Pondering Gretel Ehrlich in Las Vegas
Words and photos by Greta Hyland
The irony was not lost on me as I sat crossed legged in Las Vegas at a youth soccer tournament reading, The Solace of Open Spaces, by Gretel Ehrlich. The sound of traffic from the freeway merged with referees’ whistles and yelling coaches. I looked through the mountain of casinos hovering just beyond the concrete straps stretched in front of me at the expansive landscape beyond. Even with all the noise and obstacles it was still hauntingly alluring and drew my sight through the cityscape as though it were a ghost.
I marveled at how even a city like Las Vegas could resemble a little island lost out at sea, so surrounded by space it is. It’s a common view in the American West but something you don’t notice as much in a city like Las Vegas. Somehow opening this particular book, in the midst of this particular city, made Las Vegas appealing in a way it had never been before.
When it comes to books my mantra is, “Don’t leave home without it.” I rarely go anywhere without one. However, grabbing this book before I left home in southern Utah had a hint of fate attached to it since I was already into three other books and would normally have grabbed one of them rather than cracking a new one open. But as I was rushing out the door, the little book caught my eye and as an after-thought, I swiped it off my bookshelf as I dashed by.
A cold breeze blew through the subdued winter version of Las Vegas I had arrived in. Because the muted view didn’t fit the glitz and glam version of Vegas I was accustomed to, it felt like an entirely different place. This being my first club soccer tournament, I wasn’t prepared for an all day stint at the park. With hours between games, I hunkered down for a long, cold day ahead of me. Shivering against the chilly wind, I prepared for a day of parental endurance. At least I had a book.
Wondering how the kids could run around in t-shirts and shorts, I pulled my beanie down as far as I could get it, thankful for the added layer of warmth my hair provided. I shrunk into my high tech jacket and braced myself against the growing cold, regretting my decision to bypass an extra layer when I left my hoodie at home.
In the midst of the hustle and bustle of parents, players, and balls, and with just the tips of my fingers sticking out of my sleeves, I opened the worn and fragile looking book. It had the same vintage look that the West has in my mind, and so touched by nostalgia, it made me feel the same way the prospect of a road trip does.
I ran my hands over the yellowed, but still crisp and clean pages, marveling at how anyone could read the book without leaving a hint of use on it. I imagined that maybe it had sat neglected on a shelf for years before someone finally dropped it off at a thrift store. Hard for me to imagine as everything about this book said, “Read me.”
Until a couple of months ago, I had never heard of Gretel Ehrlich. Standing in a friend’s house in Carmel, California, perusing the bookshelf, was the first time I laid eyes on her name.
Most of the books on my friend’s shelves were art books, which made sense as both he and his girlfriend are artists. But a book with a stormy landscape on the front caught my eye. It stood out like a black sheep in those spines of ocean and sand and pastels. I read the back cover and quickly made a note of the title. I bought my own copy from a used bookstore on eBay a few days later. Not being one who needs an excuse to buy a book, it was still a rather blind and spontaneous buy for me but this book spoke to me.
As I sat under the cotton stretched clouds pulled thread bare across the cold desert sky, I looked beyond the games enviously at the Red Rocks and snow-capped mountains in the distance. Even from where I sat the view was stunning. I sighed and turning away from the view, opened the cover. It took but a few moments to see that this book had chosen me. Reading, The Solace of Open Spaces, was like drinking a cold glass of water after being parched and dehydrated.
The hours rolled by, my time with the book broken up by games but in-between I would escape back into the book where I had left off. As I underlined passage after passage I thought, I could highlight her whole book. Her care with words, the imagery, and the picture-perfect descriptions nourished my mind like a good meal does my body. I consumed her book like a starving animal.
Who is this woman, I mused, and why have I never heard of her before?
Reading Erlich was like reading a serious and thoughtful version of Edward Abbey. As I wondered about this woman from Santa Barbara who moved to the harsh and rugged landscape of Wyoming to work as a ranch hand, a theme kept popping up like a warning I should pay attention to. The theme? That life is not safe, nor was it meant to be, and furthermore, that it is meant to be lived out there, not inside an incubated building.
This time I paid attention rather that brushing it off as I had done several times already in the past few weeks. Thoughts that flickered in my mind were one thing, but an entire book was another. Like endless ocean waves rolling onto the beach, each page kept coming, repeating, and washing out the wrinkles in my mind, as if to emphasize that I had better decide if I was going to give in to safety or batten down the hatches and ride this one out.
I am not a big risk taker. I usually weigh costs and benefits and base my decisions on them, but I have lived long enough to know that you can miss your own life that way. I have looked back at my younger years and wondered why I didn’t live a little more—why I didn’t laugh more, try new things, let loose and act goofy, or attempt daring feats. What was I so afraid of? If Erlich could leave the beaches of Santa Barbara and head to a dusty and dry Wyoming, certainly I could face a daring future as well.
Prior to reading Erlich’s book my mind had been unmercifully focused on not wasting the life I have left. Looking ahead at the years left before me with a little dread, I realized I was still playing it safe. I was straddling the fence so to speak, sitting here while wishing I was out there. But reading Open Spaces made it clear that I have a deep longing for a wild, exhilarating, breathtaking future where I don’t look back again 20 years from now and wonder what I had been afraid of.
I want to risk and gain, or risk and lose, but know at the end that I have truly lived either way. I want to know that my life amounted to more than striving for “safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness,” as Aldo Leopold so frighteningly articulated in, “Thinking like a Mountain.”
That “out there” is a wildly alluring alternative to my “in here.” Once experienced it leaves a relentless anticipation that only abates once tasted again. To use Ehrlich’s words, the reason is that, “emerging from isolation can be disorienting, as everything looks bright, new, and vivid.” Like an alcoholic to the bottle, it is that which draws me back and leaves me agitated in the spaces in between. Everything is more vivid and bright, even myself.
To steal a thought expressed by Ueli Steck in Reel Rock 8 that mountains are honest; nature is simple. There are neither rewards nor punishments, as Gretel said, only consequences. Live simply right? This I can handle. This I can accept. No matter what, the result is natural and understandable, even if tragedy is the final result. It’s clean; perhaps unsettling at times, but never dull or boring.
But the most intriguing aspect is that this unsettling state of being does not go away once you taste it. Much like having sex; once you try it, the desire to do it again just grows. Only after you have scratched that itch and are left with an aching longing to return do you realize that your first experience into the wild was a birth from your life for which you will never return the same. You exit a new person. Like water trickling through your fingers, the desire to capture it, to feel it for a brief moment even while it slips through, is intoxicating, rejuvenating, and rewarding.
As I sat in the purple haze of a sinking sun on the cold ground in Las Vegas, hovering between two landscapes, one man-made, the other natural, a bright fuse ignited in my mind. I let the book slide onto the ground between my legs and breathed warm air onto my frozen fingers, eyes glazing over as thoughts and images danced in my head.
Like a landscape free of wolves, which becomes tamer, less wild, and incomplete without them, people without wilderness and wild places lose their vigor, are less inspiring, and become mere shadows of themselves. We have lost sight of something. The thought was so simple and so alluring that I got lost in it for a delicious moment, a prolonged moment, possibly an eternity in that moment. When I snapped out of it my son was shaking my shoulder. I looked around at the trash-strewn and empty fields and wondered where the time had gone.
I closed the little book and stood up and stretched my cold, stiff limbs. I looked out at the city and watched the lights glow increasingly brighter against the ever darkening desert, and smirked at our attempt to shield ourselves even from the onslaught of night. Then I walked with my son out of the deserted park.
I thought of how wild and crazy Las Vegas is and I saw it differently—again. Our cities are just imitations. They are a representation of what evolution has ingrained in us, that fear is as necessary for survival as safety. We are trying to create our own version of wilderness, and though we love our cities, they are not the same as the captivating and healing landscapes that surround them. They are a mirage of our hopes and dreams.
Our man-made landscapes scream silent screams. They scream the aching manifestation of a desire from people who are desperate to feel alive, free and unrestrained—yet somehow not realizing that it is right at our fingertips and though elusive to capture, there to be experienced if we dare.
There was a time in the not too distant past that wilderness could be not avoided; it was not separate, not out there. It was everywhere—at the doorstep, just outside the flimsy canvas of a wagon. It used to make us who we are. We grew stronger, more resilient, wiser.
Though we are largely done settling an unknown West, we can still explore it—and thank god there are still places to explore. It’s in our blood. Like an American tradition, getting out there provides a connecting link between past and present, and hopefully, future. Entering the vast deserts and mountains of the West connects me to time and space. It rouses a simple version of me that is free from all contrivances, defenses, and comforts I gather around me in my civilized life. Getting out of my comfort zone allows me to see who I really am, the me without all the security blankets, the me I must rely on when there is nothing and no one else to get me through. When I long to return to such places, it is really a longing to become again what I once was out there, however briefly.
Watching the weather-beaten land fade into darkness and give way to our electric filled night, calm overcame me. Knowing that the rugged and vintage West still exists out there as much as it does in a book or in my mind, I was released for the moment from the disquietude that had overtaken me, and I felt a sort of effervescent lunacy bubble up inside as I walked away from a soccer tournament in the heart of Las Vegas.
“Nature expresses itself as a bright fuse, and its open space has a spiritual equivalent that can heal what is divided and burdensome in us.” –Gretel Erhlich
Greta Hyland is a writer, runner, lover of nature and beer drinker from the American Southwest.