(Originally published on 25 August, 2014 on ummwhat.)
I recently had the opportunity to return to my summer job for a few weeks to help finish out the season. I left after my last class on the first of August, tearing out of the parking garage with no place to live but New Mexico. The drive was long, bad but not too bad, and over much too quickly. I arrived onsite early morning on August 3rd, parked at the HQ office, stepped out and breathed in the soft scents of infinite joy—hot canvas tents, quartz dust, ponderosa pines, the old band-aid smell of the infirmary, the sour muddy smell of burst earthworms drying out in the mid-morning sun. I could even smell the thinness of the air, a “sweet, lucid” taste as Edward Abbey called it, like synesthesia scents of clarity, reassurance, and navajo blanket patterns. I saw sights and heard sounds seared into my memory by overexposure: the iconic ridge over base camp, the rows of tents, the squish and scratch of ranger feet over that precise gravel in tent city, velcro, belt buckles, pack clips, carabiners, velcro, velcro. The language came back to me and flowed from my mouth as if I’d never been away. The sounds were mine, the sights were mine, the scents were mine, the coldwarm air was mine, the dialect was mine, the fine cardboard taste of the food was mine. It was as real as in my memories, as in the fantasies I’d had in the weeks leading up to my return, almost as if it had never really left me. It had never not been mine.
(I always get this feeling returning to the west. The first time I saw the Pacific Ocean as a child I remember thinking finally, I’m here. Every return has been a homecoming.)
Coming at this point in the season, my arrival lacked the larger-meaning zen profundity I’ve always felt in years past—I had a focus, a specific job, there was little time to do anything but good work. Finally, I’m here. I was whisked into the backcountry in a matter of days and then it was work work work, it was the rejuvenation of a burnt-out staff, it was the put-off and handed-down tasks that needed to be done. It was the tender, intimate end-of-life care necessary to prepare the place I love for a winter in the Rockies. Between the laborious work and customer service detail with visitors, I managed to get (most of the way) up the big mountain once, knock out a few smaller ones, walk some new trails, bag some ridges and unforeseen pleasures, make new friends, and visit old friends as close as family.
It ended quickly, and it ended well. I added new scents to my registry (coal smoke, paydirt, the cold must of the mine) and enriched my memories. It was a great, strange ordeal, like high-intensity-interval-training for the soul. There’s no better therapy than nature, no greater teacher than the need for self-reliance, no greater insight than that found on the trail. There is an essence to the west—from the big sky, over the rockies to the rainforest, down the ocean to the borderlands, around the big bend and back out to the high plains—that fosters rich thought, lucid insights, and a deep and unfocused love that fills you brimming. My hope is that I have managed to abscond with some of that essence inside my own heart, that I can hold onto that love for at least nine more months.
Until next year.