She came up out of nowhere, and it honestly scared the hell out of me. We had been driving for over an hour and by that point, the evergreen trees were so tall and thick alongside the road that we couldn’t see anything else. So when we topped a hill and took a sharp curve to the right, she hit me like a gut punch. Mount St. Helens. My heart dropped into my stomach and, hand to God, I stopped breathing.
My first instinct was terror. I’m still not entirely sure why. Maybe that was the first time it really occurred to me that we were deep, deep in a wild place, and that places that wild are unpredictable. You could disappear into those woods and never be found. Maybe it was the height. Being so much further out into the atmosphere, standing so much closer to the cosmos than ever; something about it makes gravity feel unreliable. As though it’s possible to get so high that you might just fly irretrievably off into the great unknown.
I sat there in the car and didn’t say anything, just had a quiet panic attack for a few minutes. I talked myself down, over and over, from asking Josh to turn the car around and take me back to the city. Breathed deeply; four counts in, four count hold, four counts out. It came to me on an inhale, like the Washington air had just been holding onto a thought for three decades, waiting for me to show up so she could give it to me.
Am I Mount St. Helens?
Josh had said something similar out loud, earlier in the drive. We were just getting to the thickest parts of the forest and I sat in the passenger’s seat, wide-eyed and barely breathing at the feet of evergreen giants. We had long since turned the radio off, the way you do when you’re trying to focus, and I whispered into a silent car that it felt like everything in the Pacific Northwest was larger than life.
Kind of like you?
He said it without humor and I laughed without humor. Yeah. Kind of like me. I have forever felt larger than my context, which is maybe part of why the Pacific Northwest felt so much like home so immediately. I thought about that comment again while we were winding up the road, Mount St. Helens popping in and out of our view while we took sharp curves slow.
Every single time I saw that snow-covered peak, I felt the same rush of adrenaline, equal parts panic and wonder. With every rush, I thought about each time I’ve looked someone in the eyes to find them looking back at me with something resembling fear. Fear of me, fear for me, some combination of the two.
I am an endless wilderness. I know that of myself now. Even the people who know me best and love me most describe me in terms of natural forces that are equal parts awesome and terrifying. Sitting on the side of that volcano, knowing she could kill me just by existing as she does, I felt a visceral compassion for the people whose gut instinct is to run from an unpredictable terrain.
I am, if I am anything, an unpredictable terrain. A woman who feels more kinship with volcanos in thick-laid forests, with mountain ranges alongside the ocean, than with most anything else on earth. There are people who are built for that kind of land, and there are people who are built for the plains. Neither is better or worse, easier or harder, more or less respectable and honorable and good. They’re just different. We are just built for different brands of life.
That day shook something loose in me. Something I’m not sure will ever click entirely back into its former place. There is a restlessness in my chest that wasn’t there previously. Or maybe it was always there and I just didn’t know how to feel it yet.
But also, at the exact same time, my feet feel more deeply rooted than ever. Not into the dry soil of a midwestern summer, but into something inside me, something ancient beneath the loose and rattling pieces. Something that feels like a self. A shape, a form, with distinct edges. I have never been this restless and never been this grounded.
And one day, probably soon, I will go back to the wilderness. Let it shake some more things loose, let it plant my feet deeper still. See who I become.