For years, I could see the Indian Peaks from the deck of the little cabin. My life was oriented east-west. The sun rose at my back and set in front of me. And the mountains to the west—always the west along the Front Range of Colorado—anchored me in the middle of a compass. “The mountains are west,” we say to tourists and new-combers trying to figure out where they are.
When I moved to Milwaukee to work on my PhD, there were no mountains. Instead the land dropped off to the east, the horizon dipping below my level of vision. If I followed the slope I’d end up at Lake Michigan, a body of water that hangs from on the horizon. Seeing it unnerved me and I was forever getting turned around in a state whose identifying landmark was in the opposite direction from the one I’d known all my life.
The same is true of the new mountain house. But instead of simply being turned 180 degrees—facing east instead of west—the house is angled so the direction lines form an X over the house instead of a +. This wouldn’t matter so much if I had an identifying landmark—for as long as I can remember I’ve had a twelve- or fourteen-thousand-foot mountain (Pike’s, Long’s, Mt. Meeker) as a marker–but our house is tucked inside a draw and the view is of the tops of trees or tree lined hills.
This fact unsettles me.
My inability to be sure of the directions makes me feel untethered. If I can’t put myself on the map, If I can’t point correctly to the nearest town, to the direction of the mountains—how can I know who I am? There are times my unease is vague and watery, but others, like today when I’m gnashing my teeth. I know it takes a long time to develop a relationship with place and that I must be patient.
I’ve felt like an outlier all my life, so the it’s a familiar feeling, one that accounts for the obsession I have with place. Where am I? I think, and then: Who am I? I’ve long held that landscape gives rise to character. There’s something in the ground beneath our feet that brings us into ourselves. I’ve made it my lifelong quest to put down roots to figure out who I am, to uncover the contours of my skin, the mettle I’m made of. It’s spring now and I can feel my body shifting toward light, even though I’ve been holed up for days working on a proposal for a new book. I woke up this morning feeling even more out of sorts, and writing this, I’m chalking it up to Spring flux—to the in between time of winter and summer, to snow storms one day and sun and mud the next.
That’s as sure a sign as any that it’s time to get out there and get my feet on the ground. I think I’ll take the dog for a hike.