Wade Davis is describing the Sacred Headwaters, his words rolling like the wave trains of the Stikine. “Fidelity to place,” he says and I feel that longing, that insatiable ache.
I have never had that fidelity to place. My life has been dedicated to the art of packing, to storage units and cardboard boxes. I have been pulled to go, but never to stay.
Wallace Stegner writes about this. In Angle of Repose, he explores the impact of a people who have never learned to be loyal to place. Not to a country, but to the land, to its rocks and rivers, the cracks of its sun-beaten soil. “We have lived too shallowly in too many places,” he says.
I write about this again and again and then I write about it some more. Because now I am in Colorado and my hands reach for the landscape, feeling out the mountains like braille. For the first time in my life, I have found a place I can’t resist. The Flatirons have become a permanent fixture in my view of the world. If I left now I would close my eyes and feel their shadows across my face for the longest time.
I knew Colorado was home before the floodwaters came, before the water spread out over the Front Range, blanketing the trees and the rocks and the drowned prairie dog curled to one side. The water receded and they stayed and so did I.
Home has always been wherever my key unlocked a door. Now it is the flat rock at the side of the creek, the Canada geese on the frozen pond. It is pink clouds and clusters of columbine, a fierce wind and an arid climate. My lungs ache, my skin is always dry. I wake up thirsty. I expect blue sky. Home is a dozen moments throughout the day where my eyes catch the mountains and I forget whatever it is I meant to say. It is the sound of snow, the scent of the creek, the storm clouds spilling into the plains.
I love the mountains; I love living at their feet. I love their folds and contours, the way the snow gathers, collecting in pockets, sliding off of ridges. But there is still that shadow of sadness; it falls across my heart at the oddest times. It is an insatiable ache, a feeling that I can never be close enough, the realization that I will have to give it all up.
In River Notes, Wade Davis writes about the Havasupai, about their custom of burning the belongings of the deceased to dissuade their spirits from returning, to keep them on their spiritual path. I try to imagine what my family would burn, what would lure me back to the land of the living. And I know that it is the land itself. The scent of sage would haunt me. The hush of a snowstorm would tether my soul.
My heart preemptively pines for these things I cannot carry, these things they cannot burn. The snow cascading from low hanging clouds, the mountains rising overhead. My heaven is here. It is early morning climbs, skis sliding through the snow. It is clouds glowing like embers. It is a purpled mountain silhouette. It is the silence of two people walking alone when the world is asleep. I would come back for that.
This is what Colorado has given me, a place to be still, a placed to be stirred up, a place to bend with the wind and sit with the earth.
When I listen to Wade Davis plead for the protection of the Sacred Headwaters, I hear what he does not say. He does not describe the mountains, the unbridled rivers, the meadows of this high plateau. He describes the people. “Fidelity to place,” he says and talks about his daughter, how this is her home and the place she belongs to. I have loved many places, but there is a distinct difference between loving something and belonging to it, and I wonder what happens when we lose our fidelity to place. Is it a slow collapse or a sudden shift? Is it the same as a dream deferred? Do we fester? Do we explode? Even nomadic peoples belong to the trails they travel. It is not the wind that moves them. They are not prisoners of their own restless souls. Their fidelity is to the land, to the patterns of place.
When my faded, worn-out depression nips at my heels, I crave the sound of Colorado and the mesquite color of the Mesa Trail. I go for long walks in the middle of the night. My mind is overactive and I find solace in walking across snowy fields. I love the silence, the snowflakes catching in my hair, one on the tip of my nose. There is no moon. An owl flies overhead. A new awareness trickles in.
“Colorado,” I think, “I will never leave you.” And there is a sadness in that, too. The shutting out of other possibilities, the closing doors of a thousand lives unlived. But fidelity is not chance. It is choice. I have loved many places, but I belong to only one.
At the end of his talk, Wade Davis invites the audience to visit his home, to explore their fidelity to place through his own. And now my eyes look north, to Canada, to a country that is not a place, but an endless winter. A season of silence that slips through the cracks of your heart, pushing everything apart and pulling it all together. When the spring comes, I will head north. I am desperate to see the Sacred Headwaters, to know the place John Muir called “a Yosemite 100 miles long.” I know it will tug at my heart. I know I will be moved and I will wish to belong to it. But I will hold Colorado in the way that I breathe. I will look at the Stikine and love it for the way it reminds me of the place I am from.
From now on, there will always be something calling me back. From now on, I will know what it is to belong. This place will always hold me, its roots have reached to the marrow of my bones. I am home.