As summer approaches and you are packing up the Subaru to head the beach or a campsite, bring along a copy of Road Trip by Mark Rozema. The author is an avid outdoorsman and whether he is hiking solo up a mountain or rambling along in a car with his father, he invites you on the journey. This collection explores the author’s relationship with nature, with himself, with loved ones, and with some companions met along the way.
Ann Cummins says Rozema’s writing is “like a deep breath and a clear thought…effortless.” This seemingly effortless style mimics the author’s own approach to life and nature, to spend time in the moment, “to just be.” And I found myself sitting often with these words so that they became the landscape around me—one that offers the quiet, subtle understanding of a night of stars; the profound abruptness of standing on a cliff’s edge; the painful love of witnessing a father’s decline; and always a curious spirit to know where the road leads.
Mark Rozema has recently been published in Superstition Review, Sport Literate, The Soundings Review, Weber: The Contemporary West, and Camas: The Nature of the West. His essay, “Make a Joyful Noise,” appeared in Isthmus no 1. His first collection of essays, Road Trip, was published by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press, in September 2015.
ISTHMUS: The essays in Road Trip are, of course, framed with car trips, hikes, and even an inter-state bicycle ride. They are a natural structure that allows for description of intellectual and spiritual journeys as well. What of your writerly journey? You have lived in a number of states (Arizona, Utah, Alaska, Montana, and Washington) and worked a variety of jobs; was writing always a focus among these changes and moves? Why did you go to an MFA program when you did?
Mark Rozema: Writing has not always been a focus. In fact, there have been extended periods in my life when I didn’t write at all. My initial impulse to write was really a sublimated desire to make music. My first love was music, but I wasn’t good enough at it to pursue it as a vocation. I went to an MFA program because I applied for an assistantship and they gave me money. So it was an expenses-paid opportunity to go to Alaska and have some adventure. It helped that I liked to write poems, but I honestly think that the goal of becoming a writer was secondary. At that age, I was quite concerned with having fun. I got more serious about it once I was there.
ISTHMUS: In the first essay, “Wherever the Road Goes,” you and your elderly father are driving across Colorado as part of a planned move for your parents. In other essays, your travel companions are unplanned—an unknown dog who follows you on a hiking trail or a troubled girl hitchhiking her way to Alaska. What makes for an ideal travel partner?
MR: What a great and unexpected question! I have had some ideal travel partners. A good companion has an adventurous spirit, but also an easygoing nature. Adaptability, humor, and the willingness to be dirty and unkempt for extended periods of time are all pluses. Knowing when not to talk, but to just let the landscape speak. Spontaneity is great, but so is having some knowledge about the country you are moving through, and what you want to do in it. I get along best with people who love and are attentive to all manner of landforms, plants, and weather. People who will be willing to stop at the drop of a hat to explore, photograph flowers, or soak in a hot springs. Taking turns choosing the music is a necessary form of generosity. Speaking of music, whoever rides with me should be able to tolerate me singing along with Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash.
ISTHMUS: I have never been to any of the places or hiking trails that you write about and yet I see and feel them through your descriptions. From “Three Arizona Canyons”:
A slot canyon is a world of curves. Rappelling into a slot, one sees neither the top of the canyon nor the bottom—only bowls, scoops, hollows, grooves, waves, ridges: an infinity of perfect curves, swirling in all directions at once. These curves bring joy to both the fingers and the eyes. In Bear Canyon, the creamy buff-colored Coconino Sandstone is cool, gritty, pleasing to touch. Nestled into small niches in the stone are delicate moss gardens, testament to the seeping moisture that finds its way from the porous soil above through jointing in the rock layer. In some places I can feel both walls at the same time, tracing each parallel ridge and groove carved into the stone by raging flash floods.
Description of place, and more specifically landscape, is a specific skill in the writer’s craft toolbox. How have you worked to hone this and make such descriptions individual and real? Which nature writers do you like to read?
MR: I don’t know if I can identify any specific way that I’ve worked on description. I think being out in nature a lot is the most important factor. In addition to literary essays, I like to read adventure stories, historical journals, science writers. Having some action in the scene helps. Landscape description works well when there is movement of some sort—of creatures, people, weather. It helps if more senses than sight are involved. Having short sentences to balance out the fancy ones keeps the prose from getting sluggish. It’s as hard to list authors as it is to list musicians. There are so many good ones. I have some long-time favorites, of course. I love to read David Quammen, for his lively curiosity and his sense of humor. I learn a lot about the natural world from his books. I value all the books of Wendell Berry. The poetry of Pattiann Rogers is so attentive to details, so precise, so jam-packed with birds, bugs, plants, even stars, and all the webs that connect everything. The late Eva Saulitis, a whale biologist, is both a first-rate essayist and poet. And I’m always finding new writers to be excited about. I just read a wonderful book about bumblebees, A Sting in the Tale, by David Goulson.
ISTHMUS: Being in nature has always been an essential part of your life. As a teenager you attempted to sabotage a new subdivision development that encroached on the natural habitat. You also write of your mourning for the destruction of the environment through climate change. “The Road to Grand Falls” talks about your anxieties for the world: “Sometimes I’m so concerned with the future of the world that I forget the pleasure of just being in the world…” You go on to say that writing about all the problems does not solve them or make you feel better, that there is a time to discuss politics and opinions but what perhaps is more fruitful is just to “be glad to be alive.” I agree with you, but then find it hard to maintain after reading the news. Do you still wrestle with this?
MR: I wasn’t even a teenager yet! I was ten. And I sure didn’t think of those woods as “habitat.” They were “my woods,” or maybe “my territory.” Ecological awareness slowly grew out of the fertile ground of a child’s simple desire to run wild. In response to your question, yes, I wrestle with maintaining gladness. It’s sometimes hard to find joy when you know that something is slipping away. My children will never have the sense I had, as a child, that the world of plants and animals is a secure refuge. When I climb on glaciers in the Cascades, I know how fast those glaciers are vanishing. Somehow, though, this makes it even more imperative to praise, celebrate, and bear witness to these things. The desire to protect comes out of love, which keeps burning strong even (or especially) in conditions of impermanence. For my next book (if there is one), I’m thinking of working with a theme: How to love something (or someone) well in deteriorating circumstances.
ISTHMUS: In Road Trip you touch on various stops along your “spiritual” journey, which is ongoing. Do you find spirituality challenging to write about? Or, that it surfaces organically?
MR: The answer, for me, is both. Spirituality is challenging to write about, and it surfaces organically. In fact, I can’t avoid it. I don’t adhere to any organized religion, but I was steeped in it growing up, and it stays with me—in the stories, in a type of language that rolls easily out of me. At the same time, I kind of resist it. Spiritual is a slippery word. It also irritates some people. It’s easy to be vague, maudlin, or preachy when writing about “spiritual journeys.” I hope I have avoided those pitfalls, but I don’t know if I have.
ISTHMUS: In many essays, you are hiking or traveling alone, someone actively seeking solitude. Has this always been true for you? As distractions and responsibilities increase, how does one find replenishing solitude versus simple alone time?
MR: I don’t know how other people find replenishing solitude, or even if they need it. I need it. Extended periods of time alone in nature make me feel more grounded and centered in myself. I have time to let my thoughts spread out. This is not as true if the “alone time” is in the city or even in my own home. If my wife and daughter are on a trip and I’m alone in the house, after a week I might become depressed and self-absorbed, a little too inclined toward morbid introspection. (The dogs will help me avoid this, if I remember to let them.) I don’t know why this is. But it doesn’t happen outside, where my attention is given over to the world of other creatures, rocks, water, and light. I do like hiking and climbing with others—sometimes—but I most often go alone. There is freedom to do what you want without conferring about it. It’s a back-and-forth; you go into solitude so that you can come back to people.
ISTHMUS: One of my favorite vignettes is in “Eye Contact” where you describe your relationship with a woman named Pearl who had severe cerebral palsy. She was in a wheelchair and communicated only through eye movement and an electronic keyboard and voice box, which did not allow for lengthy conversations and led to a few moments of frustration. Yet, you continued to try to understand what Pearl might be thinking but not able to say directly. The way you recognize her inner person reminded me of Oliver Sacks’ writing even before I saw the reference to him in another essay. Would you say he is a writer who has influenced your work?
MR: Oh yes, I like Oliver Sacks. He had a remarkable life and career. I like his humanity, his curiosity. I like that he had honest affection for his patients. He tangles with spirituality without bringing God or doctrine into it. And the spirit is always tethered to the body. There is a sense of awe at the workings of chemicals and neurons. Body and mind are never separate. I think in an indirect way he influenced me a lot—especially in regard to reflection on relationships I’ve had with people who had Alzheimer’s, or physical and developmental disabilities. He looked at people who are often considered damaged or limited, and asked, instead—What are their gifts? How have they adapted? I hope he has influenced my work.
ISTHMUS: Pearl, mentioned above, is one of three vignettes in “Eye Contact.” The essay illustrates how nonverbal communication often supersedes verbal communication. It also shows how we attempt to understand one another through brief meetings and how much personal history each person brings to such short encounters and we can see only a glimpse of it. And to recognize that is what is important. I thought this to be a recurring theme in your work. Discovery of others and of self, and the continued knowledge that the work is unfinished, there is always more to know. How much do you feel writing is an attempt to understand yourself and others? How much of writing is trying to see ourselves? To share the specific in order to reach the universal?
MR: Maybe we can’t ever completely understand each other. Even understanding myself is an elusive goal. Writing might be partly an attempt to understand. It is also, for me, a celebration of moments and people that touch my life in a way that I can’t quite understand and could not have predicted. “The work is unfinished and there is always more to know.” I like that.
ISTHMUS: “Make a Joyful Noise” describes the aging and decline of your father, your father-in-law, and a friend; this is juxtaposed with reflections on the ways you have tried to better understand your own purpose. How does the former affect the latter?
MR: Good question. Many people I love have died in recent years. Each time, it brings me back to a reconsideration of what ultimately matters. One thing about dementia: the ideologies, the “–isms” that we often cling to, slip away. Simple care-taking relationships remain. I think this is affecting me in a way I don’t completely comprehend yet.
ISTHMUS: Music is a large part of your life, and memories and songs are often interconnected. Has hearing an “old” song inspired an essay? Do you listen to music when you write? If so, which artists or pieces?
MR: The first chord of a song can make the heart ache. Words don’t work that fast. The amount of time I spend listening to old songs is huge. This is not productive time, I suppose, but I don’t care. I do it primarily because I enjoy it, but there is no doubt that it feeds writing. Music that shaped my identity in youth holds special power. Music is a trigger. It’s always specific. For instance, Jim Pepper puts me right back on the road to Grand Falls. If I listen to Jim Reeves singing Take My Hand, Precious Lord, my father’s spirit is right beside me. If I play Memory Motel by the Rolling Stones, I’m on the front lawn on a summer’s day with my 8th grade buddies. In each case, there is a visceral and immediate reaction, a twinge in the heart. It is like the smell of a particular food. However, I can’t listen to music at the same time that I’m writing, because the music will take me over. Background music is an impossible concept to me. The artists I listen to are too numerous to mention, but I suppose some of the music that moves me most is good blues guitar. It can put me in a “flow state.” If I’m lucky, this can make the writing flow, too.
ISTHMUS: What are you working on now?
MR: I’m working on a series of essays about watersheds. This started as a desire to write about some rivers that I love, in Washington, Arizona, and Iceland. It has evolved into an exploration of watersheds as both a geographical and metaphorical concept. As I said earlier, I’m also interested in writing about what it means to take care (of nature, of neighbors, of ourselves) in the context of deteriorating circumstances. How can we do this with not only love, but also joy and vitality, through dark journeys like dementia, mental illness, decrepitude, financial failure, moral shortcomings, depression, unraveling ecosystems, and the 2016 election? I don’t have any easy or certain answers, but I’m interested in the question.