I’m still thinking about the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, about 250 miles southwest of Denver, which I visited by accident a few weeks ago. Although I’m an avid hiker, I don’t frequent this type of park, and it was heartening to see who else was there. I chatted briefly with an Orthodox Jewish man from New York, traveling with his wife and another couple. Later, I noticed a larger group of observant Jews, the women garbed from wrist to ankle, heads covered, picnicking in a rare spot of shade. At one lookout I spotted a young Mennonite pair, their blue outfits crisp and faces glowing. Texas license plates and twangs abounded. Some visitors walked with canes, others were avid athletes, taking it easy that day.
While certain media and pundits want us to fear this diversity, pitting the able against the feeble, the city dweller against the farmer, landlords against tenants, the atheists against the believers, it was comforting to know that, in the ongoing experiment of America, this park was a place where nature’s grandeur dwarfed those dichotomies. Standing at the rim and staring at the dizzying drop to the river below, our shared mortality seemed more salient than our differences. It didn’t matter if we leased an apartment, lived in a trailer or owned multiple homes; ultimately, we were all renters who would relinquish our bodies. Eventually, we were all going to end up in the earth or sprinkled upon it.
At the end of the paved canyon circuit was a somewhat longer dirt path, lined with wild grasses. I followed it until the end and rested under a twisted, wind-whipped pinyon tree. As I peered at the river-hewn canyon walls, I felt a surge of pride that I lived in a country with such stunning landscapes. I did a double take, as if another being had taken over my body. Normally, I don’t walk around bloated, or even mildly stuffed, with patriotism. I don’t wave flags or paste bumper stickers on my Subaru that proclaim my fealty. I don’t chant “U. S. A.!” at the top (or bottom) of my lungs. While I’m grateful for my American passport and for a culture that offers the possibility of self (re)invention, I think of myself as a citizen of the world. I’m more comfortable with an à la carte identity, or so I thought.
What, exactly, was that surge about? Was I a closeted jingoist?
I chewed on the question while munching a dwindling supply of chocolate chip cookies. It wasn’t until I returned to Denver that I remembered having a similar experience in Israel five years ago. It’s a country I considered moving to but, during my extended exploration, I felt at a remove from the place and alienated by the frenetic culture. That shifted slightly when I rented a car and had some time to myself. While driving on winding roads past hilly olive groves and lush vineyards, I felt stirrings of belonging and ownership. Suddenly, this wanderer understood why people the world over develop strong ties to a piece of earth.
My mind always nags me to define myself and make choices. I have to be “this” or “that”, or pick “A” instead of “B”. “Take a stand!” it bellows. “If you’re not madly in love with your country, move,” it exhorts (twice, I obeyed and tried the ex-pat life). To bypass this dualistic thinking, I’m learning to look beneath the surface of my experiences which, like the diverse canyon grasses, are linked at the roots. As I keep forgetting and rediscovering, being in nature — regardless of the hemisphere — silences my thoughts enough to allow a deeper connection to myself, to my environment and (usually) to whoever is there, too. Since nature has such a profound effect on me and others, I wonder what would happen if the presidential candidates and pundits traded their suits and ties for identical khaki ranger outfits and held the debates outdoors, in the shadows of a mountain range, beside a roaring river or amidst a wind-swept desert. I wonder what they’d say then.