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Know the West

Westerners love erotic landscapes


Note: This essay is part of a special HCN magazine issue devoted to travel in the West.

On this October morning in southern Idaho, the air is dry and frosty, and the shifting sand dunes reflected in the lake at Bruneau are soft and curvy –– feminine shapes. The woman I love becomes one with the view of the dunes beyond the tent flap, as she moves tenderly above me -- like the soft breeze blowing through the olive trees.

This is our honeymoon. Neither of us is young or new to marriage, but right now, in this setting, we feel ageless and enthusiastic, ripples in an ancient river current of lovers. We've been romancing in the open, blessed by big skies and birdsong, since we met and fell in love in eastern Washington eight months ago.

Together in the sexiest sense of the word, we've already traced the ancient Missoula Flood's lasting imprint on the spectacular Scablands of eastern Washington. Holding hands, we've wandered dreamily through antique cemeteries in towns like Southwick, Idaho. Picnics of huckleberry muffins and raspberry ginger ale sustained us as we followed the roads from the Palouse prairie down into the Snake River Canyon. During one fierce windstorm in northern Idaho, we foolishly slept unprotected on a ridge underneath swaying, creaking ponderosa pines at Mary Minerva McCroskey State Park. The next morning, happy to still be alive, we drove down into the lentil town of Farmington, Wash., grateful to drink coffee and eat our breakfast at the (what else?) Frying Pan Café, where more than eggs and bacon was sizzling.

As soon as the marriage ceremony was over, we packed up our ancient Honda and headed south down Idaho's infamous goat trail -- aka Highway 95 -- through a landscape that further fueled our passions: McCall and its forest-nested lake; Lowman Hot Springs; the aftermath of a lava climax in Craters of the Moon National Monument; and now, finally, to the curvaceous sands of Bruneau Dunes State Park.

All of our camping, hiking, and nosing round the Northwest's back roads, coupled with the passion and hunger of new love, left us uninhibited in a way that drew us closer to the landscape than ever before. Beside Idaho's Lochsa River, we steamed up another tent. I wrote about it later in a poem titled Loving Among Western Rivers, published in the Passionate Hearts anthology:

Pull the car off over here
in the tall rushes
of mock orange and wild rose.
Deep along these riverbanks of late spring
runoff there is one spot of blue sky,
one chance between storms to touch.

We're hungry for skin.
Set up the hot tent near the steep shore
so the water moves beneath us
as you move beneath me …

Open mouth tasting salt. Sweat and saliva.
Raising of hips, belly to belly, there's
no turning back, we want
each other and nothing
will stop us, loving,
along Western rivers.

Logging trucks rumbled by so close on Highway 12 that day, we could feel their vibrations. Or perhaps it was the other way around, and those drivers felt ours.

We're not the only ones engaging with the outdoors and each other like this. In the out-of-print, but still relevant and racy Field Guide to Outdoor Erotica (Solstice Press, 1988), whose contributors include Western writers Robert Wrigley, Joy Passanante and Michael Frome, editor Rob Moore explains "what constitutes erotica" in the outdoors. "Some stories moved open-eyed through a world of wonder ... that leads to sexual awakening (like) heat lightning on the horizon. With other stories you were drenched immediately, soaked to the skin, lightning striking all around you. ... After twenty pages of lust on the rocks, a poem or a quick humorous scene comes as a welcome relief."

In the Field Guide's stories and poems, you'll discover many of the various, ahem, positions where nature and sensuality intertwine. The gender differences are deliciously celebrated, as in the opening lines of the first story, Terry Lawhead's Green Flash: "I had her naked and laughing on a bed of ferns." And 125 pages later, Charlotte Mendez begins Sky Come: "The desire she felt for the sky was the same as that she had felt for the dearest men in her life, neither more nor less powerful, neither more nor less sexual. The men had all left, of course, but the sky never did."

What is it about the Western landscape that makes us feel so amorous? Why do we feel sexier outdoors among the rounded shapes of stone, along the soft sand beaches of lake and ocean or stretched out on the voluptuous, welcoming sandstone? What makes some of us rip our clothes off, plunge our toes into hot sand and make love to the music of rhythmic rivers and pounding surf?

Probably it's because the West abounds in erotic landscapes, from the Southwest's slot canyons and gravity-defying spires to the foamy waves crashing on Oregon's rocky coast and the post-coital volcano of Mount St. Helens, whose fertile ash is strewn everywhere across the Northwest. Western landscapes are seldom crowded, so lovers who desire privacy in the open can find it. At the same time, there's a feeling of danger in the wilderness, an instinctive urge to reach for a fellow human being in the lunge toward survival.

Underneath all the Gore-Tex, Lycra and SmartWool, we are still hungry primates on the prowl for warmth, tenderness and some consensual carnal cavorting. We crave the taste of each other's bodies. The scent of our desire -- undiluted by the artificial aromas of civilization -- is an aphrodisiac. This comes from our evolutionary cores, and thank Heaven, there is still no app for that.

Many nature writers are too genteel to describe lovemaking, but they go on and on about how intensely our senses are engaged when we're outside in nature. Isn't it natural, then, that the three essential senses of sex -- taste, touch and smell -- should be especially accentuated in the West?

The opposite of merging in the boondocks is loneliness in the boondocks (not to be confused with welcome solitude). I've experienced it as the sound of lovemaking in the next room of a flea-bitten motel in Umatilla, Ore., as you lie there alone, the bed frame next door almost bumping through the thin sheetrock.

Loneliness is also hitchhiking from San Francisco to Durango, Colo., and being dropped off in front of Gina's Ranch for Men, a legal brothel in the middle of nowhere Nevada, imagining what was going on behind that faux Western fort, while thinking that no one, absolutely no one, would ever give you a ride as long as you stand in front of that place.

I was an inexperienced 19-year-old on that trip -- with only a few kisses to my credit -- and I fell in love about every 20 minutes. Several rides after Gina's, around Grand Junction, Colo., a woman with a striking resemblance to Joan Baez picked me up. She asked if I was hungry. You know what I said. She took me home and made me the best cheeseburger I have ever eaten. I was smitten, but when I finished the last bite she herded me to her car and drove me to the edge of town. I sent her numerous letters across the San Juan Mountains, quoting Hesse, Steinbeck and Ed Abbey, but she never wrote back. Sometimes an act of kindness is no more than that.

On another expedition when I was even younger, I sometimes woke up alone in my torn sleeping bag in the Utah desert, thinking that these were the happiest moments of my life. I didn't know any better then. Now I do.

At Bruneau, the morning arrives with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader. The tent is lit by the sun, my wife's eyes are closed and I can no longer tell whose body is whose. We move so slowly through this sensual landscape, discovering our own wild territory, headed toward the sweetest destination of all.

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of three books, including Landscape of the Heart and A View from the Inland Northwest. An ex-pat Westerner living in Illinois, he hikes in a nearby 1,500-acre forest park and is currently working on a new book about the "Driftless Region" of the Upper Midwest.