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Wayfinding

by Sherry Simpson

Published in the March/April 2008 issue of Orion magazine




OUR FAMILY MOVED eleven times before I turned seven. I attended three first grades: in Utah, in Colorado, in Virginia. I remember the July day we arrived in Juneau, Alaska, the way the barnacle must regard its final and lasting attachment, with relief and a niggling worry: Is this the place?

The following summer we lived in Mount McKinley National Park, as it then was known. My father, a civil engineer, was in charge of a project to pave the first fifteen miles of the park road as far as the Savage River. For three months, we lived at park headquarters, wedged into a trailer so small that the four kids shared two bunks embedded in the hallways, like beds in a Pullman sleeper. My strongest memories feature me as a half-feral child roaming from adventure to adventure, discoveries all around.

This, then, was the child becoming herself. I pounded dull cubes of fool’s gold free from granite rocks. Dug green bones of snowshoe hares from beneath a duff of dry spruce needles. Felt the blast of my heart when I woke from daydreaming to see an impassive moose standing before me. Heard the drum of my feet against the damp trail as I ran away. Tasted the sour burst of blueberries picked warm and dusty. Scuffed through the silvered ruins of some long-dead prospector’s cabin.

This is how I discovered my home. This was my first act of wayfinding.

Sometimes, though, we lose our way, without ever realizing it. The summer in Mount McKinley ended, and we moved back to Juneau, to the Mendenhall Valley, hedged by a glacier at one end and tidal flats at the other. On this suburban frontier I grew up climbing trees in a rainforest and riding motorcycles on back roads scraped from glacial till. I camped with friends on uninhabited beaches and stood in line for Star Wars, fished with my dad off Shelter Island and played third-string basketball in high school, ate (reluctantly) ocean-bright salmon two or three times a week and Kraft macaroni and cheese when we were lucky.

I never became the sort of Alaskan who flies planes, kills wild animals, fishes open seas, climbs mountains, or treks through the backcountry as if it were no more troublesome than driving to the local 7-Eleven for a newspaper. Life felt interesting enough in a place where the separation between nature and home seemed no more substantial than the faint rattle of a beaded curtain between doorways. Black bears strolled through backyards. Humpback whales coursed silently like intergalactic freighters beneath my father’s boat. The Mendenhall Glacier was a grand blue slab of scenery for thousands of thrilled tourists and a playground where everyday hooligans like me spent afternoons leaping off moraines and plinking rocks at castaway icebergs.

There were moments that scraped away this unmindfulness. After a night of babysitting, for instance, I watched the four a.m. dawn pinking the clouds behind Thunder Mountain, and some foreknowledge of a larger world both frightening and exhilarating pierced me. On a day in November, huddled in dead grasses on the Mendenhall wetlands, I watched Canada geese so intently through binoculars that the tide rose unnoticed and stranded me, and it was not so much the bitter cold but some recognition of life’s blind passage that made me cry as I waded through chest-deep water toward solid ground.

Of course I could never have used the words home or wilderness then with any awareness of their complex meanings, nor did I know the phrase mysterium tremendum, a German theologian’s term for awe-fullness, numinous dread, an apprehension of the Other. Somehow I did know that the only way to experience that searing intensity was to push beyond the known world, past a life eased by familiarity. Years fell behind me, miles passed beneath my feet, before I recognized that such moments—and how painfully few they are—help us recognize axis mundi, the center of the world, which is not a place but a way of being. Like wilderness. Like home.

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Sherry Simpson’s essay in this issue is excerpted from her book The Accidental Explorer, published recently by Sasquatch Books. She teaches at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.


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