On August 6, 1905, Louie Muir, wife of the great conservationist John Muir, died of complications due to cancer. They had been married 24 years. Muir was devastated. Among those who sent condolences was President Theodore Roosevelt, who, just a few years earlier, had spent two nights camping under the stars with Muir in Yosemite Valley. Roosevelt was no stranger to loss. When he was 26 years old, illness claimed his mother and young wife on the same day, leaving him with a newborn daughter only two days old. Upon hearing of their deaths, he opened his diary, drew a big X across the page and wrote, “The light has gone out of my life.” Bereft, Roosevelt entrusted the care of his baby to his sister, quit politics and headed out west to the wilds of the Dakota territories to run a cattle ranch. Two years lapsed before he was ready to resume life in the East. In his letter to Muir, he offered this tonic: “Get out among the mountains and trees, friend, as soon as you can. They will do more for you than either man or woman could.”
What was it about their grieving that wanted the sky for a ceiling, a floor of something solid and ancient, milk-blue mountains in the distance, red canyon walls? A few days after I lost Paul, my own spouse of 24 years, a mantra appeared out of nowhere and surfaced each time I could not see a way through despair: “Keep turning towards the light.” And so I too strapped on my hiking boots and lit out into the open air, seeking the company of places so old that I may as well have entered eternity myself. I crisscrossed the Sonoran Desert ridges behind my house. I walked the Pacific beaches of Point Reyes, the Highland Moraine overlooking Lake Superior, the Montana Rockies, the Sky Islands of southeastern Arizona, backpacked Yosemite.
One late November afternoon I found myself standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. I had spent the day before buried in research at the National Park Service archives. As a reward for that confinement, I promised myself a 16-mile round-trip hike to Hermit’s Rest, the westernmost stop along a string of overlooks on the South Rim. I set out early, just as the season’s first storm began to build. Along the way, I watched clouds stream into the gorge, burying the immense anvils of rust-colored rock in eddies of dense foam. From time to time, sunlight shredded the mist, spotlighting ziggurats of Coconino sandstone and Bright Angel shale. Rainbows sickled out of the strange butterscotch light and then retreated behind angry black slants of hail. I walked until night fell, until there was nothing left to see, and then I caught the last shuttle back to my hotel.