I drive a short distance up into the western front of the crumpled, arid mountains that always feel like home.
From the wide valley floor at seven thousand feet, the squat piñon and fragrant junipers slowly yield to tall ponderosa pines and shimmering aspens that crowd the higher elevations. There, overlooking the endless painted horizon of New Mexico’s high desert, I park my car at a familiar trailhead where I step onto the day’s path, a light buzz of anticipation in my core.
Generally I follow the trail for a bit, my lungs inhaling the thin, resinous air as I steadily leave the road behind. Backpack, hat, water, almonds, fountain pen and journal; along with my jacket, this is all that I carry, and with senses open wide, I reach out to touch, welcome, and praise the sensuous beauty that enfolds. At some point, guided by an invisible compass—a glimmer of sunlight through the trees, the elusive flash of a bird’s wing, the curious temptation of a rock formation away from the trail or some whispering intuition—I invariably leave the main track behind, heeding my allurement. Often my footsteps carry me along narrow game paths left by deer or elk, wondering where the elusive four-leggeds go in the bright light of the dayworld.
Accustomed to living at high altitude, my body feels light and open, and though I am a two-legged stranger in this landscape, it feels that through my visits and paying attention that I have come to belong here, if only in some modest way. Moving along the trail, savoring the sense of nature undisturbed and non-domesticated, I feel the soft hum of recognition in my own bones in response—the ancient part of me that belongs to wilderness.
It is a clear autumn day in October, high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains above Santa Fe, and having once again left the leaf littered path I follow a whisper of an animal trail along the western slope. From the signs—broken branches, rubbed tree limbs, large hoof prints, newly flattened grass and fresh droppings—I can tell that elk have recently passed this way, perhaps last night or early in the morning’s light.
Climbing a rise on the mountain’s ancient shoulder, I emerge from the scented pines into a spacious grove of towering silver aspen, their crowns of luminous, fluttering gold shining brightly against the turquoise sky. The native, knee-high grasses are pale and dried as old straw, and as I tread along the trampled down elk trail, I discover throughout the grove that the lanky autumn stalks have been flattened into large, oblong ovals. Here, as a small herd, the elk had bedded down.
I halt in my own tracks and gaze around as the wind whispers in an endless song overhead, rustling ten thousand paper-thin golden coins high above me.
I know where the elk dream.
Sliding the daypack from my shoulders, I walk tenderly through the glade, looking for a place to sit and write. Drawn by the elk beds, I step gingerly into one of the flattened spaces nested between two trees. Then I prop my rucksack against the smooth, dusty white bark of the nearest aspen and sit down, running my hands delicately over the compacted vegetation as if feeling a fine carpet. The sunlight warms my shoulders and I suddenly feel my eyelids heavy, a sense of gentle gravity weighting my limbs, and ready for a nap.
Like a child curling up on his mother’s empty bed, I lay down on my side with knees drawn toward my chest in fetal position. Folding my jacket as a pillow, there amid the murmurs of a cool wind in the branches high overhead, feeling held in the welcoming arms of Grandmother Earth, I slip into autumn dreams.
When my eyes open, the afternoon light, fluffy clouds, and shadows in the glen have all shifted. The aspens are still singing softly. Sitting upright, I prop myself against the tree trunk, and with pen and notebook in hand allow my gaze to wander though my surroundings, easy tides of breath rolling soft and full in my belly.
I wonder, what is here to be discovered? What wants to be seen?
It may be a creature moving about, or some ordinary treasure resting at my feet, or simply the incomprehensibly complex relationship of life entwined in even an inch of dry soil and fallen leaves under my fingers. But I know it is always a shift in perspective that allows us to finally see what appears.
These forays of mine into wild places, where so often I leave the path behind, always reveal something more than merely tracking. My solitary wanderings are about seeing. Listening. Remembering. Waking up to all my senses and the untamed soul.
No matter where we reside, the mundane details of life tend to dull us into a sort of stupor: work, relationships, errands, and an endless parade of distractions. Little exists to remind us of the Larger Story unfolding, and we have mostly lost and forgotten the sacred. Even if one has created a home that feels like a sanctuary, full of precious objects that speak to the soul, in the routine of our daily lives the familiar becomes commonplace. Unseen. Whether it is a special altar adorned with beeswax candles, or the most stunning display of nature’s beauty beyond our windows, we quickly habituate to it.
I walk in wild places not simply to exercise, but to wake up and rediscover my deepest, most authentic self. Roaming in nature, I slip away from the familiar and open to the extraordinary once more, seduced by mystery and untamed beauty, falling in love again and again with the humblest of things, and with life itself.
Somewhere along some narrow trail or beneath a wise tree, beside a laughing creek or hidden amid the tightly tangled branches of a hedge, a piece of my soul waits for me to come and find it today.
I know this, everything is alive. Everything speaks. And the world is full of wild magic for those who can see, listen, and truly feel. And I know too that I belong to that world with each and every passing breath.
The Earth is dreaming us all awake—trying to—but among the multitudes only a few of us are listening. Today, as autumn descends in painted glory, the season of bountiful harvest and slow letting go, I am listening for that guidance. Turning toward my allurement. Trusting a strange resonance in bones and breath.
And I know where the elk dream.
(This post was adapted from one of my journal entries in 2008 when I resided in northern New Mexico.)