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Know the West

My trysts with Miss November

  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 bat.

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 wine.

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.

By 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 meridian.

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 lakes.

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.

It is 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.

Joshua Zaffos is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org) where he works as an editorial intern.