First Impressions: The life and times of a four-year-old outdoorswoman

by jenkb

“For whatever you’re doing, for your creative juices, your geography’s got a hell of a lot to do with it. You really have to be in a good place, and then you have to be either on your way there or on your way from there.” – Neil Young

They took me to the mountains when I was four, and I never really came back. My dad would get these ideas in his head about things he wanted to do, and then do them big. This is how he started playing the violin, learning physics, and camping — all between the ages of 40 and 70. He and my mother decided they’d take the matching set of kids — the his, hers and ours of previous and current marriages — off to the Colorado Rockies for a camping trip in our white 1974 Ford Econoline van. The Ford was a hulking eight-passenger van that my petite mother enjoyed driving because it had some presence and heft, unlike the trendier wood-paneled station wagons the other mothers drove. The air conditioner spat a mysterious fluid out of the vent instead of the promised cool air, but otherwise it was considered a cutting edge vehicle. The van even briefly had curtains on the side windows until the adhesive wore off and the rods fell. This was 1975. No one cared much about seat belts yet, so my brother and I spent the drive across the country on the van’s massive floor under the elevated back seats, playing with velvet jewelry boxes he had re-purposed into Star Trek communicators.

Anyone who has approached Denver from the east knows that the Rockies rise abruptly out of nowhere from the plains preceding them. The first time I saw those mountains, we had driven into a resort town and stopped for some reason, perhaps lunch or a bathroom break.  I emerged from my den under the back seats to find a landscape I never knew existed, a massive snow-peaked wall that reached all the way up to God’s butt cheeks. Shocked, I may have dropped my Star Trek communicator. It was July, and yet there was snow up in the reaches. I don’t think anyone noticed that the four-year-old was seizing up, but it was a moment that would define and direct the rest of my life.

We spent that summer and the next exploring those peaks and valleys.  We slept in a big orange tent tucked into flannel-lined sleeping bags, and it was cold in the mornings up at elevation.  We drove around curves and took the gigantic van on narrow mountain roads, and all the while, a longing was being slowly wired into my child mind.

From time to time I see a place in my head, a winding mountain road lined with evergreens, with just the right amount of sunlight passing through the pine.  I’ve never encountered that exact scene again, but when I travel to a new place, I’m looking for it. Every time I emerge in a new place, whether from a plane or my car, I re-experience the moment my mind first knew those mountains. It’s the best and healthiest kind of regression.

In the coming years I would find myself buried under layers of feelings and events, constrained by unspoken family rules I was unaware of and had no role in shaping. But the wonder I first experienced in the mountains blazed the indestructible path out of all that. That path gets better and better worn, and easier to navigate, with every passing year.

Twenty-three years after that first trip, I took that path back to the mountains. The spring before, I finished my law degree at Duke University and moved back to my hometown to take a plum job at a large law firm – and, with any luck, pass the bar exam. I spent June and July studying for the bar and settling into our new house in Broad Ripple, one of my favorite parts of Indianapolis. Broad Ripple is full of vintage homes, restaurants, art and the Monon Trail, a ribbon of greenway cutting through the middle of the village.

I was committed to begin work on the first of September, and the two-day bar exam was over at the tail end of July. Those were good days in the legal field, and my compensation included a large advance to see me through the summer of studying and exam-taking. For the first time in our lives, E.J. and I had a free month, a fat bank account, and no worries. We wondered what to do.

We were tired. Law school, despite being relatively easy for me, was not a garden party. Work and school had been an hour away from the home we had made in between. Long commutes and demanding schedules had numbed us to much of daily existence. An empty month with enough money felt unimaginably rich, an opportunity to come back to life. My lawyer friends had various plans for their August – some of them went to Europe, and some stayed home and enjoyed their toddlers before signing away their lives to the Almighty Billable Hour (Goodbye kids! See you next year!). Others, more tightly wound than I, began their jobs immediately.

Earlier that spring, immediately after graduation, my Golden Retriever and I joined E.J.’s sister-in-law for a brief backpacking trip on the Long Trail in Vermont. It was not my first time sleeping outside, but it was my first time sleeping in any space that could credibly be called wilderness – or the backcountry, as the parlance goes. The weather was still cold in early May. As we settled in for the night, I remained firmly awake, flooded with the awareness that by sleeping in a three-sided shelter in the forest, I was abandoning myself to the many mysterious sounds beyond the lip of the platform.

Come get me. I’m right here. I had never felt quite so alive.

Our trip was not long, but it was enough. All summer long my new hiking boots sat patiently in the corner of our new bedroom, reminding me how it had felt to carry my home on my back in the mountains. I wanted more, and E.J. was eager to do anything outdoors.

So we booked two tickets to Seattle for the middle of August, and in the meantime drove ourselves and our two dogs, complete with their own packs, to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. A new copy of John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Collection, the very earnest music of our childhoods, suitable for a very earnest trip, was in the CD player of our used Isuzu Rodeo.

At the time I thought I was just going on a long vacation, but I was really diving into one of the most transformative times of my life. I was on a trip to meet someone I didn’t yet fully know – myself – first on the trails in the Adirondacks, and after that in the mountains and rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. I’d spent fleeting moments with this new friend before, in the Rocky Mountains as a child,  the freshwater springs of north Florida and during my first scuba dive on the reef. But this was a deeper, more extended acquaintance. At the time it felt cruelly ironic to me, finding myself in the wilderness when I’d just spent three years and many thousands of dollars preparing for a career that did not involve mountains, streams, wildlife or trees. (Unless you count the ones that have been turned into paper; I became very well acquainted with those in the following years.) I had met myself in a place that the career I had just teed up would never bring me.

I spent years afterward wondering – who was I, really? Was I the person who napped on a rock on the powder-blue  water of the glacial Hoh River, and swam with the loons in the cold mountain lakes of the Adirondacks? Or was I Spike, the nickname my supervising partner gave me on discovering my unyielding attitude toward litigation? It didn’t seem possible that I could be a blend of those identities, because they didn’t seem capable of accommodating one another. And in many ways, they weren’t.

After three years, I left the law firm, with no new job in sight. I just left. It was a deeply risky thing to do. But I just somehow had to. Eventually, needing to eat and pay rent, I went to work with my father and brother – also lawyers – an arrangement I had always said would never work. But it did work, and over the years my legal job would allow me to do extraordinary things. It allowed me to live in many wonderful places, travel extensively, and meet myself again and again on trails and peaks, and in the middle of lakes and rivers. My life in the law would teach me the beauty of nuance and precision, the sweet distinctions between words, and a sense of detail. I don’t regret it, even though for years I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me because I was unable to live it as a priesthood, as so many others can and do.

I know now that the freedom of wandering around in the wilderness when I was twenty-seven, of being required to do nothing more from day to day other than hike from one glorious vista to another, became a powerful metaphor for the freedom to be fully myself. That’s the only kind of freedom that matters, to be who you are on a whole and integrated plane, one with the things you’ve been encouraged to hack off , like vulnerability and sadness and feeling. I learned early the things to hide behind — knit hats and newspapers among them, along with aggressive careers and veneers of bitchiness. So the wilderness offered the freedom of wholeness, with all its attendant risks. When I was outside in the tender openness of the natural world, I could accept the parts of me that seemed dangerous. My human frailties, fears and pain were mirrored by the bears and cougars and wildfires and other dangerous things I found in these wild spaces. I was lucky to be shown the path to myself at the tender age of four, and I began following it as a young adult without the barest trace of consciousness.