When I was about ten years old I started learning about quiet contemplation in the world — from a cow trail in the middle of a vast expanse of ranch land.
In the Summer, my dad would load my two younger brothers (Bobby and Patrick) and I up into his green Datsun pickup truck and take us out to the farm.
It’s still unclear how crucial we were to these “missions” but we’d disembark near an open space in a barbed-wire fence to stand guard in case any cattle (that were being herded to another part of the ranch) were about to escape. Three small humans were there to prevent a thousand cattle from finding the road to freedom… into another expanse of the ranch.
As the dust settled from the Datsun pickup, still in the distance, I remember yelling, “but what are we supposed to…” All at once, we were in the middle of a crude road adjacent to pastures and forests and water and rocks. And, by the way, no cows.
Bobby could always find a way to entertain himself. He’d organize rocks into the 8-year-old version of a zen garden until Patrick would foil the peace with a swift kick. Patrick, the most kinetic of us (and also about 6) usually threw rocks at trees, mudpies or into the water if available. On the other hand, I was full of energy in a different way — so many ideas and creative impulses swirling through my head with no outlet that appeared obvious to me.
Since we were instructed not to leave sight of the fence there’d been no games of hide and seek or anything more active and entertaining for us. But as it was, we had nature, each other… and a lot of counting. We’d play games counting the number of leaves on the trees, or barbs in the wire between fence posts… or fence posts, clouds, branches… freckles.
Looking back on it now it reminds me of the type of ice-breaker questions, “who would you take with you on a deserted island…” At least I know I could pass lots of time with Bobby and Patrick!
After what seemed like a week (it was probably just a few hours), the light green imported vehicle would race toward us, casting a thick cloud of dust across the landscape. We’d be snatched up and whisked away to a more exciting part of the cattle drive, and eventually, back into the real world of the 1980’s version of over-stimulation.
This memory was lodged somewhere in the back of my mind until recently when I visited the Zamwalt Prairie Preserve, near Joseph, Oregon. I write a lot more about this beautiful expanse of intact bunchgrass prairie in my recent article, Journey to Joseph — Spirit of the Wallowa Mountains, which I invite you to check out after reading this email.
The first trail of the four I explored, the Canyon Vista Trail, started in a gully near a tiny creek. The photo is shown above. After working my way through the gate, I walked up a primitive ranch road toward the open prairie on a hilltop with stunning views of the Wallowa Mountains and, eventually, an overlook into Hells Canyon.
The warm sun beating down on me, the ranch smells of cow pies amongst fir trees, and the slight taste of dust in my mouth seemed to instantly transport me back to those moments with Bobby and Patrick on our own farm.
Although I spend large bands of time enjoying nature these days, rarely does it involve hiking on a private ranch road. The Zamwalt Prairie is a unique partnership between local landowners and the Nature Conservancy of Oregon, and it’s made very clear only the four trails have been approved for visitor use.
I wondered if the 40-something version of me went back to talk to the 10-year-old version of me, hanging out hoping a cow would stop by, what would he say? Would there be any way to tell this kid to soak up these quiet moments with nature… or, to be present with the company of my friends who happen to also be family?
Moments like these, in nature, with no one else around, really help me hone in on what’s truly important in life. To me, two of those things are an earnest connection with nature and the ability to be present in life to family and friends… and to myself.
These moments don’t have to happen on a secluded prairie, literally hours from a major city — they can take place inside a major city too.
I’m trying something new with my quarterly list of outdoor things to do in Seattle. The piece will be released tomorrow, June 21st to commemorate the beginning of Summer. Plus, we don’t consider Summer in Seattle to begin until July 5th anyway.
There is a new section added about urban hiking — in five Seattle neighborhoods intended to encourage moments of quiet connection. While the rest of the list has crowd pleaser features like the Olympic Sculpture Park and the interesting art around the Seattle Center (also, the Space Needle), these walks take me to another destination — something away from over-stimulation.
If you live in the Seattle area, consider reading this piece and taking a sunny afternoon to get away from our loud world to the connections that come in a space of quiet discovery. From quality time with family and friends to soul-nourishing personal time, may it be in a place “quiet” enough to allow the connection you need… today.
If you don’t live in the area, there are still options near you, and this can help inspire your own urban (or rural) exploration into the unknown.
I won’t drop you off in a pickup truck, and there’ll be no counting required — but I encourage you to guard your own gate of discovery and connection.