One guide for Death Valley writes that people go to National Parks to get away from the stress of the outside world. And then they come to Death Valley to get away from the crowds of the other National Parks. I’ll agree to the first statement, but not to the second. When I hiked Theodore Roosevelt Park I saw no one in five hours; at Crater Lake, I snow-shoed out alone. In Death Valley: lines of cars waited in the lot so that people could park then saunter out below sea level and experience the frying relentless sun. Caught unaware, everyone turned some shade of sweaty pink. In March. In the camp ground my little tent wedged between two RVs, the couples cheerfully grazing their way through retirement in the National Parks. “What’s not to love?” one said, sweeping a hand toward the horizon. What’s not to love? That there are no birds.
West of Dickinson, North Dakota, the land mounds up, mini volcano-shaped hills made of a beige gray clay or sand, punctuated by sage brush and grasses. The texture of the land was a relief; the previous six hours of driving had offered expanses to the horizon, cultivated land, flat and harmonious. I had enjoyed that great sense of empty flat land while chuckling over the joke my cousin told me:
What is the North Dakota state tree?
A telephone pole.
True, there are few trees punctuating this North Dakota land. Those I saw huddled together, braced against wind or farmers.
But now I was in a land largely untouched and certainly not by a tractor, speeding into the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I think of Teddy as a privileged easterner who headed west from time to time to hunt. The story told here is that he came to shoot his bison and stayed for several years, buying two ranches. In that rugged landscape, he became tough enough to become President of our country. He owes his greatness to this landscape.
It was what he saw out west that convinced him that we had remarkable natural resources and that we were not conserving them for the future. In the case of the bison—he arrived in the nick of time.
Theodore Roosevelt did not protect this park I drove into and hiked for two days, but it is named to honor the fact that he preserved over 230 million acres of land during his presidency. This park needs protecting: just outside its borders are the pumps, fracking into this land.
Sax Zim Bog at dawn is even more empty than at mid-day, the narrow snow packed roads squeaking beneath my tires. In front of me, the sun turns pink orange through spruce and tamarack, those spindly deciduous conifers. I’m out in my car, heat turned high, hoping to see what everyone has flown or driven to see in this Northern Minnesota bog: a Great Gray Owl.
It’s a foolish thing to go looking for owls, because you have to accept that you won’t see one. In Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon, Pa takes his little girl out owling. He hoots for the owl, and we learn this: “sometimes there’s an owl and sometimes there isn’t.” What it takes to look for an owl is many things—hope and being brave in the night. But the most important thing is that to see an owl you have to go out, into the woods, into the world. It wasn’t going to come to me.
“In talking to others, I have come to believe that . . . some lonely spot, some private nook, some glen or streamside-scene impressed us so deeply that even today its memory recalls the mood of a lost enchantment.” So writes Edwin Way Teale, a mid-20th-century nature writer. For Teale, he can never return to those “lost woods of childhood.”
On this trip west to Oregon, I have returned to my “lost woods”: Dune Acres, a small community in the Indiana Dunes, nestled next to Lake Michigan. Dune Acres is where my father grew up, and where he set his third novel, At The Shores. His father built a cabin there at the height of the depression, and he grew up between sand dunes and backstroking out into Lake Michigan. Summers, we visited the grandparents. For me and my sister, the Dunes were pure fun: popsicles in the fridge, games of cut the pie and flashlight tag with the neighbor kids, and sleep outs in the dunes. To return to such a magic place is, of course impossible, because those childhood days of no cares are gone forever. But the place itself: it was there and I wanted to see the changes. Better still: old friends opened their doors.
I love the word malheur, the way my neighbor in France sighs over the weather or a chicken that is ill: Quel Malheur. It’s impossible to translate the woe of the world, the adversity of life woven into those two words. Quel Malheur. But the Malheur in the news these days is the 187,000 acre Refuge in Eastern Oregon where a group of armed men are staked out, and not planning to leave.
In three days, I will slide into my Subaru wagon, loaded with skis and snowshoes, and head west, for Oregon. I’ve chosen a northerly route, through North Dakota and Montana, two states I have never visited. I’ll stop along the way, in search of northerly birds, hoping for such treats as a Great Gray Owl, but also less glamorous but still wondrous species for this Eastern girl, like Gray-crowned Rosy finch, or Evening Grosbeaks.