Friday, October 24, 2008

Tourist for a Day

I think I'm a bad ranger.

How can I possibly sit here on my high horse and tell people to get out of their cars and experience the outdoors when I, myself, have yet to visit many of the beautiful places in my own literal backyard of Olympic National Park?

In an attempt to remedy this travesty, I took one sunny weekend day and went out and had a tourist day. I took the right turn off of Highway 101 and proceeded up the Sol Duc Valley in search of fall colors and jumping salmon.

The colors up here this year are impressive. I don't remember them being this vibrant and varied last year. Granted, I don't remember much of my arrival in the northwest last year except the randomly placed jack-o-lanterns that slowly fell in on themselves along the Mora Road.

But this year even the clear cuts are pretty.

Sol Duc is especially nice.

I wandered along, driving slowly and listening to The Band at full volume (the perfect fall driving music). I pulled off at interpretive wayside exhibits and scenic vistas. I even occasionally committed the cardinal sin of stopping directly in the middle of the road to take a picture of something so I wouldn't have to get out of the car.

Honestly, it was quite freeing to live by tourist rules instead of ranger rules.

And then, just when I thought my transformation into a tourist could go no further, I stopped at Salmon Cascades to look for jumping Coho.

I walked the short path to the Cascades, looked over the edge, and, after only being there for three short seconds, proclaimed to no one in particular, "I don't see any salmon!"

If I was the kind of person who smacked themselves in the forehead, I would have done it then.

Chagrined, I sat at the overlook for a while after that and watched the sunlight play through the trees and reflect off the rippling water. The leaves blew in the wind. I watched an American Dipper jump in and out of the rapids looking for lunch, and I basked in the aura of the ancient trees that towered above me.

And I listened to three more groups of tourists walk up to the overlook and say, "I don't see any salmon."

I had to shake my head sadly when I finally climbed back into my car.

On the way back down the valley, I honked and gesticulated at some people stopped in the middle of the road taking pictures of leaves.

Silly tourists.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Scars and Tattoos

We all have scars.

My favorite scar is the big 2 inch caterpillar I have on my knee from when I broke my leg during a soccer game and had to have bionic parts put into me. Unfortunately, I didn't make the ch-ch-ch-ch-ch sound when I ran.

I also have good one in the middle of my left eyebrow from when my brother stood above me as I lay on the floor and dropped a coke can on my head. He swears it was an accident. I remember it differently. I blame him for my lack of well shaped Hiedi Klum-esque eyebrows.

The point is that we have physical scars that remind us of the mishaps and agony that have plagued us over the years - the falls, the bike crashes, the cuts and scrapes and scabs picked. Usually they have good stories associated with them. Sometimes they are funny, sometimes tragic, but, good or bad, those scars remind us.

Then there are the mental scars - most of the time more painful than the physical. A girl never forgets the first time she was called fat or any boy that breaks her heart. You never forget those embarrassing moments that make you want to crawl under your bed and never come out or the sad times that make you think there's just no way you can go on in so much pain. You never forget the event that makes you realize for the first time that life is not, after all, fair.

Things that leave scars are bad. They're painful and they hurt, and we're forced to remember them for the rest of our lives.

Why can't we be scarred by the good things that happen to us?

It doesn't happen that someone asks you about the mark on your arm and you say, "Oh that's from when my boss said I was invaluable to the operation and gave me a big raise!" or "That's from when I got an A+ on my final exam and decided I really could be a doctor!"

I have no physical marks on me to show how proud I am of myself that I just survived the hardest, most painful year of my life.

Why is it that we should be constantly reminded of the difficult and hurtful things in life and not have the same reminders of the strength or courage or happiness we've found?

To me, this is where tattoos come in.

Of course, some people get a tattoo just because they want a tattoo. Tweety bird rarely means more than "I couldn't find anything better to get on my bicep and this one was cheap."

However, most tattoos actually mean something. They commemorate something. Even the soon regretted name of your sweetie on your left buttock means something at the time.

My tattoos are good scars of things I want to be reminded of. They remind me that my family loves me unconditionally, that I'm strong, and that I'm beautiful.

Yes, you could say that I should know all those things anyway, but sometimes it's nice to be reminded.

Years from now (or days from now) a phoenix tattoo might remind me that even when I get buried by this mess of a world, I will emerge a better and stronger person.

Sometimes the important stuff is the hardest to remember.

Let the good stuff scar you, too, and find your own way to remember it as often as you can.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

There's No Place Like....Here?

What makes a place your home?

Is it the place where you were born? The place you grew up? Where your family is? Where you went to school?

Or is it the place where you feel comfortable? Where you feel you belong? The place where the landscape speaks to you and you feel at peace?

I'm faced with this dilemma every time someone asks me, "Where are you from?"

They typically are not satisfied with my glib answer of "Oh, everywhere".

I can fake an answer and say, "Texas", since that's the one place I spent most of my military upbringing, is where I went to college, and is where my parents still live. Also, most people inevitably, and oddly, have a cousin or a sister somewhere in the vicinity of Fort Worth, so it's an answer people can relate to and comment on.

"Well, you don't have a Texas accent!"
"No. I don't." Good observation.

For lack of a better answer, this one usually fills the void.

It always leaves me feeling a bit empty, though.

Is Texas where I'm from? Kind of. But I'm also from Nebraska, Virginia, a little town in Germany, and, most recently, Wyoming. It's a bit of a pain going into that story when people ask, and they usually end up looking regretful that they asked the question in the first place.

My preferred answer to the standard question is "Wyoming". It tends to confuse people, though. I didn't grow up there, and no one ever has a cousin or sister that lives near Green River.

They usually have heard of the Tetons, though.

"Oh, the Tetons are so beautiful!!! Why would you leave?!?"

It is at this point that I clench my teeth and try not to bite them.

More to the point, though, as I have now been "from" Wyoming and not "in" Wyoming for almost exactly a year, I've had time to ponder this need for people to have someplace to be "from". I've decided that when most people ask you where you're from, they don't really care what your answer is. They're just looking for something to talk to you about, for some way to relate to you. Because, really, what does where you're from really say about who you are? People are constantly breaking free of the confines and stereotypes set for them by their childhood and their upbringing, and many people find that their home is someplace totally different than the place where they are from.

So I ask again - what makes a place your home?

Romantically and idealistically, Wyoming is my home. It is the place my heart longs to be. I actually feel something deep in my chest when I think about being there. It is the place that I have a connection to - the smell of the sagebrush after a rainstorm, the deep cornflower blue of the sky, the wide open space, the stark silhouette of the Tetons rising above the sparkling yellow of the aspens in the fall, the joyful surprise of seeing a pronghorn or a moose or a bison standing just off the side of the road, the familiarity of driving into Jackson and knowing exactly where and how to get exactly what I'm looking for at any given moment, the peace I feel when I'm there.

But as wonderful as it was, I'm not there anymore. It's not where I live. But it continues to be the place to which I compare all others. It is the place I feel that is the foundation of who I am right now as a person. Now it's where I'm from. And even though the average person I meet will not have anything to say about me being from Wyoming except, "Oh", I will continue to be "from" there when people ask.

But "home" is now here in Olympic National Park. Home is where I'm making my way and finding new things to define who I am. Home is where my dog greets me with a wagging tail and where my cat cuddles up with me at the end of a long day. Home is where I know I can find a pizza cutter without looking in six different drawers and a cold beer in the fridge. Home is where I am, because it has to be. You have to have a sanctuary to call your own, no matter where you are.

And who knows, maybe when I move on to my next park I'll have a different answer when people ask me, "Where are you from?"