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].

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a friendly, detail-oriented, and self-motivated Development Coordinator to provide administrative support to the Development department. This position will report to...
  • FIELD ORGANIZER, MONTANA
    Help Northern Plains Resource Council protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the...
  • FOR SALE
    Successful llama trekking business with Yellowstone National Park concession for sale! A fun and enriching business opportunity of a lifetime! Call 406-580-5954
  • ALBUQUERQUE VACATION HOME
    Centrally located. One bed, one bath, lovely outdoor patio, well-stocked kitchen.
  • NEW AGRARIAN PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Quivira (www.quiviracoaltion.org), a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that aims to shift current practices of agriculture and land stewardship to those that produce good food, support meaningful...
  • SPECTACULAR SCENIC MOUNTAIN VIEW HOME BUILDING SITE
    Located on top of Sugarloaf Mtn. 5 mi W of downtown Colorado Springs, CO. $80,000.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    opportunity in Eugene, Oregon! To learn more and to apply, visit our website at www.bufordpark.org.
  • FUNDRAISING & OUTREACH COORDINATOR
    Does the prospect of working to protect one of the Southwest's last remaining flowing rivers get you excited? Join the team at Friends of the...
  • DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT SPECIALIST
    Position Summary Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a dynamic, organized, and creative Digital Engagement Specialist to be an essential part of our growing Communications Team....
  • NORTH IDAHO FIELD REPRESENTATIVE
    Founded by sportsmen and women 1936, the Idaho Wildlife Federation (IWF) is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to conserving and enhancing Idaho's natural resources, wildlife, habitat,...
  • SMALL HISTORICAL FARM FOR SALE - NEW MEXICO
    23-acres, adobe home, shop, barn, gardens, pasture, orchard. https://www.zillow.com/homes/222-Calle-Del-Norte,-Monticello,-Nm_rb/ or call 575-743-0135.
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year round outdoor living. REDUCED to: $1.17 MM 575-536-3109
  • GRANTS MANAGER AND EDITOR
    Are you a strong communicator who excels at building relationships, writing winning grant proposals, and staying organized? You sound like a good fit for our...
  • REPORTER
    The Wallowa County Chieftain, has an opening for a reporter. Experience with and understanding of editorial photography also required. Journalism degree or equivalent, an understanding...
  • 2017 JOHN DEERE LAWN MOWER Z930R
    15 hours on it, 3 years warranty, 22,5 HP, $1600 Sale price. Contact: [email protected]
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • HEAD BREAD/PASTRY BAKER AND ASSISTANT POSITIONS
    Hiring Part/Full time for Summer Season - entry level & experienced positions. Year round employment for optimal candidates. Pay DOE.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921