Some years back, Marypat and I bought 20 acres of land in central Montana, two hours from our home in Bozeman. An unremarkable spot — a sandstone bluff, an intermittent creek, ponderosa pines, views of distant peaks.
Beyond building an outhouse and a campfire ring, we
have done nothing to develop the place. We go there as often as
possible with our three children; we go not to take on projects,
but to spend time, to escape the town pace, to explore and let
secrets unfold around us. My hope is that this scrap of arid land
will be my children’s place apart, just as a tiny pocket of
Connecticut beach was mine, 35 years ago.
The kids have
grown up in our Montana haven. They have their vivid landmarks
— the lightning-struck tree they climb, the flat rock where
they used to build corrals for plastic animals, the short cliff by
the stream they scramble on, the juniper tree where they once found
a clutch of wild turkey eggs. They have seen wet years, when the
creek had enough flow to hold toy-boat races, and dry years, when
no water came down the valley at all.
Because we go often
to the same spots, we have begun to see the patterns. We know when
the nighthawks nest, what month the ticks are at their worst, what
flowers bloom in the spring, when the grasshoppers will flurry out
of the grass in August. At night, we gather around the fire,
roasting marshmallows, watching for the first star, hoping the
coyotes will howl. Sometimes we sleep outside, under the velvet
quilt of night sky. Because of our time there, the children know
what a Clark’s nutcracker is, how a porcupine chew marks a
tree, that the bark of ponderosa pine, close up, smells exactly
When I see the three of them racing across a
field or hopping across rocks, my legs tingle with memories, sharp
as yesterday. I can still feel the hard crystals in a granite
boulder under my summer-tough bare feet. I would know, today,
exactly in which underwater cranny I might find a starfish. I
remember the moonless night I went, alone, down through the damp
meadow, out to the farthest rock, and sat there with the black
ocean heaving at my feet and the lighthouse’s beam stabbing
in the dark. I remember how the aching feeling of that immensity
grew in my chest.
My grandparents have been dead many
years, their house and property sold, but my family memories are
steeped in that small territory, and the little beach remains at
the most enduring heart of it. It has remained clear and important
precisely because I was a child there, and because I brought my
childhood curiosity, exuberance and openness to the exploration of
I see, in my children, that same interaction with
landscape. I see, also, that they get the same feeling of escape
from being there that I do. Release from the tyranny of the clock,
from schoolwork and hurried mornings and conflicts over sharing. I
see relief in their faces, hear it in their laughter.
want to know everything: Which deer beds down in the meadow, how
the chickadees found the hole in the stump, why the moon is out in
the daytime. They see, even if they don’t say it, that they
are hitched up to this universe, that everything is hitched up, all
of us finding our way.
Sometimes, the hardest thing for me
to do is to recapture that childhood ability to be in a spot, to
lose my adult tendency to organize, and to let the kids, with their
untethered style, lead the way. One evening not long ago, we set
out after dinner on a walk. For some reason, I imposed a goal on
the outing. I got it in my head to go to the top of a knoll, then
turn around and come back. But it became an ordeal. We were
cajoling them and hauling them up the steep hill. Their legs were
tired. They wanted to go back to the fire. I could hear frustration
rising in my voice.
Then, suddenly, Sawyer struck off into
a gully. Eli and Ruby dove after him. I first let out an
exasperated shout, to no effect. Then I stopped myself and watched.
I saw how much energy they all had, galloping downhill, vaulting
over downed trees, shouting to each other. I looked at Marypat,
shrugged, and started down after them, stirred by visceral, heady
memories already a generation old.