When these inner earthquakes hit, it’s your soul rattling its cage, telling you some new aspect of yourself needs to get birthed. In this chaos of disturbance, such sensible considerations as career and finances seem minor. Instead, trust: I knew clients and book projects could follow me digitally. Move: Head toward the unknown, because that’s where new life emerges. Go big: Where is the extreme place, the brave place, that’s not accountable to logic or caution?
Which is how I got to Jackson Hole, whose smells and mood I hadn’t been able to shake since I’d driven through it on my way to California in 2003. A Shoshone elder told me that the Grand Teton mountains are the center of a massive wheel of sacred sites 1,200 miles wide. They energetically sustain the West’s vast terrain, holding it together without asking for credit. They quietly insist you visit them—and then try to make you stay.
If you do, this energy lends daily life some tension. One minute you’re rebelling against the mountains’ pull, frustrated by bitter February winds and endless conversation about skiing and the stifling size of a three-square-mile town with 9,900 residents. The next minute you round a bend toward a landscape you’ve glimpsed a hundred times before and are overcome with devotion so fierce it hurts. I’ve never been to a place where so many people, of all different backgrounds, describe their coming here as choiceless.
My first month I got to know this land of giants from the ground up. The scale of the Tetons intimidated me, so I stayed low to the floor. I pitched a tent and slept fitfully, with bear spray at the ready. I slipped into the cold, rushing Snake River, and two sleek-headed otters popped up to watch. I climbed into a massive mountain cave, and impulsively stripped off all my clothes. I was starting to feel hungry again.
As August brought hot prairie winds and boiling, black skies, I fell in with a local crusade called TreeFight, a group of artists, athletes, and scientists that is trying to protect a single species of tree, called the White Bark Pine, from a beetle infestation that has turned the green mountainsides death gray. High on a windy ridge, we watched a grizzly lope through an annihilated ghost forest on the opposite saddle. A stake was driven through my heart and into the ground, right there on the ridgeline: Consider yourself tethered.
By September people started asking, “You staying for winter?” It was tossed out casually, but I could tell it was a test: Are you in, or are you out, like all the other California girls, taking our summertime stories and bucking-bronco postcards with you? I couldn’t bear to be a California girl. I wanted to be a Wyoming woman: fearless, chap-lipped, and steady at the wheel in a blizzard. I saw the cabin listed on Craigslist. It was incredibly cheap but oddly special, located in a secluded glade where Indians once took shelter. The owner, a bachelor naturalist with a collection of Beat poetry and Zen books, delivered a speedy tutorial on using the woodstove. I had a silent panic attack about cold, solitary nights, and feared my quest for female capability had gone a bridge too far. For a second, sparkly city things danced like sugarplums in my head: salsa music on street corners, LEED-certified lofts with poured concrete floors, kisses in taxicabs after cocktails. But I was pretty sure I couldn’t sacrifice the aliveness I felt for that familiar lifestyle. So I cowboy-ed up and moved in, armored for aloneness.