Last night I dreamed, and woke with the taste of the Sodergreen Ranch on my tongue - the flavor of my childhood.
I grew up on the banks of the Laramie River where it slows out of the Snowy Range onto the Laramie Plain. From six to sixteen, I lived in log homes built by Swede settlers in the 1890's, uninsulated and so cold in winter that once a glass of water in my bedroom froze so hard it broke.
It is a harsh and beautiful landscape. To the northwest, the steep slope of Sheep Mountain, fringed with lodgepole pine along the top. The Snowy Range rears its peaks, shining white even in summer, west of the cottonwoods that line the river. South, gentler, wooded Jelm Mountain, with glints of gold from the aspens in fall, and beyond that the Neversummer Range and Bull Mountain in Colorado. And then the wide, flat arc of the prairie, from south to east and back to north, where the wind howls down from the mountains so hard that it blows semi-trucks off the Interstate, twenty-five miles away. Over all, the great blue bowl of the sky.
As the dreamweb broke in my mind, I traveled back in time and tried to recapture something special that I sensed in my childhood. The emotions that rose were helplessness, powerlessness, despair, and great love, and peace in the solace of nature and the large warm body of a black horse named, in a child's ignorance, Nig.
I have a deep sense of ambivalence about that time. The conflict with my father raged at its worst, and was most one-sided, from when I was about eight until we moved from there and I got big enough to defy him openly. With adolescence and puberty, my gender dysphoria became a defining reality that tortured my inner life until I started drinking and doing drugs, and buried my true self in denial. Confusion, loneliness, and ridicule filled my school days as I struggled to adjust to the role society assigned to me, even as I didn't understand it. I struggle with these feelings still; helplessness, rage, confusion, loneliness, despair.
At the same time, my childhood grips me with amazing power. The landscape etched itself into my soul. It is harsh, but beautiful beyond compare. I spent days fishing in the river and wandering across the prairie and foothills, and evenings listening to the eerie call of the coyotes and watching the nighthawks swoop overhead, or sitting on the side of a hill watching beavers mend their dam in the twilight. I rode my horse bareback across the plains, held my cheek warm against his neck. I explored the willows and cottonwoods along the river, watching for the big mule deer with their strange, bounding run. Once, on the side of Jelm Mountain, I saw a pair of bucks fight over a doe.
I long to recapture the intimate connection I had with that magical landscape; the way I fit into the palm of nature's hand, struggling only to meld myself with the mystery of river and prairie and sky. And I cannot recapture it, for it is lost in place and time, and intertwined with the social destitution I experienced, the awful confusion of being different and not knowing how or why. Even as I mourn the loss, I would be loath to surrender the self-knowledge, unity, and social connection I have now.
Yet I am grateful for my childhood, and would trade it for no other; perhaps because it feels good to have survived such suffering and overcome it, but more, I think, simply for the rare privilege of sinking roots into that thin and rocky soil.