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.
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.
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 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 lighthouses stabbing in the
dark. I remember how the aching feeling of that immensity grew in
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.
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: What 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
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 hauling and
cajoling them up the steep hill. Their legs were tired. They wanted
to go back to the fire. I could hear frustration rising in my
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 the visceral, heady memories
already a generation old.