“Sense of place” refers to the emotional bonds a person feels for certain environments. When I first heard the term in the late 1980s, it immediately resonated with me. Mountains and mountainous landscapes are my special places, and I know why.
As a child I loved listening to my father’s many stories of their adventures in China. My favorite was about the “snow mountain” he and Mom visited in Tibet in 1932. The faraway look in Dad’s eyes as he relayed the story told me it was a special place. And the painting of that mountain hanging on the wall of my childhood home gave me a visual image.
My childhood impressions of mountains came from living in West Virginia and visiting relatives in the Appalachian foothills of western South Carolina. At twenty-four I made my first cross-country road trip, crossing the Rocky Mountains and then the Cascades to the Pacific coast. I was stunned at the beauty. These were big mountains!
Although I needed no further affirmation of my love for mountains, living five years in Alaska took me one step further. Outdoor adventures, especially in the national park surrounding Denali, the highest mountain in North America—confirmed Alaska as my soul place.
Then my life took a turn and, sadly, I had to leave Alaska to keep my family together.
The only way I was able to endure the loss was to bury that soul connection. I was successful in that for decades, despite returning three times. I drove the Alaska Highway in 1986, backpacked ten days in Gates of the Arctic National Park in 1993, and took the Alaska ferry into Southeast Alaska in 2012.
Then last fall I flew to Alaska to visit a friend I hadn’t seen in four decades. As the plane began our descent into Anchorage, I saw Denali nosing far above the clouds a hundred miles to the north. Memories of camping near Denali flooded my mind. Nearing Anchorage, we descended over Turnagain Arm (a large bay off Cook Inlet) and passed the Chugach Mountains, stunning with a fresh mantle of early autumn snow. As the plane landed facing the mountains, my eyes filled with tears as more memories and long-denied feelings rushed to the surface. Joy at being back, awe at the beauty, sadness and grief at what I’d missed, and much more….
It was a bittersweet moment. That soul connection, suddenly no longer buried, was as strong as ever. And now I must decide how I want to deal with that.
What stimulates your sense of place? Do you have a soul connection to a landscape or a specific place? I’d love to hear your stories.