming and entertaining, after awhile you just want them to shut up so you can do your own thing. That’s what this part of Yosemite was like. There of four “views” demanding my eyes at all times–beyond that not much room for anything else.
This didn’t last forever. There was a wonderful moment when I climbed out of the valley up the first pass where the entire world opened up into a great range of mountains and a flat green meadow that looked like, if nothing else, an oasis. It was glorious. It was the first time I smiled the entire trip. Before this I had felt homesick, a bit lonely, a little sad, and intensely claustrophobic. I hiked down the pass into the meadow where I had planned to camp–High Sierra Sunrise Camp it’s called. I could have built a cabin there and taken up smoking cigars and grown big shoulders and back muscles from chopping wood and heaving around cast iron skillets.
The third was near the end of the trip as I approached the junction for Whitney. I remember the spot exactly. I had left Tyndall Creek that morning where a friend I had met on the trail, Vincent, was delayed by his customary morning stretches. The country there was open and yet narrow. From Forrester Pass we looked south to the rugged, toothy rises of the Kaweahs. Somewhere to the East was Whitney and the rest of the Sierras but we couldn’t see them. A couple miles south of Tyndall Creek I stepped onto the Bighorn Plateau. Though the world before this was high and rugged and rocky, full of occasions above treeline in country that resembled a silver Mars more than anything else, this was the first such place that was so open and expansive. It stretched in all directions. The picture makes it look bleak, desolate, but I assure you it was anything but. It was the third spot. My third home away from home. A place I could have built a cabin and retired.
I’m not sure exactly what draws these three spots together. Some of it is the timing. One spot was influenced by mushrooms. The other by it’s proximity to the beginning of a big trip. The last by it’s proximity to the end. Beyond that, there was something else. They were all a place my eyes could put their feet up.
© 2014 Christopher Dart