“Grace” is not the first word that comes to mind when you picture two naked women running hell-bent through the desert night, fleeing from UFOs.
“Fear” seems more apt — the primal kind that stems from being chased in the dark by a faceless predator while having numerous opportunities to impale tender flesh on ocotillo thorns and arthropod stingers. But somewhere in that vulnerability, author Lucy Jane Bledsoe finds the path to grace. She gains a sense of her own body as “terrifically fragile — a pile of bones held together by juicy cells” — mortal, miraculous, alive and small beneath the wheeling night sky.
That sense is the intriguing theme of the essays collected in The Ice Cave: wild fear as an unlikely conduit to grace.
Bledsoe writes of a woman escaping from an abusive husband across the Mojave Desert by bicycle. She describes scaling dangerous snowy passes without ice axe or crampons in Utah’s Uinta Mountains, fueled by “an ache for beauty. A desire to be dangled over the canyon of nothingness.” She seeks out bears and mountain lions to rediscover herself as prey. She learns the rhythm of seal breathing in the vast, vicious white stretch of Antarctica.
In these places, Bledsoe trades the diffuse, existential fear of city life for the fierce elemental fear spurred by “dinner-plate-sized” grizzly tracks, by spaces so wide and open that “if the sky were to take in one small breath, I would be gone”— swallowed by the vastness.
Wild fear leads Bledsoe finally to a sense of peace, of her place in a shifting web of people, creatures and geologic forces. She trains this visceral lens on her experiences in each essay, deftly teasing out threads of meaning and sharp images from what might otherwise be a series of boilerplate adventure tales.
Many of the pieces seem somehow unfinished in this regard, as though Bledsoe is unsure how to weave together the glittering strands she’s found. It’s as if she’s searching out something beyond the reach of her words. Perhaps this is the only honest way to approach such an ambitious theme, because the grace of wild places ultimately eludes description — it must be felt.
The Ice Cave: A Woman’s Adventures from the Mojave to the Antarctic
Lucy Jane Bledsoe
University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.