In my limited understanding, in many Native American cultures, sense of place, and ones relation to the land they have been raised on, is considered down right spiritual. And while it is a subject I’m keen to learn more about, I do believe that this is not limited to Native Americans, but to man in general… if we pay attention to it.
What is place? To me, it is a sense of what has come before you. A place where earlier versions of your DNA tried to update themselves before their shelf life expired. A place is where a young girl was born. Born into the family of hardened pioneers. Who’s lineage traces back directly to those who once settled the towns of Hatch and Panguitch, Utah. Both of which, are some of the coldest places in the Intermountain West. A place where only an other worldly belief in the spiritual world could make a person believe that they should stay… in this place.
But she was not raised in that place. But instead, the mountains of northern Utah. Well away from the frontier-like conditions where her ancestors trace their modern roots. It is a place where this young girl would become a young woman. Attend school in the foothills above Woods Cross. It is a place, where the young woman would escape that city and camp amongst the pines and springs and deer and elk and hawks. The very place where she would consecrate a child with other strands of DNA, beneath an empty, beautiful, star-lit sky. A place, that she was not ready for.
It is a place that she would leave, but only to return to. Because, this place. A place where she would grow into a mother of 3 children. Yet a place, where she took on being the mother of an alcoholic husband, in addition to her three children. And sometimes at night, in the cold, still, breathless agony of awaiting his return, it is a place where he would return. And in the place that occupied no more than ten feet by ten feet, located no more than 8 feet from her children’s room, a place she must have hopelessly wanted to flee as she tended to him as he drunkenly piss and shit himself. A place, that she wanted not her copied DNA to be. But they were. And they are.
But it is a place that also see’s reformation and new beginnings, just like its surrounding landscapes, shaped over millennia. It is a place where a young boy, once conceived beneath an empty, beautiful, star-lit sky, was taught to fish in the pristine beauty of the Heber Valley by his grandfather. A place where he and his cousins would hunt, catch, and harmlessly release snakes and lizards back into their unknown worlds near the majestic heights of Timp. A place where when he did not spend time in the mountains of the Wasatch, he spent time wandering along the septic Jordan River. A place where Earl’s in Rose Park was the highlight of the week. A place where a child grew in modest fashion and opportunity.
And it was not just a place that he grew. It was a place where the young mother found redemption of her own and found new hope in the arms of a new marriage, up in the hills well east above Salt Lake City. The mining and pasture towns of another generation. Where good schools and education taught the children well. A place where a young boy, born into a family of hardened pioneers whose lineage traces back to the settlement towns of Hatch and Panguitch, spent free time back in the creeks and mountains. Where he belongs. Catching fish and spending time amongst our animal brothers and sisters of our forests. The mountains of the Uintas. Majestic and respected in their accessibility and the admiration they require.
In this place, the boy would become a young man. In parked cars, atop of Summit Park, amongst the pine and springs, necking with girls under the clear night. On restless nights, there was solitude in dark, empty stretches of I-15 north to Blackfoot, and I-80 east past Evanston. A place that by any modern recollection, does not look recognizable.
But the boy, who was born into a family of hardened pioneers whose lineage traces back to the settlement towns of Hatch and Panguitch, would settle back in the valley known as Salt Lake.
Yet, the mountains, and Hatch, and Panguitch, still remained inside him, dormant. But the boy still learned love at places like Ensign Peak, with the girl from the coffee shop who taught him of the enduring spirit of the wind. Ensign is a marvelous place to feel the wind. She also taught him of billiards and dive bars. Ex-Wives Place, Twilight, and the list goes on. There were 24th of July parties on rooftops across from Liberty Park, drinks on top of the Union Building at the U, and most of all, drives up Emigration Canyon late at night after each.
Sometime between the boy becoming an adult (to use the term lightly), he desperately wanted to leave. The boy, who was born into a family of hardened pioneers whose lineage traces back to the settlement towns of Hatch and Panguitch, resented this place and moved away.
The red rock country of Utah is old. Old as time could be it seems and more often than not, geology seems to prove this. It is also a place of understanding and clarity. Afterall, this place is the bones of lives once lived. It is not an easy place to come back to, if one is not ready to face their own mortality and significance. Because there is little comfort to be found.
So it is no wonder that under a starlit sky, near the confluence of two great rivers forming a mighty river, in the desert of Southern Utah, that the boy realized that he had always been a product of this place. And he wept. The confluence of dueling identities, and the ideas of what was, and what were. And, what are. Meeting to form something unified and grounding. A past converging with a seemingly different understanding of oneself, lending itself to what it is. Shaped by the land. Shaped by this place. For better or worse, but existing just the same. And as much as he tried to escape it – like a trout fighting the talons of a bird, he could not. An appropriate overture, nonetheless. He realized that this place had shaped him. The boy, who was born into a family of hardened pioneers whose lineage traces back to the settlement towns of Hatch and Panguitch; who grew up fishing the streams of the Wasatch; who learned love and loss and joy and pain in the highs and lows of the peaks and valleys surrounding him and this place; who learned self in the canyon country; and who learned peace in wretched waters of nearly dried out slot canyons; learned place and his connection to it, and its connection to his identity. A place, etched into him like the petroglyphs of bygone eras into the bright, blazen Navajo sandstone. A place he would never leave, nor escape. But, that he now learned to embrace.
There came a moment when the boy had to come to terms with who he was; a boy, born into a family of hardened pioneers whose lineage traces back to the settlement towns of Hatch and Panguitch. And it wasn’t until I lived out of state that I could truly do so. And it broke me. Or, maybe, recentered me. I was not some cosmopolitan, well dressed, idyllic smoothtalker. I was the product of this place. Hardened by circumstance but deeply, necessarily, connected to the nature that I grew up in and was surrounded by. A place I could feel pain, forgiveness, and empathy. For a place must not be a place, I suppose, but an experience that forever shapes and defines you. Something that is so deeply ingrained in you that it cannot be limited to singular terms such as “place”, “home”, “location”, or your physical address. It is something far greater.
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