But there was also the feeling of home, and these feelings shiver still in my core.
The passage into the cabin was steep and jutted with rocks. For many days during our time in the canyon, my dad would do “road work”: moving rocks from one place to another, fitting flatter stones against the ground to give better traction and smoother travels. The last 500-foot drop into the belly of our canyon filled with the smell of burning grasses as they heated against our engine, and we lurched and lunged as our Jeep clambered slowly down the inclines.
As we drove the steepest part of the road, right before we’d turn a sharp corner and the river in the belly of the canyon would come into sight, my stomach would tense with anxiety. I understood how far away we were from any sort of help; when I was a child, I could not drive up the complicated road if my father injured himself lifting rocks or if he got bit by a rattlesnake. There was a river with sneaky undertows, rocks to slip on and smash your head against; there was lightning and preying mountain lions. I was terrified that something would happen to my father and I would be unable to help and he would perish and be unreachable forevermore.
When we arrived at the cabin I was very much confronted with a real and present world, aware of the consequences of blood, injury, mishap—not so very afraid of hurting myself but fearing for those I loved. And outside of our cabin vacations, I remember myself now as a worried child, not unhappy but not particularly satisfied with life as I lived it. Instead, I liked my books and my games of pretend.
And yet, this property had been purchased with such thoughtfulness by my great-grandparents, the cabin built with such love and tended to with such care by my granddad, my father, and my father’s siblings. I felt their love and care, and I knew I “belonged”—how odd it is to inherit a chunk of land and know your feet should feel grounded in its soil; how especially odd it felt once I knew the truth about the people who lived there first, whose land it was before being violently stolen, their presence marked in the foothills beyond our cabin’s canyon. Even before understanding this history, I could not find the joy my father clearly felt whenever we visited. While the lack of electricity and running water did not much bother me, I disliked sleeping on top of the plastic sheets we encased the mattresses in, to keep out mice and ants, and I loathed the hot hikes my father dragged me on, where grasses would bite my ankles and burrs would collect in my socks and the high-altitude sun would make me lightheaded and distraught.
But there was also the feeling of home, and these feelings shiver still in my core. Sprouting through a carefully cut hole in the deck, growing from the ground below and climbing fifteen feet above our heads, there was a ponderosa pine. When we’d sit out on the deck in the evenings, waiting for the fireflies to flicker in the willows at the edge of the river, or when we’d sun on the boards after a midday dip in the cold waters, the pine tree was just as present as a family member. My great-grandparents had built this structure, not only of materials but with a vision: that they could come here, and their children could come here, and that their children’s children might too sit on the deck and spit cherry pits and play cards.
Years later, after I had graduated from high school and was visiting Denver before my first semester of college in New York City, a wildfire tore through eastern Wyoming and approached our family’s land. Wyoming is more often desolate than inhabited, and the fire hadn’t touched many homes or come close to many towns, but now it was racing through the Laramie Mountains and toward our cabin. Over one hundred years of fire suppression meant the flames couldn’t be contained; they burned and burned, chomping through the accumulated debris of forests and grasslands, the land ready for a rebirth.
My father clicked through local news articles and radar maps of the fire on his clunky old desktop in Denver, watching the flames creep closer. After a day or so of monitoring, we got in the car, without our usual days of preparation and packing, and we drove with desperation for the three hours to our cabin. As we approached, plumes of smoke clambered against the blue sky, and I felt how dry that country is: the dry grass, the dry trees, the way the sun crackles off your skin and sinks into your bones when you spend hours walking through the plains and up the hills.
But before we could drag the last post out of the way of our Jeep, we were stopped by a sheriff, who would not let us get any closer. It was too dangerous, the fire too great and too fast. She was there to make sure that people like us, of whom there must have been only a few, did not try to save their ranchlands or their run-down properties and put their bodies at risk.
It’s odd, now, to try and put myself back in this scene. The memory is one of those movie-footage ones, where I can see the pictures clearly but can’t remember how I felt. So much of my childhood was this way, and perhaps it’s why I say I was unsatisfied: My mind felt fractured from my body, and when an event merited being present, I was at odds with reality. But I do know here, in this moment, that I didn’t feel relieved that the sheriff stopped us. I wanted to feel the fire’s blistering heat on my skin. To know, even if it was not for myself but instead for my father, that I would do something to keep our family history tangible, intact, touchable.
Instead, we stood on the road and watched smoke consume the sky and drove home while our cabin burned.
My dad tells me that when the cabin was first built, the road down the canyon was sandy and smooth as silk. My ancestors built the cabin when they were in their thirties, and they drove big, boxy Plymouths—or some other wide boat of a car—that sailed down the roads, parking under the tall pines with bark that peels off like puzzle pieces and smells spicy with sap. My dad also tells me that my ancestors used to throw prohibition parties; there was a phonograph still living inside the cabin when he was a boy. Before the cabin and the land around it burned, we’d find punctured steel beer cans and spidery glass bottles of “medicine” hibernating among boulders. Now we find melted aluminum, perhaps from the ladders and other tools stored underneath the deck, coiled into compelling new forms.
Instead, we stood on the road and watched smoke consume the sky and drove home while our cabin burned.
Though I was a quiet child, I have found myself slowly succumbing to the lure of hedonism. I imagine the thrill of my ancestors, giddy among the tall darkened spears of pine trees in the night, and the older I get the more I wonder: What else have we got in this life, other than to enjoy ourselves and not hurt others while doing so?
It was only once I moved to New York City for college that I discovered I was not wholly a bookish person, content to hide away on couches instead of playing outside—my body still while my mind spun off to some other dimension—but that I too thrived in the wildfire-fast pace and consumption of the city. I hadn’t moved to NYC for the city, as so many of my peers had, but for my college program—for my beloved books. I was not supposed to, had not been raised to love this place. I should love the way my thighs burn as I climb hills and the ache of fresh mountain air pulled into my lungs. Instead, I found myself in a racing cityscape and I was ravenous to keep up. My body had to hustle; my mind had to unlearn and reshape. The two were no longer fractured; here they worked together and aligned. What next? And what next? New York shoved me up against a seething, dirty crowd of a million kind and gracious strangers and showed me there were many people I could be; there were many ways to discover who, exactly, I was.
When I first moved to New York, I’d walk through the dark streets late at night feeling euphoric—feeling like I belonged in this place more than I’d ever belonged before. I’d look up at buildings illuminated by yellowy street lamps or at the black spots of birds sweeping past skyscrapers during a winter day, and it was like I was hiking through a valley and gazing at canyon walls. If you look upward, on a quiet cold day or a sleepy humid night, the stone faces of buildings are just like a desert: so much life moving underneath the surface; not visible but teeming.
My family had picked the North Laramie River to discover themselves, but I could not find myself there. There were so many slow hours to be spent: the slow unfurling of a fishing line; the slow minutes waiting for a bite; the long afternoons with the sun glaring down on my shoulders until they reddened and stung with the brush of my cotton shirt; the slow passing of days until we drove back up our treacherous road and sped down the air-conditioned highway to our house in downtown Denver.
Of course, there was the busyness of nature, but nature simply is, and she does not care about us. We ask for balance, for understanding, for reason, but she does not: She does not care about time or language or math. We owe her things, but she does not owe us anything, and she neither remembers nor has never forgotten who I am. Now, in my life in the city, I get to decide who will remember me and who does not. I choose where to go and where to stop. This is the freedom I crave, the freedom I perhaps have always craved.
But I am overcompensating for my life in the city too. Now the cabin has burned and we go to our property less and less, and my father’s siblings debate what to do with our strange little plot of land. Even when I think of the life I’ve carved out for myself in New York, I feel a sense of loss. There was so much intuited pressure to identify myself with the North Laramie River, but only once our family cabin was gone was I able to recognize the parts of myself that swam in the river and daydreamed on the banks.
Over centuries, the steep walls of the canyon have broken off and tumbled down the sides of the cliffs to scatter along the valley floor and into the river itself, and even now, when we return to the cabinless land, my father and I love to “rock hop” up and down the river: With bare feet and wide leaps, we jump from fallen boulder to fallen boulder over the rushing stream. I can feel like a wild animal or mystical creature as I fly through the air and land on rocks with slapping feet. I still feel I might be the best rock-hopper in the world.
One summer day, when my dad and his girlfriend could not convince me to go hiking or fishing, I swam in the waters in front of our cabin by myself. I was a teenager, and was terribly disconnected from my body, but I stripped off all my clothes in my solitude despite my embarrassment. I flung myself from boulder to boulder and I snarled up my face and let out growls and yelps. I felt the whole bright kernel of energy at my core, and I found one of those moments of pleasure: at home with my limbs, comfortable inside of my head but without thought, feeling myself a part of the sun-warmed rock, the cool waters, the smell of grasses and sand and fish hanging in the air.
When I remember this moment, I understand, for a minute, why my great-grandparents bought this little corner of Wyoming, why they chose the small river and the steep cliffs and the parching sun. My sense of self, my understanding of my personal history, is a puzzle with a missing piece when I remember the cabin no longer stands on its stilts above the riverbed. The river and the cliffs and the lightning bugs and the baby toads I used to catch do not care whether we visit or not, and without our odd little cabin it’s harder to understand why we still should. But in the loss that manifests in the back of my throat, all I have is a certainty that each of my family members must have had moments of ecstasy and pleasure near the North Laramie River, and that my children may never have even a glimpse of this moment, which will be forever encased in my head.
A river; a foot; the impact of the foot on sandy rock, the water gurgling underneath; the smell of green things in the midday sun; flesh moving through the air; hair lifting in the breeze; and a sound coming out of my throat that no one in the world heard, but I know I made.