As I write this, I’m sitting in the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, looking out over the tarmac and into the surrounding mountains. I love this view; I love these mountains. When I come home, I can’t seem to get enough of them.
Yesterday, my Instagram story was comprised primarily of Boomerang videos of the trip my mom and I made to Reno. My brother saw it and said, “Seriously? Just a bunch of Boomerangs of the mountains? Are you kidding?”
It seems silly to my brother, someone who was born and raised out here, and then continued to live here. If you live out here — if you live on the west coast, in general — mountains are a given. If you’ve been surrounded by mountains your whole life, of course an Instagram story of a bunch of mountain Boomerangs are going to seem like a snooze.
I grew up in rural Nevada. I was born in a small town called Lovelock (population: about 2000), and when I was 5, we moved to the larger town of Winnemucca (population: about 8000). Though our zip code was Winnemucca’s, we actually lived 30 minutes outside of the town itself, putting us squarely in the middle of nowhere.
When I lived there, I hated everything about it. I hated the landscape because it was always dry and only 5 shades of tan; I wanted lushness and green and trees and shade. I hated Winnemucca itself because it was small and full of conservative foolishness and cowboy poetry; I wanted art I didn’t understand and coffee shops and acoustic guitar shows. Winnemucca is big enough that you won’t know everyone’s name, but small enough that everyone looks familiar. I wanted to get lost in a crowd. I wanted no one to know who I was.
When I graduated from high school, I moved to eastern Washington for college. The landscape felt similar, but with more trees and more people. It was just right for a girl from the country.
I came back to Winnemucca for winter breaks and spring breaks and summer breaks, and felt the same disdain I always felt for it. As I got older and moved farther away, my visits became shorter and less frequent. And still, every time I came back, I felt that claustrophobia that I had always felt growing up, and the distinct urge to leave it all behind.
When my mom was diagnosed with cancer last fall, I began coming back to Nevada once or twice a month, for a week or two (sometimes three) at a time. I usually stay with my brothers who live in Reno; they live in a cute neighborhood within walking distance of coffee shops and bookstores and restaurants, and they have reliable internet, which I need so I can work remotely.
My most recent visit was for my mom’s birthday. Instead of staying in Reno, I decided to take a few days off to come back to Winnemucca.
Usually, when I come back to Winnemucca, I find it hard to do anything but anticipate leaving. Everything feels like a countdown. I think about all the things I need/want to do to help my parents out around the house, and how many days and how many hours I have to do them. I think about how there is nothing to do in town itself, and I think about my high school best friends who return home as infrequently as I do and rarely at the same time.
This time though, things were different. I was different. I am different.
I’ve lived in Indiana for almost 9 years now. (Jesus, it’s been that long?)
In the spring and summer, it is lush, green, and humid. There are trees everywhere. There is shade everywhere (kind of). It is flat, flat, flat. In the area of Indiana that I am in, there are “mountains,” but they are really just hills. It is the opposite of Nevada.
The Indiana landscape makes me claustrophobic. It’s flat, but there are so many trees that I can never get a good look at the sky. Looking up at the sky in Indiana feels like I’m looking through a porthole.
(I was going to insert a picture of some Indiana landscape here, but I found that the last time I took a picture of Indiana was 7 months ago. Half of the photo is the water of Lake Monroe, a third of it is trees, and then there's a bit of sky. That was a different time -- it was summer, it was pre-election, it was pre-finding out my mom had cancer. It feels weird to insert it here now.)
Until I moved to Indiana, I never knew how much I needed to see the horizon. I never realized that mountains shaped me. That they gave me a chance to get to literal higher ground when I felt like I was metaphorically drowning. That mountains can hold you and also make you feel small. That feeling of smallness, of insignificance, is comfort to me.
Winnemucca is located in a region called the Great Basin. It is surrounded on all sides by mountains. The city limits spill into the foothills of Winnemucca Mountain.
In high school, we would go to the top during the day, explore the abandoned military buildings and climb into the old water towers. From up there, we could see the patchwork of farm land to the east, or the dull spread of the city itself, or follow I-80 as it stretched west toward Reno, or the expanse of sand dunes that lay behind the mountain itself, like a gigantic wrinkled sheet.
Or we would go to the top at night, and look out over the lights of the city. Winnemucca looked beautiful in the dark, sparkling and manageable. It seemed so much smaller from up there. So much easier to escape than it felt. All the feelings and events that loomed large in those days shrunk when I went to the top of that mountain.
When I returned to Winnemucca this time around, I didn’t feel claustrophobic. I felt like I could finally breathe again and think clearly again.
I took long walks around my parents’ property and thought, How could I ever feel claustrophobic here?
Because when you grow up in one place, it is inherently claustrophobic. Because it has contained you all this time, and you are growing, and, eventually, you want out of the thing that’s held you close for eighteen years.
Some people get to leave. Some don’t. Some don’t want to leave. It’s all a journey.
When I come back now, I breathe in that desert air, take in that blue sky, drink in that mountain horizon.
I would be lying if I say I didn’t think about what it would be like to move back. What would it be like to live in Winnemucca as the person I am now? Would it be bearable?
I don’t know. I honestly don’t.