Jennifer Tepper
5 min readMar 25, 2021

Small, Wild, and Free in the Gila

A bonfire is supernatural. It harnesses the wind, air, earth, wood, and all of nature’s debris to birth reds, oranges and blues commingled — mesmerizing and irreplicable colors that permanently singe and stain the mind. It creates a heat that consumes. When tamed, the heat provides but when angered, the heat kills without prejudice.

It was in the Gila Wilderness that I realized that the bonfire is a goddess, summoned to remind us of how small we are.

I am 5’1” — I am small. My life, a living tribute to the bonfire goddess but I fought the inevitable. Despite years of reluctance, I finally admit it — I am your neighbor’s Chihuahua, barking so hard because she thinks she is an intimidating big dog, and she is solely responsible for why you don’t know your neighbor’s name. Everyone laughs at this Chihuahua because of her lack of self-awareness and desperate need to feel big. And everyone loves this Chihuahua, but the love is shadowed with a patronizing “you’re so cute…you don’t realize how small and insignificant you are…let me just hug you and help you forget.”

I have needed to feel big my whole life. I am attracted to tall/big men. I only want to raise the largest dog breeds. I am unable to control my glee when my 6-month-old children fit in 9–12-month-old clothes. I beam inside and glow outside when someone says that I present like a much larger person than someone who is 5’1” and that I’m stronger than what most would think possible for a girl my size. I act like I just won $100,000,000.00 when someone says, “I would never have thought you to be 5’1”! You’re just larger than life.”

The known reasons for my fascination with bigness are multifaceted and I am sure there are more reasons, unsurfaced. Known reasons include:

· Actual physical size and stature

· Being told by my parents to not expect much from life and that I am incapable of executing my dreams (as a child, I thought my parents abusive, unsupportive, and dream-killers. As an adult, I realize my parents were realists whose own dreams grounded into dry riverbeds and swept away by dust devils).

· My own cognitive dissonance — I always saw a much larger person than my reflection bore in the mirror. I felt bigger, greater, larger, more significant and therefore, I must be bigger, greater, larger, and more significant.

· The belief that everything must matter cause if not, why are we here? Why are we walking the Earth; just to spend time hanging out and then die? It is our duty to make everything matter — it must be or else why not just die and end the suffering if it is all for nothing?

That last bullet point is still unfurling. I want it all to matter, though I can now find peace in the possibility that none of it matters at all.

That last bullet point motivated me to get married at 22 years old, have two children, get my first master’s degree, and purchase, sell, and purchase another home all before I was 25 years old.

It is the reason why my husband and I’s life plans were to work our asses off so that when we were about 30 years old, we would travel the globe, backpacking with our elementary school aged children, showing them what the world can offer instead of raising them inside the Beltway, indentured servants to the suburban matrix that many give the best years of their lives to with nothing but a manicured yard to show for it.

It is the reason a manicured yard is not enough.

It is the reason my marriage broke under pressure, and why I was not compassionate but angered and self-righteous. It is the reason why my narrative was that I was betrayed by my perfect man who promised to seek out this “BIG LIFE ADVENTURE”. But in reality, as he grew older and wiser, he wanted a softer and more forgiving life where being big is pointless if it became the enemy of being free.

It is the reason after we separated that I moved on, quickly, to another man who wanted to have a BIG ADVENTURE exploring polyamory and life became about what it means to share.

It is the reason I had to ask, if it all matters so much and I live in honor of creating this big and purposeful life — why doesn’t it feel natural? Why does it feel forced?

So I went on a contemporary quest to find meaning in nature, a 10-day Drag the Wolftail survival ride with Apache Joe.

I was introduced to the Gila Wilderness — the first designated Wilderness in the United States. It encompasses 3.3 million acres of hills, mountains, and range land. A land that hosted the Mogollon and Apache Indians and nurtured the rise of Geronimo and the legacy of Aldo Leopold. The Mimbres River runs through the mystical majesty of these lands and the elk, javelina, mountain lions, wolves, black bears, bighorn sheep, mule deer, bald eagles, hummingbirds, peregrine falcons, wild turkey, cacti, juniper, pine, aspen, and ore thrive together, harmoniously.

The bonfires built nightly by Apache Joe revealed her supernatural powers as if a truth serum. You could not tell any lies sitting next to the bonfire goddess. So, our small group of four told circuitous stories, often ending with no punchline or running on until a gentle fade. We acknowledged that not finishing the story is often the most threadbare and raw finish. We found dignity and purpose in our contemplation and nightly, the bonfire reminded us that what matters is that we are here like the Mogollon before us and that others who love the land will be here after us. That it all matters because it is part of our journey and often, our journeys interlace and influence each other creating a movement, but it doesn’t matter because all of our journeys end.

Throughout our days hiking and horseback riding, evidence of BIG ADVENTURES — dead carcasses, dozens of elk, emerging pine forests buttressing against the wildfire debris — surrounded us and the sensation of what it truly means to be free, to live amongst the land and nature, to be part of the circle of life divulged itself to us. We silently embraced being part of the circle instead of going back to our lives and trying hard to beat the circle of life — to live longer, stronger, better, above it all. We wrestled with how we would feel if we stopped manufacturing a BIG life but lived with intentionality, knowing how small, wild, and free we are.

The Gila helps me reach the peace inside. All that the Gila hosts, interconnected and breathing, humbles and directs me on how to be alive and survive. THE BIG ADVENTURE is being here, fully aware of how my small actions and decisions can have profound influence, and not protecting what makes us feel big, like the Chihuahua. The bonfire goddess rages wildly of the truth that nature provides while we are here, but our time will elapse, without prejudice, predictably untamable.

Jennifer Tepper

Mom of 5, stepmom of 3. Two decades growing for-cause organizations. Lover of sports, food, wine, books and travel. Always thinking, sometimes to my detriment.