“The earth is no wanton to give up all her best to every comer, but keeps a sweet, separate intimacy for each.”

Mary Hunter Austin

Preface to The Land of Little Rain

* An almost true story

In my 20s, I bought flowers and fancy chocolates for straight girls. I also said yes when they asked me to share their beds for nights of chaste, fitful sleep. Completely unconscious of what I was doing (didn’t all gals bring roses and candy to their friends when they went to see them?), I didn’t understand why I felt so hurt.

Over the decades that followed, a married woman offered me a commitment ring, and I almost got hitched to a thoughtful man who gave me a canoe instead of an engagement diamond.

But now I’m wedded to Mother Nature and spend nearly every waking moment protecting her and the kids from the fool schemes the rest of the human race dream up. What the hell happened to me?

It all began innocently enough. Family camping trips meant I was allowed to get dirty, and no one expected I would wear girly clothes unless I chose them myself. (Somewhere there is a family photo of teenage me hiking Mt. Whitney in a patchwork top of my own creation, adorned with eyelet lace.)

 My mother often lectured my sister, whose duffel bag was always overstuffed with inappropriate footwear: “We are not going to a fashion show.” But me she left alone even though I was f-i-l-t-h-y with dirt clods, pine sap, grass stains, and my own sweat.

When a college friend canceled on our trip to Death Valley National Park, I went alone and slept on a picnic table because I didn’t have a tent and was afraid of scorpions.

That might have been when Mother Nature started watching me, noting me as a potential bride.

She had to wait a long time because it took me ages to understand who and what made me most happy. Oblivious, I spent a decade in the Definitely-Less-Great Indoors.

But when I was in grad school, I rediscovered camping and hiking because I wanted to visit the places that had inspired the author I was studying. Because I was poor, I outfitted myself with thrift store finds and 30-year-old camping gear that had been discarded by a relative. When a friend gave me a gift certificate to a very well-known sports store, I used it but couldn’t get out of the place fast enough. I felt like a fraud who had no right to be there in the Temple of Outdoor Things.

As I re-learned how to be in nature safely, I made a million mistakes, like starting all-day hikes at too quick of a pace. I slept tormentedly in the open bed of my truck on frosty nights, not yet knowing that was a colder place to sleep than a tent.

Along the way, I convinced a woman who was a much better sport than I would have been in her place to go backpacking with me through a wilderness of sand dunes. You know, the kind of place where every step propels another quarter pound of pulverized granite and feldspar into your boots.

Our first night there, I held her in my arms and calmed her fears as off-roaders zipped around us in the dark, zooming way closer to our tent than they should have. After all, who is more fun to scare than a couple of chicks who are clearly not part of the chosen, as shown by having gone off on their own without an RV, a trailer of quads, and a passel of menfolk and children to feed.

But then we got deep into the legally protected part of the dunes, where the machines had to stay out and we didn’t have to use the tent. We held hands outside our sleeping bags as we fell asleep. The next morning we awoke to birdsong and wildflowers growing in the sand.

That was not the first time I helped a woman who found herself in a strange outdoor situation she didn’t like. Once on a group hike, a hiker suddenly became afraid when the sun started to set while she was picking her way along a faint track across a steep, rocky slope. Our group was still several miles from the trailhead when she froze in her tracks and refused to take another step.

I was internally furious with her for putting all of us at risk on a stretch of trail that had no room for us to camp out until the next morning. But my more gentle self spoke aloud and convinced her to keep moving, coaxing her step by step until her fear abated. We got back to the trailhead well after dark, but no one was missing or injured. Even though she said many times that she hated the hike, I heard later that she had changed her mind and was telling people it was the best hike of her life.

Mother Nature was definitely watching when I fought with a girlfriend who was upset because when we were in the wild, I couldn’t stay focused. Instead, my eyes darted around at all the wonderful plants and animals I saw: lupins, cottontails, swallowtails, palo verde.  I got lost in my own sentences.

I must say in my own defense that I was very good at focusing during *ahem* certain parts of desert excursions. But of course, that only attracted more of Mother Nature’s attention.

The whole thing started tipping when I walked for 10 days through the desert to help protect a beloved state park. Many people hiked with me for a day at a time, bringing chocolate cake, sandwiches and the pleasure of their company.

Despite the happiness of community in the outdoors, the parts of the walk that I loved most were those when I was alone. I sang “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” and sought out smoke trees and tamarisk for a little shade during the hottest part of the day.

When a sand storm popped up suddenly and became too intense for me to continue, Mother Nature sheltered me. I crawled under a giant creosote bush and angled my backpack against the wind. When it was over, I saw that the sand had blasted the metallic finish off my sunglass lenses. But my heart was full of joy.

Thanks for reading this far. More to come later.


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