Adventures that come at us on their own reveal rough edges more quickly and with less glow than adventures we consciously choose. Beyond that, the two are pretty much the same. An adventure is an adventure, and one’s ability to be the conscious star in it is often the only saving grace against the supreme testing of our courage and strength, as well as times of depression or despair.
Twice in my life, I’ve found adventure in a wild, open place tucked beneath a circle of Rocky Mountain peaks ranging from 8000 – 12,000 feet in elevation. Fewer than 1200 people live in a breathtaking sweep of land covering more than 2400 square miles.
At the age of 34, I was actively seeking something that would lift me above crushing grief from the death of my son, and re-inject my spirit with the energy I had begun to lose after a decade of public work on sexual assault issues. With full intention I packed my car, set out for six months of journeying across the United States and Canada, and found both the healing and adventure I sought.
At the age of 53, three years ago, I thought I was living the dream. I was ready to present a new novel to the world, was starting a memoir, was settled in a 12-year relationship, lived on an active llama ranch with a Noah’s Ark assortment of animals, and was working at a job I loved. In a chain reaction sweep covering just a few months, every bit of that dream crumbled around me, flinging me into the different kind of adventure one doesn’t choose.
Both of these pivotal times in my life led me to the same place on earth – not the land of my birth or ancestry, but a place outside everything I knew about myself. A place where all kinds of adventures rumble with a perpetual hum beneath the rough surface of its piece of Earth.
When I first came to North Park in 1991, the craggy poverty and ill kempt realities of isolated mountain life were muted for me by the heart stopping magnificence of the land. It was something I’d chosen, the journey here and the settling in. I embraced it with the heart of a pioneer, of a character in a story of my own invention.
In a place where the snow can and often does fall in every calendar month of the year, the summer profusion of flowers when I first arrived so entranced me I was compelled to buy guidebooks and memorize the names of them — to take lessons in pressing, drying, and preserving them before they quickly disappeared. Sky rocket, alpine star, fawn lily, lupine, columbine, bluebell, purple aster, penstemon, butter and eggs, elephant head, fireweed, sulphur flower, sticky geranium, monument plants, wild rose, wild iris, wild tulip, rabbit brush, and sage. They carpeted my early days in North Park with sharp color and fragrance. They made me feel like a girl intent on making daisy chains.
The animals were my neighbors, mentors and best friends. Porcupines curled up on my top step at dawn, deer escaped hunters’ bullets and kept me company while I split firewood in the fall, moose munched on willow branches while I skied within a few yards of them, ermine marked my passing at the same windy curve every afternoon, coyotes sang me awake and asleep, bear and mountain lion bellowed a mostly invisible existence, herds of a hundred elk or more flowed past my sheltered cabin in purpose driven waves, badgers barreled by on dusty summer terrain, intent on food they had to find in their few waking hours each day.
When I first came to North Park, I was sick, tired, and on the run. She healed me — this land, the life and people it holds. She wasn’t gentle about it, but she was always grand in her gifts and her lessons.
In the summer of 2010, I returned as a middle aged woman with greater, more difficult needs. The mountain cabin in the forest that housed me for eight years the first time I came, was no longer available. But without hesitation, the family who owned it and the ranch it was part of, offered up 265 acres of pasture there for summer grazing for the llamas who came with me. For me, they provided another place they owned in the open basin of North Park — a 40-year-old trailer drowning in decay and filth, with a row of precariously leaning barns and sheds behind it. The buildings are surrounded by 40 acres of rich grassland and willows, 360° views of magnificent mountains, and 10 acres of piled-high rusting, broken, chemically bleeding junk.
In spite of the generosity that saved me from homelessness, I thought I would be crushed by this turn my life was taking. Each day I dug through other people’s castoffs that were piled from floor to ceiling in every sagging building, coated with grime, mildew, cobwebs and mouse droppings. Weak with exhaustion and a conviction that what surrounded me was corporeal proof of my utter failure as a human being, I struggled to carve out tiny spots of livable space for me and the animals. Each night I climbed into the used bed given to me by friends, curled into a ball of mortification and listened to the coyote song welcoming me back to North Park.
It was that echoing sound of the untamable that got me through the nights, and the needs of the animals I’d dragged along with me that forced me through the days. But if it hadn’t been for my writing, for my unquenchable need to create adventures and complicated women within them, my spirit would not have survived. From the start, I wrote things like this:
“I’m well and strong, but although considered a single woman, no longer alone. I’m lost, broke, and in the company of great responsibilities – a herd of llamas and a ragtag crew of rescued critters from a pound puppy to a disabled pigeon. I’m a 54 year-old writer still seeking sustenance from a life of work that sustains me in every way but financially. I have greater fears than those that chased me 20 years ago. Once again I need this land — this North Park — and her lessons, knowing right away that she will be more demanding and in a different way than she was when we first met. Bring it on, I tell her. There’s something of a last chance in this move I’ve made.”
I talked tough when I wrote in those early days, creating an adventure on the page I was a long, long way from believing in as I was living it. I clung to the process with only a tiny hope I would make it through, let alone shine with the adventure of it.