Learning to live landlocked

  • Mary Emerick
  • Mary Emerick


When I lived in southern Alaska, everything revolved around the ocean. Our island was reachable only by plane or boat, and you couldn't get anywhere dry or metropolitan without hopping an Alaska Airlines jet. The sea was the only constant in a place that seemed beset by continual change -- people moving in and out through boom and bust; even the land itself, slowly rebounding from the weight of ice laid down long ago.

Barges steamed up from Seattle with supplies; the ferries disgorged tourists and newcomers. We had our own language of charts and shoals, beaches and bights. Our food came from the sea -- king salmon, sockeye, beach greens, crab. We defined our hours by the tide and our kayak trips depended on the size of the ocean swell.

Each year we lost someone to the ocean. Often, we never knew their fate, only that they were gone.

Five months ago, I moved inland, to a remote corner of northeast Oregon. Though I knew I would be miles from any ocean, I did not fully comprehend how my life would change.

This is a terrestrial life, and the people here are tied to the land. They ranch it, raise horses on it, travel through it on skis or snowmobiles. They have been here for generations.

They speak of distances in hours: six hours to Portland, 10 to Seattle. In Alaska, we indicated distances by landmarks: "Are you going through Chatham Strait or around by the ocean?" I'd ask a friend, bound for the small village of Port Alexander.

Here I can drive. If I wanted to, I could set out on one highway and end up, days later, in Key West. Living here I feel more connected to the rest of the world, whereas in Alaska I could pretend we were our own country, surrounded by water, inviolate.

Last August, my co-worker, John, and I hiked in Hells Canyon, surveying an ancient trail for the Forest Service. It was over 90 degrees and we quickly gulped all of our water. "There'll be water in Somers Creek," John assured me. We passed through wide, grassy benches where people had committed to the land, running sheep and cattle in a dry landscape, the river thousands of feet below.

Water was here, though we had to hunt out ephemeral streams by following the folds of the land and studying the vegetation. Settlers never took water for granted; they had to harness it for irrigation and drinking. They're all gone now; only their stories remain.

Standing on the Tryon Bench, my throat parched, I wondered how they'd come to pick this particular place and if it had grown on them, the dozing silences, the meager trickle of a stream.

Landlocked living requires a different way of looking at the world. It feels more permanent without the forgiving tides washing away beach campfires, the landscape constantly rearranging itself from storm surge. I miss the moody sea, though it was both a challenge and a curse while working, sometimes pinning us down for days under tarps. I miss the seductive calm days when I could paddle far out from Chichagof Island, past the kelp to where the sea lions swam.

At the same time, I'm learning the value of being surrounded by a great expanse of land. I'm learning why people settle, why they homestead. There is something to memorizing a mountain, to waking up to the same beloved view. It makes me believe in things that have not yet lasted for me, things like love, and marriage.

There is always choice when highways surround you. It is good to know that if the snow and ice become too oppressive, I can drive down to Imnaha, where spring comes earlier. Or if it's deep snow I crave, I can travel on snowshoes through the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

Back in August, the canyon fell away in deep wrinkled folds. In the hidden breaks there were blackberries sweetened by the sun, ponderosas with their bark swiped by the claws of bears. John and I stopped to filter water, its icy taste more precious because it was so rare.

Landlocked, I have come to feel like the country is wrapping itself around me. I want to hear the old stories. I want to know how to become attached to a piece of land so that it becomes a part of my history. This feeling of belonging to someplace: That is what I am after.

Mary Emerick is a wilderness ranger who lives in Enterprise, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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