A spur trail dropped from the main tread toward the river. Gray, my co-wilderness ranger, and I set up camp, then returned to an open meadow, speckled with wildflowers. The weather hung low over the Entiat Mountains, so that threads of waterfalls and couloirs snaked upward into white clouds.
“This reminds me of Alaska,” said Gray.
“Feels like Glacier Park to me,” I said, then wondered out loud about how wild places trigger such clear mental associations, and that as more places are filed into memory, maybe I’ll just become a bundle of remembered experiences, unable to see a new place for itself, unfiltered from my past.
As Gray and I have begun to explore the Entiat River drainage in our first week of work, these associations have continually lassoed and wrangled the surrounding mountains and vegetation into my remembered experience. The bright green understory of northwestern Montana. The needle-like sharpness of Patagonia’s Andes. Indian paintbrush that flagged childhood campgrounds on Montana’s Gallatin River. Unfurled ferns of Vermont’s shaded hill country. The diverse eruption of wildflowers in the red rock desert’s spring.
The North Cascades is, of course, not the first region to provoke these recollections. Like a coat of paint, my baseline memories were laid down near Gallatin Gateway, a small town southwest of Bozeman, Montana. Winters skiing at Bridger Bowl and summers in the Flathead and Glacier provided seasonal layers, and later inspired independent trips outside of my family. To Nepal’s damp monsoon rainforests, New Zealand’s endless coastline and slate-colored seas, Patagonia’s autumn leaves all aflame against glaciers and open sky, Utah’s labyrinthine canyons in afternoon light. Vermont and the Adirondacks’ small communities and deciduous woods became second homes to me while I was in college at Middlebury, and they encased my western mind in a thick layer of birch bark.
It’s not just the pure, clean wildness that sticks. It’s the sterility of airports, the tangled threads of power lines, the traffic that flies past my outstretched thumb on a busy highway. These jarring confrontations with the modern world keep me returning to the open country. But there is a tension, of course, between finding refuge from the society we have created and retaining a connection to the people I care about. For in the wilderness, I can see, just as clearly, how my lived experience is a composite of the landscapes I have loved and, by extension, the people in those places. I am made of the people who raised me: the single mom who worked night shifts and the dad who taught me to ski. And of the friends who brought me up my first rock climbs, who learned how to build community with me, who gave me a scobe so I could make kombucha (though I never had the patience to keep it up), and let me split wood at their houses when college was just a little too hands-off.
I’m writing in a meadow, looking at a corniced ridge, listening to the Entait River. Gray is laying on a log, looking at the shape the trees have cut out in the sky. This places is going to leave its mark. Of this I have no doubt.