On the Wild Edge: In Search of a Natural Lifeby David Petersen
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 intimately. He has become so attuned to his environment that when a dead twig snaps, he knows what has stepped on it, how much it weighs, and what its intentions are.… See more details below
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 intimately. He has become so attuned to his environment that when a dead twig snaps, he knows what has stepped on it, how much it weighs, and what its intentions are.
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 sping 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.
“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
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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On the Wild Edge
In Search of a Natural Life
By David Petersen
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2005 David Petersen
All rights reserved.
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.
Excerpted from On the Wild Edge by David Petersen. Copyright © 2005 David Petersen. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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