On Mountains and Finding Your Way

I was five, I think, when my mother first taught me how to orient myself in the valley. “See the small, brown mountains? Those are the Oquirrhs. They are in the West, where the sun sets. Just to the north of them is the Great Salt Lake, the faint mountains up there are actually islands in the lake” “And the big, purple, pointy mountains are in the East, right?” “Yes. The Wasatch Mountains are in the East. They stretch from the North to the South. And there in the South they bend as if they want to hold hands with the Oquirrhs, but they can’t quite reach.”

Ok, maybe she didn’t say all of that all at once. I think I’ve made it clear that I don’t really remember dialogue as what was really said, but rather what I think was probably said – or what I would have preferred was said. But I think this comes pretty close to what one of those first geography lessons would have sounded like.

To live in the Salt Lake Valley is to always have the mountains within view. Our trees are neither high enough nor thick enough to hide them. Our streets are so broad that even downtown the buildings are not thickly packed enough to block them. They throw our valley into twilight as they create long sunrises and sunsets that unfold and fold again behind them. They are so present as to be invisible. We take them for granted even as they inform our senses of place and direction.

If our Mother gave us lectures and discussions, our Father preferred more experiential lessons. We’d be driving home in his truck when suddenly he would claim amnesia. “I can’t remember how to get home,” he would say, a helpless look on his face, “you’re going to have to tell me where to go.” And he would drive around in circles or straight lines until I would start giving him directions to get home. Sometimes we would be in an entirely unfamiliar part of the valley – miles from home – and all I would have would be the mountains to tell me which direction we were going: where we would have to go to make the mountains look as they look when I’m looking at them from home. My brothers and I got to the point where no matter where we were in the valley we could navigate our way home. We could never be lost.

This navigation by mountain is not something I can stop doing just because I leave my valley. Whenever I travel I keep track of the directions and what stands in place as markers. This is not unique to me, but is, I think, a result of living here. A few months ago Heather of Dooce wrote about a trip she took to San Francisco. She told about how she could tell that her companion was driving the wrong way not because she was at all familiar with San Francisco, but because she had noticed that the mountains were on the wrong side of the car. I have had similar experiences. Wherever I am I take the mountains in, orient myself against them. If there are mountains around I may have no idea where I’m going, but at least I’ll know in which direction I’m pointed.

No matter where I am in the valley, I always know in which direction I face. Except, sometimes, at night. Out in the country, or the suburbs, where lights don’t wash out the stars, I have seen the stars come out against the mountain-shaped holes in the sky so often that I can navigate by their positions alone. I like to think it is the Viking raiders and Valkyries in my genes raising their collective horn-shod heads. But really, it is a sense of place so deeply embedded as to feel inherent. Some times, in the city, at night, when I can’t see the stars or the mountains, I will lose my sense of direction. Think I’m heading North when I’m really heading East. These moments, before even I realize my mistake, feel surreal, wrong in a way almost indescribable. As if my heart itself was beating out of rhythm. The moment I realize my mistake, there’s an almost physical spinning as my internal map shifts to match my view, as my heart struggles to resume its accustomed beat. I’m almost dizzy and then it’s over and I fit as I should within my world.

The first time I left my valley alone, without my family, I spent the trip disoriented and sick with a lingering sense of unease and anxiety. I had followed directions to drive to Twin Falls, Idaho, and I had no idea where I was in relation to my valley. I had left mountains behind. I was on a wide plain surrounded only by sky. I knew I was north, and I knew I was west. But was I in the part of Idaho above Nevada, or above Utah? I made my friend draw a rough map for me and then I reviewed my car trip and re-imagined my route using her map. In a way I was calmer, because I could place myself within the bigger picture – I could find my way home if I had to – but in other ways I remained just as uneasy. There were no mountains around me. I felt exposed and vulnerable. I felt as if a strong wind could spin me around, relocate me in a place with no reference points. I was relieved to drive home.

I made that trip several times. The lure of the girl stronger than my fear of being flattened and tossed around. Each time I left the final mountain range I felt as if I were jumping into deep water or walking into a dark cavern. I drove the same route each time, the highway stretching like a string toward home, my car a loop around my finger. I grew more comfortable, the tug of home soothing to me. I always had a reason to leave, an excuse for fleeing. A direction calling me. Safety beckoning. This is the way I have been able to explore, to stretch myself out. I always know how to get home.

And so I worry. I worry that to cut that umbilicus is to cast myself adrift, to lose my way and pull my spouse and children into the wilds behind me, searching for a place to belong. In this way I think that being so deeply rooted in a place can be a liability even as it is a source of comfort. Is anyone else out there as deeply rooted to your home? Have you ever moved? Did you regain a sense of place, or did you/do you remain feeling out of place? How do you find your way?

Posted by Trista @ 1:36 PM

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Some really profound questions, Trista. It's funny that I define Maine as my home. According to hardcore Mainers, I will always be "from away" being as how I wasn't born here, didn't grow up here, and have no ancestry here. I went to college here and for several reasons decided to plant roots. And even though it's not the bluest state in New England, it feels like HOME in the most primal of senses. Which isn't to negate the fact that I grew up in CT, and in some regards CT still feels like home too. But it's more of a soft-around-the-edges-nostalgia-like-dreamy feeling. Going back to CT now, I'm always surprised at the changes and feel more like a visitor. I can't remember when the change happened, when I stopped referring to CT as home, and instead referred to Maine that way. But happened it did, and I can't tell you how happy and at peace it makes me feel to cross the Piscataqua Bridge from New Hampshire into Maine.

I'm sorry for the long comment; I guess your questions just really made me think.

Posted by Blogger Brooke @ 2:04 PM #

This is a really lovely post, Trista. After having moved several times, and each time feeling mistaken in my identity of myself and my home, I think that the truth is that we grow and change and make homes for ourselves in spite or because of our need to have a real home, and an identity rooted in a home. And I think that any place that allows your family to be a family will come to feel like home, just as going back to the mountains will always be a homecoming. I think you'll find that you'll make room for new ideas of home while retaining your old ones. I think you'll find that you are a you are more adaptable and capable of change and growth than you can imagine right now, and that you will surprise yourself.

Posted by Blogger Lauri @ 4:51 PM #

I have moved many, many times in my life. From one coast of Canada to the other, from the prairie plains to the Canadian Shield. I've lived in the busy suburbs of Washington DC and now even as I've been in Germany, I've gone from vulcanous vineyards to a banking metropolis.

I feel home sick all the time. My problem is, I don't know where home is. I yearn for Canada, the trees, the space, the lakes. My Dad was in the army, he taught me how to read maps, to read the stars, to follow the forest. He taught me what I needed to do to survive, in the woods or in the city. To this day I am a map whore. I am constantly looking for things, landmarks, whether I'm just driving in the winding roads of Ontario, or walking through the streets of Frankfurt. I see things from above, as if I have my own navigational system in my head.

I don't know where home is. When I am with my family, I feel home for a while, and then I get an itch, a longing. Being with BB, no matter where we are, I feel at home, but I yearn for something more, a different view. I don't know where home is, I have a permanent feeling of "being out of place". Is it possibly to feel home somewhere you have never been before? What is home? Can some people go their whole lives without feeling at home?

I don't know where my home is, but one day I will find it. I know I will.

Posted by Blogger Sarah and BB @ 12:43 AM #

IMO, you adjust to living in the new place, and you learn how to navigate even without the instinctive landmarks.

But for those of us who really imprinted on a place, the place you're imprinted on remains "home," even as you come to like or even love the new places.

I grew up a few blocks from the western shore of Lake Michigan. I think when there's a geographic element so dominating of your early life, it's hard to ever feel "right" without it -- even if, as you described, the dramatic geography becomes invisible.

I still MISSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS water. Living near a smaller lake helped, but you could see all the way to the other side. I think living near the ocean would help, but it would smell wrong. I'm pretty sure I'd have trouble living on the eastern shore of any big body of water -- I'd always be disoriented.

You might wind up back in SLC eventually, just like I hope to end up in Milwaukee again. But the good things you can do in other places, like adopt Julia legally, make it worth leaving. And you'll learn so much about yourselves, that's worth it too.

Posted by Anonymous Liza @ 9:58 AM #

wow. stunning post.
I grew up the daughter of a drifter. My Mom loved the 1st year in a new town & then around year 2 she was ready to move on. So I often stutter when people as me where I am from. I tend to ask, "um, what year??"

I think home is where your heart is, your family, your roots. I will always claim Alabama as my home- even though I don't feel AT HOME here.

If you move the cool thing is that you will always then have that place to GO home to. Over the river & through the woods & all that.

I envy you that you have such a beautiful root system.

Posted by Blogger Calliope @ 10:20 AM #

No matter where you go, you will make that place HOME because it's where your family will be. The three of you.

The prospect of moving is incredibly scary and you do feel adrift for some time. But you figure it out and make that new place work for you. As I've said before though, sometimes you need to make a move as scary as it might be. I think we keep ourselves in places because they're comfortable, but not necessarily the best option. Only because we're afraid of what we don't know.

My parents divorced when I was 8 and we moved around almost every year. At least every time the lease expired. Cris and I have now lived in 3 different states together. The first couple of months are difficult, there's no lying about that. It does take some time to get your bearings about you again. But we look at it as a new adventure. A new place to explore.

More importantly, a new place to start the new chaper of our life together!


Posted by Blogger Mandy @ 10:27 AM #

What a wonderful post. And not just because I long for mountains. I grew up in Portland, Oregon. I am a Portlander to my core, even though I suspect I'll never live there again.

Sometimes, I'll be driving on a cloudy day, and the clouds will break, and I find myself looking around for the mountain (aka, Mt. Hood). Sometimes, I almost even see it. But it isn't really there, of course.

I'm only now growing accustomed to seeing cities not framed by mountains and hills.

I spent four years, and then three years (undergraduate school, then back home to Portland, and then three years back for grad school) living in Philadelphia. It was nice, but it never really felt like home.

And then I moved to NYC. Within months, it was home to me, too. It's strange, that my two loves (Portland, New York) should be so distant, and it's inconvenient that they are located on opposite sides of the country. I can't put my finger on exactly why I love these two places, and not places that are near them. But you can definitely find more than one home.

The down side is, in my experience, that you don't lose the love for the first home, just because you gained a love for a new one. So I find myself constantly tugged between two places.

As for finding my way... I think I orient to the ocean (but, inconveniently, would you believe that on the east coast, the ocean is located to the east?)

Posted by Blogger Jest @ 5:11 PM #

I grew up in cities (3 of 'em) so I orient to large buildings. I'm quite serious....cities make me feel at home. However, one city in particular seems to have imprinted on me more than another -- not where I was born, but where I lived from ages 4 to 10. After we moved I didn't return until I was 22....and it was a homecoming. I can't explain it, really, and it's certainly not about nature per se (although the park in my home neighborhood calls to me). It's just home.
I used to orient myself, in this city of mine, by two buildings in particular that aren't there anymore. (So that's enough being subtle about where I live.) Those were my mountains, my compass. That is still a gaping hole in my landscape. Aside from everything else associated with, you know, 9/11: my compass is missing. I can still see the hole.
I don't know why this crazy city is my home. Everyone else in my family lives in another state -- the one we moved to when I was ten-- and chides me for not joining them. Indeed....it's the one state where I could be legally married. But...it isn't home. I lived there for eight years and I have affection for the place, but I always rubbed against the knowledge that I wasn't home.

Posted by Blogger Lo @ 4:40 PM #
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