There’s a book I read years ago about the American West, a work of fiction by the author Wallace Stegner: Angle of Repose. Stegner’s book has a long and colorful history, including a Pulitzer Prize, but what I want to talk about is its title. I’ve always been fascinated by the title. Angle of repose is a geological term meaning the place where rocks tumbling down a hill finally come to rest. The title is a metaphor for the story: a young pioneering couple from the east, move west, and go through both physical and emotional upheaval before they finally find together, an angle of repose.
Maybe my fondness for this book’s title has to do with the fact that I once was an easterner. Like many transplants, I lived other places, experiencing different landscapes and cultures before I settled in the West.
I thought about this the past weekend when I took my elderly mother and two of her friends for a little get-away to Idaho’s beautiful Sun Valley resort. Mom said she always wanted to see Switzerland (who doesn’t?), and I thought, since international travel isn’t viable for her anymore, Sun Valley might be the next best thing.
On the trip, I told the ladies packed in the backseat of the Subaru that I first heard about Sun Valley years ago, when I was in high school back east. I think I must have been rifling through a magazine at the school library, likely having skipped lunch, when I came upon a glitzy advertisement for the resort. The ad read: “Winter playground of the rich and famous!” I remember the picture of people happily skiing down snow-covered mountain peaks and thinking, “Wow. Isn’t that pretty. Too bad I’ll never go there.” I couldn’t imagine visiting a place like Sun Valley because, a) my family was too poor for resorts; we scrapped by on my dad’s trucker salary, and b) Sun Valley, Idaho was about 2,000 miles and several feet of elevation away from the Indiana plain where I lived.
Now that I think of it, neither my mother nor I would visit Sun Valley until we’d found our angle of repose. We both had journeys to take, alternately exciting and challenging, before we could reach a stopping place in the inter-mountain West.
Mom had to travel to the Philippines where she worked several years as a missionary nurse. Then, when she came back to the States, nostalgic for old friends and old places, she moved to where she’d grown up, near Bluefield, West Virginia. She finally landed in the West when she turned eighty.
After high school, I left Indiana, spending time first in the big city of Philadelphia, and then on an Indian reservation, before going to college in the bucolic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I managed to make my way west when I met an Idaho farmer. I’d never been to Idaho before, and the only thing I really knew about the state (like most non-Idahoans) was that they grew potatoes. It wasn’t until I found myself teaching school and trying to raise four children that someone suggested I needed to take a few days away, all by myself. I should go to a mountain resort just a few hours north of our farm. Sun Valley is glorious, they said, alpine meadows and fine dining. Lots of history. Ernest Hemingway lived there.
I told mom and her girlfriends how over the years I’ve come to Sun Valley dozens of times, drawn mostly by its natural beauty, the sagebrush hills with the rugged Pioneer and Boulder Mountains rising behind them.
Sometimes I think about my eastern-living days: the humidity, the always unseeable sky—blocked by either trees or buildings.
There were no mountains to scale or climb down from in northern Indiana. No place to stop on the trail, to sit awhile, or just shut my eyes, peaceful in my repose.