New, known, and familiar

I’m riding down the road in the dark again. It’s the half-hour before sunrise, and already light is dissolving the black bowl of night. The dark tips of lodgepole pines are separating from the paler grey of sky. I am scanning for elk on the roadside; yesterday we nearly had an “encounter,” and that’s enough close calls for me. Satisfaction wells up inside me: I know this road, I know about elk and their love of liminal times, I can close my eyes and recall where we are (roughly) and envision where we’re going. I do not feel new here any more.I pause within myself: my satisfaction-feeling? Sheer hubris.
We’ve been kicking around this park for more than a handful of days now. We can tell which cash registers are run by which park vendors, and so determine what can be put on our room-tab. We know to put our trays on top of the food-shield at the cafeteria to get our plates. My Sweetie slows at certain spots in the pavement where he doesn’t like how it treats the shocks. Our estimates of how long we’ll take to get somewhere pretty well match the charts. We know our way around.

We are not stumbling out of the vehicle, blinking, asking to check into a room that’s miles away. We do not lean across the ranger’s desk and say, “What’s the pretty hike here?” We do not park the car in the middle of the lane to look at the bull bison cropping grass on the verge to our right. In fact, we rarely slow for bison now. We even have checked off most of the famous sights of this park. We are no longer new.

But this park is far from familiar. We cannot squint across miles of plain and say, I think that’s a bison carcass; let’s see if anything’s eating it. Wolf, coyote, fox? Or that wonderful game: stump or bison? Sometimes we win the points, but it takes a lot of our time, and squinting. We can answer some questions, but most statistics escape our recollection. We have seen many trailheads, but hiked only a tithe of a tithe of trails. We do not plan to enter the backcountry; our bear spray is needed more because it’s the fattening-up season, when bears range everywhere for calories.
My predawn hubris started me thinking about stages of place-ness. We start out new: everything is remark-able (“It wasn’t like this in XXX!”), we mispronounce names, we get lost quickly, and often. Over time–my mother, the veteran of eight major moves, states: three years–the place is home like other homes. One drives the back way when traffic is bad, knows the best butcher for the unusual cut of meat, can guess a little about someone based on their address. That’s when familiar kicks in, when one can claim belonging.

Known, I think, is the tricky time in between. There is a lot of room within *known* to make newbie mistakes, to get hopelessly lost, to categorically state something wildly incorrect…and probably insulting. It’s attractive to flee the uncertainty of feeling new and out of place, to leap toward being familiar. In fact, we used to say “He’s being familiar” and mean “He’s acting too intimately for my taste.” Talk about a leap.

I would prefer to avoid that kind of rookie mistake. To respect the place, and the people of the place, by learning, watching, absorbing, experiencing. I hope I can bridle my knowing-ness sufficiently during my time here to eventually earn a true place as a familiar.

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