It’s a melancholy time of year. The summer has passed, the children have gone home. The parks department has closed the pool and taken down the umbrellas. All that dry grass and noonday sun is just a memory.
As a teacher, I find this time of year the hardest on students. School had already entered the doldrums. Thanksgiving break is still two months away. What happens now is a series of days, one much like the other, stretching into midterms and finals. Unless a student thirsts for the knowledge, he or she whiles away the time, daydreaming of weekend sloshes or romantic trysts or sitting at home, doing nothing after laboring so hard at school and work.
Now, as I stand in front of those students, I think on Septembers and Octobers past. Although it seems like just yesterday, eight years ago I spent the first of five annual weekends in the Georgia backcountry with a group of men who sought out the woods to spend uninhibited time playing cards and drinking moonshine. They smoked a lot of weed and dropped dead in bed late in the night as the fire out front of the cabin died to embers and silence fell all around them. Strangers bonded and talked by the fire or rode out to the church cemetery to see if the ghost stories were true.
Every weekend, I dawdled at least a few minutes at the crossroad a half mile from the cabin and away from the 20 or so guys with my friends David and Paddy and Tom staring into the starry vault, contemplating how small we were, how insignificant our lives were. During the day, we’d sneak past the neighbors’ gate and try our hand fishing in the pond that some years was clear as a mountain lake and other years mossy and algae choked as a stagnant pool. We shot guns and played endless rounds of cornhole or horseshoes. Meanwhile, Pete, the owner of the cabin, watched over the brood and kept things from getting out of hand.
Pete always had some chore for us for the weekend. One time, we tore down an old outbuilding, weathered rough by the Georgia heat and humidity, ripping out the cinder-block foundation. We wondered at the time the origin of the building and at the men who owned the isolated property before Pete somehow found out about the lonely five acres of woods he bought. We built a pumphouse on another weekend, all of us sawing and hammering under the direction of Paddy, an accomplished carpenter who directed the operation like a well-informed and visionary foreman.
Those weekends passed quickly. Almost as soon as I landed at the airport and went to my friend Dave’s house—from which we departed for the woods directly—we were back at Dave’s eating out with family at a local restaurant, a celebratory feast with family that ended when it was time to get me to the airport.
It’s hard to believe that when I first went down to the cabin, I was 47 years old. That seems so young now that I’m turning 56 in a couple of months. We seemed so active then, capable of just about anything.
My annual jaunt took a different form three years ago. My friend Pat O’Kelley went to the Georgia woods with me two years in a row. The following year, I instead flew to Salt Lake to Pat’s house. We took up fly-fishing rods and drove high up into the Uinta Mountains to a national forest campground at Christmas meadows. A mountain stream flowed through the meadows by the campground. Brook trout filled the pools and eddies and we fished that stream on and off for two days.
It was perfect. The weather was warm and the fish hard to convince, no matter how expertly we cast our flies into the current. But we caught enough to keep us interested and proud of our poise and technique. I fished one way on the stream and O’Kelley disappeared around bends the other direction. The meadows running the length of the valley spread up to the forest either side. Somewhere upstream, the creek flowed down a cataract cut in the mountainside.
We fished as long as it pleased us. Afternoons, I would make my fly fast to my rod and hike back up to the campsite to take long naps in the afternoon sun. O’Kelley would join me and then we’d go back down to the stream to see if there was any trade in trout. The fish began to move around after the sun ducked behind the grasses in the early evening. That’s when I caught most of my fish, usually little, skinny fish who the large fish hounded out of the pools and into the stream. When night fell, we gazed into a sky unpolluted by any light, gauzy skeins of stars blanketing the meadows and the mountains around us.
On the way back down the mountain, we stopped at a lake and pulled out a few splake before we headed back toward the city. We ate a big dinner before putting me on a plane to go home only with memories of golden meadows and blue streams and lazy trout.
Two years ago, O’Kelley and I met in Billings. The occasion was an awards ceremony where my book won a top prize. The High Plains Book Festival was on, and though there was plenty to do, we took out from our hotel that night and found a cigar shop. We stood in the walk-in humidor uncertain on how to spend the $8 to $10 each that would buy us a good cigar. A man rushed into room, shoveling up a handful of unwrapped cigars from a bin. “Get yourself a half dozen of these,” he said as he was leaving. “They’ll do just fine.”
We drove around Billings that night, just to get a feel for the place and smoke those fat cigars. We found Billings to be a typical western town with a lively center, trophy houses, quiet residential areas, and junk piles and areas of abject poverty. For me, it was good enough to be in the West again, feeling those spaces as I often had when I lived in Laramie. But there’s not much difference between Laramie and Billings, and I reminisced about my time at the university 23 years previous, when I took long weekends by myself in the mountains and mooched along the towns streets smoking and wondering where my life was going.
We spent part of the next day hiking to at Pompey’s Pillar, a lone sandstone bluff next to the Yellowstone River. The stream flowed gray with high water and turbulence from recent rain. Groves of cottonwoods lined the banks with a few aspens and willow. We stood in wonder at the etching William Clark made in the stone—the only evidence of the Corps of Discovery found anywhere along the expedition’s route. Out of all their camps and bivouacs, only this signature stood the ravages of time to show that, indeed, there were explorers here and they were on the cusp of a century of change that would make this country what it is today.
Then last year, Nick, Sydney, and I took a ten-day trip to Yellowstone. O’Kelley had met us in Lander and we drove up toward the park, staying a night in the Wind River Range at a campsite that was both amenable and not too distant from other people. There were bears in those woods, but we put not one though to them as we spread our canvas and sleeping bags beneath the lodgepole and white pines.
We spent most of the next week as tourists, staying close to the road and seeing the sights. For Sydney, it was a trip to see where she was the summer of her 19th birthday when she worked in the park. I was able to see some things I had already experienced from my backcountry hikes in the woods 21 years before. Sixteen years earlier, we had been in the park with the O’Kelleys. Syd was just nine. We had done some touristy things those few days we spent with them. This time, however, we spent each day with one quest in mind—the Hayden Valley, Old Faithful, Lone Star Geyser—eddying off our track to take in small hikes to wondrous sights and primeval oddities.
Already, a year has passed since Yellowstone. It’s been a busy one. Three semesters have come and gone. I rewrote a manuscript twice. I queried over 110 agents for the book and have had 12 publications in literary and other magazines. I’ve been to the emergency room twice, once with a squished foot, the second time with a broken rib. Virginia lost a job and found a new one. Sydney’s started to KU on scholarship and may just have found her life’s calling. Nick’s entering a time when he has to start thinking about college. His days of youth will soon be spent.
Time passes quickly these days. I wake up, it seems, and it’s Sunday again and the start of another week. I want to grasp time, take it in and hold onto it. I don’t want to go back and relive those weekends in the Georgia woods. Memories are good enough. We will never be as golden as we were in those moments. The brook trout play in my mind and swim through dreams. I keep the memories of those cigars so close I can almost taste the aroma. I still have the scorching sharpness of sulfur from Yellowstone’s volcanic vents and fumaroles in my nose. Could it really have been that long ago?
It makes me think I have only about fifteen to twenty years left. They will be over soon.