Under the Sun (May 29, 2021)
On the Van Galder Bus
Belt Magazine (Oct 15, 2020)
Under the Gum Tree, issue 35 (Spring 2020)
The Coachella Review (Winter 2019)
Flyway (July 2018)
The Ambassador and the Assassin
Under The Sun, issue 6 (May 2018)
TriQuarterly, issue 149 (Winter/Spring 2016)
Things That Matter
So To Speak, 2015-2016 Contest Issue
A Ring of Bells
The Gettysburg Review, Summer 2014
Chautauqua, issue 11 (2014)
American Athenaeum, Summer 2013
Apeiron Review, May 2013
The Commons, May 1 2013
Wisconsin Trails, May/June 2012
Wisconsin Pubic Radio March 14, 2012
Ninth Letter, Fall/Winter 2005
Learning to Ski Skate
Silent Sports, December 1998
First published in Chautauqua, issue 11 (2014).
The journal can be ordered here.
By the time I was eight, I had lived in eight different places in three different countries, including Nigeria, where my father held various British and Nigerian government postings; Ireland, where his parents lived; Bristol, in southwest England; Banstead, a suburb of London; and Ellesmere, a small market town in Shropshire, in the rain-shadow of the Welsh mountains. Growing up, I had no sensory continuity of place; my earliest memory is of a room that seemed unaccountably dark, cold and dingy. The blazing light of my first three years in Africa must be imprinted somewhere in me, but it is measured only by its absence: the lack of light in the flat we moved to in Bristol in 1963, one of the coldest winters on record in Britain. From as far back as I can remember I was already painfully conscious of being someone from elsewhere, someone who didn’t exactly belong where she lived.
As a young child, I took my body’s movement for granted because I had never thought enough about it to notice how well it worked. The only parts of it I had paid much attention to were my knees, which were visible every time I looked down and which came up under my nose when I sat down and hugged them. They were round and rough and smelled of grass and air for much of the year. My legs carried me everywhere I felt like going. The oldest child in the family, and tall for my age, I could almost keep up with my father on the days we spent out on the mountains after we moved to Shropshire. I used to enjoy the way my limbs tingled in the car as he drove us home afterwards down the narrow, winding lanes that led out of the vertiginous green hills of Wales and back into England.
On summer evenings when I was eight or nine years old, my brother and I often stayed out until dusk, roaming the wild land on the other side of the road, which was full of long, yellow grasses and an alluring octagonal summer house with red tile floors and a painted wooden seat that ran all the way around the inside. We were irresistibly drawn to the place, abandoned in the overgrowth at the top of a hill. I imagined beautiful women in long, white muslin dresses reading leather-bound novels and gazing out soulfully into the distance. But the jeweled casement windows lay smashed to pieces on the floor, along with cigarette butts of mysterious origin, and there was graffiti scrawled on the disintegrating plaster of the walls.
After inspecting all this in silence, we would wander away and play on the hill, hurling ourselves tirelessly off the summit and landing deep in the soft, red sand on the side of the slope, until our shoes and underwear were full of it. Or we would run home and roll sideways down the steep knoll behind the garage. Our house lay next to the churchyard, fast asleep among its listing, somber yew trees and lichen-etched tombstones. We knew that the vicar, a jowly, stony-faced man, disapproved of our playing on land that belonged to the church, but it never deterred us. We would whirl round with our arms stiff by our sides, accelerating, shrieking and giggling, until we were dizzy, grass-stained and incoherent with happiness. We felt drunk with motion, the smell of the earth and the grass at dusk, and a tiny bit guilty about having flattened the crocuses that grew there.
When I left home at nineteen, it was because of the lack of movement. I suffered from an excess of mental and physical energy, all of which, I believed, were slowly being dammed up by the conventions and expectations for young women in stolid, rural Shropshire in the seventies. The wild land across the road had been bulldozed flat and converted into a tarmac cul-de-sac lined with prim houses. Family life had become fraught with conflict, and we went on fewer hikes in the mountains with my father. The week-long school mountaineering trips he led in the Scottish highlands were for boys only, so my younger brother could go with him, but I was excluded. I knew all the walks I could do from town by heart, and I was tired of padding tamely through the mud along the milky tea-colored canal that flowed noiselessly through town, navigated only by the odd barge put-putting along in clouds of diesel smoke. At home, I sometimes felt as if I were slowly suffocating in the stillness, the utter silence. On Sundays, when a post-lunch stupor had descended on the family, I would gaze out of the kitchen window onto the garden, utterly motionless and silent, as if the whole place had slowly gelled or congealed like the gravy from the roast. Even the wind had nodded off. Green and grey seemed then the colors of imprisonment.
In the course of the next decade I moved to Spain to work as an au pair; to Cambridge to study foreign languages at university; to France to work for a British company; and eventually to the United States as a graduate student. There, a predictable series of things happened: I met someone, decided to stay, married. Despite the growth that moving brings, with the move to a different continent I knowingly took on permanent grief over my separation from England and my first family, grief that my life at the time did not permit much time to explore. By my late twenties, I had a 200-mile round-trip commute from my home in Wisconsin to a job I didn’t like in Illinois. I hated the enforced stillness of being locked in my seat at the steering wheel, driving across the denuded plains. Whenever I had time, I would go out and ride my bike, awash with relief and pleasure, thirty, forty, fifty miles, looking for hills. Only by physically moving, working my body hard by biking, walking or swimming, could I gain relief from stress or distress.
In my early thirties, however, my body—or my mind—demanded that I stop moving so fast, learn how to slow down: one day, walking out the door to go to work, I was struck by a lightning pain in my back so intense I couldn’t breathe, pain that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was only a muscle spasm, but a powerful one. For months after that, I was in pain; movement became rationed. For the next decade or so, my back muscles took to surprising me with random contractions so fierce that every time they struck I was left virtually crippled for days. Over time, I arrived at a certain cautious familiarity with it. When lightning struck, I listened and obeyed. I froze, held still, and waited for recovery.
Then the pain migrated from my back to my knees, like the “wandering womb” that the ancients believed to be the cause of hysteria. One summer, both of my knees started hurting, badly. Nothing was visibly wrong with them on any scan—none of the usual, fixable or unfixable things. No arthritis, no ACL tears, no meniscus problems. I spent months in physical therapy, but still had to abandon a long-planned, glorious hike across Britain from coast to coast when my knees gave up the ghost half way. The following year, the pain disappeared from my knees, and moved to my head. I began to have chronic migraines that have ramped up in severity and duration. Physical exercise is one of the triggers. It doesn’t stop me, but it is a price I have to pay for joy.
Movement of any kind is precious to me now, a quarter century later. The shining physical world that was so limitless before is now bounded by caution and uncertainty. I have to value what I have, when I have it, and live for the power and the glory of those moments when I can hurl myself headlong into bodily motion—on foot, on skis, on a bike, or in water. For I have a built-in restlessness. If I can’t exercise my body as well as my mind, I begin to feel cooped up, even slightly ill. An urge to get moving wells up in me every day, too powerful to ignore. An hour of exercise will do, but longer is better. I seem to be physiologically programmed for endurance activities; I start slowly, but gain energy as I go. I usually feel better—more alive, more alert, more content—right away, and the effect lasts for the rest of the day. There’s a sense of relief and familiarity, inhabiting my own limbs again, a joy at feeling my heart start to pump faster. On one level, I envy people who can sit still for days at a time. Their lives must be so much more productive, like the lives of people who don’t need much sleep. They have countless hours to write, for example, that are lost to me thanks to my insatiable need to be on the move.
In 1986, I came to live in the United States, that nation built on exile, a nation that idealizes shifting from place to place and also moving the body—the culture that invented the word “workout". Not long after my transatlantic move, I visited Colorado for the first time on a summer hiking trip that soon became a regular fixture of my new life. I stay in Telluride, a mining town turned ski resort 9,000 feet up in a box canyon, surrounded by the sharp peaks of the San Juan mountains on three sides. Telluride gets an average of fourteen feet of snow a year; up in the high basins, where the mine entrances are, snow depths can reach thirty feet. Spring flowers bloom there in July. It is a place whose beauty is so extreme that at first, accustomed to the greener, softer mountain landscapes of Wales, I thought the Rockies looked fake, as if someone had erected cardboard cut-outs of fir-covered mountains for a Hollywood set. Access to the gold and silver lodes was above timberline, so nineteenth-century miners who lived in Telluride had to walk, ride or ski up, carrying their tools: an hour and a half of brutally steep ascent to get to work, repeated in reverse after working underground with a pickaxe for ten hours, six days a week. Miners were considered old if they reached thirty-five. The inhuman dryness of the place is what strikes me the most: the air is so arid it is punishing. I wake, parched, in the middle of the nights, nostrils and eyeballs seared.
To get to Telluride every summer, I fly in on a small plane from Denver. Before take-off, I watch the propellers start to spin, passing from stasis into a blur and then gradually disappearing altogether. When a thing moves fast enough, it becomes invisible, even if it is moving right in front of us. My memories of Telluride blur together, too, into a continual present of long hikes. It is impossible to reconstruct exactly what happened when, in which year, or in what order. Yet Telluride’s perpetual present tense acts as a barometer of my relationship to pain and movement. Since I only go there when I’m physically fit, it marks the high points of my life in motion.
Out on a hike during my first trip to the area, I hear a loud buzzing like a huge and deadly bee, or a small machine. Though my inability to interpret the sound makes me fearful, I keep walking. Twenty yards further on, there is a dark, zooming flash to my left, veering across the bright yellow splotches of heart-leaf arnica and mules’ ears. I realize I am seeing my first pair of hummingbirds, and am rooted to the spot in delight. I have never seen birds move so fast. You have to stop and stand quite still to see them. On the strength of this lesson, I freeze, motionless, the next time I heard the sound. Two days later, a broad-tailed hummingbird pauses, buzzing, for a long instant, considering me, its body a sheen of iridescent green silk. Riches indeed.
Colorado gets its name from all the red rock the sixteenth-century Spanish explorers found here. Its color resembles the red sandstone that underlies my childhood home in Shropshire, the red sand my brother and I played in, that stained our clothes and left rust-colored rings on the bathtub. I am reminded of this while trekking wearily down the trail from the Tomboy mine. I constantly have to step off the trail for jeeps lurching up and over the pass to Ouray, leaving clouds of dust and fumes in their wake. One of them stops and a friendly couple with Texan accents interrogate me. How far have I walked? Aren’t I tired? They are shocked when I tell them I’ve been walking since early that morning. They drive away, clearly appalled by my temerity. Mountains are for looking at through windows, not for walking through.
I often climb to altitudes of 12-13,000 feet. At that height the air is literally thin: there’s only half as much of it. I get vicious headaches, not up high, but when I come back to town, as if my body were reluctant to reacclimatize to living lower down. The last corkbark firs peter out at around 11,000 feet. Beyond there, it’s just the rocks, the marmots, the marsh marigolds, the reeds, the wind and the sky. In the afternoon, especially, storms can brew in the cauldron of rocks above Telluride in no time. The sky turns black and pelts you with great, soaking, spattering drops of rain. Thunder clatters as if some drunk was kicking over all the furniture in heaven in a rage.
If my luck holds, lightning pain doesn’t strike my back, and I’m able to go on long hikes every day. Actual lightning is a serious concern to me, though, because of the way the storms move through in the afternoons. Sometimes a hike takes longer than planned, or the storms roll in earlier than expected, which can be really dangerous. Electrical current is the result of electrons moving, hopping from one atom to another. You just don’t want to be the vehicle of that motion.
A fellow hiker tells me her lightning story. She was climbing over Imogene Pass, at 13,000 feet, when a storm hit. Thunder was crashing all around, but she and her partner decided to keep going up, gambling on the fact that they could reach the safety of tree-line quicker by crossing the shoulder than by retracing their route through the bare, scoured rock of the pass they had just clambered up for hours. Suddenly she saw her companion’s hair lift and stand on end, a sign that a lightning strike is imminent. The air came alive, hissing and sizzling around them, and then the sky shivered into jagged cracks of light. Miraculously, they weren’t hit, but hikers often are up there. They say that if you notice your hair standing on end you should take off your backpack (assuming you’re carrying the kind with a metal frame), throw it away, and crouch down with your weight balanced on the balls of your feet, not allowing your heels to touch the ground. In this position, you present the smallest possible channel from sky to earth and your hope is that the lightning will choose to pour itself down through a more inviting vessel.
I think of this, and of the difficulty of staying balanced in that position for more than thirty seconds, as I climb up and over the San Joaquín Ridge, heading out of Bridal Veil basin and on down towards Bear Creek and the Nellie mine. It’s a perilously bare, high spot and the crossing itself is unappealing. I have to scramble over stones, red scree and the remains of a snowfield. There are almost no plants or flowers up here. Just a sky full of threat, which, fortunately for me, is not unleashed. I am willing to risk the unleashing, though. My desire for movement is larger than my fear.
One morning, on the steep forest trail out of the Liberty Bell Basin, I hear a call that I take to be that of a seagull. Odd, I think, so far from the sea. And then, suddenly, I see them—thirty or forty elk, maybe more, brown shapes grazing the slopes of an open meadow. They give unearthly, mewing cries that sound like whales or birds. Even though I know what they are, I cannot hear this new sound as elk: I can only hear what I already know. Unaccustomed to this landscape and its residents, my brain persists in translating the sound as “seagull.”
Another time, hiking up Bear Creek from the other direction with three companions, I encounter another new creature. The huckleberry bushes over the falls are shining silver in the early morning. Their brightness dissipates the bad I woke up in. The ground steams wherever the sun’s rays strike it. I’m walking along mindlessly, not altogether awake, my body trying to establish its rhythm for the day. Suddenly a large, grey, sharp-snouted animal trots out of the woods to our left, above the creek. It could be a German shepherd or a fox, but isn’t. It moves with a purposeful air, but its pace is unhurried, even though it cannot miss us goggling at it ten yards away. It casts us a glance, its expression mild. It is followed by another. They cross the path one after the other, with their bushy tails between their legs, look sideways at us, and rapidly, but without too much apparent concern, continue into the shadows.
I am left speculating. “Could they have been wolves?” I ask my companions, who are all foreigners too. Impossible, we decide: they must have been coyotes. Coyote, to the Ute Indians who lived here before the miners, is the Trickster. Cruel and foolish, he acts on insane whims—eats his baby nephew, pees in the Sage Hen’s chicks’ eyes, copulates with women when they’re not looking. He represents life’s unpredictable cruelties, but he’s not invincible—sometimes the
other animals outwit him easily. Yet Coyote can embody whoever he wants to: he is the Shape-shifter, the one who can move effortlessly between worlds, as I cannot.
One of my hiking companions is a man who was born in Bombay to an English mother and a Swiss watchmaker father. He now works in France. “How do you like living in the States?” he asks. His English is fascinating, in an archeological way; it’s almost a Yorkshire accent, but there are oddities, layers of disparate dialects—northern English, Indian, American, Francophone. I talk about the way I’m always searching for home, and how it pulls further and further away from me. How I feel like an island that’s drifting away from the mainland. I don’t fit here because I come from somewhere else, and I don’t fit in England either any more, if I ever did. I’ve grown accustomed to moving between worlds, between languages, trying to sound English, American, Spanish, Latin American, French, French-Canadian, depending on where I am. Talking about my life, my work as a translator, I use the word “chameleon.” He nods, as if this is familiar, and there is a moment of understanding between us. “You know,” he says, “not belonging has its advantages. And a chameleon has magic powers. You’ve become a Shape-shifter.” Thinking about the two creatures that vanished into the shadowy underbrush earlier, I remember that the people who know all the secret ways back and forth across the border with Mexico, the ones who lead others across, are called “coyotes.” I think of the many immigrants who die trying to cross over, and of the ridiculously high prices coyotes often charge for those dangerous journeys across the frontier of this country I now live in, this country of movers and shakers.
Higher up the mountain, I stop and look out across the gorge. In the morning sunlight you can see the air in certain places. It is hazy and golden, full of dust-motes and insects dancing, with blue shadows in the distance. Red-barked Engelmann spruce and tall Douglas firs spike up into the air like jade spearheads, intricate as fish-bones. A bit of white cloud is snagged on the rough edge of the nearest ridge. Out over the rocks comes a long, penetrating whistle: peeeek. It takes a week of holding still and peering at rocks for me to identify the maker of this sound, who turns out to be named, appropriately enough, the pika. A cross between a mouse and a rabbit, he is small, tailless, brown, smooth-bodied and incredibly fast moving. His whistles are warning signals, among other things—urgent summons to vacate the tops of rocks. They sound like the shrill summons of some unearthly goat-herd to his flock.
One afternoon I get back happy and aching, having tramped all day, and covered with a film of fine grains of salt. I stretch out on the sofa by the window to rest. There are two aspens outside. Something about them tugs at my attention. I’ve felt it before, out on the mountains, as I climb through aspen groves or contemplate them from above, drawn to their silent grace. Their trunks are whitish-greenish-gold, and their bark is cool and very smooth. The leaves have a tremor like Parkinson’s, but the trees themselves are slim, firm-skinned and youthful-looking, even when old. On some of the more accessible trails that lead through aspen stands, people have carved their initials in the bark, and the wounded lips of the letters never heal back together, but swell apart like scar tissue.
As they grow, aspen put out branches with leaves to feed themselves. But as they mature—and they can grow up to ninety feet high—the older, lower branches atrophy and drop off, leaving thin black stumps, or, more often, dark, round eyes. When you walk through an aspen wood, it’s as if they’re all watching you. This habit of casting off limbs as the aspens move up is akin to the way we can’t remember the names of friends and places we once loved. They are branches that have withered as we grew.
I lie there propped up in front of the window, staring intently at the leaves, remembering that Aldo Leopold said that trees “stand more looking upon than fig leaves or firmaments.” The wind tickles the aspens till they writhe and flicker. I’ve brought an aspen leaf back down the mountain with me. It’s soft and pliable to the touch, heart-shaped like a Japanese fan, and pointed at the tip. Elegantly veined, it is slightly glossy on one side and a matte, lighter green on the other. As the afternoon pulls on, the wind picks up and storm clouds mass. The aspens sway and toss their heads from side to side like stubborn mares pulling at the bit.
Staring at the trees in a kind of trance, I strain to catch the nature of what I’m seeing in a net of words. I grasp for metaphors for what I’m seeing—just as we have to describe the taste of wine in terms of fruit and pepper and vanilla. We have to translate the taste. As a translator, there’s something important for me in the fact that both translation and metaphor mean “carrying over,” that both involve movement. We carry experiences over to some other side, other senses, other experiences, another language, reconfigure them in another system, as immigrants do when they move to a new country. I’ve done the same thing with sound. This afternoon, coming down through an aspen forest, the wind breathed through the leaves like a rain-shower beginning, and I found myself struggling to express the sound in human language. I shook a sapling, and the leaves made a flapping sound like a million small flags, or the sea heaving a sigh.
As I continue to look, both trees are moving, shimmering, vibrating. They are all movement, roiling and churning in a blur of points of light, like a pointilliste painting. As an exercise, I try to focus on a single leaf in motion, but I can only follow it for so long before my eyes give out and each pupil goes its own separate way. The movement of a leaf swinging is very small and rapid, like the wing-beat of a sparrow or a wren. There’s a kind of synchrony to the oscillation; no leaf, as far as I can make out in the sea of motion, is in time with another, but they are all flapping at the same rate.
The Welsh call aspens coed tafod merched: woman’s tongue, which never stands still. In so many ways, moving has been seen as a bad thing in women. We’re emerging from centuries of belief that our wombs, tongues, bodies can move too much or too far, that women who are not confined to their place are “loose.” The leaves flash their pale green underwear as the wind blows their skirts up. It lashes them, poor, beautiful girls, and flattens their hair, plasters it down in a messy false part, the hair streaming out behind on either side. The leaves flutter and jiggle, as if some crazed and malevolent spirit had thought to tie eyefuls of fritillaries to a tree.
As darkness falls at last, the wind gentles. I lie, staring out, my limbs so tired that it is exquisitely pleasurable not to have to move at all. I study the bare skull of the mountain behind. White veins of snow lie in its gouges and gashes. I wonder what it would be like to be benighted on the mountain, alone. But would I really be alone, among all those trees? We know that trees are alive, but we place our aliveness above theirs. If we could imagine a world in which trees were dryads, how different that mountainside covered with fir and pine would look. Like seeing a host of angels, say. To walk into a forest would be to walk in awe, in the presence of holy spirits. Aldo Leopold said that he loved all trees, but that he was in love with pines. At dusk on midwinter evenings in Wisconsin, he sometimes found himself gazing deep into the ranks of pines on his farm. Sensing the ghostly presence of numberless more pine hidden in the gloom, he writes, “I feel a curious transfusion of courage.”
I need that courage, that reminder of trees’ strength and nobility, their tireless capacity for reproduction, in the face of what is happening on the other side of the mountain. The immensely lucrative ski slopes are being widened and new runs are being created. Walking down from Gold Hill, I encounter the din of construction and round a corner to a sickening, splintering noise. They are pulling up trees, not by felling them with a saw, but simply by bashing and bending them with the spiked claws of a digger until their trunks split and crack open like a limb pulled from its socket, and the tree topples. I pass a huge stack of pines felled this way, with jagged edges. I think of the Menominee saying that we do not inherit the forest from our forebears; we borrow it from our children. This is no borrowing; it’s destruction of their birthright.
But aspens should give me courage. They are the mountains’ mop-up troops, the first trees to grow in after natural disasters such as fire, landslide, mudflow, or avalanche. They can survive these catastrophes because they have a magic secret: all the trees in an aspen grove are in fact the same tree, shoots (called “ramets”) from the same great root. Fire can char all above ground, avalanche can raze it, but the aspen lives on, insulated by the soil, and sends up new stems with the next spring. Indeed, disturbances such as wildfires seem to be necessary ecological events, since they destroy the aspens’ competitors. Aspen embody a way of living in which isolation is only an illusion: they are all connected, each belonging to an invisible, underground community. This gives them their resilience.
The aspen of the Colorado plateau are Populus tremuloides, the “quaking aspen,” found over a wider range of latitudes and longitudes than any other tree species in North America. Aspen colonies are some of the largest and most ancient organisms on the planet. One group of some 47,000 quaking aspen trees in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah has been shown to be a single male clonal colony connected at the root. It is estimated to be 80,000 years old and covers 105 acres. At approximately 6,600 tons, it is the heaviest known organism on earth and is nicknamed the “Trembling Giant” or “Pando,” from the Latin for “I spread.”
There is an old belief that the aspen quivers because it is the wood of what medieval people called the Tree, the cross on which Christ was crucified. It trembles with fear and awe at that knowledge, as the first Quakers did. George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, wrote in 1650 that Justice Bennett of Derby had just mockingly called his group Quakers “because we bid [folk] tremble at the word of God.” Fox believed that standing still was a way to invite divine revelation, a chance to be moved by the spirit, to receive what he called “refreshings.” Some of the early Friends were seized with such powerful fervor at their epiphanies that they physically shook as they announced them out loud, leading to Justice Bennett’s mocking nickname. In fact, the Friends mainly practice stillness and silence, as do many other religious traditions. Think of the numberless millions of hours that human beings have spent in motionless prayer and meditation. The Buddha spent six years sitting under the Bo-tree before he received enlightenment.
Yet the idea of being moved by the spirit shows us that the word “moving” can refer not just to body and place, but to feelings. We talk of being “moved” to tears. Moving, in this sense, has something to do with the most essential, non-physical part of us, what some religions call soul. We say something is “moving” when it elicits empathy, compassion, or profound gratitude. It is synonymous with “touching.” In other words, when something moves us, we feel a deep connection or communion; we are lifted out of our habitual sense of lonely isolation and plugged into something greater. This meaning of “moving” is just the opposite of homesickness, when we yearn for the familiar from which we are painfully separated when we move away from home.
Quaking, dancing, and stillness are simply different facets of our encounters with the divine. The holy moves us both to stasis and movement. It can be experienced either as awe that stills us, silences us, or as frenzied celebration. What I did to watch the trees, or the elk, or the coyote, or the hummingbird, was to freeze. Stop altogether. Hold my breath. But the aspen, in contrast, chooses to dance.
The Ute Indians of Colorado danced too: their major celebration was the Bear Dance every spring, in which men and women danced for days, shuffling forward and back, not unlike the Shakers’ ritual dance on Sundays where they moved in lines “as David before the Lord.” The Ute danced themselves into a trance, until they fell from exhaustion. The miners loved to dance, too, on their one day off: the waltz, the schottische, the varsovienne, the polka, the Virginia reel, and the quadrille, in hobnail boots, ten men to one woman. Impromptu dances were rife. In Leadville in 1879, the town’s paper inveighed against the fact that dance halls were pulling $100-200 a night. Any kind of dance would do. There were never enough women, so often the miners would have to take the ladies’ part. Now, Sufi dancing is coming to Colorado. Not long ago, I met a sixty-year-old woman with a lined mountain face who has climbed Macchu Picchu and regularly goes whirling to ecstasy.
Watching the aspens, walking these mountains over the years, I’ve felt some of the jagged pieces of me settling. When my body holds out and I can walk each day, my hunger for the outdoors is fed. I have a growing sense of peace and, oddly, of coming home. I realize I should stop looking for home in any particular place: if it is located anywhere other than with the people I love, it’s in my own body in motion, struggling to inhale. One day, I climb to the topmost ridge of a new mountain. Crouched on its sharp spine, I look down and see its shaley flanks sheer away beneath me, with valley after valley unfolding below. I’m shivering with cold and awe. This is what it must be like to be God: to look down on untold beauty that only you can see. I make my own covenant: to have lived this moment, perched on this frontier, I say, is worth all the pain, all the lessons of immobility, past and future. To have been here, to have drunk my fill of the green bowl of this valley, is enough. I can’t ask for more.
A few days later, I fly back to the Midwest, to our house in Wisconsin, a place that, for all its pleasantness, still sometimes seems alien to me. The air there is heavy and lakish; there is nothing steep or rocky to look up to, no mountains to climb. And I realize my promise was made in vain. Even though I know there’s a wisdom in stillness, I’ll always yearn to be panting, to be clambering up some hillside with the wind in my hair.
Years later, thinking about that moment of insight at the top of the mountain, and mulling over the conundrum of why exercise has been so important to me in a lifetime of travel, physical pain and emotional uprooting, I realize that for me, moving in the sense of bodily exertion—preferably outdoors—has been a way of assuaging the pain of alienation, of a body separated from its place. It’s allowed me to get to know the landscapes I’ve been transplanted to and their animal, vegetable and mineral inhabitants. Activities like hiking, biking, swimming and cross-country skiing bring my mind into my body and into the place where I am—connecting them, as I explore my new surroundings in order to render them familiar. At times, too, physical movement leads to moments when I am moved in the emotional or spiritual sense, when I am granted glimpses of what Scott Russell Sanders calls “a power that surges through bone and rain and everything. The search for communion with this power has run like a bright thread through all my days.” When place, body and feeling align and I am no longer other, these are the high points of my life, the hills “from whence cometh my help,” the answer to my existential homesickness.