“A mountain lion sounds like a screaming woman,” said the ranger at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. This bothered me. Until I was standing outside a locked door in Castle Valley, Utah, listening to what sounded like a chorus of screaming women. “Mountain lions,” I thought, as mournful coyotes sang harmony.
My husband and I are on a road trip around the West. We have stayed with relatives, camped, enjoyed a few budget motels and a sweet suite at a hostel. The graciously lent Utah home of a friend, outside of which we were now standing and listening to wildlife, was by far the most luxurious stop on our trip. For the first time in two weeks, we cooked: pasta with veggies from the Salida, Colorado Farmer’s Market; a bottle of red wine. Aahh. After dinner we stepped out on the patio to admire the stars and the moon over the red rock castles of this storied valley. Rustin was in socks. I was in slippers. The door closed and locked behind us.
What followed was one of the longest half hours of our lives.
For a few minutes, we swore and moaned along with the coyotes and lions. Then Rus began systematically checking windows. I tried jimmying the lock with my tiny cross necklace, succeeding only in twisting the cross—a metaphor I may use in a future Restless Nest, but not this one. Then I racked my brain: what else could I find and use, without a flashlight? My bicycle key and the Allen wrench in my bike bag? Yes! But no. No luck. However: our car was unlocked and our hiking boots were inside: excellent news. Big step up from socks and slippers. Now in boots, we inched around the house, trying windows, mulling which one we would break if we had to and how much it would cost to fix it.
When we were almost out of windows, the miracle happened: Rus tugged on a bathroom window and, with a pop, it opened. He boosted me through, right into the bathtub. We were in! Laughter, relief, joy!
Just another Western Road Trip moment, when you’re almost undone by your own stupidity and instead find yourselves doing what survivors do: laughing. After camping and hiking in bear country, after driving our tiny car with two wobbling bikes on the back through the high winds of Wyoming, who would’ve thunk a locked door would bring us down?
As I write, it’s morning on that same patio, and I’ve been watching the sun rise over the red rock castles. This time of year, that’s not such an early start: it was almost 8:00 when the sun blazed over the cliffs.
What is it about these Western landscapes—these valleys the size of small Eastern states, these mountains and canyons that make city skyscrapers look like Lego towers—what is it that makes me feel an emotion very much like romantic love? Is it because I miss my mom, who grew up in Montana? Do I feel her mountain-fed spirit running through me? Is it because we just visited our daughter, who is so smitten after a second season with the Southwest Conservation Corps that she plans to stay in Colorado for a while? Is it because my husband shares this love I feel and, together, we’ve spent large parts of this trip in that sublime state I like to call daily stunned gratitude? Is it because we’re reminded of past trips, including one we made with our children in 1999, which involved hours in the car listening to the Sons of the San Joaquin?
Yes. And no. It feels more personal, more primal than that.
Feeling small in a large landscape makes me feel like: I may be tiny, but life is huge. It makes me feel the grandness of being alive in a world of beauty that has nothing to do with what we think we value when we stare at these small screens.
Hiking in Arches National Park, hearing French, Chinese, German and a host of other languages on the trail, I feel especially grateful that we can share these Western treasures with the rest of the world. That in 1872, we started with Yellowstone and kept on adding, until, at this writing, we have 401 national parks. That 50 years ago, lawmakers took the whole idea even further and passed the Wilderness Act, which today protects 110 million of our most pristine acres.
And there’s no locked door on any of it. It’s ours. It all belongs to all of us.
I’m reminded of a poem my mother wrote in which she tried to explain to her six children how it was that she had enough love for all of us. “How can love be measured out?” she asked. “Love is infinite, indefinite, pervasive.”
Large Western landscapes call for large, immeasurable love. And loving the West along with the people you love, those who are gone and those who are here, is even sweeter. Even when the mountain lions are screaming and you’re locked out, in your slippers, wondering how far away they are.