Most of my experiences worth remembering occurred in a labyrinth of unpaved roads: twisting their way through scrub brush to dry lake beds during droughts, carving muddy paths in the steep grade of mountains after snow melt, and evaporating into the arid landscape around them.
I grew up down one such road that curled through the pine flats and lush bottomlands of Central Florida. Tire ruts in the sugar-fine sand penetrated the Ocala National Forest beneath a canopy of live-oak hammocks. My cousin and I walked this road daily, shooting beer cans from fence posts with our bb guns on our way to Ol’ Ratley, the old gnarled live-oak on the edge of that marsh where we perched as kids to watch gators move like debris through the reeds. We picked our teeth with the ends of the spanish moss that hung down around us and waited for dusk to roll in when we would be let back in the house. On the walk home, we’d fix our gaze on the barbed wire running parallel to the road and count the clumps of ball moss growing rootless from taut lines.
I’m proud of this place, this deep South, where the sawing chatter of locusts numb an anxious mind, where the insufferable heat fuddled the senses. I’m grateful for the evenings my family spent walking that dirt road, picking up trash tossed from pick-up trucks and the beer cans my cuz and I shot holes through just hours before. We planted wildflowers and magnolias along the roadside and reported poachers to the authorities.
Now, 2,000 miles from home, I still pick up trash along country roads. I still watch for wildlife.
I buried my dog of fourteen years down a dirt road in Golden, Colorado shortly after moving there. I buried her in a canyon where the deer came down in the evenings to graze and the mesa rolls out to the sides of the landscape like big arms reaching around to hold something. I could see the smog suspended over the city from where I stood in the foothills. A cold front rolled over the mountain and surged around me as I brought a pick down into red clay and rock. I didn’t know how rocky the ground would be or that the hike up the canyon would be so difficult to navigate—it was new country for me. And I’d never buried a dog before. It took me two days to dig deep enough so the coyotes couldn’t drag her back up. But her headstone is the largest yucca plant in the vicinity and the deer travel directly over her nightly.
I’m proud of this place, the foothills of the Rockies, where I buried the best dog I ever had. I’m grateful for two days exposure to the cold and high winds, my hands torn from hard work; I learned the soil and how to read a cold front. I shared the open space with deer and an old burro that lived on the property.
Now, four years later, the cold and arid land rejuvenate me. I still walk up to that yucca plant to watch dusk fall. I still put my hands in the soil at every opportunity.
These are two places I sing.