Every so often I will get a feeling about a person before I meet them. I will know immediately if they have the potential to enter my life in a big way – disrupting the fabric of what I know and bringing new and strange (but good) energy. This brings about an odd, almost visceral reaction to my anticipation of my first in-person meeting with them. I will want them to cancel or I’ll want to call it off myself. Failing that, I’ll want the meeting to go poorly.
I’ll want to dislike them when I know I won’t be able to.
I believe this is a sort of defense mechanism in my mind, meant to protect me from change – to keep me safe with who and what I already know. It doesn’t want anyone new to hurt me or guide me in some unknown direction. It’s absurd and silly – ridiculous really, but it never fails to happen – and in recent years I’ve had this feeling with every new close friend I’ve made, every first date that I knew would lead somewhere else, and even with every new opportunity in my life that would take my path in a new direction.
Thankfully, I’ve never let this feeling stop me from meeting someone or from pursuing something new. This is only because I know exactly what the feeling is: fear, all dark and twisty, but wrapped in the guise of my gut. This is not the helpful kind of fear that warns you to walk on the side of the sidewalk with the streetlights. It’s the kind that can keep you small if you let it. Don’t let it.
I had this exact feeling in Rome last summer before my first meeting with my (now) friend, whom I will call ‘the archaeologist’. Since I’ve dubbed him thus, it can come as no surprise that he worked in classical archaeology. The archaeologist lived in Rome, had a very cute dog and had been fortunate enough to have traveled to so many more spots on the globe than I had yet been. To me, a classical studies major who couldn’t pass a dog without petting it with a mad case of wanderlust, I knew I would like him – a lot. And I did; that fear dissipating into the balmy June evening the moment we met in front of the imposing columns of the Pantheon.
He and I spent a handful of evenings in Rome getting to know each other over beers and walks around the city center. We got along very well, despite a bit of a language barrier. He told me some of the greatest stories I have ever heard – about his family, his travels, and his youth (in which he was a bit of a hellion, truth be told). After I left, we maintained our friendship the way people do when they live thousands of miles apart – mostly over text with the occasional long e-mails.
For the first few months of our friendship, I would text him a question about himself often so that we could learn more about one another. They ranged from the mundane to the silly to the absurdly intricate. Once, I asked him what he would be if he were not an archaeologist. He laughed and told me that he would be a Forestale, which is a branch of the Italian military that protects their national parks (much like the park rangers of the US). It happened that he loved the natural world as much as he loved the historical one.
Some people open me up to parts of myself I had forgotten or had not yet discovered, while others cause me to protectively contract within myself, concealing rather than unfolding. Obviously, through our open engagement in conversation, the archaeologist was the former. Through our friendship I was reminded of summers of my youth, spent in the wilderness of the west with my family. I had rarely recalled these memories in recent years, but they came flooding back when the archaeologist and I talked.
With these moments fresh in my mind, I wrote him an e-mail about the summers my family spent camping and backpacking in a remote area of Wyoming. Below is more or less what I wrote to him, with some things removed and others added. Yes, this long narrative about my friend is simply a windy introduction to something quite different, but I felt I could not present my own memories without explaining the impetus the led me back to them, the medium through which I was able to best express them, and the strange magic of how friendship can open us up to memories of places (and selves) long forgotten.
When I was just a kid, my family would travel to the western part of the country for the summer (we called it, obviously quite creatively, “going out West”). We were fortunate to visit many wonderful places, but today I will focus on only one very special place – Green River, a beautiful wilderness area in the Wind River mountain range in Wyoming.
My first memories of this place do not come from my own presence there (I was a baby on my first trip, and whatever memories I created through those new eyes are lost to me now), but rather from old photographs of my father, looking every bit the mountain man. He would be sitting – unsmiling, but content – on some ledge somewhere, the blue sky the only contrast to the grey rock below him. His hair was longer, but still close cut and he had a short beard and a mustache (something he was no longer able to have once I was able to articulate my dislike of it; I told him it tickled me when he kissed me and he promptly shaved it off). He was often alone, and oftener surrounded by his dogs – the wolf-like malamutes of my youth, those independent and affectionate creatures who he carried across rushing creeks and tracked down after they caught scent of moose and mule deer and ran off into the wilderness. They had names that matched their noble statures, like Ariack and Brahm, Baron and Kyana. I only met Baron – the rest all passed before I was born and are buried in the woods of my childhood home, probably to be found in a thousand years by some future archaeologist who will think we worshiped dogs.
Later, my mother was also in these pictures – her hair was long, almost down to her slim waist and she smiled brightly in every photo, the mountain air a balm to the wounds of a damaging youth. She looked brave and carefree standing among the rocks and trees and before high alpine lakes that glittered in the sunlight. She was at home in the woods and though she had far less practice, she kept up with my father as if she had been backpacking all of her life.
Eventually, my brother and I will appear in these photos as well, me a mini version of my mother, my hair down to the waist and all and my brother a toe-headed goofball who would flash a hammy smile in every picture. We traveled here when I was quite young (in fact, my parents first brought me here at only six months of age), but for some reason, most of my memories come from when I was between eight and ten.
I can still envision the car ride there – once you pulled off the main road there was only a bumpy dirt track through alternating patches of pine forests and sun-kissed prairies that seemed unending. There was just one small restaurant on the way, a small and simple cabin called “The Place”, its name tiled in big yellow letters on its siding. My brother lived for their giant hamburgers (nearly 1/2 lb.), which were the size of his face at that age. I can still smell the char of the fatty meat (even then I wasn’t much of a carnivore, often settling for a fish sandwich). I wonder if it is still there – the last time I was in Wyoming was over a decade ago.
We would tent camp for a few weeks in the main campground – the site was completely forested in fresh smelling pines and sat abreast a large lake flanked on three sides by mountains. I will never forget their silhouettes – the landscape that they created was equally beautiful and imposing, and gave the impression that you were staring right at the barrier between the world of man and that of nature.
My brother and I spent our time there playing with the other children at the campground, climbing all of the biggest rocks we could find and fishing on the lake – usually competing to see who could catch the most trout. I would always bring a heaving bag full of books from the library and I would spend any free time working my way through them, perching myself in a sun-dappled tent or among the rocks and trees reading something by Madeleine L’Engle or pretending to read War & Peace. I really couldn’t imagine a summer better or more blissfully spent.
We would spend time in the back-country as well and I can honestly say that I have rarely seen places more beautiful than those that you can only reach on foot. We would trek miles inland through the passages between the mountains. Here there were gorges of whitewater that possessed so much power that I had difficulty looking at them, long fields of boulders (some as large as cars) that we had to carefully traverse, and lakes perfectly clear and blue from the alpine snow melt that created them (you can’t even imagine the awe that you are struck with upon seeing the stars at night – you can see why the Milky Way bears its name).
The trails were usually clear, but sometimes the only way that you knew where you were going was to follow the cairns (a tower of small stones) set up by someone who had walked the trail in the past, like following invisible footsteps forward. We seldom passed anyone on the path, but I will never forget the huge Bernese Mountain dog that barreled down the trail at us like a bear, seemingly ownerless and searching for a pet and a bone. My brother and I obliged (at least with some petting) until his owners appeared to collect him.
The most fascinating thing about the back-country is how delicious food – any food – tastes when you are trekking many miles a day at high altitude. Breakfast was cereal with powdered skim milk that we had to mix with water filtered out of a stream. As an accompaniment, we usually drank Tang, another powder, this one bright orange and trying its best (but failing miserably) to resemble orange juice. Whenever I think of it I can taste the bracing orange flavor and see the orangutan on the package, although what orangutans and orange drinks have in common, I still do not know. Snacks were crackers topped with another shockingly orange food: cheese whiz, that portable processed cheese(?) in a can, or my personal favorite: gorp, out of which I would usually just eat all of the M&M’s.
Dinner, if we were lucky, was fresh trout out of the lake. If we were unlucky it was packaged ramen (which I loved anyway), Kraft mac & cheese, which to me always tasted better if the shapes were something other than elbows or (also Kraft) boxed spaghetti (n.b. this was not in my original e-mail to the archaeologist, because if he knew I had ever eaten spaghetti that came out a box with a little herb packet that you had to mix with canned tomato paste…well, I’m not sure I would have ever heard the end of it). I can’t say whether it was the hunger or the nostalgia of it all, but I am being truly honest when I say that I loved everything we ate and devoured it with gusto.
It was in this place that my imagination flourished. My brother and I spent most of our time in the back-country designing life-size mechanical animals. We would talk about how they would work, how great it could be if we could ride them around, and drawing the designs in the dirt with tapered sticks as our pencils. I really wanted to make a cheetah, though I don’t remember exactly why – but I can still feel the intensity of my desire and my confidence that it was something that could be done. My parents listened with patience and, I suppose, bemusement; although I am quite certain they were tired of hearing about animal automatons after a week in the wilderness.
At one point during this trip we spent a few days at a high alpine lake named Faler. There was a boy scout troop camping around the lake as well, and my eight-year old heart fell in love with the leader of the group, a kindly young man who was probably in his early twenties. His name was Elmo, of all things, and he was very sweet to the little girl who followed him around asking constant questions and describing to him her plans to build mechanical animals. For nearly a decade after this my brother and father would tease me mercilessly about him and would probably still to this day if I hadn’t given them other embarrassing material about which to tease me.
I hope to go back someday – see how it has changed, if it has changed. Some places are never the same as they were when we saw them as children, although a few retain their magic. I feel like this place would. And although I do not have an army of mechanical cheetahs or a much older boyfriend named Elmo, there is something about this time in my life that feels encapsulated in my soul – it was a season of warm memories, bathed in summer sunlight and wild nature and the easy love that comes from a family. I will forever be grateful to my parents for showing me this place and all of the others that we visited. I would be a completely different person without these experiences and whenever I feel lost from myself, this is one of the versions of me that I look back to – fearless and adventurous, with a voracious appetite for learning and creating, and full of uncomplicated contentment.
Here the e-mail ends after a bit of my own musings on the archaeologist’s cherished memories of his own childhood travels (something quite magical about Hadrian’s Wall and his first Roman coin) that he had shared with me as well as the customary valediction and well wishes. In writing the archaeologist I had connected not only with him, but also with a younger part of myself. I have been extremely fortunate to find many friends who have let me unfurl in this way – some I have known for years, while others for only a short time. It is from these experiences that I know it is always worth the risk to meet someone new, even if you are afraid (perhaps especially if you are afraid), because you never know how they will connect to you and direct you back to a beloved part of your past and a much needed – but long forgotten – part of yourself.
(We have a double recipe this week – ramen bowls two ways, one camp friendly and inspired by my favorite back-country meal and the other a bit too complex for camping, but perfect for a weeknight in the kitchen. We hope you enjoy both: Ramen Two Ways).