In August, just a few short weeks before I packed up the car and drove down to Berkeley, my best friend and I went backpacking in North Cascades National Park, a pristine patch of wilderness in northwestern Washington. The highlight reel includes shots of us stumbling upon marmots, jumping naked into a glacial lake and standing on a sheer rock face above the Chilliwack River, winding serenely through the valley 4,000 feet below.
It was not, in truth, all that comfortable: Rain found its way into our tent, our cheeks burned, and our legs ached. It was not always pleasant: Our shirts were soaked with sweat, we ate couscous four nights in a row, and mosquitoes fed upon us with wild abandon. But it was also a glimpse of the most beautiful backcountry I have ever seen. By the end of that trip, my hair dripped grease, my skin blurred with dirt, and my eyes understood a new way of seeing.
Up until September, I lived most of my life in a small town near the Canadian border, just a 20-minute drive south down Mt. Baker Highway from the park. Affectionately referred to by its residents as the “city of subdued excitement,” my hometown is the perfect antithesis to the unceasing action of city life. It encapsulates a way of life unimaginable to Bay Area natives: no Apple store, no H&M and no tech industry. At about 80,000 residents, Bellingham isn’t tiny, just small enough to be baffled by traffic jams, blessed with perfect air quality and broken up into about three distinct neighborhoods.
About nine months of the year, this region is overcast, raining or too chilly to step into. There is, however, some secret treasure buried under all that gloomy gray. In about May or June, the weather turns, and standing naked and freshly washed is a veritable Garden of Eden.
In contrast to the dusty yellow haze that can be glimpsed from much of California’s freeways, in the great north, everything is green. Even in the heat of summer, the grass is wet. You can look out onto Bellingham Bay at night and just barely see city lights twinkling out among the islands, floating darkly in the water like sleeping whales’ backs. There is a sense of Dillard-esque wonder, a sense that the city’s takeover of the wilderness is not quite complete. There is a sense of quietness you just can’t find in an urban area. There is always the idea that, if you squint, you might just see an elk peering out of the trees or a slick canoe leaving a gleaming trail of ripples in the water.
There are many gifts a place such as this bestows thoughtlessly, like watching the sloping San Juans fade from orange to blue as the Earth slowly turns its face away from the sun. Like standing on the summit of a hike — aptly named Skyline Divide — as an alpine glow turns the mountain behind it a tarnished gold. Like waking up to the great rustling of some wild creature and, on the tent roof, the pour of raindrops. In these parts, there is nowhere to get your iPhone fixed. There are, however, sights beautiful, staggering and strange, with little to distract from them.
We have heard from the historians and the astronomers that the world got by just fine without us for 14 billion years. We have heard of the 14 billion people who have lived and died already; we have heard that the cosmos is vaster and older than can hardly be believed. Yet still it is startling to know, to see with one’s own eyes, that beyond the shadow of a doubt, we are not the center. Many times, while backpacking especially, I was utterly bowled over by the grace and space and power of the Earth. That valley held more air than I could ever breathe in my life; that river held more water than I could ever drink.
It is, paradoxically, both a terror and a comfort to understand our place — the way it was, at least, before industry and technology took hold. In a finite environment, however, this overriding of our place in nature can only be temporary. Astronomers who have seen the solar system cannot possibly suppose that the Earth is the center of the universe; those who have glimpsed the wilderness cannot possibly suppose that humans are the center of even the Earth.
It is pain and progress to step back from our conquered daily environment, to see life run wild and rampant through the land — to see our place in the world differently. It is because of the privilege of hailing from the City of Subdued Excitement that I do.