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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Theall

Wild Girl




I thought I was a wild girl once. Not the boobies on the bar after Jell-O shots kind of wild, but a girl in her twenties who chose to live in the mountains alone, after growing up in three of the largest cities in the United States—sort of Where the Crawdads Sing meets Into the Wild, without the leeches or abandoned bus. Almost three decades ago, I packed up my new Nissan Pathfinder and two Texas-born huskies and drove 1,000 miles west from San Antonio to Boulder, Colorado, aching to find a place to call home. The Pathfinder, like me, looked ready for adventure, but with its rear-wheel drive suspension and Texas plates, it was an unprepared poser that was more apt to end up spinning on ice than summiting any peaks.

 

It made all the sense in the world to seek refuge and safety in the mountains, because the cities had scarred me: I’d been assaulted, robbed, and held at gunpoint, and I simply wanted to find a place where I could be left alone. I believed I could trust animals and nature more than people; yet in my twenty-seven years on the planet, I had never hiked, fished, pitched a tent, or even gone barefoot. My parents weren’t people who camped. They were air-conditioned, indoor mall, and chain restaurant people. The only survival skills my parents had ever taught me was how to play craps in Vegas and say a round of novenas at Mass—both of which I found over time to be less than reliable to stake a future on.

 

So in 1994, with a Canon 35-millimeter camera and my 100-pound fuzzballs in the back seat, I navigated dirt roads at 10,000 feet of altitude, only once losing traction and ending up against a tree, where I hiked to a log cabin nearby to call for a tow. Despite my missteps and youthful naivety, everything blazed with blinding hope. The light through the aspens, the smell of sage and pine, the expanse of mountain ranges carving into an unending blue sky told me that I could do anything; be anyone—maybe even myself—if I could figure out who that was. I saved up every dime and bought a place in the mountains on 10 acres of an elk migration path facing the Continental Divide. I slept with my curtains open, and my doors unlocked. I lost the key and never replaced it.

 

But was I wild? I lived 11 miles from town, and to be honest, Texas and Colorado had nothing on Alaska. A few years after living in the Rocky Mountains, I wandered into a gallery and stared at a photo that made my heart thump like rotors of a helicopter. Adrenaline spiked. A cold sweat beaded on my upper lip. In the image, a grizzly bear stood atop a waterfall as a gleaming silver fish leapt into its gaping jaws. I could see the detail in the bear’s fur, his jagged teeth, the foaming pink gums about to close around the flying fish. The bear looked confident. The fish surprised. The chaos of water juxtaposed with a singular critical moment for both of them frozen in time. Yes, this was a place so isolated and wild that it might have taken years to find, and surely could only be accessed plane or boat, not by a rear-wheel-drive SUV a handful of miles from a Safeway. I had two thoughts: Wherever that is, I have to go there. And, One day, I will stand in front of that bear and get that shot.

Problem was, I was terrified of bears. I simply had no knowledge or experience around them, other than what I’d read or seen in the movies. The one and only time I’d been in grizzly territory was on a backpacking trip to Montana with a friend. I wore jingling bells and sang and clapped for forty miles. I refused to pee unless it was daylight. But, one night, unable to hold it any longer, I stepped outside of the tent, quickly dropped my drawers—peeing on my ankles and shoes in my haste—and then, I heard it. A rustling in the nearby brush, sent me leaping back into the tent, still naked from the waist-down and dribbling, where I slammed face-first into my friend, nearly breaking her nose.

 

No surprise that I was forty by the time I decided to face my fear of bears. I flew out to Katmai National Park and stood in the exact spot where Thomas Mangelsen had taken the famous image I saw. At bear orientation in Katmai’s Brooks Falls, the rangers give you a pin. I kept that first one and have added six more to it over the years. I’ll be back again this summer. And because I couldn’t buy land in the national park, I did the next best thing. I bought land in Kodiak, where the proximity of bears and bald eagles keep me in touch with my wild side, while the protected refuges continue to nurture and quiet my restless soul.

 

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