by Stephanie Malin
As some of you may know, I recently completed my dissertation at Utah State University, and I will be heading out to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in about a month to start a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship in Environmental Ethics. Crazy. I still have not wrapped my brain around all of these changes, though I am trying to for the sake of my own sanity and that of my husband, who is accompanying me and making many sacrifices along the way. One huge sacrifice for both of us is leaving a community that we have called home for some time; a place that has many of the amenities and natural traits we long for in a permanent residence. Frankly, we are bummed to leave the West and, for me at least, bummed is putting it mildly. Though I grew up outside Chicago, becoming a ‘Westerner’ has long been a goal of mine; thus, this move feels a little strange. My heart keeps screaming “Excuse me, but don’t you know we’re heading in the wrong direction?! That’s East, dear….You’ve always wanted the West!!”. I know the move is temporary, and we are determined to end up back out West (especially if one of you fine folks out there in the Internet ether needs an environmental sociologist in a couple of years!).
In honor of this move, and my love of our adopted home community and region, I’ve decided to enumerate the ten things I’ll miss the most about the West. This month, I will share with you five of them….and keep you in suspense until next month for the rest of my favorites in the West.
10) Acquisition of Excellent Lung Capacity:
My husband and I love to hike, snowshoe, camp, just be outside in general. Living in Logan, Utah, we are situated at a nice 4,500 feet above sea level, nestled in the Bear River Mountain range. When we hike, it is often through these mountains, with some of our trails requiring 2,000 or even 3,000 feet (if we’re feeling especially ambitious) in elevation change. As you hikers out there know, those elevation changes can be grueling, and they can often be required not once but twice as you ascend the mountains, descend to take in a beautiful lake vista or other site, and then return the way you came. As a result of this high-elevation hiking regimen, we have developed some terrific lung capacity. The thin mountain air has made me a pro at hiking here, and I can feel my lungs filled to the brim when we return to sea level. I will miss the chance to expand my lungs, though I think muscle/organ memory will kick back in in a year and 10 months or so, fingers crossed.
9) Mountain Streams:
Even when living in humid, sometimes swampy Missouri, we loved camping next to streams, lakes, and rivers, canoeing and swimming in them when we could. The Current River in southern Missouri became a favorite. But the West introduced us to a whole new echelon of beautiful lakes and streams, cascading down from mountain peaks. I’ve often been tempted to drink from them, they seem so clean, so cool and refreshing. Though my background in environmental justice and mining pollution reminds me this could be a decidedly bad idea, the fact that I can see the bottom of the river bed as the water whisks by it makes this impulse more than fleeting. I will miss the crystal clear streams, their babbling as they rush by our camp site, and the welcome touch of their water on my bandana or hat in the middle of a particularly grueling hike.
8) Lack of traffic:
We just returned from our first trip to Rhode Island, to Providence, where Brown is located. And they have a little thing there called traffic. A lot of it. I’m not a fan of driving in the first place, but the sparse traffic in my corner of the West has made the task a little less dreadful. Now, I know many Westerners deal with their share of traffic, especially our city dwellers and various California residents, so you are not forgotten. But, my goodness, the East boasts real traffic and it is everywhere!! We deliberately chose a place within walking distance to Brown so that this traffic may not become a daily battle. I hope it does not. Wide, well-paved, and sparsely-traveled roads of Logan, I will miss thee….
7) Camping on Public Lands:
Often, summer camping for us includes choosing a spot on BLM land, setting up our tent and camping gear, and then heading off onto yet more public lands for hiking, sightseeing, and exploring. The camp sites are free, as is the exploring, and nothing can beat this scenario. I love that we can access some of the most beautiful places in the West, tread lightly there for a few days and nights, and not have it put a dent in my graduate student pocket book. I will belabor this point next month, I’m sure, but I just may get arrested back East for trespassing.
6) My Fellow Outdoorspeople:
Not to say that easterners are not also outdoorsy, or have the capacity to be, but most Westerners have outdoor activities in their blood. They were raised on four-wheeling, camping, hiking, and being outside on those accessible public lands I mention above. I’ve learned in my time here that this creates a culture that is highly aware of their relationship to the land (even if it’s not called this or interpreted this way). Back East, the network of interstates, private lands and buildings, and the abundant populations make cultivating a relationship to the land a little different for Easterners, I’m being reminded. I look forward to learning about the East Coast, its natural pockets and gems, and I’m sure we will meet people with a strong land ethic and connection to the natural world. But, my fellow Westerners, I will miss the comfort that many of you have with being a lonely little dot, or two or three, in a vast expanse of wilderness.
I’ll be thinking of my next five list items over the next few weeks. If you were to leave the West, what would you miss the most?