I grew up in the vast, open expanse that is the American West. In my childhood homes in Montana and Idaho, there was a lot of space, punctuated by craggy mountains or rolling hills that reached skyward from their firm grounding in the earth. These landmarks served as my compass – I could almost always see them, and could thereby discern where I was. In western Montana, the sun sank every evening behind the Bitterroots, and so I knew that if I placed the mountains to my left, I’d be facing north. The mountains were comforting, orienting, grounding.
I was 12 years old the first time I flew in a plane. It took me to Los Angeles, and never having left the Northwest, it was an exhilarating experience at first. The exotic places on the departures board had never before seemed real to me, and I found it amazing to be able to board a plane, watch the ground fall out beneath me, and to touch down just hours later in a a completely different place. I was instantly hooked.
However, shortly after our arrival, my excitement vanished. I felt swallowed up in the endless freeways, the tall buildings, and the sunless, smoggy sky. Though I’d always had an acute sense of direction, I looked every which way and could find no point of reference. I turned in desperate circles and couldn’t find north, and I suddenly felt very small.
In my quiet panic, I closed my eyes and asked myself, “If I was in Montana, where would the mountains be?” I took a few deep breaths and suddenly – there – I could feel them. I slowly turned so the imaginary mountains would be on my left. I felt my father’s hand on my back and heard his voice ask me, “Jenna, what is wrong?” I opened my eyes and asked, “Dad, is that north?” He nodded. It was. My panic vanished and I was okay. I was oriented. Grounded.
That was a long time ago. Years later, I’d board a second plane that would take me to college. I’d go on to live in the midwest, New England, the Caribbean, and Europe. I’d travel even further afield, developing a boundless wanderlust that has me constantly planning the next journey and adventure. When I travel, I still feel all the exhilaration with none of the panic. I think I can do this because I still carry those childhood landmarks in my back pocket.
I’m typing this post below the trees of Bryant Park and the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan. The city vibrates around me, and I’m feeling alive in a way I only do when I find myself in a different place than the one I woke up in. But on my way here, I did have a moment when I lost my bearing as I emerged from a subway station below the city.
I found myself closing my eyes and instinctively asking myself – “”Where would the mountains be?”
And as they always do in these moments, there they appeared. I could feel them – I could feel west, and I could find north. And even in New York City, because of my mountains, I’m oriented.