Sometimes I stand on a mountain slope over Cache Valley, watching virga catch a late-spring rainbow. I think about writing. About knowing just where to stand and when to see something passing fetch color from what, just before, had been clear light, what had been, in a way, invisible. I suppose if I pursue this metaphor and further risk cliché, then I have to admit that neither virga nor rainbows reach the ground. And the sky gives them up. Good ambition: to make something as well as you can, aiming for duration as best you can, but only in that order and always knowing it doesn't last. This is one of my obsessions.
Ambition can be less than beautiful, certainly. I was nearly livid when William Least-Heat Moon came over from Missouri and wrote his mammoth book on the Flint Hills of Kansas -- the very landscape where I lived before coming to Utah. Territoriality matters.
One day a few years ago, I was riding my bike in Blacksmith Fork Canyon and passed an old-fashioned canvas tent, the kind used for mountain men gatherings. Had I been brooding on a failed paragraph? Had I been reading Blue Highways? I came home and blurted out to my partner, Kathe, "That better not be William Least-Heat Moon!" She laughed in disbelief. "You're kidding, right?"
But I meant it. I was in a state. He'd written about the Flint Hills of Kansas, my hills, so naturally he'd camp within a few miles of our house and do it again. He'd follow the routes of the fur traders to Bear Lake. He was right by my river, and he would steal that, too! It was, without a doubt, one of the dumbest things I've ever said.
I'm calmer now, but still yearn for my next book. This past year, while on leave from teaching, I imagined that I'd drive all over Utah, summoning essays about badgers, the predatory nature of Fremont's geranium, and the old duck hospital at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. They'd come as easily as postcards. But they mostly haven't. This disappoints me. So far, my Utah book ideas have been box canyons, leading to a wall I can't climb.
I've nothing in me like Terry Tempest Williams's Refuge, which looms over Utah authors like a nimbus above the Great Salt Lake -- or Stephen Trimble's Bargaining for Eden, with its sense of community in Ogden Canyon -- or Amy Irvine's Trespass, rooted deep in red-rock country. These are books of Utah that have captured readers in our state and resonated with readers beyond. To write such a book -- I'd like to think that's part of a right or good ambition. But the land will drive such creation for me, and the land won't be rushed.
The terrain of this ambition is, like the land, made of many things. It's belonging to a community of writers -- friends and colleagues in Logan, Salt Lake City, Provo. It's knowing the ruins of the Mormon sawmill up Temple Fork and the ibis of Cutler Marsh, and it's wanting to know places with names like Curlew Valley and Great Sage Plain. It's acknowledging the scree of dislikes, disappointments, cravings for awards and film options -- how such scree can cut the hands if you don't watch where and how you clamber. It's the joy of a good review or a letter from a reader.
Best of all, it's writing a sentence with the music of clear words. Once a week, when I drive back from meditation, I pass that house Ed Abbey lived in, the legacy of which used to stir much literary envy. More and more, seeing the house simply stirs the urge to write something sharp, whether it's an essay that's set in Utah or just one sentence so unexpected I don't know where it came from or where it might lead. As Abbey's former address recedes in the mirror, I tell myself to never forget this Taoist caution: "The vanity of success invites its own failure."
Tomorrow, I tell myself, write a sentence as good as that.