Updated: May 23, 2021
"How many nights had the ocean rocked me to sleep? How many times had I lain on the ground and felt its sustenance? How many times had I turned my face to the sky and borrowed its power?"
--Pam Houston, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country
I once listened to Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar podcast about finding home. The guest was Pam Houston, author of Cowboys Are My Weakness and a wildflower like Cheryl. By wildflower I mean a woman raised in the dirt who bloomed in color. I identified with these wildflowers. Not the raised-in-the-dirt, rough childhood part, but the didn’t-quite-fit-in part. The pick-a-spot-and-grow part. Pam said finding her ranch in Colorado has been “the great love story of her life.” Returning home after traveling gives her a chemical and physical reaction on a cellular level. I am deeply envious of this feeling, this arriving at a corner of the Earth and feeling and finding home in your body. I have never wanted this feeling more than now.
Two weeks ago I took an overnight road trip to a place geographically, politically, and culturally unlike Seattle: Ellensburg and Yakima, Washington. I knew I needed a desert roadtrip. And even though this area isn’t officially desert, it's dry enough to be different from Seattle. And as I’d whimsically texted a friend, “The desert grounds the female body. Cuts through all the bs.” I packed the Elizabethtown soundtrack, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and a cd an ex had made of good driving music, and hit the road.
I drove straight to Cowiche Canyon, a flat, 2.9-mile trail sunken between tan, basalt cliffs with optional ascents to wildflower-lined ridges. Tucked in the cliffs, I strolled--hike is too strong a word--admiring the faces in the rocks and feeling my hands and throat become dry. It felt good. It felt different, and different was the goal. When I approached the end of the one-way stretch, I took a trail up to the ridge. With each step and flex of my foot I saw the landscape change from rocks to flowers. At first I saw only yellow ones, but then white ones and yellow and pink ombré ones popped up in clusters. I checked for rattlesnakes, then plopped down on a rock to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and look out across the hills. I thought about how it was a long drive but how quickly the land had changed from rain to snow to desert. That in the canyon, as soon as I started hiking up, it changed again. I thought about how it took a long time and no time at all. That there was something about this place I wanted: a home with the safety of a flatland with the option to ascend. I was among my wildflowers.
The next few hours passed happily with momentum, as they often do when travel goes well. I stopped at two breweries, one to get a six pack and one to have an IPA with the local hops. At the first brewery, Bron Yr Aur, I was reminded of the Led Zeppelin song of the same name and my high school friend who played Physical Graffiti every time she drove me home in her old Saab. Home. Here I was looking for it again, on the ridge, in the hops. From the hillside of the second brewery I watched the wind rattle the distant hop fields until it was time to go home for the night: a vintage 1953 airstream Airbnb trailer parked on a farm outside of Ellensburg.
After a farm tour from the owner’s daughter and a shower in the very tiny circa-1953 shower, I got into bed with Pam Houston’s recent memoir Deep Creek. Pam wrote about “being her own cowboy” and how she sought out dangerous adventures because, unlike the dangers of her childhood, she could control them. I thought of these things on my relatively mild adventure as the wind rocked the camper. I woke up multiple times, cold-nosed and shivering, reminded of the scene in Nomadland where Fern is offered to spend the night in a Baptist church and turns it down. “Take her up on the offer, Fern. Nobody tells you about the wind!” I thought. Eventually, as the sun rose over the pasture, I warmed up. I opened the delicate white curtains and let the light in. Then I drank two cups of coffee in bed reading more Deep Creek. I never stay in bed drinking coffee and reading at home but it was so cozy watching the farm wake up. I wanted to stay right there in that tiny space just as Pam wanted to be on her Colorado ranch. Because as much as I want to be a nomad like Fern, I want to be at home like Pam.
The second day I was in search of a hike that started with a suspension bridge. Some trail reports said it was closed, others that it was open. I had to find out. What else was I doing out in the windy desert but searching? I had to keep moving. Taking the curves of Canyon Road I listened to Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. I swung around one bend to the next, the hills like green and brown elephants. I wanted to find that bridge but also didn’t because the drive was so beautiful. “Momentum for the sake of momentum,” as Neko Case says. When I got to the trail the bridge was blocked. I was disappointed that I couldn’t cross it. But I was also glad to have limitations and some kind of guidance, because having one opportunity blocked meant I had to find another.
I’d already decided plan B was nearby Manastash Ridge, a hike I’d done before with an ex- boyfriend. He liked to hike and it was something we did together, but at the time I didn’t really get hiking. I didn’t get leaving early to beat the trailhead parking lot crowd that was inevitable anyway. I didn’t, and still don’t, get walking through shrouded pine to a view. I do these kinds of hikes sometimes, but I try to find some other bonus: a cool bridge, waterfall, proximity to where I’m staying, or in today’s case, wildflowers. I remembered the hike was a big, barren, dusty place with a lot of hills. But trip reports said wildflowers were good, and then I remembered that boyfriend and I had gone in June when the wildflowers would have been gone. I hoped today would be different.
When I followed directions to the trailhead I didn’t recognize the parking lot trail. Maybe this was a different trail. It was immediately steep, but I told myself I could go as far as I wanted, take breaks. I had plenty of time. There were several hills and trails went up and up over again and again like The Sound of Music. Just like yesterday’s hike, the more I ascended, the more wildflowers I saw: those same yellow ones, purple and white ones, and a faint violet white one. It wasn’t dusty and barren at all. On my way down I took another trail that wound around the ridge. This trail was lined with wildflowers, too. And just as I’d thought I’d seen all the varieties, I’d see a different white one or be led into a patch of bluebells. There were flowers everywhere. Finally the trail was flat enough that I could look out and also enjoy the hike for exactly what it was. I didn’t have to climb so hard.
The day after I got back to Seattle I finished Deep Creek. The desert air somehow still with me, I walked in a particular section of a particular neighborhood of Seattle I love, listening to a different podcast with Pam. The host referenced that first Dear Sugar episode--now four years old--and asked Pam if she still felt her ranch she’d talked about in the podcast and written about in Deep Creek was her home. Pam paused and said she didn’t feel it was. I almost stopped walking. Pam said it was true and has been true for 25 years, but her relationship with the land she lives on has changed. She said her valley in Colorado has been overtaken (like so many great things have been) by Texas Republicans. Still, she sounded optimistic. She said that loving a place and leaving it doesn’t mean you hadn’t loved it, but that like boyfriends, it was a “limited success.”
How do we find our place on this Earth? And If Pam Houston is looking again, what should the rest of us do?
Pam wants a place where she can walk into a coffee shop and see a piece of paper advertising a drum circle. She doesn’t want to go to the drum circle, but to know it is there. Pam has been at her ranch for 25 years. I have been here for 20, and I don’t want to blossom in this dirt anymore. I don’t want to bloom, expectedly, spring after spring, because that is what wildflowers do. I want momentum for the sake of momentum. I want to find a new patch of dirt on a sunny hillside and be wild. To feel like I did on the flat stretch of Manastash Ridge: welcomed into the valley, enveloped by wildflowers, and--for just a moment--home.