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fear of the heavens
I spent my weekend in the Okanogon, a vast and rural county in eastern Washington, its largest city: population 4,000. The landscape was mostly variations on themes I'd seen before. Yawning stretches of shrub-steppe, low valleys hemmed in by mountains, and on our last day, to the south, a flat endless plateau.

But the highlands were new to me, and they were harrowing.

I've been in mountain ranges before, for skiing, and summer camping, that sort of thing. I thought the highlands would be like that, and we certainly passed through some ski-mountain-y areas, at first. As we climbed the two thousand feet up into the highlands, in our little row of Subarus, we followed the lone plowed road, which brought us through a "snow park." There, we were surrounded by cheery alpine forest, with its tight rows of conifers and lush greens. Christmas-card perfect.

Except then we passed through, and we got to the highlands.

The trees were gone—not just behind us, gone; you turned around and couldn't see a lick of green, just white hills. Their poor replacement was a few barren wretched-looking deciduous trees, standing alone or in tiny clumps amid the hills, half-covered in snow, probably some whole-covered in snow that I never saw.

The landscape was roiled—not just hilly, I've seen hills before, but these hills were sharp, and rumbled out forever in all directions. We had climbed two thousand feet; where was the way down? All I could see was hills. Or had we gone down at some point, were we back in the lowlands somehow, and they'd just somehow grown to look more foreboding? I got turned around and confused so easily, driving the way we were, darting between pullouts and little nooks of wildlife refuges, looking for birds, but I felt high-up, and besides our little birding group I couldn't see a single other soul around.

It was nearly impossible to find the line between land and sky—so white and untrammeled the fields were, so white the sky was with clouds and fog. The lone demarcations in the landscape were a few low wire fences, strewn here and there, and a few ghoulish patches of tall, dead-brown grass poking through, maybe once every half-mile or so. As I stared and stared, trying to make sense of it, the line "the grass, it grew as scant as hair" leapt into my mind, an echo of an old poem I'd once known but had now forgotten. I looked it up later, and found it was from a verse of Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came":
As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud
Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood.
One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,
Stood stupified, however he came there:
Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud!
I kept saying to the passengers in my car—"you can't even see where the land ends and the sky begins, isn't that crazy?" No one else seemed as chilled as I did, or really even said anything in response, which just made it more surreal; was I the only one who saw how weird this was? how unsettling?

In my writerly way, I ruminated while I drove, trying to piece together what exactly this feeling in my chest was: unsettled, uneasy, like trying to push two magnets with repelling poles together. Would I always think of the landscape this way? Or was it merely because we were there on a particularly foreboding day—light fog, fierce snow, driving hard through primitive, muddy roads and squinting hard at every too-bright-white snowy hill in hopes of seeing a bird? (I'm not sure. I know I've had this feeling with cities before, a strong magnetic pull, the thing that made me love Boston and Seattle and Kushiro, a thing I've never been able to explain but trust completely. But I hadn't felt this push before.)

At some point I wished I'd brought my smartphone, so I could take a picture of this place, so I could ponder it later, at greater length—and then immediately dismissed the idea, because it was obvious to me that none of the vast strangeness of this landscape would translate to a dinky smartphone picture. How many pictures of this sort of thing had I reblogged on Tumblr before, a photo of some stark white landscape with a single tree in the middle, or other "artsy" sparse photographs? When I saw those photos, I thought them stark, but beautiful, small, contained, safe—and nothing about this landscape felt small or contained or safe. I wasn't sure any photo could capture it, really; I thought of the Ansel Adams photos I'd seen before, which are so beautiful, and yet somehow they seemed not up to this task. Perhaps an inadequacy in photography itself.

I wondered what medium could capture it—this vastness, this feeling of being hemmed-in, the hills pressing in around you, the subtle underlying terror of it all? I considered maybe VR—but I suspect that wouldn't work. I think the danger has to be real—not that we were in particular danger, out in our Subarus and all, but one could step outside, feel the cold, look at a map and realize how far we were from anything that could feasibly called a town. I don't know.

Poetry probably came closest to capturing it, or at least, that was what kept leaping into my mind, as I drove and wandered and walked. A raven stirred, leaping to flight from the roadside, and a verse from Wallace Stevens leapt into my mind:
"Among twenty snowy mountains,   
The only moving thing   
Was the eye of the blackbird."
At some point my dumbphone texted me, welcoming me to Canada and reminding me that international data rates applied, though we were still five miles from the border. For a strange, long moment I could only stare stupefied at my phone, the notion of borders having left my mind entirely. Where would you put a border here? And why, and how, and could it even be done? The scant little wire fences scattered here and there seemed hardly there to guard anything, seemed more like little flags, desperate proof that someone, anyone, had been there.

When I'd been to the mountains in the Skagit a month ago, they made me think of God; the highlands made me think of nothing, except maybe radio static, or twelve-tone music. It put me in that frame of mind, at least; I listened to John Luther Adams when I got home.

It's a place. People live there. Snows melt. Probably in spring it's as warm and sweet as anything but this weekend it showed me a sort of bright wretchedness that I'm not sure I'll ever understand.

(This entry isn't an attempt to capture that feeling, not really; more just notes so that I don't forget what it was like, so I can go back and think about it later, or when I go again.)


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