Everyone needs a place apart

  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 like vanilla.

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 it.

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.

They 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.

Alan Kesselheim lives in Bozeman, Montana.

Writers on the Range is a syndicated service of High Country News, providing three opinion columns each week to more than 70 newspapers around the West. The service provides a range of opinions, to stir thought and discussion. To see all the current columns, and archives, visit HCN’s Web site, www.hcn.org. For more information, contact editor Betsy Marston, betsym@hcn.org, 970-527-4898.