An Old Man in the Mountains

Don’t go looking for your mythical past, for it isn’t there. It’s run off with your ideal future and left you alone with reality.

Such seems to be the message of the current trip, for a man who can’t help but take every trip as a check-in on “how life is going.” Those places you felt privileged to even know about? Overrun. The legendary characters who showed you the path? Retired, dead, or working on their own stories. The mountain town where you sipped coffee with that crazy old-timer who whispered about gold in the creeks? They’ve got an Athleta store there now.

And then, of course, there’s you. Or what remains of you. Do “you” even return to a place where once “you” only needed a lungful of fresh, pine-scented air, a ribbon of highway, and a view of the mountains to feel yourself at the very feet of the gods? Is that “you” driving the same road today, thinking instead about the emails you haven’t answered, the ever-smaller numbers on your US Bank app, and that probably, instead of spending two hours to check out that state park for what treasures it may hold, you should just get on the interstate and look for a motel with good WiFi? You know, to “get caught up”?

Beware, fair reader: had you not already worked it out, you are reading the melancholy meanderings of an old man returning to the roads and mountains of his youth. I’m in the place where, in most important ways, my life began, and the one where I always dreamed (assumed) it would return. Geographically, it’s called the Northern Rockies, a band of rising rocks that stretches from the middle of Wyoming to somewhere north of Montana. Psychologically, it’s always been a lot more than that to me: an inspiration, an aspiration, or maybe just an apparition.

Before I saw these mountains at age 12, I was … somebody. I don’t remember who anymore. Kind of unformed human clay. After I saw them, walked their valleys, climbed their peaks, camped by their creeks, and swam in their lakes, I was somebody else. And that “somebody else” had a simple plan for life: More of this, all the time.

And then one grows up. Maybe you call that “letting go of the idealism of youth.” Maybe it’s just being carried along on the conveyer belt of life. But what’s been haunting me these days on the road is that maybe life is just a long series of small decisions, adding up to big ones, like little wheels that turn bigger wheels, and occasionally one checks the settings on the big gauges of life and thinks, Wait, why does it say that? What happened to “moving to Montana”?

Of course, that life of my youth is gone, if it ever existed at all, beyond my own myth-making memory. As for the life I set out for myself, that gold standard of planning I’ve kept in my head for decades now … well, now it’s a fully analyzed, financially considered, thoroughly over-thought possibility that doesn’t even make sense on most days. I mean, what would I do with all my stuff in Portland if I lived in the Rockies? What would the winters be like? How would the numbers ever add up? What about my friends at home? Anyway, all the people here look so young, and I don’t know any of them.

None of this even considers the state of my physical self, but we’ll save that for another lonely morning in another motel with good WiFi.

Anyway, that old man in the bar was just crazy; if there was gold in the creeks somebody would have scooped it up long ago. Those characters who showed me the Ways of the High Country were just guides doing their jobs, same as the kid I talked to in Yellowstone the other day with his clients from Iowa. He’ll forget them soon. And that remote mountain meadow nobody knew about? I saw its name on Gaia, and I’m sure there’s somebody camped there right now.

Maybe this old man should just stay on the road he’s on and not worry about the dreams of youth. He’s got shit to do, after all. Miles to go, and all of that. Quit worrying so much about how things aren’t and deal with how they are.

Or maybe I just need another Montana to aim for.