November out West: The spectacle of changing leaves has passed, the hills collecting snow are not yet blanketed in white, and daylight savings brings night time all too soon. It may sound innocent, but the season feels like a cruel and careless mistress to me.
I first ventured West in
November, four years ago; I came for a girl. I knew her from
college back East, but she'd moved to northern Idaho. She wrote me
letters with wildflowers pressed inside them, and told me I needed
to come see her and the Northern Rockies. But she broke my heart
within my first 48 hours out West, when she revealed she had a
boyfriend. I felt like I had been hit in the chest with a baseball
But with nowhere else to go, the two of us spent
several days and nights in a cabin in the northern Idaho
wilderness. In the mornings, I walked in the pine fields, looking
at dilapidated homesteads and abandoned cars. In the afternoons and
evenings, we sat in front of the wood stove, drinking cheap red
After a few days we drove to Hells Canyon and then
through the eastern Oregon desert. I spent most of my hours
absorbing the snowy mountain crests, the patches of sagebrush and
the boundless gray sky beyond the car window. I was captivated, and
later on I made up my mind that the Western landscape, not the
girl, was the captivator.
That November left me in
emotional disrepair, but it also unleashed a longing to immerse
myself in the West. A year later, after a summer in the Targhee
National Forest in southern Idaho, I decided to eke out an
existence in southwestern Montana, working for a group of
libertarians and filling out graduate school applications. My
window at home directly faced one wall of a neighbor's house, and
the ashes from our wood stove tended to rain on my head through the
wall vent. At the onset of another November out West, I found
myself editing opinion articles about gun control and wrestling
with 500-word essays that tried to convince admissions committees -
and myself - why I wanted a master's degree.
Thanksgiving, autumn breezes had metamorphosed into biting winds.
Golden aspen leaves vanished, leaving bare branches, while the
cold, dry air and the loneliness of a new town left me bewildered.
Then a gal from Utah broke my heart.
I went back East and
two more Novembers passed without heartbreak, perhaps because my
heart was never in severe danger so far from the mountains. But in
early December last year I found another girl from Utah "- except
it turned out she was from Pennsylvania and just talked a lot about
a winter spent in Park City and her travels beyond the 100th
She was equally disappointed to learn my
Southern accent was only a souvenir from college in Georgia "- a
clever disguise for my Yankee roots. But such confusion counted
towards romance, so we persevered through our Eastern-ness,
spending a spring break in southern Utah exploring sandstone
canyons and a summer in central Idaho discovering high country
This November finds me in Colorado and the girl
living back East,and as these weeks crept upon me and the autumn
days crept away, things started to unravel. Faced with heartbreak
yet again, I drive the windy roads through the mountain passes or
the deserts of sage, and listen to the bleat of the coal train as
it rumbles through town.
I've decided that trying to love
a woman in November out West is like checking your mailbox during a
blizzard. It sounds sensible and benign and gives you something to
do. But you can so easily get lost in the flurries on the way back
and freeze to death 20 feet from your front steps, holding nothing
but your credit card bill and an L.L. Bean catalog.
safer to watch the snow fall from inside with a mug of hot
chocolate in your hand. You can check the mail, or fall in love, in
the spring, when the glacier lilies are pushing through the melting
snow and the aspen leaves are back on the trees.