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The Burrow

            When I rode into Silverthorne, Colorado for my Field Work experience, my life was falling apart. My marriage was back together, though barely.  My novel about a boy and his recluse father was dying a slow death. My children would be left with their dad for the longest period in our family’s history. And a knot formed in my stomach against all the unknowns.  I didn’t know where Dad and I would be setting up the trailer that night. I didn’t know what Maggie, (my only contact with the Dillon Rangers so far) looked like or if I would even like her. And I had no idea how I would spend my first day on the job.  All I knew was after two years of fretting this experience, I was here on a bustling Sunday afternoon, driving into the deep Rocky Mountains and uncovering a city nestled in the hills. I think Dad and I both had imagined a dense, forested area, a stray deer, a few tented neighbors. Instead, Starbucks and Target welcomed us from across the Rangers’ Station. A setback, no doubt, as Dad murmured something about “all the people.”  There weren’t any people in sight, actually, just cars and stores, and traffic lights. And the station closed on Sundays.
            I called Maggie, pulling a crumpled piece of paper from my purse where I had scrawled the number. After three rings she answered, we exchanged pleasantries, and she gave me directions to the camp site, the worker’s encampment for the station. After driving five miles the wrong direction, we sorted out her directions without needing to call again, and found it at the top of a hill, across the street from the Dillon City welcome sign. Our site lay on the far side of a cul de sac in a partially secluded cut of nature.  Lush weeds and purple wildflowers and a few dead pines. We could see the lake from that high, and a breathtaking view of the mountains, covered in the warm red color of dead trees stretching for miles. I didn’t recognize the decay. I thought I was witnessing an early autumn.
            A neighbor emerged from the nearby trailer. Earl. He was soft spoken and a bit shy, with a beard and a round gut. He worked road maintenance through the year, he said. He talked with us a long while. He lingered in the lulls of conversation, waiting for us to say something more. Both of us thought of asking him to dinner, but neither of us did.  We ate in a steakhouse with vaulted ceilings, wood beams, and modern art. I ordered a beer. My first one at thirty years old. I had the waitress bring her recommendation, a name I couldn’t quite remember or pronounce. It tasted bitter and cool and amazing. Dad, a diabetic, snuck a few sips. He still resisted the idea of me drinking now, even one, though he had drank with my younger sister for years. I never quite understood what exactly he wanted for me, but he seemed distraught at my losing my faith, even if it was one he didn’t agree with, like somehow even a misguided faith was better than no faith at all. 
            “I made a declaration on Facebook,” I told him, “I basically said I gave back my temple recommend, that I was struggling and no longer believed in the church traditionally.”
“I heard,” Dad said, “Ron asked me to lunch last week. He wanted to talk about you.”
My brother baptized me into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints when I was fifteen years old. Ten years my senior, and adopted from my dad’s previous marriage, my brother was not my brother in a traditional sense.  Still, we had shared a special kinship with the church. My dad remarried Ron’s mother when I was twelve, and we shared two apostate parents. Ron was the only member of my family in attendance at my temple wedding.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He couldn’t figure out why you put it on Facebook,” he said.
My dad chuckled a bit. At Ron? At me? I wasn’t sure. It troubled me that my brother didn’t understand, that my actions baffled him. And if what I had written didn’t clear it up for him, I wasn’t sure any communication would. I didn’t want him to feel rejected, but that’s exactly how people feel when you embrace their faith and then refuse it. I couldn’t stop that from happening. It was the same with my marriage, and yet it was the people furthest from me that plagued me the most, as though they may not see enough good in me to love me anyway.
The next morning, Maggie appeared at the trailer at eight o’clock, just as she promised. She had a soft voice, and shoulder-length curly hair.  The first time I saw her, she was picking a stick up from off the pavement and tossing it into the stretch of wild growth down the hill. Her black lab mix, Gina ran after it, then squatted. Maggie retrieved a plastic grocery sack from her Toyota and carefully picked up Gina’s droppings.
“Hey, I’m Melanny,” I said. I felt anxious. We had set up the trailer with no official sanction, and I wondered if she would be sensitive about the plants we trampled in the process. I quickly looked around for my dad’s mix terrier, Manchas, to make sure we hadn’t left any droppings of our own, though I couldn’t see any. Manchas trotted off away from the trailer without a leash.
“Hey, I’m Maggie,” she said. She wore sunglasses through our initial conversation, so I got to know her by watching the way her mouth formed over certain words, a soft accent that was neither quite southern nor eastern. She talked to us about the water hookups and the sewer. Larry would be coming by at about eleven, she said.
I climbed into her car with her and the dog, who preferred to sit on my lap. Maggie yelled at her to move, but I said it was all right. The dog farted.
“God, Gina!” Maggie said, and cranked down the window. We drove about a tenth of a mile down the street to the corner where the Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church sat at the top of a hill. In those two minutes in the car, I learned Maggie had a lawyer husband, a two year old daughter, as well as an eleven year old stepdaughter from her husband’s previous relationship. She had been with her husband for ten years: five dating, one broken up, four married.
We cracked the windows and left the dog in the car as we walked around the church. I would help organize the materials for a church youth camp activity educating school age kids on the environmental impacts of the pine beetle. The church had a small, landscaped portion in the front near the entrance, and uncultivated fields on the remaining three sides, covered in natural weeds and pine trees. Maggie envisioned this as a nature walk with stations, so she stopped at particular spots on the property, more confident over some choices than others, and extemporaneously recounted the ecology of the pine beetle and the lodgepole pines.  I wrote furiously on note cards with a pencil, asking her to repeat certain biological terms, and then guessing at the spelling.
Maggie stopped at a pine stump, and picked up a thick slab of trunk from off the ground, pointing out the porous surface. The pine beetles ate through the tree, as well as emitting a toxic mold from beneath their shells.  An overpopulation of pine beetles eventually weakened the immune system of the trees, causing mass death. The trees then converted to brittle, red needles, referred to as “red slash,” a treacherous fire hazard as the red slash burned much quicker than live trees.  The large fire contributed to an overpopulation of new growth which sucked natural resources and caused the existing trees to be more vulnerable to the pine beetle. A tragic system existed from which little could be done to reverse the process. The fires contributed to overpopulation of trees, which resulted in overpopulation of beetles, which resulted in more dead trees, which resulted in more fires.
We took photos at the various stations so I could put them on the cards. This would help the children locate their station more easily during the nature walk. At the last determined station, Maggie pointed to the mountain in the distance and had me snap a photo.
“If you look on the mountainside, you can see how much of the hillside is the same color as the red slash,” she said to the imaginary children.
For the first time it occurred to me I was not looking at an early autumn.
“They’re all dead,” I said, “The whole mountainside. It’s dead.” 
“Yes,” Maggie said.
She stopped, a little confused, having assumed this had been long apparent. In a moment of self awareness, I wondered how long I had been this way, and if I would always avoid seeing what was right in front of me. Was it sheer optimism or self-absorbed ignorance that prevented me from seeing the world the way others saw it?
I was not alone in my optimism. The next day at the church camp, I talked with a woman who ran a nursery business in town. With a smile, she told me about the family of tourists who stopped by her store to ask her where they could buy one of those “beautiful, red pine trees.”  I laughed hard, imagining a couple wandering in, sunglasses on their heads. I stood in the parking lot as I laughed, looking over the hillside and wondered how idealistic or culpable I was to find beauty in such widespread tragedy. The clearing of the lodgepole, Maggie had said, would eventually bring more aspen trees, which could improve the diversity of wildlife in the White River National Forest. Time remained the only chasm to a new, improved reality. 
I spent the first minutes of the morning at the camp, tying thick green yarn on freshly laminated animal cards for an ecosystem activity.  Then I wandered up to the cultural hall, a large, unfurnished room bouncing with the restless energy of summer children. I found myself increasingly distracted by the grand windows displaying the majestic Colorado Rockies. Maggie introduced me to Pastor Darlene, an older woman with a short, wavy gray hair, who chuckled after everything she said.
“I’ve never met a woman pastor before,” I told her, “How long have you been a pastor?”
“Thirty-five years,” she said with a chuckle.
I did the math quickly.
“You became a pastor in the seventies,” I said, a bit awed, “I’ve been working in Religious Studies as part of my major. I would love to talk to you about your experiences.”
We set a date for Thursday morning at the church.  Then Pastor Darlene welcomed the children, and led singing time, lowering her voice to play the part with a puppet dog, who comically gave the closing prayer.
I organized the stations of the nature walk, with only a few stressful hang-ups. The cards I created turned out well, though on the first proofread, Maggie laughed at some of the guesses I had made, such as the oxide daisy (I spelled it oxeye) and pussytoads (which I spelled pussytoes). She said I had the tone just right for the children, though, and overall seemed pleased to have me.
“If I had to do it alone, we wouldn’t even have cards, because I wouldn’t have had the time,” she said.
The camp split into four youth groups, with the nature walk as one of the four activities, so I took adult and teen volunteers to each station and explained their card to them. Then I oversaw the process at the start of each rotation of the groups. Some of the groups were lagging and when I lingered to see what was taking so long, I noticed the adult volunteers were diverting from the script on the cards and going into long monologues. It seemed disrespectful to interrupt them, as I hardly knew them, so instead I did nothing.  Maggie approached me halfway through to ask me how it was going, and I explained the issue. She thought this over.
“Okay, I’ll say, ‘Stick to the script because you might be stealing the thunder off of someone else’s card,” she said.
“That’s perfect,” I said, impressed.
A relationship of trust and teamwork budded between us in this exchange, as I felt a mixture of awe at her wit and warmth from her respect.  I officially liked her.
At dinner, I explained church apologetics to Dad. Then we delved into Joseph Smith’s polyandry.
“Thirteen of the women were already married to other men,” I said, “Some of the husbands didn’t even know about it. Emma didn’t know about some of them, either.”
Dad shook his head.
“I didn’t know about any of that,” he said, “I just read about Brigham Young, and the stuff I read about Blood Atonement sealed it for me. I never even got started on Joseph Smith.”
“No matter how much I twisted it around in my mind, I just couldn’t see how God could be behind it. Especially after reading D&C 132. And if Joseph Smith was wrong about that, what else was he wrong about? And the more I studied, the worse it got,” I said.
Dad shook his head again and picked up his hamburger. Words failed him. Words failed us both, really.
“You gave me that book,” I said, “Right before I was baptized. The Tanners’ book. I only read a few things in it.”
This was my way of apologizing, for not listening. He just shrugged. Live and let live, that is my dad, even with his own children. He didn’t want me to be a Mormon, and yet he thought church would be good for me then, at fifteen, even if it wasn’t the one he would pick. I think he made the right call. The church gave me focus and purpose, morals I may not have had. But with this choice came an enormous sacrifice of self. And now, I owned this mess I called my life. Every bit of it.
There are still moments when the terror overwhelms me, when I imagine my invisible God slipping from me, my salvation crumbling and dissipating into what could have been. And I can’t quite tell if the evil I feel is inside or out. I have to walk myself carefully through it all again in my mind, all the facts and reasoning and spiritual confirmation that had brought me to this place. For me, the faith is right even when it is wrong. That is how powerful it is. I can’t quite shirk the guilt I feel when I speak my mind. Even now, as I type this, the damnation of the Mormon God hovers just over my shoulder, taking notes for Judgment Day. The God I worship now does not work through fear, but I find myself still running from the old God. I can’t quite lose him.  
That night, I called Paul to check on the kids.
“Fine, things are going fine,” he said, and proceeded to tell me about the cleaning schedule he had them on, what he was cooking for supper. I caught him up on the day’s events, and then the conversation dwindled, though I hesitated to say good-bye. He must have been so tired and lonely just as I was during all those business trips he took, working my way through a semester, dropping kids off before and after class.
“I just got an email about a ward temple trip,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
“It made me sad. Thinking about how we wouldn’t be going.”
“Are you trying to make me feel bad?”
“Then why say anything at all?”
He flustered. “I just saw it, that’s all. I was just telling you about it.”
“Well, don’t tell me about it.”
“I’m in fucking Colorado. You could go to the temple on Saturday, and never say a word to me about it, and I wouldn’t care. Just don’t talk to me about it.”
I hung up. It wasn’t fine. It may never be fine again. I recounted the conversation to Dad.
“He’s been raised that way,” Dad said, “It’s what he was taught. He isn’t going to give it up.”
“He could have just gone. I don’t care if he wants to go. But he wants me to feel bad that I’m not going.”
 Change fell on both of us now. We could only duck for cover.
The next morning, Dad and I met Scott, the Executive Director of Friends of the Dillon Rangers, at the trailhead. We would be working today: Me, for college credit, Dad, for something to do. The project was organized with the Summit Seniors. We arrived before anyone else and helped Scott unload shovels, mattocks, tampers, and buckets from the back of his pickup. We picked out a hardhat and gloves to use for the day. The seniors began arriving, and I checked their names off of a list. Scott asked a tall, tan, slightly older gentleman named Kevin to give the tool orientation.  He walked through the names of the different tools, and then demonstrated how to carry them facing downward, so that if we fell, we may not kill ourselves.
Scott led us about a quarter mile into the trail, and we emerged from the trees into an open field. He broke us into teams and explained with his hands how we would dig the trail out to lay railroad ties along the trail. This would allow an outlet for ground water. I didn’t understand any of it, just started digging where Dad told me to. He understood the complexity of system needs, how to balance the natural landscape with its own natural troubles. If I ventured outside in Iowa, it was to run around Ada Hayden Lake, and then I was back inside at the computer, or cooking or cleaning. I didn’t even mow the lawn or tend the garden. Paul had long taken those jobs as I picked up everything else. I loved tiring my arms by thrusting the mattock into the ground, loved the usefulness of my toned running legs for such a task.
The seniors were insatiable workers, not nearly as distracted by the prospect of lunch as I was. Some of them even outworked me.  One guy, Vick, could lift huge rocks and swing a mattock like a teenager. He was bald with a New York accent, and a large nose. As we waited for two guys to carry a large rock over with a pulley and drop it into the hole we had created together, he asked me where I was from.
“Iowa now. But I’m originally from Utah,” I said.
“Are you Mormon?”
I paused on the question, growing more uncomfortable with each passing millisecond.
“No,” I said, “Not anymore.”
I stared into the hole. It felt like a lie. I was still a Mormon.  I still attended church, and served in my calling and paid tithing. I still believed in God and the atoning Christ and part of me still thought it could be possible that Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon by some inspired means. I didn’t think of the church as a hoax or a mass self delusion. I found the truth to be much more tragic than that.
The next morning, I arrived at the office to cut out schedule inserts for brochures. I had them printed and cut out, and slipped them one by one into each brochure and piled them on the desk. Scott interrupted me.
“You want to go for a hike?” he asked, “I have to go survey a trail.”
A hike appealed to me. I looked down at my flip-flops. I was told I would be in the office today.
“Well, I’m not dressed for it,” I said, “That’s okay. I can stay here and finish up.”
He walked away, but resurfaced five minutes later.
“You don’t want to do this,” he said, “Come on the hike with me.”
“I was thinking,” I said, “We could stop at the trailer and grab my shoes.”
We ascended quickly, a picturesque view of the valley emerged within five minutes. We both breathed a bit heavier. Scott thought it would take an hour, but we hiked through the hour and still had trail to climb. We talked about our families, our upbringing, our spouses. Scott told me about his one trip to Salt Lake City and his Jewish brother in law who walked out of Temple Square, unbearably offended by the Christus statue.  Although I guessed he was not religious, Scott seemed to dislike any form of intolerance. We moved from the hillside into the dense forest, stopping in a few places for Scott to take notes, or post flags in the ground. 
Finally, we reached the peak of the mountain, and the trees broke away into a field of tall grass. A patch of mud lay centered in the field, a focal point. Scott guessed elk regularly laid there. He asked me to go into the trees and see what kind of natural rock lay around for the trail work.  I walked past the mud bed, the imaginary elk raising their gentle heads at me, and then the trees swallowed me and I found myself standing before an enormous pine.  I think my arms could have spread across half of the trunk. I placed my hand against the bark, and the life inside that old tree stirred awake, like an old man waking out of a sleep for a back rub. And my soul fired with the same peace and joy I felt at fifteen, feeling that great inarticulated something that I know I could feel, but could never quite share with anyone else.
On the peak of a mountain in Colorado, my hand on a tree, I found God again. 
The next morning, I met Pastor Darlene at the church.  I wasn’t sure what I was doing there, taking up her time.  I suppose I wanted to understand a different kind of experience for a religious woman, to know what it was like for God to call you, to help me understand whether God was calling me.
She smiled, and invited me into her office, a small, cozy room with candles and framed photos of her family. I asked questions, piecing together her life. She told me about her struggles as a young female pastor, how one church back in the day didn’t want to pay her as much because she was the wife.
            “But aside from that one time, I haven’t had too much trouble,” she said.
            “So overall, it’s been a positive experience for you,” I said.
            “Yes,” she said, looking away in reflection, “It’s been a very positive experience. It really has.”
            Then I told her what I think I had come here to tell her all along, about my struggles with my religion, about my spiritual experiences, how I felt God calling me to something different. I didn’t know how she would respond. I always feel a little trepidation speaking critically of my religion to outsiders, as the faith already exists with exaggerated stigmas and stereotypes.
            “It sounds like that just isn’t who you are anymore,” she said.
            “Yes,” I said, and I cried. I felt at last, that someone understood my struggle, and wrapped in the comfort of understanding, my pain relaxed a bit. Someone, at last, had given me permission to be me.
            “I’ll pray your hubby can accept you,” she said.
            I cried some more, and then we prayed together.
            The last project I completed with the Dillon Rangers was the Volunteers of Colorado project, a two day event with eighty volunteers, working to repair miles of trail. Dad and I were assigned to a team of eight, repairing a stretch of trail about fifty feet long.
Our team leader, Colin, didn’t look up from shoveling when Scott introduced us to him. A quiet man, Colin wore no shirt and brown overalls, bossed very little, and worked harder than anyone on the team. I noticed a soft, European accent when he asked me to gather rocks into a bucket.  I climbed the hillside and dug around the exposed trunk of a fallen tree, finding rocks between the roots like pebbles between toes. Colin appeared to help me, and we worked in the intimacy of the trees, taking turns dropping rocks into the bucket.
“Ah, look at that,” Colin said in his rich accent, kneeling at the opening of a hole.
I moved to his side and crouched beside him. A burrow hid beneath a curtain of moss and twigs. I peered into the black hole and waited for a sound, or the glimpse of a pink nose.
“Did you see it?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “But it’s there.”
He stood and walked away. I think he was embarrassed, unable to produce a spectacle. I remained by the hole, crouching, suspended in blackness, enraptured by the possibility of life, and in awe of the reverence we could pay to that which we could not see. 


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