Backcountry Bisons: Suzanne Roberts, Almost Somewhere

With our new Virtually Bison Books tours, you can explore Western Literature from your home or on the road. Backcountry Bisons is the newest tour featuring an array of memoirs that bring the reader into the Western environments that the authors explored, hiked, or connected with in an inspiring way.

Below author Suzanne Roberts admires the beauty in her own backyard, spending quarantine in her mountain home. Roberts is the author of Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Bison Books, 2012), Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (Nebraska, 2020), and four collections of poetry. She was named the Next Great Travel Writer by National Geographic’s Traveler, and her work has been published in Best Women’s Travel Writing and listed as Notable in Best American Essays. She teaches for the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada University. Visit her website suzanneroberts.net.

Finding Home: The Sierra Nevada

Like most people, I’ve spent a lot more time at home since March. And like many others, I’ve also been in a constant state of anxiety about the pandemic and the world in general. And then there’s the anger—there is so much in the world to be mad about, or maybe it’s just that I’ve always channeled my grief into anger. Or else I run away, though without the ability to travel, the only place I’ve been able to flee is into my backyard.

But I’m lucky: I have one of the most beautiful backyards on the planet. Or maybe it’s my front yard, since I have to walk out my front door, cross the street, wander through the neighbor’s yard (wave to the security camera—many of the houses in my mountain town are second homes and they’re never there), and I’m on Powerline Trail. Within a few miles, I’ll reach the Tahoe Rim Trail, which leads to the Pacific Crest Trail; from there, I can walk south to Mexico or north to Canada. I’m about halfway between the two.

Most days, I choose from a number of routes, ranging from a two-mile loop (the old-dog route) or if I have the whole day, I might head up to Star Lake and back, completing a 14-mile trek. I’ll pass by Cold Creek and under a canopy of pine, fir, and aspen. Views stretch from Lake Tahoe and into the Desolation Wilderness. In March and April, I traveled through this winterscape on touring skis (which I call my “dog-walking skis”) as the snow filtered through the trees.

When the snow melted, and everything smelled like wet earth and pine, I counted emerging snow plants, those red alien-looking flowers that feed off the forest duff. In summer, lupine, Indian paintbrush, and mule ear scatter purple, red, and yellow along the trail and across the pastoral High Meadow. Red-tailed hawks, ravens, and Stellar’s jays swoop and squawk overhead. Chipmunks scamper by. Maybe a bear will saunter past, the afternoon light caught in its fur.

The days are getting shorter again, and soon the aspens will burn yellow and orange against the Sierra sky. The brown pine needles will crunch beneath my boots as I walk through the seasons, my old dog trotting by my side. And the cold, elastic air will mean the snow is coming once again. Staying close to home has meant a deeper exploration of my immediate surroundings. And for that, I am grateful.

I haven’t always made good decisions, but hiking California’s John Muir Trail just out of college was one of the best choices I’ve ever made, because in a very real way, it led me home. I grew up in what my father called “The Concrete Jungle” of Southern California, but even as a very young girl, I have always been drawn to the dirt. I spent hours looking for insects in the bushes of my apartment complex. My parents saw this love of the outdoors in me and with what little money they had, they took me to California’s Sequoia National Park, Big Bear, and Mammoth for weekend trips. I announced that when I grew up, I wanted to be a ski instructor, a writer, and a hair stylist (to date, I have done two of the three, but I’m not ruling out hair dresser as my old-lady job—a dream is a dream).

When we say, “My parents did the best they could,” we know what that really means; it’s code for a difficult childhood. My father was an alcoholic, and my mother pretended that wasn’t so—some cases, the best really was the best, like those rare family vacations to the woods. When I was 17, I moved out of the house, knowing I would never live with them again, and that was mostly true—I came back to live at home again briefly just after my father died and then again for the duration of my mother’s journey with terminal cancer (life is hard sometimes, isn’t it?). Yet I didn’t go back home after college, like many of my friends did (I graduated during the recession of the early 1990s, so finding a job was no easy task). Instead, I went for a long walk. Back then, there were no John Muir Trail Facebook groups (the internet had been invented two years prior, but I hadn’t heard of it) and no one I knew had ever hiked the entire trail.

When my two girlfriends and I set out on the 211-mile trail, we had too-heavy packs, not enough food, and a paper guidebook. We also had personality conflicts, eating disorders (one of us struggled with anorexia and bulimia), and a near complete lack of experience. But like Muir, my own first summer in the Sierra was life changing. I had been searching for my own view of nature (until that point I had only read male nature writers), and I found it during that month on the trail—one of community and connection rather than the white stereotypically male “conquer the mountains solo” attitude. I also realized that I didn’t just want to visit the sierra on weekend trips or holidays; I needed to live among the granite, the wildflowers, the mountain streams, and the alpenglow in order to feel happy and whole. My memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail traces that early journey.

Because people are complicated, my father was also wonderful in many ways; he encouraged me to do or be whatever I wanted, and he told me that the wish would find the way, so I knew that if I held onto the wish, I could make it happen. I lived part-time in the Rocky Mountains for a few years while I figured out how to return to the Sierra Nevada for good. I’ve been here now for two decades but am usually traveling during the summer—an escape from over-tourism and crowds, forest fires and smoke. But now that I’ve had to slow down and stay put, I’ve developed a deepened sense of gratitude for my backyard trails, reconnecting to the magic I felt during my own first summer in the Sierra.

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