Teri Orr: Dust to dust to dust
If you just moved to Park City from outside this state — welcome. Overall, you will find us — at least superficially — unerringly polite.
This is a magical state and we are a magical little town inside of it. You will fully experience all four seasons here — sometimes in the same day. You can boat down a Category Four river and attend the ballet in the same day (but don’t). You will come to appreciate each part of the rugged and refined here. And when we are passionate — as we often are — we can sometimes forget our manners.
I had lived here more than a decade before I started my two-timing love affair with the desert. It eventually matched my passion with the mountains. My children had launched into college in two different states and I was working part time at the bookstore and I was editor of this paper. I had an opportunity to go to Southern Utah/Northern Arizona and volunteer with a friend who ran a program taking supplies to elder Navajo rug weavers. Everything about it sounded like the launch I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself as an empty nester/single parent working two jobs. The paper came out just once a week back then and we were often pressed to fill it. I could schedule myself “just right” and be gone almost 10 days and only “miss” one paper. I just needed to ask for the time off from Dolly’s Bookstore. Gary Weiss was one of the owners of the store and my contemporary. He told me I could take the time off and he would find a replacement (not easy to do back then in the off-season) on the condition I study a bit about where I was heading. Yes! I said I had read Stegner. And bits of Abbey. He nodded and said — how ’bout “Pieces of White Shell”? I confessed I had no idea what that was. He walked over to a bookshelf, grabbed the paperback and tossed it to me.
Terry Tempest Williams once worked as a teacher in Navajo country. She comes from a long line of Mormon settlers here. As a Bilagáana (Navajo for white person) she was looked at with both disdain and a bit of mystery. I promised to read the book before I left on my adventure. And I tried to rapidly cram through it but I couldn’t. I starting making notes in a journal — I had so many questions about the author and the teachings and customs. But I didn’t yet understand that wasn’t where the lesson was — it was in the land. It is always — in the land.
That first trip was magical. We did ceremonies with elders as we gave them yarns to weave with, and in exchange they insisted upon cooking us meals and/or putting us up in their hogans. Telling us stories their elders told them. Walking with us on paths to the river or the cliffs. Showing us where beautiful hand-tooled saddles covered with jewelry were hidden in those high cliffs — where they had taken the bodies of their deceased elders to “ride off” into the next world. There were slot canyons and creek beds and living on the land, with the land, in the patterns following the sun and the moon.
By virtue of spending at least two weeks a year there for years and years (thereafter), I felt I was an unofficial member of what Williams calls The Coyote Clan. Those of us who are not native but are drawn to the natural rhythms of life in the red dust corners of this state and at least three others.
I don’t know how many books Williams has written but I think I have read most all of them. She has garnered dozens of awards and titles and has spoken in large halls on both coasts. Those books of non-fiction, written with a mystical hand, have served as travel guides and talismans for my explorations of spirit. Even though the Weiss family sold the bookstore decades ago there is still a whole section of her transformational books at Dolly’s.
This week I was thinking a lot about her essay from the book “Refuge.” It is a series of stories centering around the birds of the Great Salt Lake region, somewhere (in the middle) between Ogden and Logan. The Shoreline Preserve was the first project The Nature Conservancy ever did in Utah. Terry has another book — “When Women Were Birds” and you will find her mystical urgent prose there as well.
I have had several opportunities over the years where I met Terry and heard her speak and watched her in action. She was a powerful force to get both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase designated as national monuments here. For decades now she has lived with her husband outside of Moab in a private valley where one of my dearest friends lives. It seems right she is ensconced in the shadow of those vibrating red rocks.
So why do I welcome the stranger here and introduce you to Terry Tempest Williams? Because to understand current debates about what is actually sacred and not some sandalwood candle version of spirituality, you should learn from the master. Here in Park City, we are again worried about the soils and their history and their legacy. We are an old mining town that was at the same time an old railroad town. And while we may look like a slick ad from a high-fashion magazine some days, we are not a backdrop for a life. We are the life. The water and the air and the red dust mix together in a kind of alchemy that gets in the wheel wells of your car and, if you are very, very lucky, into the ventricles of your heart.
You are wondering where to start — and there is no wrong choice. “Coyote’s Canyon” is powerful and beautiful and a clear entry book if you are open to letting go. But this week I shared with some of my dearest companions on this lifepath copies of “Refuge.” For a singular essay reason. The epilogue is titled “The Clan of One-Breasted Women.” It deals with the cancer that caused so many women in the Williams family to have mastectomies. If you think there are acceptable levels of toxins we can endure — please read this. And understand you now have a responsibility to not just live off the land but with it. All the days ahead … even Sundays in this Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. She has been a member of the TED community since 2007 and founded TEDxParkCity in 2009.
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