As always the point was getting off the map. This place halfway up Cerro Amigo–a rock outcrop covered in cypress and wild rose–wasn’t any more ‘special’ than a patch of grass along an I-80 exit ramp. Except of course it’s where I happened to be right then, along with a pair of Caranchos (South American hawks) who seemed, somehow, to be showing off, screeching, buzzing closer than necessary, then floating in the wind that rolled out of some Pacific cold front, blowing across Chile and over the Andes, now hitting us (and providing good lift) here on the cliffs.
I kept thinking about a phrase that occurred to me on the hike up: placefinding. There seem to be plenty of words categorizing what we are, but so few that adequately describe what we do. From the time I was a college sophomore and the 10 years of official ‘work’ that followed, my title was educator. But what I really did was search for different places (and if not search, then just ‘find’ the place, wherever it was or wherever we happened to be).
Skill-wise, I taught people how to paddle. I led people down rivers (Chattahoochee, Nantahala). I taught people how to set up no-trace camps, and camped out with both adults and kids in the Tallulah headwaters, and along the Chattooga. We explored forests from the Piedmont region in Georgia to Edisto Island, out to alpine montane in Colorado.
Then, as now, there was always some ostensible ‘mission,’ whether it was learning the local history of the region or how to identify trees or build shelters. But looking back on it, the real lessons were the places themselves.
If I was trying to teach anything, it was simply to share the act of placefinding, the feelings it gave you. That by going wherever it was with the understanding (or at least trying to understand) that the places you found, no matter how you initially perceived them, always had their own histories, connections to other times, connections to other people with their own stories–many of which had been lost–and that, if you simply spent time listening, watching, asking questions, if you simply allowed yourself to get into the flow of whatever the place or terrain was, you would keep learning and discovering more about the place and about yourself forever. It wouldn’t end.
I stood in the wind a bit longer looking at the town below. The scale of the place seemed tiny compared to the mountains. Somehow this always helped me walk back down there into it. I had a name now for what I was doing. On the way back I stopped in a windbreak and wrote it on the inside of my arm.