Seeking serenity? We offer some recollections of places and experiences in the West that quiet the mind and calm the spirit.
Passing Through, Flint Hills Of Kansas
Before we got married (young and naive) then got divorced (older and embittered), my first serious boyfriend and I fell in love in the outdoors. I came from native Chicagoans; he was descended from Missouri farmers. We found common ground in parks and pretty places, where we picnicked and played Frisbee and began mistaking our attraction to nature as attraction to each other.
We eventually left our Kansas homes to go to college together in California. On weekends when we should have been studying, we would cross-country ski, river raft, backpack, and beachcomb, from Yosemite, Death Valley, and Mendocino to Lake Tahoe, Point Reyes, and Big Sur. The Sierra Nevada, the Pacific Ocean, the redwood forests — Mother Nature was everywhere flaunting her exhilarating beauty. There were meditative moments around campfires, at scenic outlooks, under the Milky Way, by the water’s edge. There were glorious sunrises and sunsets coloring dramatic landscapes to otherworldly magnificence. But with the grandeur came miles to cover, switchbacks to climb, photos to take. And people to avoid — invariably slews of them with the same idea of finding some peace and quiet while preventing you from finding yours.
There was no such problem in the Flint Hills of Kansas. There, tranquility flowed naturally from the unobstructed, undemanding landscape. Gentle undulations punctuated by the occasional solitary tree. Luscious green under blue sky, glowing gold under orange sun. Intimations of serenity, if not immortality. I remember driving through once with my ex. In my mind it’s him, but it might have been my high school best friend. In my heart’s memory, though, I’m there with my first love. Maybe we’d been to the midnight doughnut place in the college town of Manhattan and stayed up all night waiting for the sun to come up.
Like most people who live in Kansas, I at least vaguely knew about this special place that made an otherwise-boring drive across the otherwise-flat state interesting and even scenic. Wikipedia will tell you that explorer Zebulon Pike gave the Flint Hills their name when he noted in his journal in 1806 that he had “passed very ruff flint hills” — the geologic result of abundant residual flint eroded from the limestone bedrock that lies at or near the surface. Wikipedia will further tell you that the Flint Hills area is designated as its own distinct ecoregion because it has the densest coverage of intact tallgrass prairie in North America. It will also tell you that what settlers found too rocky to farm, cattle ranchers have appreciated for the good grazing.
It doesn’t tell you this, but I will: There’s something elemental here that you feel in your bones and your soul. And I don’t think it’s something only Midwesterners experience. The prairie could be the most American of our vastly varied landscapes. The Great Plains do indeed have a greatness and majesty. This is the heartland, not just because it’s interior from the coasts. The “heart” is more than geographic.
In its emptiness, you might feel a fullness. In its timelessness, you might sense the bygone era when bison, elk, and prairie wolves roamed here; and the Kansa, Wichita, Osage, and Pawnee hunted, grew crops, and sometimes lived along the streams and creeks. In its openness, you might imagine the waves of grass rolling for miles and miles beyond the precious bit that has been saved and restored.
In its lonesomeness, you might find the peace and quiet you long for — and you just might remember a love that once seemed as boundless as the uncluttered horizon before you.
— Dana Joseph
For more information: You can read about the Flint Hills area and its inhabitants in the book PrairyErth by William Least Heat-Moon. If you visit: Flint Hills National Scenic Byway, Flint Hills Discovery Center, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
Camping Out, Big Bend, Texas
The campsite at Telephone Canyon feels like the loneliest place in the world. Just getting here does as much to wrap this backcountry jewel in mystique as do its sere surroundings. Visitors have to earn the privilege, which means first crossing 14 miles — from the southern terminus to the spur that takes you to the canyon’s camping sites — of axle-torquing washouts and undercarriage-grinding bedrock.
Only 14 miles, right? That’s about the distance from my house in East Dallas to my favorite Oak Cliff bar. But the journey along Big Bend National Park’s Old Ore Road took me at least three slow-going hours, probably not much faster than the mule and pack trains that once traversed the same general route in the early 1900s while transporting ore from Mexican mines to the railroad station in Marathon.
By the time I passed by minivan-size boulders long dislodged from the western cliff face, I knew I’d made it. The sun had gone down behind the mountains. The moonless dark was obliterating, the Milky Way like a braid of dust arching through blackness. I was wiped. My pickup had a few new squeaks. I set up camp in headlight beams. Don’t expect luxury — all you’ll find out here is a bear box in a brush clearing.
As I stepped out of my tent the next morning, I was almost startled. I’d been here for hours, yet I’d never actually seen it. To the east, the sheer limestone cliffs of the Dead Horse Mountains. In the west, a Mars-scape of boulder-strewn hills furred with creosote and hedgehog cactus. To the south, the road that brought me. I walked up Telephone Canyon Trail into the eponymous canyon, the greens of the sotol and prickly pear looking preternaturally saturated at dawn. A faint footpath snaked between the pyramidal hills at the mountain’s trailing edge. I wondered if I’d ever been anywhere so perfectly quiet.
— Brantley Hargrove
For more information, click here. If you visit: “Reservations for the site where I camped (Telephone Canyon #2) must be made online and in advance. I highly recommend buying Road Guide to Backcountry Roads of Big Bend National Park to plan your trip and to identify natural and historical attractions along the way. A high-clearance vehicle is a must and four-wheel drive may be advisable depending on conditions. I started on the south end of Old Ore Road and doubled back from Telephone Canyon; park rangers tell me the northern stretch is particularly rough.”
Tuning In, Santa Monica Mountains, California
Living in Los Angeles for any immoderate stretch of time — say, 25 years, after a snap decision to do the only insensible thing after college and beeline to California from Toronto with a girlfriend, her two cats, a kitty-litter-scented Honda Civic, and a permanently evolving game plan — is bound to come with its share of ups and downs.
Topographically speaking, the most stabilizing highs and lows for me along the way have been in the hills and canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains.
L.A.’s astonishingly massive (to the tune of over 153,000 acres), yet still somehow hidden expanse of wrinkled Mediterranean wildland running from Hollywood to Malibu and beyond, has been called the world’s largest urban park by sources even more reliable than Wikipedia. Actually, it’s several parks and preserves, consolidated by the National Park Service in 1978 into a National Recreation Area mosaic of lonely sage-covered slopes, oak- and sycamore-shaded canyons, secret waterfalls, a historic western movie set, iconic amphitheaters and observatories, retired ranches, the Will Rogers polo grounds, endless tide pool-studded beaches, and more than 500 miles of vacant-enough hiking trails to happily reconfirm that nobody walks in L.A.
I’ve camped out here with my kids on these beaches and in these hills and leafy gullies for a dozen straight summers. I watched them strike their first matches and construct their first s’mores in Leo Carrillo and Malibu Creek state parks, and portray their first drunk outlaws (at ages 9 and 4) outside the fake saloon at Paramount Ranch. I witnessed them take their first real wave at Zuma Beach, explore their first tide pools at Point Mugu, and ruthlessly critique their dad’s lamely improvised ghost stories under a totally unscary Milky Way. All before growing up a bit too fast.
Recently, during a solo hike on the Rising Sun Trail at Solstice Canyon in the hills above Malibu with a sweet Pacific backdrop, I spied my first baby red-tailed hawk teaching itself to fly. Flapping, flapping, flapping — then soaring off quasi-confidently on its maiden voyage.
I’ll spare you more sentimental empty-nest metaphors beyond that, but they’re everywhere in those peaceful folds of L.A.’s best disappearing act — still the most reliable place to step out and feel grateful to be here.
— Jordan Rane
Mushing Along, Fairbanks, Alaska
On assignment for a magazine, I once profiled two dog mushers and attended a dog-mushing race, and I was baffled about why people involved in the sport were so passionate about something that, as far as I could tell, made you undeniably miserable. Dog mushing seemed like a sport in which all you did was freeze half to death while dogs barked like maniacs around you. It appeared to be peaceless physically, mentally, and emotionally.
I figured I was missing something, so I signed up for a dog-mushing class. When I arrived at Just Short of Magic, out in the country near Fairbanks, and stepped outside into the minus-20-degree morning, I smugly congratulated myself for being right all along.
But I was wearing gear made for St. Louis, and Just Short of Magic owner Eleanor Wirts wouldn’t let me near a sled unless I donned her Alaska-caliber gear. I zipped into a coat and boots, the cold disappeared, and I had my first indication that I was, indeed, missing something.
I climbed aboard the sled, the dogs bolted as if for freedom, we hit the woods, and my attitude completely changed. The chaos of the dogs, of cold, of life disappeared. Whatever troubles I brought with me evaporated like the vapor from the dogs’ panting exhales.
Nothing could chase, never mind catch, me out there.
I marveled at the glory of sensory deprivation. There was no sound save for an occasional gee and haw from Wirts to get the dogs to turn. I saw just three colors: the white of the snow, the blue of the sky, and the dark gray of the trees. The only evidence that anything else in the world existed was the trail.
After 30 minutes of the kind of tranquility I always crave but rarely acquire, we turned around and headed home. I returned Wirts’ gear, put mine on, and froze half to death as I walked to my car.
— Matt Crossman
For more information, click here.
Journeying Beyond, Sedona, Arizona
The name Mii amo comes from a Native American phrase meaning “one’s path” or “one’s journey.” But for me, Mii amo is about stillness. It’s about a mind at rest, a soul at peace, and a spirit calmed.
Maybe it’s the massive red-rock formations surrounding the Mii amo resort that make me feel grounded. As people and cultures have come and gone over the centuries, the rocks have remained, their positions fixed, their ancient beauty never fading. The Yavapai-Apache consider Boynton Canyon a sacred site, and I’d be hard-pressed to argue with them.
So, yes, it could be the location, or it could be the resort itself. The 16-casita, all-inclusive destination spa has three-, four-, or seven-night “journeys” customized for each guest, with treatments including facials, massages, spiritual healing rituals, and Native American-inspired therapies, all performed by some of the spa industry’s best practitioners. So, again, it could be the majestic setting, or it could be the award-winning 24,000-square-foot spa.
But it could be another thing, too — something that some might actually consider a shortcoming: Cell service in the canyon is nearly nonexistent. If you can imagine a world without incessant ringing, beeping, and buzzing, that’s what Mii amo is like. Times are changing, though, and the resort has plans to launch an on-site cell tower, which is sure to improve reception, but with the tower comes temptation, the urge to keep tabs on your email, your voicemail, your social media. I suggest you squelch that desire and revel in the stillness instead.
— Rhonda Reinhart
For more information, click here.
Photography: Images courtesy Kansas Tourism, Brantley Hargrove, National Park Service, Just Short of Magic/John Schauer, Mii Amo Resort/Lonna Tucker
From our February/March 2021 issue.