No Strangers in Here

It has been an interesting summer.  In the fly-by speed of it, I’ve barely had time to snap my fingers as all my plans seem to drift away on the mists of the rapidly evaporating rains.  (Another moment of thanks for the rain.  Though, I’m curious how the almost daily rains are affecting our valley ranchers.  I know all too well, having been raised in the wheat fields of Kansas that you definitely can have too much of a good thing.)  

This reality of plans that don’t seem to stick, as well as the constant uncertainty of the weather’s effects on my daily work and a life in limbo, keep me in a humble state of recognition that I have very little control over the world at large.  Surrender seems to be the name of the game.  I do not claim to be good at it, which is probably why it appears that the universe continually holds that lesson in front of me like a carrot in front of a horse.  Although, I really can’t say it tastes as good going down.

I’ve been tired.  Illness in my loved ones and the reality of the structures that be have meant my plans to move into a place of my own are, once again, on hold.  Around this time of the summer, a little more than halfway through the garden/landscape season, my body starts to refuse to get out of bed in the morning.  I dream of cool swimming holes and days lying in a grassy gnoll along the mountainside, plucking out new songs on my guitar.

And….I get grouchy.

Let this be my official apology to the woman who walks her dogs south of town early in the morning.  Though you may not have heard my thoughts, you might have felt my energetic darts of seething resentment the other morning when I realized my final place of early-morning refuge had been met by yet another…as I saw it in that moment…intruder (that’s you).

Allow me to explain myself.  For as far back as I can remember, my times spent in the Wet Mountain Valley always meant rest, respite, complete relaxation for me.  Quietude.  Solitude.  When I moved here with my family, it was because, even though we had spent most of our lives in small towns, I had been living in what was to me the “big city” (Wichita, Kansas, population 390,566 = not actually a big city, at all).  Throughout my intermittent years of life there, I took every blinking opportunity I could to escape back west, be it to my home town of Minneola (population 719) or further to rural Colorado.

Being the poetic and musical spirit that I am, the quiet and solitude of this place and others like it are pure gold— healing portals into creative bliss.  To my personal (and self-centered) dismay, I’ve noticed that more and more people are discovering this valley every year, and this place that has always held such promise of silent contemplation and rapturous isolation is increasingly abuzz with newcomers.

If you see the irony here (I just officially moved here a little over two years ago), just bear with me for a moment longer. 

Since I moved here, I’ve had a fairly regular morning routine.  Wake up, meditate/pray, exercise, make breakfast, pack a lunch, get dressed.  And then, at 7:00, almost every weekday morning, I walk the dogs to places around the area where typically no one else goes.  One of the things I’ve loved about small towns is that usually you can find a good spot for dogs to run around without bothering anyone else.  However, since the weather began to warm back in the spring, each of my cherished dog-walking locations has become peopled by other, equally dedicated dog-walkers.

My final stronghold of dog-walking solace was ripped from my grasp one morning this week when a fellow dogwalker woman and I faced off from across the field.  She yelled at me to get my dog who was running toward her while hers subsequently ran at full-speed in our direction.  The exchange was not pleasant, and I spent the rest of our walk and a good part of my morning fuming at the audacity of that woman with her fancy new SUV to move here to my town (to be fair, she may have lived here all her life, and I wouldn’t know it) and walk her dog on my turf!!!!!!!!

As I walked on, the kinder voices of my better nature lovingly reasoned with me, “She’s here because she also needs connection with nature.  She needs solace and respite.  It’s okay for her to be here, too.  She needs it as much as anyone.”  (Damned mindfulness practice.)  This didn’t prevent me from egocentrically ranting my frustration to my friends and family throughout the day, but as that day and the week wore on, I softened and heard the truth behind the fear in a question:

Why do I have any more right to be here claiming that spot than anyone else?

We have all heard the stories of people who rise up over the Wet Mountains on Highway 96 for the very first time, and suddenly that impossibly splendorous valley opens up before them like a before-hidden world and makes the breath catch in their throats with the incredulity and magnificence of it all. This place draws us like a cosmic magnet.  

We also all know the history of this valley.  It was never truly any one of ours to begin with, right?  The earth is somehow, at least up to now, a perpetual gift of life that keeps giving, and this valley is one of its greatest offerings (though, my conscience requires me to point out that perhaps this gift does have its limits, which means we need to be much more responsible with it—maybe its earliest inhabitants understood that better than we modern earth-dwellers?).

The story of this valley is diverse beyond what many of us might know.  Before Europeans ever set foot on the soil of this continent, the Ute Indian tribe had inhabited this land for thousands of years.  It is believed by some that they lived in harmony with these spectacular mountains for at least 5-10,000 years before they were pushed out.  In fact, they have their origin story here, and the mountains are still their true home.  

Researching this topic, my gut resonated with a certain gravity and wistfulness that can’t quite be captured in words when I read the following on the Southern Ute tribal website’s chronology of their history:

Beginning – The Utes were created by Sinawav (the Creator) and were placed in the mountains. The Sinawav told the people they would be few in number, but they would be strong warriors, and protectors of their lands.

There is no migration story, we were placed here in the mountains, we have always been here, we will always be here.

I ache to have a sense of place as connected as these people do. 

So, in light of my somewhat misguided headspace following that not-so-pleasant interaction with my new dog-walking neighbor, and in light of my meditations on the many, many previous inhabitants of this valley, I’ve had a bit of a heart-change.  

This experience of living so close to nature is immensely important for the lives of every single human being.  We are nature!  We are the earth, and our lives—though we may try with all our might to convince ourselves otherwise—are inseparable from it.  We depend on it and each other.  Living in connection with places like the Wet Mountain Valley is essential for all of us, and unfortunately the privilege of doing so lies with only a few who can afford it.  

I don’t know how long I will be here, whether the housing crisis will abate, whether I’ll find work this winter, whether… 

However, I do know that from now on, for however long I might be given the gift of doing so, I will remember that this home is for all of us.  From now on, I will remember to embody the sentiment of the great Wendell Berry:  a community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives.  I hope my presence here can be a nurturing space for all of my neighbor’s lives to blossom and burgeon.

In the words of Roald Dahl, “There are no strangers in here, just friends you haven’t met.”