I wanted to go to Glacier before the glaciers melted.
M and I drove across North Dakota in September, through grey midday skies that drifted into the horizon. Flat and misty and shouldered in by hurrying semi trucks on I-94. We stayed in a tiny Forest Service campground the first night, woke to the prairie wind tugging at our tent from the inside. The kind of wind that combs through the grasses. The kind of wind whose physical form you can see, smoothing the landscape with open hands.
Into Montana, shear rock faces snuck up on us, the way mountains sometimes do. We pulled into a deserted campsite, small and quiet in a rocky basin, and were too spooked by the bear-alert signs to stay there alone, so we kept driving to find people. The moon rose and the wind shushed in the tall pines, punctuated only by intermittent cars on the mountain highway.
Sunrise is slow in the mountains.
We packed up into the little red car as the sun was coming over the ridge, having been awake for a few hours, cold fingers holding coffee mugs and brushing wet pine needles from the footprint of the tent.
We drove through one-road towns, tucked in just a few hundred feet off the road. Decaying, fire-destroyed wooden buildings littered themselves down the slopes, and the Belt Creek ran beside the asphalt and under the road. The colors changed to a palette of rust, seafoam, and evergreen.
Trees turned more gold and the temperature dropped as we drove north into autumn. We made it to Two Medicine camp in East Glacier that night. The lake reflected the gloaming moon and the post-sunset shadow mountains.
In the early morning there was no wind, just the silence of the night animals except for one faraway owl.
One morning bighorn sheep tore through the campsite, galloping straight toward me on a walk back from the bathroom. I froze and then tucked myself into an empty campsite while they ate coal from the fire pit, huffing and startling each other.
We read and wrote and hiked each day. Something I like about camping is that I get to wake up and be immediately outside, to get out of my head and into the trees.
As we hiked we found blue-green pools.
A moose drinking.
Trees bent and broken from storms.
The bears are getting ready to hibernate and are eating single-mindedly, constantly. They are more easily startled. We walked paths with hidden turns, hollering and clapping so bears would know we were coming.
It rained and stopped, rained and stopped. Clouds low and water breathing.
At night, the clouds cleared, and with them their insulation. Our tent was covered in frost and we stuffed army wool blankets into our sleeping bags.
When we see our heroes for who they are, they mostly fail to live up to our expectations. They are, like us, flawed humans who make mistakes and fuck things up and hurt the people they love on accident or sometimes on purpose. They are, like us, people who say things they sometimes don’t mean and sometimes things they do mean, things they mean so much that it exposes a bone of truth so raw and ugly and scary that we wish we’d never said them in the first place. This beastly truth should make them less eternal, less ideal, less honorable, less heroic.
But what if it doesn’t? And what if our heroes present themselves from the beginning as so human that we can’t even construct that illusion around them? What if they’re so painfully honest that we can’t pretend?
About a year and a half ago, I happened across an article posted online by an acquaintance called “DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #64: Tiny Beautiful Things.” It is a letter to the author’s self in her early twenties, prompted by a reader, and it is powerfully written, specific and moving. Please don’t trust me on this, go read it yourself. You won’t regret it.
“#64: Tiny Beautiful Things” has been a defining article, a crucial set of rules, an unofficial manifesto in which all the details don’t apply to me but the core values do. Sugar wrote anonymous, beautiful and wretchedly truthful articles. She wrote about death and love and fear and sex, about writing and courage and and the people who we become when we think no one else is paying attention. She wrote about trusting yourself. About living out what you already know to be true, that “you must trust your truest truth, even though there are other truths running alongside it.”*
Dear Sugar provided me with answers for questions that hadn’t even formed yet; questions I still haven’t parsed. Something about that article in particular pulled a thread out from inside me, started an unraveling, an emotional and lovely and terrifying thing.
To herself and to her readers, Sugar said, “You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.”
I read this before I knew my partner would break up with me. I was someone he loved; he was, in this moment, simply someone who wanted to change the terms of this one particular relationship. I thought about this as I processed it; as I processed my own advice to friends who were also considering leaving their partners and I told them, “be brave enough to break your own heart,” and I meant it. And then all of a sudden I was on the other end of it. With the clarity of eight months’ time now since the breakup, I can tell you that this paragraph gave me something. It didn’t make me understand my own situation more than I already did, but it gave me something to hold on to, another truth to face, another thread to pull. That perspective made things more bearable. “You are not a terrible person.” Like I was saying it directly to him.
In February this year, Dear Sugar came out as Cheryl Strayed, an author I’d never heard of. Part of me was terrified to find out who she was, because being a real person with a real name and a real face would ruin the Sugar mystique. Part of me really wanted to know, because I wanted to gorge myself on her work, to devour every word she had written. In April I read her novel, Torch, a piece of autobiographical fiction about cancer, about her mother’s death. In May I read Wild, her memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail a few years after her mother had died and her marriage had fallen apart at her own hands. I looked up every essay I could find online, and I read them all. In July, Tiny Beautiful Things came out as a collection, a physical book I could hold in my hands, a bound volume of Sugar.
And last night, she came to speak at Amsterdam Bar in St. Paul. I requested the night off from work months ago, because I needed to be there, to see her, to hear what her real voice sounded like and the cadence with which she read her own words. It was so odd, in the beginning, the mix of feeling this real devotion to a stranger who wasn’t a stranger, the din of bar patrons chatting, the weird desperation we feel when we want a drink from the waitress and can’t get her attention. The dizziness, the red wine warmth and fuzziness of the whole situation, the odd lighting and bad sound. It felt like swimming, or like it wasn’t real. They say we should never meet our heroes.
The discussion moderator said something important. He said to her, “You make me want to be a better person. You make me feel like it’s okay that I’m not.” I agree with him.
It was intense, sharing the experience with all these other people, people who said “awww” in all the right places, as a chorus of emotional voyeurs. It was a stark difference between that and when Sugar was anonymous and I had this private relationship with her, reading at my laptop, connecting with her veiled but very naked and vulnerable self. And I felt like no one was looking. Like I shared something with her that no one else knew about.
Part of me wonders if Sugar can ever come back, now that she’s been unveiled, identified. Someone at the reading last night asked this, and Strayed said yes, she can and she will. She told us that she always wrote with the knowledge that she would one day put her name on Sugar’s words, that being Cheryl was not any different from being Sugar. “I was never anonymous to myself,” she said.
The last thing she said while onstage was about the importance of finding solace in the wilderness—whether that wilderness is the PCT or the banks of the Mississippi River. She is right.
And for me, that also extends to the wilderness of the unknown territory of yourself. It felt like she was saying to me, you must find solace in the trees and roots and shadows and animal noises and the sweet and rotting and bodyish smells of your own unknown forest. She once wrote, “walk without a stick into the darkest woods.”**
And here I am. I’m standing at the edge of the forest. I’m leaving my stick behind, but I am bringing a book.
Walk with me?
I took a writing class at The Loft in the Open Book building in Minneapolis, ascetic but warm and inviting. There are classrooms and workshops, huge heavy printing presses and stacks and stacks of art books that seep simple beauty.
One of the things I’ve been struggling with lately is finding my writing voice as a person who lives in one place and goes to a normal job—at least for the time being—if I don’t travel, what will I write about? If I don’t write, where can I go? Am I writing for myself or for other people? I’m perfectly aware that many great writers are not constantly deluged with stimuli the way you are when traveling; that a good writer can take a very ordinary thing and make it compelling. Traveling made writing easy for me because I just had to write what was immediately in front of me and there was always something new and lots of things that weren’t ordinary at all. I suppose my challenge now is to find a way to write about things that are not that.
It is starting to become more real to me that I am not leaving for Antarctica this year. As my friends and colleagues scramble to get their contracts, to pack their lives into boxes to place in storage, to fill their suitcases with belongings they need for many months away from home, to get their medical screenings taken care of, I am very aware of things settling down in my life, not winding up. For the past two years the end of summer was the end of my time in Minnesota, and the beginning of a huge trip with long plane rides and new cities and cold, breathtaking arrivals heavy with meaning. Even though I know it’s the right decision to stay home, and even if only for a few seasons, it still hurts to remove myself from the velocity of that lifestyle.
And I have to think harder about what to write.
I always enjoyed school and I like taking classes like this one at The Loft because it helps me to hear other peoples’ takes on similar assignments. I like hearing other people read the same poem I just read, but in a different voice, because it helps me pull back from my own myopic interpretation of its words. I like being immersed in the output of others because it makes me think harder about what I produce, and because for me creativity begets creativity. The more I read and look at art and listen to music and watch performances, the more excited I get to write, to make, to dance.