There’s a town nearby I’ve loved my whole life. It sits by the river, the only choice for a western town, in a valley of sagebrush and piñon and too little rain.
There are high mountains to the west, so beautiful in the morning light, so imperious and purple. They break your heart, there’s not a damn thing you can do.
It’s a one-light town, where Main street crosses the highway that goes north to Leadville. There’s a garden at the four-way that opens only from Memorial Day, when the chance of snow is slight enough to make buying tomato plants or a hanging basket worth the risk. People here count their money.
There’s a beer hall, a grocery store, a drive-in burger place. Avenues First through Third and that’s all, or close to all. Throw in the hardware store and the old hotel.
It’s a tourist town, which means they believe there’s enough to share. They’ve dammed up the creek where it runs through the park and every summer noon you hear the kids playing in the shallows; pirate ship, water balloons, Marco Polo.
I love this town completely; like you love the smell of your lover’s skin, or your son’s voice on the phone, or the child at the door, hugging your legs from the long road home.
I love this town’s sturdy ways; the impassive face it turns towards the winter, returning from her sojourn. I carry it with me, like I carry the empty space inside where my childhood family was meant to be.
My first family’s anthem was plaintive, always crying out it’s need. You’d have thought we were poor the way we carried on but we weren’t.
But if I stood at that light one more time, and were granted vision apart from time. Like the bristlecone up in the hills. Or walked through the streets at night like a ghost, peering into windows. I’d see the scenes of my life as I came and went from this town.
Like one night in late October, thirty years ago. Here, at the light. I was a young man then, in love with the woman who would soon be my wife. In love too with the pickup I’d bought. I’d taken one last drive before winter set in. The first hard snow had come on fast and I’d been caught on the pass at full blue dark. I was shaky and chagrined while I sat, waiting for the light to change. Just earlier I’d taken a slide off the slickening road, driving too fast, and had barely escaped tumbling down the rocky mountainside.
Knowing how close I’d come to trouble. High country trouble, which everyone knows is the life or death kind. To losing all that my future then held. How close the waiting world had come to taking its due.
Or another scene, this time married Our two boys young and in their pajamas. We’d rented a cabin across the highway; one of six or so arranged semi-circle on the gravel side road. A stuffed beaver of all things sat on top the refrigerator. The boys thought he was funny of course, staring down while we played games at the kitchen table, standing guard while we slept. Our own comical sentry. My wife thought he was menacing, as much as anyone with buck teeth can be menacing.
Or a few years ago. At the restaurant in the old hotel. Across the table our oldest son, beautiful and earnest and good. So proud of the girl there beside him, soon to be his wife. Her hand on his, her eyes on his, them making two chairs into one.
She’s a good girl, a western slope girl. From a good family, her dad a banker, her mother a teacher. She, in the way of all young women, wanting motherhood. Overflowing with love for their children yet born. A partner to our son, an ally towards the world, the daughter I’d always wished for.
Or one final scene, today. Early September. It’s windy, tossing my hair now grey at the temples. It’s not cold enough yet for a cap.
The boys are grown and married, away to Montana and California. No grandkids yet. My wife is at her sister’s and I’m in town for the afternoon. We still live nearby, retired to the place in the woods I always wanted. I’ve come into town to see the fireplace man, then walked downtown for coffee.
I stand on the same old corner, at the same old light, the crossing now three lanes wide. Down the block from the old hotel and lost in memory. The same old daytime ghost.
There are times when these scenes clutch at my heart with a keening sadness.
With knowing that time has passed, irretrievable, like the geese that follow the river each autumn.
And yet, I’m learning, in the middle age I can no longer deny, that renewal lives beneath every grief. I’ve become strong in the places once broken. The spaces once empty are filled.
This I know. You do not miss what you do not love. And I am blessed with immeasurable love.
Like those infinite mountains, the world gives enough and is more than enough. And I have more than enough.
I have good work still, for sons that I have not yet met. A wife for all time, two men who love their father, who know me deeply, as I intended.
The promise of good times, of babies, of lasting peace.
The river still flows by this old western town.
The winter still waits, on her silent sojourn.