The Comfort Zone

(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles presented at the Writers Forum during RMOWP’s 2015 conference.)

Article & photos by Maryann Gaug © 2016

Driving along the San Miguel River in southwest Colorado, I realize how comfortable I am here. Canyon walls tower above me, layer upon layer of silt, mudstone, and the occasional layer of rounded rocks where a stream once flowed. The red and brown walls formed over eons, remnants of the ancestral Rocky Mountains. I pull off the road and eat lunch in the shade of a cluster of cottonwood trees.  Not many vehicles pass by … a road on the edge of nowhere. Cell phone service is non-existent, and signs keep reminding me that snowplows don’t operate between 7 pm and 5 am.  Anyone tough enough to live on the few ranches in the area must pace their supply trips and social life to the whims of the weather.

Western Colorado
Sandstone cliffs of Western Colorado

A few twists and turns of the road brings me to the top of the canyon, a flatter land green with farms and ranches. A few little towns provide some comfortable connection for these folks: a grocery store, a gas station with inflated prices, a church, and a school.  Meandering down the road, I’m suddenly in a canyon again, not unlike the first except the solid red/pink band of the Entrada sandstone starts to appear as the bottom layer. Little by little the small band of solid rock grows from the river to the sky until I’m driving between solid walls of beautiful sandstone, high alcoves, and cracked surfaces. The Dolores River has downcut through these layers over millions of years, grain by grain, millimeter by millimeter.

This morning I woke up in Ouray, known as the Switzerland of America, nestled between steep walls of rock and towering peaks. The mountains also provide me a level of comfort. I think of the Old Testament verse: “I look to the hills from whence cometh my help.” I’ve hiked and camped in the high Rockies of Colorado for most of my adult life. I’ve learned lessons from the trees and the animals that are hearty enough to survive the too long winters and too short summers.

I think about how humans fuss and fiddle over so many little things and emphasize money and power. Conquer the wildlands, tame them into ranches, farms, mines, and timber tracts to boost the economy and make the owners (not the workers) rich. To me such actions imply that people aren’t very comfortable with wild places. I’ve learned from walking through the forests along creeks to lakes, watching squirrels scamper and scold as I pass by, that humans are just part of this natural landscape. We can conquer and destroy, but in the process we destroy some part of ourselves. Polluted streams haunt our health as does dirty air. Yes, we need to utilize some of these lands to provide food and resources, but we can develop them in harmony with natural processes. Our spirits are richer for these wildlands, at least in my experience.

A friend mentioned recently how she had been on a group trip in the canyon country in Utah. One participant came from a city back east and was quite uncomfortable in the wide-open spaces or in canyons of big rock walls. He loved the city, the steel towers and concrete paths, the hustle and bustle of the many people. I once thought that crazy; how could a person be in love with a city and hordes of people? Yet I know others who feel the same, who feel lost without a host of family and friends surrounding them, without the safety they feel in the masses.

I go to a big city and feel so less safe. I don’t understand all the informal, unspoken rules, the danger I sense in people themselves. Back in my beloved mountains, I’ve been asked too many times by other women, aren’t you afraid to hike alone? What about bears? I’ve only seen one bear in the wild in my many hikes and the brown bruin ambled above me on a service road at a local ski area. If I fear anything in my local woods, it’s the moose, which has little fear of humans and can attack with a vengeance, especially if a female feels her calf is in danger. And some people in my little town have experienced an upset moose.

Florida byway
Walls of trees, some poisonous, in Florida

I’m not comfortable everywhere. I recently headed to Florida then up the coast to Virginia and Maryland. On the way, I drove through Alabama, purposely choosing a US highway versus a narrow county road. The highway wandered through forests, opened occasionally by a clear cut. Obviously timber land. Where were the people? Few houses appeared, and the little towns seemed to consist of a corner gas station, where one restroom had a sign to lock the door, one stall had no door, the other had no latch. Matched my stereotypical image of the South. At least I didn’t have any run-ins with a Southern sheriff, wondering what a lone woman was doing driving a camper van. Just another of those fear-based impressions, like the women who ask me about bears while hiking in Colorado.

Driving the length of Florida, down the west coast to the Keys and back up the east coast, the interstates passed through walls of green: deciduous trees interrupted with a few pines. The edges of the pavement looked like manicured lawns. The trees were the scenery, masking any farms or towns behind them. Suffocation comes to mind, hemmed in by the tall wall. Trucks and cars whizzed by me or I around them. Always vigilant, I kept an eye on three lanes of traffic. Definitely uncomfortable.

I’m not used to the flora and fauna in the south. So many different trees and bushes, at least two I learned are poisonous. Alligators and several venomous snakes slither here. What is it about the South that caters to so many deadly life forms? The ocean is foreign to me. I love wading on the beach, where the waves sometimes reach my sandaled feet, splashing up my legs. People warn of jellyfish and rip currents, so I’m not tempted to go out any farther.  Other critters pose an unknown threat to me. Mosquitoes come to mind. What kind of disease could they be carrying: West Nile? Chikungunya? In several eastern states I was constantly reminded to be careful of at least four types of ticks, one the size of a poppy seed, lurking in the grass and in the bushes. They can carry Lyme disease, which can cause joint pain, severe headaches, or worse. At home, ticks can carry Colorado tick fever, but have not been reported to transmit Lyme disease. The humidity bears down on me, my hair frizzing in all directions, sweat pours off my face. Florida, while beautiful, is definitely out of my comfort zone.

I know if I were to spend time learning this southern land and its ecosystems, I would understand their workings. Stopping in natural history museums opens my eyes to the interconnectedness of the land, the water, and their inhabitants. Understanding however doesn’t imply comfort with biting insects and poisonous trees and snakes.

My take on my experience is that we may learn comfort from the environment in which we grow up, through our culture, and our religion or belief system. Arriving in a place quite different, the unknown can unnerve us, while stereotypical images we’ve learned second hand can disturb us. Perhaps in time I could learn a new comfort zone in a new environment.