The Continental Divide of my childhood rises up the moment I spy the fractured, uplifted horizon formed by the Rocky Mountains. Ahead lies Longs Peak, and the log cabin my family has rented for the summer. Ahead lie weeks full of freedom and possibility.
Left behind, so close to Missouri it barely qualifies as Kansas: my neighborhood in Prairie Village, neither a prairie nor a village in the 1950s, but a post-war housing development on the outskirts of Kansas City. In Prairie Village, a chain-link fence keeps me out of the concrete creekbed, troops of boys dispense vigilante justice to outlaws, and gangs of girls gather in their bedrooms to smother their Barbie dolls with dresses that beautify their bald, featureless bodies.
My dolls reside in cardboard shoeboxes, three beheaded corpses to a casket.
The girls make fun of me. The boys label me 'it' and hunt me down in the forsythias. See Jane kneel. The diamonds in the fins of her eyeglasses are made of plastic. Her laughter is as fake as the tulips in Mrs. Jensen's milk can. See Jane beg half-heartedly for mercy as the boys lay her down in ant-infested crabgrass, tie her by the ankles and wrists to stakes, and leave. It is 98 degrees. Jane does not deserve to die like this. What is her offense?
'You're a girl,' shouts Cousin Charles as he flees.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, the mountains shelter me from harm. They pinch the sky into a faint ribbon, shutter our meadow in intermittent shadow and silence. One mountain distinguishes itself from the rest of the range with its singular height, flat top and precipitous east face: Longs Peak.
From the front window of our cabin, I study Longs Peak in the crystalline brightness of morning as elk graze in the meadow below. At this time of day, the mountain seems closer and less formidable than it is. In the graying dimness of a gathering storm, it retreats -- a puzzle with missing pieces. When the clouds finally lift, the mountain is dusted in snow. Sometimes it emerges from the mist, its dome gold or polished silver. Similar delights await me atop the hill behind our cabin, once I've scrambled through the jungle of ponderosas and boulders.
I wait until the kettle on the wood-burning stove whistles. Preoccupied with breakfast, Mother forgets to bolt the back door, and I slip out unnoticed, Huck Finn making his getaway. I am not prepared for the steep gravel. Instinctively I lean outward to counteract the ankle-turning slippage, and I side-hill like the elk do when they ascend from the meadow to the forest. Hummingbirds buzz by in flashes of iridescent green. Ponderosas soar beyond my range of vision, their uppermost branches lost in the sky. Lichen-splattered boulders look as if they could come to life at any moment and speak -- trolls from the underworld warning me away from the forest. I am not afraid. I will climb a boulder and when I reach the top, I will shout triumphantly at the top of my lungs, letting the whole world know of my achievement. I reach for a handhold and then another, my feet secure on the bottom shelf. Half way up, the lichen sponge me off. I pick myself up, dusting off the gravel, and hike beyond the boulder. On the other side, a ramp leads to the top.
I am not afraid of the height. The chipmunks have crowned me queen of the boulder, their forepaws extended for the royal dispensation. I share the crumbling biscuit I stuffed into my pocket before departing, but it fails to satisfy their hunger, and they scamper into my lap and stand on their haunches, scratching at my jacket. I could shake them off but they are my loyal subjects, and I am their benevolent benefactor.
'Lunch time,' my father shouts. 'Mom baked chocolate chip cookies.' The search party has caught up with me. I do not want to be rescued.
The rest of the summer, my scrambles are confined to the summit of our log cabin -- until I am caught and ordered down. From then on I sit on the front steps after breakfast, waiting for the elk to descend from the forest or Longs Peak to emerge from the morning mist. I can be patient. My father, a Western American history buff, has given me a nickname that sustains me not only throughout the rest of the summer but throughout the school year and well into adolescence. At lunchtime, when the cheerleaders at the table start debating over which shade of lipstick -- Cherry Kiss or Peach Blush -- will bag the most suitors, I keep my opinions to myself. Who cares? I am Jane Clark, Precocious Explorer.