filling up

This summer, while we were traveling through multiple states, several geological divides, and countless ecosystems, I would pull the car into filling stations, inserting a credit card and extracting a nozzle to replenish the fuel we’d burned and exhausted from mountain pass to coastline. Karyn and I were talking about our affinity for the coast, having each grown up only an hour away from the Pacific.

Now that we’re away, there’s that realization that we didn’t realize what we had when we had it. Yet, it isn’t as though we need to return to the coast to stay forever. Instead, Karyn suggested that there are small vials inside of us, and the serum provided by the place that is the Oregon Coast fills these up — as though there’s a fluid level that needs to be topped off every 3500 miles. Then, Karyn added this: “And I’d need to be in the red rocks about once a year, too.” And then I thought about the mountains, and I added this to the list of essential fluids. (I offer this exhibit as an example of one’s attachment to the mountains, and perhaps all things wilderness.) Annie Dillard summed it up for me a few years ago when I read Pilgrim on Tinker Creek for the first time, a book I understood better after reading it a second time:

The mountains … are a passive mystery, the oldest of all. Theirs is the one simple mystery of creation from nothing, of matter itself, anything at all, the given. Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.

I’ve wondered if there’s a set of vials within that need to be filled for some specific balance, like some set of chemicals and vitamins and minerals and essences that all have to be right. Your potassium is a bit low so you eat a banana; your coastalness is running out, so you make your way to the beach. Or maybe it’s like reservoirs of window washing fluid and coolant and oil. Big jugs of stuff that aren’t just small spices in the grand mix, but the actual lubrication and thermostat and view-clarifying fluids that have to be filled, monitored, and topped off. I tend to think of it as the former, like little containers of those spices that make the mix just right. Yet sometimes it seems as though I really need to remove the grime from some windshield that provides my full perspective, and the wiper blades, no matter how frantically I sweep them, seem to just muck up the view. Some other fluid is needed to intervene and cut through the dead bug pulp that accumulates.

I could quickly think that this is too romantic. I’m overdramatizing the reality, that maybe I just need a vacation once in a while. But when I look back on images of the coast:

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Or of the desert:

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Or of the mountains:

Uintas 2009 - 096

. . . I remember and feel that place, and I long to be back. In part, that might be because there’s something I am so fond of about that particular visit, but I think that there’s also the give-and-take of the space and the self. We each leave a little of ourselves with the other: the space imprints on us, and we leave behind a bit of our soul or psyche or essence on that land. As Dillard put it, we “heave [our] spirit” into the place. We’re forever linked back to it. Maybe this is just the romanticizing of an addiction, but I would rather we acknowledge that Karyn is absolutely right: There’s an essential need to reconnect with places, and sometimes we don’t even realize the need until we finally make our way back to the sea, the desert, or the ridgelines.

Tomorrow is “back to school,” an annual tradition that I’ve always loved. Even at the university, there’s a sense of energy, and even as we move more and more to an academy which operates in a continual, non-stop mode, the first day of the fall term still has a sense of “day one,” beginnings of new courses and new students and new backpacks and new shoes. There are, of course, other “news”: New chores, new jobs, new budget woes. But mostly it’s a time that seems bright and shiny and new, full of possibility and potential.

This morning I headed up to the mountains, stepping out my front door and walking up the street to the trailhead with my canine companion. The skies were clouded over and the breeze came up, and as we made our way up into the hills the rain started to fall. Overlooking the valley and my city below, I imagined that the rain falling was part of that fluid that was doing the “filling up.” As my dog and I got continually wetter, I could imagine that I could literally smell my summer; and in fact, I realized that it was my hat, not washed after a backpacking trip last month, giving off the smell of campfire smoke as the rain stirred out this essence. It so happened that the cap was my favorite, well-worn hat with the words “half full” on its front, an icon with a half full pint glass just above the writing. As the rain continued to fall, I imagined that the cup was becoming even more filled, so that the script could have read “mostly full.” That seemed to me to be a good way to start the new year, as well as a good measure of the summer now past.

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