The most interesting thing
When you learn enough about writing, inevitably you’ll come across the advice to “write what you know.” Or as Joan Didion (one of my favorites - definitely read her essay collections) has said it about her experience, “You wrote what you had.”
I find myself putting my own spin on this as I do my work. When I’m stuck for something to write I ask myself, what have I been thinking about? What’s been most interesting to me? What has provoked a strong reaction?
This rarely fails me.
I am - like a lot of writers tend to be - a hoarder of this type of thing. I journal copiously, I save articles, quotes, ideas, I take notes on books I read, I keep emails and pictures of letters on my phone, I remember bits of conversations. I observe and file constantly. I get anxious when I feel like I might have missed something good.
In this time, however, that even some of the most active and curious minds have compared their lives to the movie Groundhog’s Day, this torrent of observation has slowed to a trickle.
Seriously, guys, the most interesting thing that happened to me this week is that I saw a rattlesnake on my hike. This is the thing that I find myself coming back to again and again.
Pro tip: When in the mountains, if you see a bunch of people pulled off the road or stopped along a trail seemingly looking at nothing in particular, they are usually looking at something particular. It’s how I’ve seen some truly spectacular wildlife - moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, coyotes, foxes, baby owls and eagles in their nests, countless elk, and a bear.
The last was a highlight, though it was in Yosemite rather than here at home. It was the last day of an amazing, but exhausting trip, having been undertaken in the middle of a brutal heatwave and we’d almost decided not to take the hour drive back to the park one more time.
Man, were we glad we did. A bear in the wild! Appearing to mind its own business chomping away, but all the while very aware of the crowd of strange mammals with their handheld gadgets watching it. A quite stunning example of nature. And of our relationship to it.
Another favorite was my first spotting of a moose; something I’d been dying to see, although the reality was far from the remote mountain scene I’d been picturing. Instead, the odd-looking creature was calmly licking the guardrail alongside the whooshing traffic of I-70, presumably to take advantage of the salt splattered there from the roads in the wintertime.
I almost missed it as my companion shouted, "Moose! Moose!"
But I digress.
As is common with a wildlife sighting, I saw a guy first. A guy who barely registered because he simply looked to be looking at his phone. It was only when I got closer and he pointed down and said, “Careful,” that I realized he’d been taking a picture of the snake.
It’s a courtesy on the trail to linger a bit and warn other close passersby when you see something like that. Or maybe you mark the trail with a branch or something so people have to walk around it. You might also pass the message along to those you encounter heading that way.
Which is one of the things I love about hiking in general. There is a sense of community about it. People tend to look out for one another.
Anyway, the rattlesnake was angry, shaking its tail menacingly as it moved along the very edge of the trail. I didn’t stop. Every year it seems there’s a rattlesnake story that makes the news and I didn’t relish being a part of it.
Immediately afterward, what resonated for me was how even the mundane, even the things you do every day can hold surprises. But so often, that surprise barely registers because we have so many other bigger, more important things we’re noticing and thinking about.
Which I guess is pretty cool to consider.
It’s most of our lives, after all. The mundane, the routine, the everyday. And it might get noticed, but it's buried on a back page. Never the lead.
It’s what gets lost.
I think that’s what caught me most about this encounter. It’s that it’s not obvious. It’s exactly that it’s not this big, bright, flashy thing saying, “Me! Write about me!” It’s a stretch.
Maybe this then is one of the things we can take away from this time. This time of seeming dullness, sameness; even boredom, something I feel like I haven’t had since I was twelve.
That maybe there’s something to be had from digging a little deeper. From having to try a little harder. An opportunity perhaps to practice expanding our view even in the time we feel like it might be most limited.
With that said I can almost - almost - look forward to another uninteresting, interesting week.