For a decade, I built my identity around the desert. I cloaked my core in its scents and stories, its grit and lore. I swallowed snippets of coyote song and twined juniper bark betwixt my bones. My curves felt duned and wind-shifting, my blood pulsed red, red, red. My sense of self became topographic—intricate and textured—full of synclines, anticlines, monoclines. Desert river lifelines. Barrel cactus spines. Pinon pines. All of it mine.
My identity as a writer bloomed in the desert. I wrote regularly for High Country News, Mountain Gazette, Inside-Outside Southwest, and Moab’s Times-Independent. I wrote of the desert, its people. My home, myself. My subject matter ranged from Hanksville and the Navajo Nation to Baja, from alternative energy to endangered species and Moab’s tailings pile. I wrote to learn, to understand, to more deeply immerse myself in the narrative of the landscape. I wrote to become. I wrote to belong.
This writing—and passion—ultimately led to a commission to write the biography of Bates Wilson, the Father of Canyonlands National Park. The book, Blow Sand in His Soul: Bates Wilson, the Heart of Canyonlands, came out in 2014 and was a regional success. It was the first book to out-sell Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire at Back of Beyond Books in the history of the bookstore. Ten years earlier, I worked at that bookstore. Ten years earlier, I dreamed of seeing my name someday on the shelves.
For a decade, I worked and lived in the desert. I was a park ranger, a wilderness advocate, a librarian, an arborist, and a writer. Always, a writer. I documented the layered tales of my desert home. Today, I am still an arborist and a writer, but I am no longer in the desert. Economic factors led my husband and I to move away five years ago, to root our business elsewhere. We are thriving in our new home. And, I am lost. Without the desert, who am I? What is my passion? Where is my voice?
It seems the desert continues to be both my identity and my muse. My writing here in the Northwest falters, fades, and soon enough it brings me back to the landscape of my heart. I no longer live amidst sand and sage, but I still need it. I have learned that I still must write about it. I have learned that I don’t need to live in the desert to be of the desert.
Generating a deep map of place has always been important to me in my work and my sense of belonging in the desert. Such a map is where we find context and perspective. It helps keep us from getting mired in the muck of the momentary. Today is fleeting, but our collective history is deep. Like the geologic layers laid bare across the Colorado Plateau, every place in this desert land is striated with stories. The more layers we expose—the more history we know—the better we can position our own trajectories among them, generating a stronger sense of both community and place.