Tuesday, September 03, 2013

New Essay for Tin House

At the Tin House website, you can now read my essay, "Outsideness, or: My Phone Says 'Searching...'." It derives from remarks I delivered for the Oregon Legacy Author Series in Lincoln City, Oregon (a marvelous, author-supportive feat of cultural optimism).

The essay's subject: landscape and the writer. To wit:
Some friends of mine, parents of a five-year-old girl, once told me of their daughter’s confusion while driving around Pennsylvania during a family visit there. Her parents had pointed out some Pennsylvania mountains. “Where are they?” the girl kept saying. “I can’t see them. I can’t see them!” She was looking right at them. But this was a girl who had grown up in view of Mount Hood, Mount Saint Helens, Mount Adams, and Mount Rainier (11,250 feet, 8,400 feet, 12,300 feet, and 14,400 feet respectively).

The native Westerner (the one who stays anyway) enjoys a special inheritance. We tend to understand a thing or two, down in our bones, about mountains and canyons, landscapes and long views, the vastness of the natural realms. “I have never been able to refrain,” wrote Wallace Stegner, one of our greatest writers, “from telling easterners that Mount Washington, their pride, could be set down in the Grand Canyon — in a ditch — and never show above the rim. … Whatever he may not know, a Westerner is bound to know geography.”

I’d put it a little more starkly: the Westerner is well acquainted with the naked, grand, unnerving face of the earth — and what that suggests about our place in the order of things. Beyond any actual wilderness experiences (which I’d guess most of us have had in lucky abundance), we’re well acquainted with the experience of driving for five, six, ten hours and seeing out our window far more landscape (often stunningly scenic) than buildings. I remember being rightly horrified, in a deep existential way — being reduced nicely to size, you might say — the first time I crossed the agoraphobic deserts of Nevada. On Washington’s Highway 14, as you head east from the Columbia River Gorge into the forbidding glacial scablands on your way to Walla Walla, you pass a sign I particularly like: “Next gas 87 miles.” Stylistically, existentially, that’s a remarkable message: a little forlorn, but straight-up, no apologies.

“Destinies, outlined against the basic earth. That is the story we all write in the American West, whether in memory or on the white canyons of paper.” That’s Ivan Doig, another great writer from this side of the Missouri.

We live, out here, in almost daily consciousness of what you might call the irrevocable reality of human remoteness. The wildnerness, should it find you inadequately prepared, can eat you up — quite literally if you happen to be, say, in Grizzly country. After a point, it will not matter that you started out in a road-ready SUV with a full tank, a GPS, and a smartphone.
The essay entire can be read here.