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?