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A bugle of the elk is an eerie sound. It sounds far off, even if you are right next to him.
My favorite memories of my childhood have nothing to do with cities. They are of summers spent in a cabin in Northern Wisconsin. It was built of logs with my grandfather’s bare hands on the shore of Butternut Lake. Fishing with him, and how his rough hands grabbed at the sunfish in the little white bucket. Watching a garter snake eat a toad near the woodpile, terrified at the toad’s scream. My mother moving reluctant turtles from the middle of the road. The outlines of majestic loons on the lake at dusk. Spotting a family of black bears near the outhouse. Catching crayfish with my brother, repulsed by their deformed little faces and marveling at their articulated bodies. Swimming with my father in the lake and watching the minnows dance away from my grasping hands.
I’ve never felt completely comfortable in a city, though I have enjoyed living in them. A city fosters a kind of identity politics that the wild lacks. Boosters and home town people trumpet the individual identity of the city. We use the city as a proxy for our own personality. “I’m from Manhattan, so I love real estate” or “I’m from Detroit, so I am used to pain and forever hope that we will rise again” or “I’m from Gary, Indiana and I just want to leave.” A city reflects your personality better than other cities and so you want to live there. The drawback to this is that even the most welcoming city can push people away. While I’ve loved living in a city, seeking out the soul of a place, I have never felt like I belonged to one. Even though I feel ownership and a deep love of Detroit, I’ll never achieve the level of authenticity I feel pressured to have. I was not born there, and I have never lived in the city itself. Nor do I have any particular claim to D.C. or Chicago. In fact, I have lived many different places in my life and belonged completely to none of them.
In the new documentary about the National Parks by Ken Burns, someone interviewed notes that when we visit a National Park we feel ownership over it. By virtue of it being a federal entity, and a national idea, we feel that we have a special part of it. This is not necessarily true of a state park, they said: if you come to it as a visitor, you will not feel the same sense of responsibility over it as you would a National Park.
When I am outside, I know I belong. I am never an outsider. Maybe it is because I spent my childhood outside, among the smell of the pine needles, the trickle of sap from a trunk, and the crawling insects I would collect in jars. Or maybe everyone feels that way, and that is what makes it special.
Our hosts in Denver drove us out to the Rocky Mountain National Park. There, just feet from the side of the road, sat a herd of elk. Cars lined the roadway, as people peered from opened windows or exited the car to take pictures. In the middle of my own astonishment at the beauty of the animals and my own picture taking, I forgot about the cars. I forgot about myself. I forgot about not having a job and not having a place to live. I forgot about my mountain of debt. I forgot about how we had to find a place to stay the next night, about how we were going to get across Nevada. All that I cared about in the world was a bull elk in front of the mountains, bugling at his harem, nudging them to stay away from several other bulls straggling to the outside of his herd.
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