I grew up in western Pennsylvania. There were woods nearby, and while I often played in them, their wonders—the trees and birds, the changing seasons—escaped me. I never asked why the robins flocked to the neighbor’s yard in the spring or marveled at the bushes glistening in the sun after an ice storm. I didn’t know that the entire landscape had long ago been shaped by modern industry and mining, which cut down the forests, dredged the rivers, and polluted the air. If you asked me what was beautiful, I might have said a 1954 Cadillac or a new baseball mitt.
Karen was different. She noticed her woods. She loved to go to her neighbor’s pond and to the nearby creek, catching tadpoles and waiting excitedly for the first ice to form so she could crack it with her shoes. She picked wild flowers and berries and observed the birds and deer. She had a discerning eye and an inquiring mind, always wondering why. Her uncles had a farm, and she knew where her family’s milk and meat came from. We lived on a farm for a few years, in a house my parents rented from the farmer, and all I remember is how afraid I was of the chickens.
When we began our journey ten year ago, the first place we lived after leaving Pittsburgh was Yellowstone National Park, one of the country’s special places. I continued to be oblivious
to the natural world around us. But Karen wasn’t. She would be driving, and she’d say, “Look, I think there’s an eagle in that tree.” Or, we’d be hiking and she’d say, “Look at those clouds.” She’d know when there was to be a full moon, and she’d make me go outside to look at it.
As we explored Yellowstone, I started to see things for myself. I spotted four golden eagles, and I kept a careful eye out for wildflowers. I spotted a moose before Karen, no small accomplishment. I began to enjoy the deep darkness at night, the bright red baby bison, the cutthroat trout in the Yellowstone River. I looked for new hiking trails. A new world was opening up to me.
Then, an interesting thing happened when we moved to Manhattan. We had wanted to live there for years. But we knew within a couple of months that we wouldn’t stay long. There was too much trash, too much soot, too many people, too much noise, too much light. We walked the length and breadth of Central Park as often as possible, but Central Park was crowded too, and it wasn’t Yellowstone. We’d walk across the Brooklyn Bridge just to get to the relative peace and quiet of Brooklyn Heights and its lovely promenade. A day at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island seemed like a great escape. On the Staten Island Ferry, the sense of claustrophobia that had been weighing me down lifted miraculously. Yellowstone had been more important than I had realized. We couldn’t live on a crowded urban island. We had to be closer to open and wild places.
Our relationship to nature—to the world of plants, animals, rivers, oceans, mountains, forests, and canyons—changed permanently when in the autumn of 2002 we moved from New York City to Portland and began to explore the Pacific Northwest. In the book that has given this blog its name, I tried to describe this transformation:
The Northwest is mountainous, with steep forested slopes running down to the sea and with volcanic peaks almost always in sight. There are so many dazzling things to see that it is hard to know where to begin. While we had begun to appreciate our nation’s natural beauty at Yellowstone, it was in Portland that we came to love it and make it an integral part of our lives. Our weeks were filled with planning, preparing for, and taking trips—to the gorge, to national parks, to the Oregon coast. We never imagined that packing lunches and spending a day in the woods could be so fine a thing to do. We’d pick a destination, read everything we could find about it, plot out the driving directions, and go. Everything was new and amazing. Transforming too. I had let work dominate much of my life for so many years. Taking time to see, much less contemplate and enjoy, the beauty around me had little place in my life. During our fourteen months in Portland, I saw the error of my ways. Beauty, contemplation, enjoyment—these weren’t something to feel guilty about, mere adjuncts of life. They were life.
We left Portland after fourteen months and embarked on a ninety-day road trip, the first of many. We began to be what his chronicler called Everett Reuss—“a vagabond for beauty.” A month in Flagstaff, Arizona, hiking in the San Francisco Peaks, Sedona, the Grand Canyon, and a half dozen national monuments. Several week-long visits to Zion National Park, once in late winter, with a trek high up into the snow-covered cliffs. A month at Lake Tahoe in October; could you ever tire of that azure water? A week in the Ruby Mountains near Elko, Nevada. Crater Lake, Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helen’s, Shi Shi Beach, Hurricane Ridge, Joshua Tree National Park, the mountains around Santa Fe, Big Sur Highway, Yosemite Falls, Moab, this list could go on for several pages. The more we traveled, the more we learned, the better we felt, and the more we wanted to travel. A pleasant addiction if ever there was one.
As we spent so much time in spectacular settings,—watching, listening, thinking—two things happened. First, the beauty of the natural world is a sublime enjoyment we got for free, and this made the pleasure from having possessions pale by comparison. We decided never to let things become our masters. Second, we began to comprehend the great age of the earth, evident every time we walked on rocks or ocean shore, and this made us see the insignificance of our lives. But we were content. When one of us had a life-threatening illness, remembering our years on the road, mentally reliving the exciting things we did and the inspiring landscapes we saw, gave a comfort nothing else could have given. We are a part of the great and endless circle of life, nothing more, but nothing less.
A decade of seeing the stunning landscapes of the United States has made us feel a sense of solidarity with the plants and animals, even with the rocks, soil, and water. Any assault on them by our fellow human beings has become an assault on us: a plastic bottle thrown on a trail, trash on the beach, plants trampled by horses, a resort built next to beautiful rock formations, a ski complex using waste water on sacred Indian land, visitors bothering the bison or disturbing an eagle nest, the importation of invasive and ruinous plant and animal species.
And these are relatively minor affronts compared to the truly outrageous and rapacious despoliations of nature we have witnessed. I have often written about these, so I won’t detail them here but just say that the destruction wrought by industrial agriculture, mining, and urban/suburban sprawl continue unabated. They hurt our hearts.
When you encounter the glories of nature, you want to share them, to make others aware that they exist. If we are vagabonds for beauty, we think everyone should have a chance to be one. This beautiful country is our land. Get out into it. Cherish it. If you are like me, nothing will make you happier.