The atmosphere changed as we crested the mountain pass, the Uhaul straining as the tires conflicted against the weight of our belongings and the snow-packed road. The landscape was quiet, each movement of our arrival padded by feet of snow, our mere humanity dismissed by the grandeur of wilderness as we were met with both a welcome and a warning: You cannot turn back now... not that you would want to.
Dusk was an exuberant display of pale pink set against a backdrop of cold and white, the last of the day's sun tiredly ricocheting through the wilderness in one last fury as new snow began to fall. The scene was deceivingly inviting.
I sat up from my seat behind the driver's side, my neck stiff from days of travel and my senses overloaded with the smell of diesel. Aspen and fir trees stood stoically as their limbs were weighed down by winter's gift, their burden somehow gracefully carried.
I blinked my eyes clear and leaned my forehead against the small window, the contrast between the warmth of the truck's cabin and the frigid temperatures of a Wyoming January startling against the glass. The truck slowed as we navigated a curve, each of us as quiet as the forest while we descended the slippery slope, into the unknown of a new adventure.
I locked my eyes onto the round, amber eyes of a screech owl nestled in the trees, the pop of liquid color in his intense gaze a stark contrast to the surroundings and his own coloring perfectly camouflaged in varying shades of white and gray. It was only the two of us in that moment as he sat from behind a curtain of falling snow; given away only by his sight. I had never seen an owl before -- and I will never forget how that sacred conversation made me feel. Even at nine years old, the experience was so beautiful that I didn't say a word.
Years later I learned that American Indians believe the Owl as a spirit animal symbolizes change. That made the welcome incident somehow even more powerful in my memory; a confirmation that the west was always meant to be as much a part of my story as the humid air I breathe in the south and the thick heritage teeming through her landscape. So many times I wonder how different I would be had I not returned to the south... though part of me knows I would have always come back.
The west has remained that way for me -- illusive yet desired. It was an awakening of my soul and senses at a critical point in my young life, as if the chemical make-up of my blood was altered to respond to the call of the western wild. Robert Brinkmeyer said that Southerners, "... discover their Southernness by leaving the South." While I credit the south for breeding into me warmth and sense of place, the west cultivates in us the need to connect with the stoic loneliness that only an endless sweep of sagebrush and the arid tundra stirs up, unsettling the questions you are afraid to ask in the comfort of a civilized life yet somehow equipping you to face the truth once you arrive at it. If the south has made me dignified, the west harbors me an outlaw.
For me, the uninhabited country of big skies and unrestrained mountains brings contemplation and an appreciation for wild, unbridled beauty that cannot, will not be made tame -- not only in the landscape but in my own soul. To feel so small and still be alive is a gift. The west, in it's seemingly infinite vastness, brings the picture into focus -- the distraction of daily, petty life voided by the terrain. You have no choice but to be still and quiet and listen. You must be okay with loneliness to survive in that place, but you must make peace with yourself to thrive in it.
If I am ever blessed enough to see another owl, I will welcome the change that it's presence signifies -- and I will know that my story is still being written and that the book is not finished.
I hope you see an owl, too...