Life, these days, is largely an indoors affair. Standing in line at grocery stores and sitting in offices consumes wide swathes of our time. But even so the Great Outdoors, that which exists outside and between our climate-controlled suburban homes and offices, irrupts from the cracks in our personal sidewalks like so many dandelions. Life, said Jeff Goldblum, will find a way. And despite the best efforts of our construction crews and imagination-less urban planners the world apart from humans, the things that existed before and will exist after, remains. Pushed to the margins perhaps, sneaking through darkened, empty alleyways when we’ve all gone home, but it remains. The world at large trespasses into daily life with reckless and regular abandon, much to its pain and diminishment perhaps but also much to my pleasure. Eyes up from my steering wheel or desk I search for the next unruly dandelion that mars the concrete horizon.
Sunrise defines my morning commute. High cotton batting clouds, in a thin puckered layer, glow orange in the brightening sun. The west-facing ]dimples in the clouds hold night’s blue-back dimness, a rumpled topography that wraps the morning sky from the still dim mountains to the eastern horizon. My route to work crosses a high hill, a typically dry Colorado bluff that overlooks the Boulder Valley below the foothill-defining lift of the Flatirons. Beneath the high-voltage power lines, at the top of the hill, a small dirt pullout fits two, possibly three cars. Not a park or open space improvement, just a dirt strip where I and others park for a minute to stare back to the east at the day’s beginning. Behind me overnight darkness lingers in the hollows of mountainsides below the Continental Divide. Even in the darkness lingering pockets of last year’s snow shine white in the leeward hollows of cirques and ridgelines. As the sun rises over the plains below, long house- and tree-shaped shadows snap into focus then contract, shrink and pull themselves back close against their owner objects. Sometimes someone else will be there. Our odd fraternity simply checks in, ensures that yes, the sun will rise again over another day and that all, so far, is exactly as it should be. We nod, silent as we look at the sunrise, before one or the other of us gets back in our car and heads to wherever the morning’s demands have directed us.
The early months of spring are when I begin listening for western meadowlarks. Their call is utterly distinct, the backdrop to the increasing warmth and developing greenery that will replace the sere winter tones and wind of the Colorado winter. As February transitions to March and warm days tease in between bouts of cold and snow I time my bike rides for the warmest hours of mid-day. On one of these rides, when the winter sun is bright and warm but if you stood in the shade the cold would settle into you, off across a field of stubble I’ll hear a meadowlark’s complicated call and know that, despite the long dark of winter nights, the seasons are changing. With the meadowlarks comes the rumble of farm equipment preparing the fields for spring’s resurgent growth. High-reaching sun warms the upper slopes of the mountains, and, weeks away, I can faintly hear the first rushing swirl of spring runoff where the mountain relinquish their winter supply of snow and purge the rivers and streams of winter debris with rushing, muddy water.
I frequent dirt roads, two lane ribbons of packed, oiled road base that curve between twin rows of cottonwoods. Farmhouses perch upon the hills and fields on either side, a scattering of homes and people as random as a handful of seeds thrown across the valley. Ahead of me, out of the culvert on the left side of the road, a coyote jogs through the grass and onto the road. It’s sleek, taller at the shoulder than its cousins that I see skulking through city open space at dawn. It pads easily down the soft shoulder of the road, swinging his head back and forth. It has the easy attitude of the hunter after a successful night, returning to his den with a belly full of prairie dog or farm cat, whatever was easiest and in his path last night. The coyote looks over its shoulder and sees me. There’s no recognition there, no implied anthropomorphism. The coyote’s world is comprised of simple binaries; eat or be eaten, survive or die, sleep or hunt. In its eyes I see no kindred spirit, only the relentless calculus of the natural world. The coyote turns and crosses the road, leaping easily down into the opposite culvert. Where it vanished I can see the grass part and sway, then stop as the coyote wends his way home.
Too often I focus on the big trips, the long weekends and planned-for weeks away from home. These trips anchor my summer and fall months and let me indulge in fantasies of sustained wilderness experience. But that’s not the case, for me or most people, and short trips, evening walks, or weekend bike rides need to bridge the gaps. Wildness and the appreciation of it doesn’t need to happen solely in great gulps, in the one backpacking trip you could fit into your schedule this summer. It can be a part of your daily experience, in simply noticing the red tailed hawks that roost on the powerlines outside your office, or waiting for springtime birdsong and the rebirth of summer’s greenery. Leave your office, leave your house, and engage with the world. For twenty minutes at a time or an hour. Animals pace the nighttime streets of our neighborhoods and wildness can be found on the way to work or tucked behind the cul de sacs of a neighborhood. The Great Outdoors twines its fingers deep into the supposedly safe and sane urban environment, blurring lines of demarcation between city concrete and mountain stone. Don’t be blinded by the simplistic duality of city/wilderness. Be of both spaces, effortlessly crossing roads and fields, comfortable in the mountains or the city, claiming all the world as your own.