My senior photo for high school was a shot of me in a Crazy Creek chair on a rock next to a lake in Glacier National Park in Montana. More so than a glammed up version of myself, I wanted to present the rough and ready self to the world. Everyone else’s head took up the whole frame—I was a small figure with a book as big as my head in the distance. I took that same chair with me into Elephant’s Perch this past week. It still works. And when I sat in it all of those politics of identity come back just as fierce.
Idaho’s Sawtooths are just as they sound—jagged, rough, little teeth along a spine of mountains in the central part of the state. Ketchum is the gateway I used to get into the Sawtooths, and as I drove up from Salt Lake City I watched the land move into my view and take up my consciousness. This was the fourth stop on a three-week road trip of working and climbing. I was on song 893 on my iPod. I keep it on shuffle and know things are a bit out of control based on how much I try to manage the shuffle. My new rule is to go for at least three songs in a row as a reminder to not try and control the world. I can usually get through one and a half. Songs 894-901 were not setting the right tone when I came into Burley, south of Ketchum.
There are moments in your life when you know you should pay attention. One block into Burley and I realized I missed this landscape and didn’t know I even knew it. High alpine sagebrush creates grassy knolls that look soft to touch from far away but offer little respite of comfort when up close. Hills lap each other into the distance of gentle peaks. This is not the rocky vista of my home in Colorado, but a kinder, gentler outdoors that begs of mountain biking or skiing. Or of space.
Ten years ago this month, I was living in another version of these hills in the Methow Valley in Washington. This was the place I found the most silence, the most connection to the outdoor world—so much so that I had spent two years trying to find a piece of that land to own myself. Then life intervened and sent me to Colorado, and then, last week, it reminded me of what I had missed in Burley, Idaho.
I just spent five days in the Sawtooth backcountry. Two nights into it I realized it has been that same decade since I had done the same. I have traveled around the world since—but tea houses, chalets, porters, and African motels have kept me from sleeping self-supported in the dirt. With that Crazy Creek between me and the rock I balanced on, I thought about what I had left behind—and why it used to matter so much that I never leave it at all.
I remember filling journals with the same thoughts every summer of my youth when I was in the mountains or on the rivers. Integration. Integration. Integration. As each blank paged turned to illegible scribble I would promise myself a better effort and result of the outdoor me and the me at home. I felt myself doing the same last week. It doesn’t get any easier. I think we just get a bit wiser and admit that it is not easy, but still worth doing.
So now I am out of the mountains. Back on my computer. With my phone tucked under my hip so I can snap to it when I feel it vibrate. But pretty soon I will finish my drive through Idaho—going east now. On the map I pick out the long way around, following the Salmon river and thanking it in advance as it keeps me from going too fast as I move on asphalt through Idaho.