On the Wild Edge: In Search of a Natural Life

On the Wild Edge: In Search of a Natural Life

by David Petersen

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"Opinionated and iconoclastic, Petersen writes with humor and a well-honed craft that will delight fans of Edward Abbey." —Library Journal (starred review)

Twenty-five years ago David Petersen and his wife, Caroline, pulled up stakes, trading Laguna Beach, California, for a snug hand-built cabin in the wilderness. Today he knows that mountain


"Opinionated and iconoclastic, Petersen writes with humor and a well-honed craft that will delight fans of Edward Abbey." —Library Journal (starred review)

Twenty-five years ago David Petersen and his wife, Caroline, pulled up stakes, trading Laguna Beach, California, for a snug hand-built cabin in the wilderness. Today he knows that mountain land as intimately as anyone can know his home.
Petersen conflates a quarter century into the adventures of four high-country seasons, tracking the rigors of survival from the snowmelt that announces the arrival of spring to the decline and death of autumn and winter that will establish the fertile ground needed for next year's rebirth.
In the past we listened to Henry David Thoreau or Aldo Leopold; today it is Petersen's turn. His observations are lyrical, scientific, and from the heart. He reinforces Thoreau's dictum: "in wildness is the preservation of the earth." In prose rich with mystery and soul, his words are a plea for the survival of the remnant wilderness.

"Many of us would like to live a life of greater intention and simplicity, but few can and even fewer do. David Petersen is one of those rare human beings among us who lives a wild life with a cultured mind . . . [He] has created a map all of us can follow."—Terry Tempest Williams, author of The Open Space of Democracy

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“David Petersen took a different fork on the journey of life. Grab your boots and come along, it's not too late. With the heart of a mountain man, a learned eye for what really counts and a pen as precise as a high-country lightning strike, he is our guide back to our ancestral home, to the woods and the wild--to a place in the Rockies where there is nothing to buy and no shiny trinkets to distracts us.” —John Blazar, author of Yukon Alone

“David Petersen--curmudgeon, woodsman, hunter, lover, ardent conservationist, hermit, hedonist, self-deprecating stylist--has written a natural history of the good life, lived large, and ethically, on pennies a day. The man can make you laugh, but there's a certain rage here as well, mostly muffled by an engaging modesty. Petersen never shakes his finger in our faces, but we still come away from these words reassessing our own lives and attitudes toward the wilderness.” —Tim Cahill, author of Road Fever and Hold the Enlightenment

“Honest, outspoken, and unabashedly conscientious, Petersen is a passionate advocate for the responsible stewardship of the land and its inhabitants.” —Booklist

Library Journal
A former marine and motorcycle enthusiast, Petersen (Writing Naturally) knew what it was to live on the edge even before he left the comforts of middle-class urban living for the Colorado wilderness several years ago. He lives and writes in the cabin he built on the edge of a mountain inhabited by bear, wapiti, and wild turkey. In this work, he discusses the life that he and his wife chose-living simply off the land by their own wits, unencumbered by debt and material possessions. He rails against the emptiness of consumer society; praises the simple pleasures of nature, family, and friends; and laments a world of unchecked, mindless development. Readers are educated about the fascinating aspects of the flora and fauna he observes on his daily hikes and topics as diverse as ethical hunting, animal intelligence, and animism. Opinionated and iconoclastic, Petersen writes with humor and a well-honed craft that will delight fans of Edward Abbey. Highly recommended for public libraries and academic libraries with nature collections.-Maureen J. Delaney-Lehman, Lake Superior State Univ. Lib., Sault Ste. Marie, MI Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Thoreauvian seasons in the Rockies. The cabin that nature-writer Petersen (Elkheart, 1998, etc.) built in the hills above Durango, Colorado, measures 596 square feet-tiny by expansionist American standards, but still four times larger than the famed cabin, the granddaddy of them all, that flanks Walden Pond. Their VW bus stuffed with LPs and back-to-the-land treatises, Petersen and his bride found their way to the place in the early '80s, having fled crowded southern California and xenophobic Montana. Colorado was different: it was open to newcomers, and perhaps too open, for Petersen's song of praise for the semiwilderness, "edge" life closes with a bitter lament about the overcrowding that has come about precisely because so many other baby boomers have decided that edge life is for them, too. Whatever the case, on the flank of Missionary Ridge the migrants of a quarter-century past found "the serenity, purity, and unpredictability of real mountains." They also found a low-impact way of life that has sustained them for all that time: on the plus side, the blessed be-here-now freedom of not having jobs, car payments, children, and other quotidian concerns of the acquisitive American greedhead set; on the minus side, not having any money, a matter that comes to a head when Caroline is diagnosed with malignant cancer, "the karmic dues of industrial culture." That crisis forces Petersen to question whether his "elective semipoverty and arrogant independence" is not a species of self-indulgence that runs the risk of condemning his wife to death-a righteous concern, given the healthcare system's disdain for the poor, even those who, like Petersen, hunt for their supper, keep a low profile,and don't ask anything of the state except the right to be left alone. There's enough blood sport here to offend the meat-is-murder set, enough Ed Abbeyesque grumbling to offend anyone who drives a Hummer or a Beemer, and enough good writing to please those who cherish their own sojourns on the edge.

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt


New Year's Eve already, again. Stepping out through boot-deep snow.

Here on Spring Mountain it's traditional to celebrate the final evening of each calendar year with a good stiff hike, accompanied by whatever hounds are currently at hand and up to the effort. This year, I'm down to Mr. Otis, since Angel dog is thirteen and on her last leg and that last leg is lame. While Otis is nine, which in big-dog years makes him a borderline senior like me, he, also like me, still thinks he's a stud. In fact, old Oats frequently wins compliments as a supremely handsome example of the Labrador breed, even in his muzzled grayness. He's been blessed with glossy black hair (recently, a visiting Alaskan trapper friend made Caroline nervous when he stroked Otis appraisingly and remarked on what a "fine pelt" he has), long sturdy legs (Dr. Woody, Otis's personal physician, calls them "mountain legs"), clean white teeth, and a broad intelligent head (as opposed to the rat-nosed look of lesser Labs). So why ruin the ruse by revealing that his mother was a golden retriever?

Of course, for O and me to take an evening hike together is hardly unique, insofar as he walks me most every evening, the high point of most every day. The high point, at least, when the weather is pleasant and calming, or nasty enough to be exciting because it's scary enough to offer a reminder that nature always bats last: say, a wildly showy electrical storm, wind like a low flight of fighter jets screaming through the trees, a blinding whiteout of blowing snow and swirling frozen fog. Barring any of that, during the moody holiday season—deep in the white gut of winter, with its foreshortened days, crackling cold nights, delaying snow, and precious little wildlife to animate the scene—a walk in the winter woods can often seem more effort than entertainment.

But on this good evening all is right in our pristine mountain world, and the uphill pull is unburdened joy. The weather is gentle for the last day of the year here at eight thousand feet in the Colorado sky. The snow is dry and less than a foot deep (this is the fourth consecutive year of record-breaking drought), and Otis and I are hot to trot in celebration of another mostly good year lived mostly on our own terms in this mostly good place. It is nearly a quarter-century now since Caroline and I fled southern California with all we needed or wanted stuffed into my VW bus: camping gear mostly, plus two wooden orange crates holding 123 1960s and '70s vinyl albums (but nothing to play them on); a couple dozen nature, philosophy, and "back to the land" books; and clothing for all rustic occasions but none for job interviews. Everything else, what little there was, we'd sold or given away. Between us, we had $5,000 in hard-saved cash, good health, no debt, no worries, and, best of all, youth. Caroline was twenty-five. I was thirty-four. After years of slow-burning boredom and simmering frustration, our lives had linked and blended and now stretched enticingly ahead like a scenic mountain highway, where everything in sight is lovely but you can't see beyond the next hill or curve.

On the road, headed east, in search of the American West.

In search of a natural life.

It was August 3, 1980, that anxious day we fled Laguna Beach, where Caroline had enjoyed her teenage years as something of a hippie chick, although she'd been born in England. C's father was an Air Force intelligence officer who served proudly in World War II. I never had an opportunity to meet Stu Sturges, who hailed from Wisconsin and died of a cerebral aneurysm at the age of fifty-two, but Caroline loved him absolutely. In some subtle but vital ways I reminded her of him, which helped to balance certain worrisome aspects of my personal résumé—divorced, former Marine, and eight and a half years older than her. Caroline's mom, who just recently died, was definitively British and appropriately accented—the Queen Mother, her five daughters called her. Also a military brat, Patricia M'Cutcheon was born and raised in India. Since her father was a highly decorated British Indian Army officer, the family was modestly privileged within the raj. Because the Queen Mother and three of Caroline's four sisters resided in a cluster in southern California, together with years' worth of friends, C found it hard to leave. And in some ways so did I. Hard but necessary.

Like me, Caroline loved to camp and hike. Like her, I craved the serenity, purity, and unpredictability of real mountains. And most important to our deepening love, she, like me, had learned not to confuse quality with quantity in life or to let everyday distractions—such as career goals, car payments, and children—distract her from the pursuit of a genuine life. Almost immediately after meeting, we started scheming our escape to someplace quieter and closer to the natural world.

Our first hope had been Montana, and we'd landed in a place northeast of Yellowstone Park with Rock Creek rippling through, called Red Lodge. But the town was tiny and the county was poor and the people xenophobic. And no satisfying or sustainable work was to be found there for either of us. Nor did we really want to live in the town, or any town, no matter how quiet and quaint. Within months we decided to move on. Ironically, just a few years later, Red Lodge, like so many other quaintly charming Old West towns, would go and get itself Californicated. Yet Caroline and I had come from California to Red Lodge as the antitheses of Californicators; we were just plain fornicators, an unmarried couple searching for the good life as we had come to understand it: less of more and more of less.

And so it happened, having quickly gone bust in Red Lodge, that in December 1980 we repacked the old VW and took off again, this time slipping and sliding southward down the frozen spine of the Rockies to the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. To Durango, a place I had passed through many times since childhood but where I had never wanted to live. "Too close to the desert," I'd reasoned. The desert back then, before I'd read Edward Abbey's life-changing Desert Solitaire, was an alien place that scared and depressed me. But we stopped in Durango to visit friends, fellow California escapees (who have since returned to California and divorced), and we never quite got away. On a lark, Caroline applied one day for three different jobs—and was offered all three. A small local college that had been founded on the site of an 1800s military outpost called Fort Lewis, and so wears that odd name today, presented an opportunity for me to use my G.I. education benefits before they expired. And that was that. After a year of low-end rentals in town, we got married and moved up here to Spring Mountain, to our very own 1.3-acre lot in an aspen grove, prepared to camp out forever, if necessary, rather than ever pay rent again.

Spring Mountain. Okay, that's not its actual name. In fact, it's not really even a mountain. Technically, it's the bottom step up the side of a major local landform called Missionary Ridge. In private, we think of this place as Petersen Mountain. Nor is that vanity or possessiveness speaking. Rather, we nominally connect our surroundings to ourselves simply to register our heart-deep sense of belonging to this place, even as this place belongs to us. Not in title but in heart, where ownership really matters. The place evokes in us the Buddhist precept of ahimsa, "do no harm." Here, where our most numerous neighbors are not people but elk and bears and mule-eared deer. Here, where we've lived happily, for the most part, ever after and as free as we can be. Freer and happier than I'd ever dared dream was possible through all my agonizing years of adolescent Okie awkwardness and military service and aching, amorphous, urban anxiety and sullen social withdrawal and crippling anger and psychedelic "experimentation" (actually, I was an expert) and intellectual escapism and seemingly dead-end searching . . . without ever even knowing what it was I was searching for. In fact, I finally determined, the answer to that question fairly defined the quest.

In sum, I was pretty much like millions of other thoughtfully confused young Americans, baby boomers coming of age in the long, cold shadow of Vietnam. The difference was, I somehow avoided getting hooked on the pursuit of all the myriad "lifestyle opportunities" our culture proffers as the road to happiness—a blatant lie, yet a lie that most folks fall for to the point that the pursuit of trivial distractions, and working to pay for them, devours the best of their lives.

While my various intellectual and spiritual searches continue still today, as I hope they always will, I am no longer fueled by frustration. I am mostly a happy man. We are a happy family: Caroline, the mutts, and me. Long ago we made our decisions, just as everyone does. Only most of ours were different. And we abide by all of them still.

Like so many others, I fall easily into contemplative self-assessment during the stressful holidays. And the troublesome issue I find myself contemplating now, step by step up the mountain, is the issue I least want to think about, yet a problem no one alive can fully escape: money.

Everything, it is said, is relative. And relative to the American norm for my materialistic generation, I've been downright thrifty. I've bought only two new cars in my life. The first was a 1964 Mustang, for which I paid $2,300 in 1965, back in Oklahoma. The second and last was a 1969 Malibu, bought fresh out of Marine officers' school in Quantico, Virginia, for $3,200. It's been decades now since I've owned a vehicle that was less than a decade old and didn't wear at least a hundred thousand miles on its odometer, which by my lights is admirably low. Similarly, we never take a vacation that doesn't offer good hope of paying for itself—writing, speaking, teaching, robbing banks—and we always camp out. We camp not merely to save money but because for us, if it isn't camping it isn't a vacation. We have no addictions or expensive habits, no debt, no medical insurance, and we pay cash for all medical expenses. (I mostly use the V.A. hospital in Albuquerque, a lifesaver.) We live year-round in a 596-square-foot board-and-batten cabin I built with my own hammered hands, incorporating as many recycled components as I could scrounge or buy on the cheap: doors and windows tossed out in alleys in town; lumber and corrugated steel roofing stripped from a fallen-down barn; fiberglass insulation and an antique potbellied Monkey Ward woodstove rescued from a nearby ranch house that was being torn down.

Over the years, as money and time have allowed, or urgent need has demanded, I've improved the cabin: with enameled steel roofing to better stop the rain and slide the snow, an airtight woodstove that's safer, eats far less wood, and holds a fire all night, aspen tongue-and-groove interior walls in place of paperboard paneling, and—our one true touch of elegance—antique bird's-eye maple flooring, a generous gift from a generous friend. But back in the beginning, for the initial construction, rather than going for quality or speeding up the process by taking out a loan, we built only as fast and as fancy as we could afford on the cash-and-carry plan. True, our cabin—which we only half-jokingly call the Doghouse—is a claustrophobic cave by middle-class American norms. But middle-class American norms are frankly obese, and compared to how most of the rest of the world lives, our humble home is an elegant castle. Best of all, it's by-God ours; not the bank's or part of some hovering landlord's retirement scheme.

All of which is to plead that our ongoing fiscal woes arise not from foolish spending but rather from a long-standing preference not to squander our precious little time above ground in laboring to earn more than we need to live comfortably. Frankly, the Pavlovian pursuit and compulsive counting and thoughtless spending of mere money strikes me as deadly boring business. We have better things to do, Caroline and I, than to slave and save and earn and spend—working ourselves sick, as Thoreau quipped in Walden, "that you may lay up something against a sick day."

"Don't just exist—live!"

Back in midcentury Oklahoma, my fifth-grade homeroom teacher, Mrs. Edith Pryor, proclaimed that sage advice in flowing cursive on the big green blackboard, making quick barking sounds with the chalk. As banal as that proclamation may seem at first glance, its simple, self-evident wisdom has helped to shape my life, via a long series of decisions, into a form that I find valid, satisfying, and enough. From here in the midst of my so-called peak earning years, granted, that shape does not appear to include the possibility of retirement. Yet when you love your work—when life and love and labor and place all are of a piece—who wants to quit?

So forget filthy money. Away with soul-withering worry. This New Year's Eve, this final evening of yet another year of our whirlwind lives, we are healthy, happy, and celebrating—a boy and his dog striding up this comforting old mountain while ruminating on the past, pondering the future, and, with every step and breath, offering active praise for the blessings of the moment. And glory be, after the first hard few minutes and the catching of my increasingly elusive second wind, I sense that this is to be one of those sweet retro intervals when my aging mortal shell, rather than dragging behind and slowing me down, lifts me lightly along, like a buzzard climbing a summer thermal, up and up on a free ride to heaven. Suddenly I am young again, high as a hippie on the pure animal joy of self-powered movement. At least for the moment.

And what is life, really, but the moment?

Now is where the past leaves off.

Now is where the future begins.

Here and now is all and everything, and gone in a heart-stopping flash.

Of course, the unseasonably light snow eases my efforts more than a bit. Whether thanks to El Niño, La Niña, global warming, or mere meteorological serendipity, it's ten days past the winter solstice (Caroline's birthday) and this remains a blissfully, if worrisomely moderate winter here in the high southern Rockies, not even worth the weight and inelegance of snowshoes. It's convenient right now for all of us, this winter drought, but bad news come summer for our animal neighbors should the grasses and forbs, the berries and acorns once again wither and fail. Local reservoirs are running low. Wildfire is a hovering threat, and our water well (278 feet deep, but marginal even at that) might well run dry.

Yet, and as always, we'll deal with those hassles if and when they come. Worry is nothing but interest paid in advance on trouble. For now, we climb eagerly on, Otis and I, running occasional short sprints, choosing the steepest routes simply for the sake of their steepness, running uphill in the snow. While nothing in the physical (or any) realm is nearly so good as good sex, the so-called runner's high runs a fair second place.

As we near the top, ninety-five hundred feet above the sultry beaches of southern California and a vertical gain of fifteen hundred feet from the cabin—with only a few dozen minutes remaining in the day, less than a half dozen hours to go in the year, an unknown number of years left in our lives—a light of impossible beauty laminates the sunset sky. The churning, shifting spectrum of pastels—blue, lavender, purple, pink, red to fiery orange—seems almost sentient, somehow feminine, ineffably alive.

Twilights here of late, I've been noticing, evoke in their magical mood and eerie luminescence a Russell Chatham or Thomas Aquinas Daly landscape masterpiece. More than evoke; it's as if we have entered the living canvas, Otis and I, two white-whiskered Alices slouching through a crepuscular looking glass—moody but never maudlin, ethereal and sometimes spooky, quiet as meditation, this heart-cracking beauty of mountain and sky.

"Nature imitating art," some say of such sights, peering out on the world through windows smudged by human-centeredness.

To which I respond: Nature is art, inspiring, enabling, and informing all else.

"Nature is God's greatest creation," one friend proposes.

"Nature is God!" another friend rebuts.

When finally we reach our goal—a rocky point overlooking a snow-covered lake—I stop for a look around. The open-timbered bench marking the zenith of this smallish mountain, where Otis and I now stand, as I have said, is itself but a step up the face of a bigger mountain, and so on, up and up along a stairway to alpine heaven, ascending above and beyond modest Missionary Ridge to the dizzying Needles Range, there attaining fourteen thousand feet and higher, all within a couple dozen miles of here. The awesome grandeur of such vertical landscapes makes one feel rightly small. And such feeling-smallness, by exposing the false front of our usual feeling-bigness, feels real good to me.

Impatient as a puppy, ever the anxious seeker, Otis flashes past, brushing against my snow-dusted pant cuff as if to proclaim, "Look at me, Dad! Here I go!" running in widening circles. On his third counterclockwise circumnavigation, the eighty-pound goofball surprises a congeries of ravens, which in their panicked flush startle the hell out of me, as I had neither heard nor seen them there, clustered on the ground behind a low rise to my right. Righteously alarmed, the overgrown crows hurl themselves skyward as one dark body, a flapping black cloud that rises in brief solidarity then flies abruptly apart, like a fistful of scarves flung into a wind.

How I do love ravens! At once the most clever, adaptable, and confident of birds and the most joyful heralds of death. Like Otis and me, ravens perceive themselves as far too handsome and wise for their humble lot in life as scroungers, kidnappers of robin chicks, and carrion eaters. Yet they, like O and me, don't merely endure but always find ways to enjoy. What most humans view as hardship, ravens see as play. Everywhere good I go, from Alaska to Mexico, ravens are there.

Even so—this late in the day, this deep into winter—these gregarious birds should by now have retreated to their nocturnal roosts to perch on limbs like so many lumpy black leaves, feathers fluffed for warmth, among the sheltering boughs of Douglas fir or ponderosa. Why haven't they?

Suddenly it occurs to me that these preeminent scavengers may have been feasting late on a holiday gift of frozen flesh. Dead elk or deer? Dead coyote? Dead …?

Winter: the dying time of year.

It was near here, I'm reminded, and only last month that Otis and Caroline found a fresh elk calf carcass. Its rectum had been bored out—not by space aliens, as some alarmists have claimed when the same thing has happened to foundered cattle, but by various small scavengers, who enlarge the natural portal as necessary to gain entry into the body cavity, where all the good stuff is. Yet in the case of Caroline's calf, the two-hundred-pound animal's gut bag was lying outside the body cavity in a solid frozen wad, oddly unopened. Judging from the tracks, my observant spouse reported, a herd of twenty or more elk had recently passed through, running full-out. The calf, it seemed fair to surmise, had dropped out of that herd to die. Why had they been running? What had killed the calf? Why, how, and by what had its innards been pulled out, then left untouched? No other tracks were anywhere to be found.

Work obligations delayed my investigation, and I asked Caroline not to return in the meanwhile for fear that a mountain lion might be hanging about. By the time we finally got back up to inspect the carcass, a few days later, coyotes had come and gone, albeit in a strange sort of way. Coyotes usually eat every shred of an animal: meat, hide, hair, and all but the heaviest bones, which they scatter far and wide. But the calf's hide remained essentially intact, with head and lower legs still attached. So perfect was the inside-out skinning job that if you draped the hide over a sawhorse, it would appear almost alive. My favorite biologist, Tom Beck, says that sometimes in winter when coyotes find a carcass, they'll eat the softer innards and meat out of the frozen hide as if it were a shell, leaving the skin until the weather warms and thaws. Maybe that was it. But why didn't they get into the head for the brains, or carry the skull away as they generally do? The calf's eyes, always the first targets of winged scavengers, had, oddly, not been disturbed. That fact, and the lack of bird poop on and near the carcass, attested that birds had yet to find the prize, hidden as it was beneath overhanging boughs.

As Caroline insisted at the time, if we'd really wanted to find out what had killed the calf we should have returned the day she'd found it. By the time we got back, there was not much left to go on. Subsequent snows had erased all the older tracks, including hers and O's. As a last resort, I ran through a process of elimination, as I knew Tom Beck would do, to wit: All the bears were sleeping in their dens. To find a mountain lion up this high so late in the year would be unlikely if not quite impossible, since almost all the deer, their primary prey, had migrated to lower wintering grounds. Plus, lions always cover the remains of their prey with debris between meals, and this one was bare. None of the legs were broken or otherwise obviously injured. Sick? Possibly, but again not likely, given the large size of the young elk, which suggests that it was well nourished and healthy. Perplexing.

On closer inspection—prying the frozen hide from the ground and flipping it over—high up on the rib cage I noticed an isolated rip, one inch wide by three inches long, as if an arrow or bullet had passed through and the hole had later been enlarged by freezing or scavengers. This fit with the anomaly of the gut bag lying whole outside the elk. Perhaps, I angrily concluded, during the last rifle elk season, which had ended a few days before Caroline found the calf, some fool had shot, partially skinned and gutted, then inexplicably deserted the carcass. Abandonment of game meat is a moral and statutory felony, and the thought of that having happened here on our own little mountain preserve infuriated both of us, as if a thief had broken into our home. But then, we could be wrong. After all, there had been no human tracks nearby when C had first been there. Had the elk herd run through after the hunter had come and gone, obliterating his guilty prints? We'll never know for sure.

But the calf is down the hill a ways and the ravens are, or were, right here. So I hurry over to investigate. Approaching the spot where the birds had been ganged on the ground I find . . . nothing.

Who knows? Who gives a flapping croak? Not Otis, who has already whiffed some new and intriguing scent and is off hounding after it, headed conveniently down-mountain, the way we need to go. With twilight fading fast, I turn and follow his lead, the prints of my big insulated rubber boots shortcutting Otis's switchbacking slashes in the snow, like a drunken slalom skier. Dogs, like preachers, politicians, and real estate whores, never run straight unless they're being chased. But Otis has disappeared, coursing far ahead. Perhaps he's cut the pungent trail of a pine marten, like the one he and Caroline saw on this morning's walk together. In fact, Caroline admitted to having seen the sleek, cat-sized, tree-climbing, rodent-hunting weasel only after Otis had tracked its scent to the base of a tree and his animated excitement, urgent whines, and upward panting stare had lifted her gaze from its normally grounded fix. While a hunter, like me, peers up and away, scanning the horizon for broken hints of color, pattern, or movement, Caroline, a gentle gatherer, focuses closer at foot, stalking wildflowers, mushrooms, animal spoor, and other rooted prey. Alone, each of us is half blind. Together, we see near and far.

No matter. Wherever my dog-son has gotten off to, or why, he is out of my sight—an intolerable breach of Petersen doggy etiquette. I refuse to yell, clap, or wolf-whistle in the woods, any one of which would rudely shatter the tranquillity I come here for, disturbing the critters and destroying the very treasures I seek. Instead, I stop and peer around—waiting, watching, straining my ears into the ringing silence for the rhythm of panting breaths, the soft thuds of paws on the snow. I chuckle out loud when I catch myself sniffing the air, as if I were a dog or bear. This thought, in turn, reminds me of Dersu Uzala, the charismatic wild-man protagonist of Russian explorer V. K. Arseniev's 1910 classic adventure memoir, Dersu the Trapper, a mostly true story beautifully made into the 1975 Academy Award-winning film Dersu Uzala, by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Dersu is an aging aborigine of a dwindling hunter-gatherer tribe, the Goldis, who are animistic (nature worshipping) foragers of the Manchurian taiga. The scene I'm recalling takes place one bad winter day while Dersu is out boar hunting with the captain. When Dersu misses an easy shot at an animal he can pungently smell but barely see, the old woodsman wails in pidgin Russian, "Capitan! My nose sees better than my eyes!" in sudden realization that he is going blind.

Or something quite like that.

The point being that that's the way our big boy Otis sees his world: nostrils first. Could we dwarf-nosed human animals experience for just one hour the world as a dog, deer, or bear perceives it—in shape-shifting layers of Technicolor scents, far more vivid and varied than even the most stunning sunset sky—that brief, epiphanous window of wonder would alter our outlook and actions forever. For all our manipulative cleverness, we really know so little of life.

Growing uneasy with Otis's ongoing absence, if not quite worried (he knows the way home from anywhere up here and would yelp for help if in trouble), I venture a soft, birdlike whistle, poorly imitating the bright spring rondo of a mountain chickadee. Inappropriate though it is for the bottom of December, it will alert Otis, if he hears it, that I am here.

Sure enough, within moments here comes the Oatsmobile, a graceful flowing streak of ink sluicing across the snow, sleek as liquid silk, contouring cross-mountain full-bore: big ears flopping, jaws agape and cheeks flared wide, gums spotted pink and black, long tongue lolling, ivory fangs flashing a delighted canine grin—four score pounds of pure animal joy.

As with the other animals in my life—and my life is peopled with animals—I envy Otis his freedom from burdensome ambition, from debilitating regret, pointless worry, and egoistic longing for public recognition and personal immortality. For him, life is now, to be experienced—chased, caught, and played with; rolled in or pissed on according to mood and aroma; chewed up and swallowed, digested, and always celebrated—not some Calvinistic adversary to be feared, conquered, intellectualized, rationalized, fantasized, or dogmatized.

Panting and pleased with himself—"Here I come, Dad! Such a good boy, me!"—Otis stiff-legs to a stop at my side and raises his snow-frosted mug for a pat. Which of course he gets, plus a kiss on the head (never will my lips touch the butt-licking lips of a dog) and a few soft words of encouragement to Stay with me, knucklehead!

Happily reunited, we hurry on through the gravy-thick dusk, suddenly eager for sight of the little brown cabin in the big white woods, that place so cozy, welcoming, and warm—warm, at least, if Chef Caroline hasn't neglected the woodstove again while preparing dinner. Tonight's holiday feast: a simple, celebratory banquet of Spring Mountain elk tenderloin, baked spuds and butter, sautéed morels (collected last spring both here and in Montana, dried for storage and rehydrated in red wine), a green vegetable, and a crisp salad tossed with vinegar and oil. And, of course, a glass each—or maybe, by God, two—of California Cabernet. (The last item for reasons of health, of course.) It would cost us more to drive the thirty miles round-trip to town and soak in fast-food grease.

Praise be to the inimitable, elemental, utterly essential pleasures of hearth, home, and family!

"What a boring way to celebrate New Year's Eve," some will protest, "just the two of you, alone, at home!" Yet we have tried the other way—the "traditional" American celebration so heavily hyped in screaming seasonal radio ads: "Come join the biggest and best New Year's Eve party ever! Live music! Door prizes! Big countdown to midnight! Bring all your friends and let's party!"

Jeez. Contrast that to this—up here in the cold, quiet dusk, versus down there in the "real" world of civilized, homogenized, capitalized culture. Down there, that is, in big-little Durangotown, hard by the mining-polluted Animas River. Río de los Ánimas Perdidas, River of Lost Souls, was so named, legend holds, by early Spanish explorers who lost members of their gold-seeking expedition to drowning while recklessly trying to ford the frigid, spring-flooded rampage; it's an apropos name yet today, considering how things have so recently gone to hell. Down there, where bars big and small are buzzing with booze-blasted patrons seeking momentary distraction and existential mollification via cerebral numbness amid the herded comfort of numbers: they're jumping tonight, all right, those lively liquor lyceums, filled to the gunnels with pay-to-play patrons drunk on the angst of another fleeting year done and gone, for better but mostly for worse, war and no peace in sight. Out with the old, in with the new . . . the unknown, unknowable, and clearly unacceptable. Down there, another year of too many lives lived in quiet desperation—if not quite so quietly tonight.

But perhaps I'm being too harsh. We all get by the best we can, and each to his or her own, so long as it hurts no one else (as driving drunk will surely do).

Joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, love and loss and death: in that uncertain future, at least, we of the living are one.

Nor is it so simple a matter as them versus us, there versus here, town versus country, contrived versus natural. The real matter, to Caroline and me, is outside versus in: keeping outside of culture, if only just barely—watching, questioning, weighing—versus getting sucked back in, our minds and hearts slammed defensively closed, going with the muddy flow. Or maybe it's simpler even than that, and all inside of me. I've never been the sort, even when young and reckless, to care for the barroom scene, with its overamped music and crowded dance floors; the stifling stench of cheap aftershave, industrial-strength perfume, and raging pheromones; cover charges, drunken boring patrons, and steroidal bully bouncers. As my good friend George likes to joke (George always likes to joke): "New Year's Eve is amateurs' night. If the drunks don't get you, the police will."

Meanwhile, up here on the mountain, where nothing much ever happens, life is quiet, restful, filled with personal meaning, and the next best thing to free. Call it boring if you will.

Looking to our left, eastward as we go, light-years beyond the saw-toothed silhouette of the Continental Divide, we see Jupiter come awake: a blinking benediction in blue. At least I think it's Jupiter, not being much on stars (or planets either, obviously). I mean, there are so many of them. And all so far away, untouchable, ultimately unknowable, thus largely removed from my life. "One world at a time," said Thoreau on his deathbed to the hovering preacher. "One real world is enough," echoed Santayana a century later. I feel much the same. Yet how gratefully each night do I greet Orion (a bowhunter, like me), who at the moment, still hidden below the horizon, is gearing up with bow and dagger for another night's go-round with that ballsy old aurochs (a Taurus, like me), the two of them battling clockwise across the nocturnal firmament. Forever.

Shaking me from my reveries, Otis suddenly stops, goes stiff-legged, raises his muzzle, sniffs, and licks his slobbery chops—tasting some delicious promise that's as yet invisible to me. Explaining himself with an excited Whoof! he deserts me and bounds ahead, barreling down the hill. Following quickly after, I, too, soon smell the spicy incense of aspen smoke, perfuming the lucent night.

Almost home.

Copyright © 2005 by David Petersen

Meet the Author

David Petersen lives with his wife, Caroline, and a series of dogs in a little cabin on a big mountain in the American Southwest near Durango, Colorado. Prior to leaving behind a conventional life, Petersen was an officer and pilot in the U.S. Marines, managing editor of a national motorcycle magazine, two-time college graduate, mailman, beach bum, and western editor for Mother Earth News.

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