I have lived in some famously beautiful places. The moors of Yorkshire, the red deserts of Sedona, Arizona. The Northern California Coast (pictured above), and in Boulder, Colorado, during the winter where the snow gives off a heavenly glimmer as morning’s first alpenglow makes even the mountains blush.
I consider myself a bit of a beauty glutton. It’s important to me that my view be gorgeous—if not exactly the view from my house then at least the view when I get in my car and drive somewhere nearby to bask in nature’s best.
So it’s funny that I’m back for the third time in a place I wouldn’t have described as beautiful to anyone. Say “Idaho” to people who haven’t been here and they might conjure up potato fields or radical racist groups. Say it to someone born here in the southern part of the state, however, and you’ll probably hear a poetic line about the foothills and Boise being the city of trees.
It is the city of trees. A short hike up a hill near my home and I am staring out over an ocean of beech, white oak, and plane trees that trick this high desert landscape into green. The river that wends through town is a blessing, but it is the irrigation systems built by people who have loved this place from the get-go that gives the Treasure Valley its verdant sheen.
Except it isn’t green here, not really. The much-beloved foothills are as brown and dusty as old burlap except for a brief period each year when they might look more like molded cheesecloth. There aren’t any impressive mountain ranges nearby to break up the flat press of dun-colored hills against bleached sky. There is no balm for the eyes besides the trees, which can look pedestrian and staged.
And there ain’t no coastline for some five-hundred miles.
In short, this place is lacking in beauty. Or that is what I think when I get ready to move back here, remembering the languid pace of this valley that has never been a tourist destination. “It doesn’t feed me,” I tell my parents, who have lived here for almost twenty years.
My parents nod, thinking of all the beautiful places they too have lived. Then their eyes travel to their view, which by Southern Idaho standards is a good one. Low distant mountains purpled in spring’s haze.
They love it here—they even see it as beautiful. I know they do, despite the fact that they have also enjoyed some of the most stunning places on earth. The two of them picked grapes in the South of France, for crying out loud. They’ve woken to Vancouver’s pristine sparkle and wandered the deep, red canyons of the mystical southwest. They are beauty connoisseurs, or they should be.
How, then, could they be inspired by a place as bland as this?
These are my limitations talking, my rules. If beauty were some objective measure against which we could rate places and experiences, how on earth could anyone love an inner city slum? Or the land that is southern Wyoming where monotony takes on a new name? Or a bog? A failed farming community left fallow and dry?
And yet all of these landscapes have been painted, sung in songs, or memorialized in photographs. All of them are in some person’s eyes beautiful. Why am I failing to take this in?
But I don’t ask myself this question when I move back to Boise. I set my jaw and plunge into relocation’s top priorities. Job, apartment, new grocery shopping route. Preparations for what promises to be a hot summer.
I go for evening walks in my new neighborhood to get back to some semblance of an exercise routine. At first I hoof it up the street with purpose. My eyes are riveted on the sidewalk, my arms determinedly swinging. I probably look like the classic suburban housewife (which I am not) out for her evening power walk, ear buds smashed in tight and regaled in black spandex.
And then it happens. I happen to glance up. It’s the smell that lures me, I think. It is May and the scent of honeysuckle floats in the air, and something richer, like musk. The melting sun is illuminating a few bushes in one of these suburban yards, and it is as if Georgia O’Keefe herself has painted their blooms in grand scale.
I stop walking. My arms still. “Beautiful,” I say aloud, surprising myself.
I notice the honeysuckle bush, the roses, and the run of grass along the side of the house to the foothills behind, which are golden—as golden as any dream—in the last of the day’s light.
Beautiful. Yes, it is so. In that moment I see the beauty in these hills, this plain sky. The dust beyond the houses that is clouding thanks to someone in a Jeep. It is my decision to see this beauty that puts it squarely in front of me—that puts me in it. That which has been here all along.
Below, the trees dance with wind. Now the dust is like mica in the sun and every yard is a picture. Even the yard around the corner that has been given over to crabgrass and a line of strange stones like runes. Lordy, it’s beautiful here…
Thankfully beauty doesn’t live here anymore than it lives anywhere else. Beauty is the world we live in—everywhere—and it is I who paint in its color.