Miracle Country is my home - my twenty years home where I live no more. Kendra Atleework writes about the Eastern Sierra, the Long Valley of California, the desert land between the mountains east of Yosemite and the Nevada border. This is a land of surreal beauty, danger from fire, drought, and avalanche. This land has provided inspiration to Muir, Austin, and more recently, David Carle. Miracle Country proves that place can be the protagonist of the story.
When someone from your home writes about it, the reader forms a sort of double vision. The images provided by the writer are laid over the images they remember. Reading a passage about Keough’s Hot Springs just south of Bishop California, in Kendra’s Miracle Country, my memories provide the biting sulfur smell and the rainbow of spray that falls on the swimmers. “Over the larger pool, droplets spray from a rigged waterfall suspended fifteen feet in the air, cooling as they fall.” But where Kendra (I must call her that - she was one of the children of the valley when I was an elder there), where she sees the moon, I remember the sun refracting through the spray.
Kendra also writes alongside Mary Austin, her muse, quoting her, summoning her language and mystic vision walk in the Land of Little Rain. Austin’s passages echo for me also, amplified by my reading of her work while sitting on a sandy boulder near the hot springs behind Mammoth Airport, where my husband and I kept our plane. Kendra loves airplanes and aspired to fly like her father.
In an interview with Luis Alberto Urrea (July 21 2020), she confessed that her first desire was to become a backwoods pilot that ferried injured wildlife to safety. I’m glad she became a writer. She has preserved for me, and affirmed for all her readers, the way that the land in one singular place infuses you with a unique spirit. Kendra offers her communion with the Long Valley vistas. In her research into the longer view of the history of the earth and human endeavors, the California Water Wars, the history of the native Paiute, John Muir and the Hetch Hetchy she expands the character behind the bare hills. The land speaks.
In the Eastern Sierra, the power of Nature is always apparent. The unique beauty of the terrain is reflected in the individuality of the populous. Kendra winds the story of her family’s passage to peace after the death of her mother into the tension of the history of this land. The Eastern Sierra folks are always caught between a magnificent blessing and the harsh pressure to survive. Kendra allows her personal journey to become a shining thread in her tapestry. The people who survive are as unique as Kendra’s mother Jan Work, who gave me my first teaching job in Mono County, a miracle to me at that time. Kendra provides, in the end, a place to rest, and a resolution for the embattled land and for her family.
People say that you go to the Eastern Sierras to escape something; I certainly did. But they say that you stay because you have found something. Kendra began there and in the journey of this work pulls back to see the Long Valley and the desert and her family journey with clarity. As she returns to her home; I can as well. The land is in her blood and I am so happy that she has preserved her vision in this book. Kendra Atleework has ferried my injured spirit back into the wilderness to heal. I encourage you to take the journey.
Kendra Atleework Miracle Country: A Memoir. Algonguin Books, 2020.