In our town, we haul our own garbage to the dump. At home, my husband and I put our garbage in paper bags. When one is full, we close it and staple it shut. Stapled is better since we store the bags for a while on the back porch and since I’m just compulsive enough that I don’t want my business to blow away and become everybody’s business. When it is time, we load the truck and make a “dump run.” In the summer, the garbage asserts with aromatic authority when “it is time.” But in the winter on the unheated porch, our bags multiply contentedly until we’re ready to take them.
Usually I drive Junior, our Jeep pick-up truck, to the dump. We go the couple of blocks to Main Street and turn east, cross the river, and turn north on highway 789. Climbing out of the valley, we pass the tree-lined grounds of the State School. Then, without intermission, green and safe becomes open and sere. We blow past a band of dirty sheep by a wallow. From their scrap of shrub, all is faded sandstone. We turn right onto the Dump Road.
The narrow blacktop crosses a bare expanse, carries us up a grade and spills us out. Lurching from the pavement, we enter the dumping ground. Between the “Dump Here” signs, we find the dump site. It’s never where you left it; it progresses by degrees, like the shadow on a sundial. I stop and back in beside my neighbors. Seagulls buzz overhead. Down the line, pickups are parked with their tailgates hanging out. Some folks say hi and some avert their eyes, and everyone shovels his dejecture in with everyone else’s. A Caterpillar scrapes a little earth over it.
Everyone should have this privilege. The dump is our midden, our pile of oyster shells by the estuary. It is the green and lilac bottles about a good arm’s throw behind the miner’s shack. It is the pottery shards on top of the mesa. Our dump is grocery sacks and ceiling whacks and other discarded stuff. Yards of grass clippings in the dun-colored dust of summer. Crunchy elk carcasses in the lingering heat of fall. Christmas trees thrown out with the crush of winter’s Yuletide. And my favorite, the plunder left from the purge that is triggered by the first push of a tulip.
The packrat’s midden is not her dump but her home, and she builds it up with care. I busy myself in the back yard arranging a tableau that will be to my husband’s delight for sure. All scavenged. A large, squarish chair upholstered in pumpkin flesh. A floor lamp with promise to rise beside it. Across from them (so conversation will not wane) a pair of Adirondack chairs with a reddish, weathered stain. I fill with pots of leggy geraniums a little wheelbarrow leftover from some child’s cast-off childhood. I am excited. I have done well in the economy of the wild. I open the gate to present the lawn.
First to go back are the Adirondack chairs. This time, they are surely laid to rest—no more resurrections. The lamp I’ll probably sell. Another odd one I already had is companion to the elderly pumpkin chair, which, it’s fair to say, has earned its keep. The orange velvet had to be dealt with, but a quilt thrown over worked fine. Set with my lamp in a secluded corner of the dining room, it invites retreat. Last winter, sunken down into its arms, I learned to sit and stare through the tall, rippled glass of the far-off kitchen window and watch the sun throw itself away before I put dinner on the table.
In the chair, in the half-light, I drift back up the hill in half wakefulness. On dusky white enameled thoughts, I ride through the appliance zone (which is separate from the general dump) to the old range round up, where a herd of old stoves grazes peacefully. I spot my brand: Wedgwood. I rustle up two shiny new drip pans to carry to my old four-burner girl back home. Nearby rises a den of deserted tires. My friend Mark coaxes out their treadless hides, sizes them up, and hauls them off to Mexican Creek. There, he fills their gaping middles full of dirt and wields them into service for walls that he will cover with adobe. See the daguerreotype pioneers posed before their house of sod. Looking like that, Mark and his bride exchange vows by their house raised from the materials of the land.
There is no charge at the dump—not to the souls depositing the remains of their spent riches, not to the foragers who find further value, and not to the somebody who smells something wild in the unwanted. Our dump is not a dimple or a pit. Mostly it is a slope, and we leave our offering at the base or heave it to the top. Nothing breaks down here. It just builds up.
One spring day—a day so clean it hurt—I looked out after pitching my brown paper bags. In that pure and undiffused light, every ordinary object cut with the sharpness that only follows a good rain. The sky overarched the valley; and across the valley the Wind Rivers rose like a higher, unbalanced reflection of the garbage mound I stood before and helped to build. The clarity of the message dazzled me: with modern garbage, there is no “away.” When we tried to leave, the truck had to work hard to get us out. Muscular mud tugged at the tires until thrown against the wheel wells. Whoomph, whoomph, whoomph, we set tracks back towards town.
We can go away, usually for a weekend, for a week, or for a time. In a small community like ours, if one of us goes away and doesn’t come back, there’s usually some grave moral or economic reason (the ultimate breaking down—death—notwithstanding). But when we throw away? It’s a perverted cycle. It’s not the tidy closed loop of the ecologist. More like a hurricane madly slinging out its mass.
I don’t need elk to feed my family; I go to the grocery store. We buy groceries, and we don’t have to know where our food comes from. Throwing It Away gives us the freedom of not knowing where it goes. In municipalities everywhere, we throw our garbage “away” only about as far as the curb. Then it becomes the business of Garbage Collection. When I take my garbage to the dump, I know where it goes, and the dogs don’t knock it over.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if I pay too much.
In bear country, garbage can be costly. Every night after dinner, my friends and I load our food and garbage into two nylon zip bags. We even load the stove and the wind pants we wear to cook in. When we’re finished brushing our teeth, we load our toothbrushes and our toothpaste, too. The bear we’re avoiding is a born scavenger, attracted by smell. We zip our bags closed and suspend them from a highline strung between tall Engelmann spruce and whitebark pines. Every morning, one of us makes the frosty trek to the hang site to haul the bags—yet again untouched by our unseen threat—to a suitable kitchen site on the streambed. Downwind.
Our first night out, where the Wiggins Fork was still wide and its bank was wide and sandy, we acted out bear encounters. To play the bear was to point knuckles back for ears and rush with a ferocious charge. The human backed away slowly and, without looking the bear eye-to-eye, spoke up with as much composure as possible, “Oops. Didn’t mean to walk up on you. Please don’t munch me!”
Later when no one was around, I felt an animal stir, but it was me. I took off my shoes and drew alternating half circles in the sand with my left and right toes: ronds de jambe à terre. Secretly, I continued with grand battements, arabesques and attitudes. I sprung like a cat, pas de chat. And jumped with the broad leaps of a stag. Arms and legs everywhere, I twirled and danced. My heart beat allegro.
In the Absarokas, bear scat is of great fascination. The pass was littered with it, and we inspected every clump trying to determine if it was from a black bear or a grizzly. Hard to know, but while traveling we are ever mindful of whose range we tread upon. Before, on the trail, we had collected to peer into a puddle, through gray water like a mirror with all its silver worn away. We strained as if to see into some metaphysical parallel world. Below the reflections of our four faces, we barely made out a single faint track laid days ago. Or maybe that’s what we thought we saw. What did we hope to learn?
What did the biologists from our district hope to learn before their plane went down? The theory was that they went down in Yellowstone Lake. For nearly four years, no debris and no bodies were found, and the lake is deep. They were tracking bears. I wondered, did they see their reflections? I don’t really want to see this bear.
Yellowstone Lake was blasted out five million years ago. Most of Yellowstone’s hot-boweled volcanoes had already blown themselves to bits 45 million years earlier, dumping truckloads of ash, covering thousands of square miles. Working on the mess, the wind blew and the water scoured. After little more than an overnight (in geological terms) and not far from my house (in Wyoming terms), the sun climbed the remaining heap, and the Absarokas came to light. Their charcoal- colored walls resemble dull, crinkled foil, and their peaks pick and jag at the sky. The runoff makes its way down in an endless tumble over rocks cemented in clumps like colored eggs in putty.
Yesterday I slipped between the steep downhill Vs of an icewater stream and stripped. Sure enough, I was caught—by the teasing wind, which touched my shoulders like a silk scarf. It touched my every little hair and slid across my ears. “If you are noticed, crouched here like this, by a surveyor from the USGS, who draws the contours of your hips…and if you are hit by the disquieting tip of a dart from the arm of a Forest Service biologist, who runs his finger under your lips…you know what they will say.” (The first that I am an erratic, and the second that I am an exotic, but what do they know of my place in nature anyway?)
Damn it, sometimes I don’t know either. Say I am native, that this is my one true place. Is that an acknowledgment or an assertion? What are the boundaries? I erupted in bumps. I felt cold and naked. And I scrambled to put my clothes on.
After dinner, we migrated with our bags up from Bear Creek’s boulders and the noisy water, into the woods and hung the food. We’d perched our blue rain fly on a bench on the mountainside. After two and a half weeks of bear camping, it occurred to me to tuck greasy leftovers under my pillow. Sweet dreams. Andre and Andy sat on the hill to talk, and Ashley moved farther up to write. The men’s murmuring mixed with the water’s, and I laid out a sleeping pad in the refrigerated air and sat with my legs stretched long. I was warm in my fleecy fabrics, thick socks, mittens and a hat.
A high barking screeched out from down the valley, and I looked up. In the bruised light I squinted as through a pinhole into a diorama. I watched a wave of elk wash up onto the opposite hill and run back down again and again. If they thought of it as dancing, then they were. They drank from the mouth of the tiny tributary from which I had bathed. They moved toward me, but their forms grew dimmer in the fading light. Finally they flew up the mountainside and disappeared. I drew breath, and realized I’d begun to shiver. Again that night, there were no bears.
This Ursus arctos horribilis once set track across much of North America, including the more temperate lowlands. We moved where we could make a passable living, and the nature of our activities was such that the two ranges could not be overlain. (This is my heritage.) The grizzly receded to the heights, and now the law says that I am a visitor who does not remain. That’s the price. There was a time, as the balance shifted, when the bear became a visitor who did not remain. That price: A scaled-down population of Ursus arctos horribilis now patrols a puny one percent of its original territory.
In two days we’ll be picked up near the (Forest Service) Guard Station on the East Fork of the Wind River. It’ll feel good to be home. It’s not easy to make a living in the small town where I live, though. Geography limits the economy. Or at least that’s how it has been. Less and less are either the geography or the economy limiting the range of the people moving in. Their fortunes were made elsewhere and, as it always was for me, geography is an attraction. For now though, we’re pretty small in number and income. That’s why we can afford to keep a fairly small public dump.
When I get home, I’ll dispose of the garbage from our trip at the dump. How peculiar to haul it out of one place just to throw it away in another, but we did, after all, haul it up there in the first place. The separation may be unnatural, but I’m glad for places where our nature is restrained. And our economy is restrained even further. In these places, I can be a moth, the color of glacier ice, lighting on a rock. Or examine how on earth I can imagine myself to be such a moth. This idea of human nature and “other” nature is as oddly balanced as the reflection of the garbage mound against the Wind River Range.
I know there was a time when most Americans deposited their waste in some sort of a dump, public or private. With our apparent success in reproduction and locomotion, I know that fewer and fewer people do so still. I wonder what percentage of folks anymore know where their garbage goes? Our garbage mound may never become a mountain range overtaking the Wind Rivers or the Absarokas, but I feel certain that as the one grows, the others are diminished. My equilibrium is affected.
I love my home in town, and I cherish the views of the mountains framed by its windows. I admit I love the dump, too. Sometimes it scares me that I might be more at home there than in the highest places. I remember the subalpine flowers we hiked through after crossing the Divide. They didn’t float the scent of lowland flowers but released an odor heavy and intoxicating. It was the smell of raw honey. What hollyhock ever smelled of honey? That’s something I have to reckon with.
In the morning I grab the metal trowel that is central to our experience and start on a short walk. I should be talking out loud or singing so that no bear is startled on her daily rounds. Instead, I make my way quietly. After I’ve gone far enough, I find a semi-flat, open spot under a tree, and I etch out a square slightly bigger than my fist. I slip the trowel blade under the duff, loosen it and lift it out. I set it aside and dig deeper into the young mountain soil. When my cat-hole is about two fists deep, I uncinch my pants and push the layers down. I park and look out over the valley with my tailgate hanging out. I drop my dirtied fir cones into the hole with my waste. I draw back up my cotton drawers, my long underwear and my wind pants, and I fill the hole back in. I replace the square of duff and stir the needles to erase the edges. Everyone should have this privilege.
This essay was originally published in the Winter 1997 issue of Northern Lights magazine.