During the bittersweet days of September light, when a low-angled sun is unwavering in its withdrawal, I always have trouble saying goodbye. How to shutter the season? How to close the summer home with a memory to last through the dark months?
Growing up, I looked with nose pressed against a mythic window of class at those who played in their waterfront compounds at Hayden Lake in Idaho. And when I came of age, I heard about the Hamptons and Cape Cod, Aspen and the San Juan Islands, where the zip code itself was supposed to guarantee happiness.
We had nothing to call a second home, and then I saw in a month’s travel that we had everything. Not long after I was old enough to cast my first vote, I realized that with American citizenship came a birthright to my summer home.
With my friend Tim Williams, I stuck my thumb out on a freeway toward the Rockies, east from our West; two Tims on the road. We saw mountain ranges in Montana named Beartooth and Big Horn, and rivers honoring presidents Madison and Jefferson. We traveled over one road labeled Going-to-the-Sun, and heard whispered stories about another heading toward Craters of the Moon.
We slept on hard ground in the high, wind-raked expanse of Wyoming’s brown grasslands, and then thrilled at the very sight of the first 14,000-foot mountains to appear in Colorado. Here was Rocky Mountain National Park, a popout card come to life, and Garden of the Gods, a rare act of apt cartographic imagination.
It was ours, Tim and I came to understand, all of it. We owned it — lake, mountain and forest, meadow, desert and shore. Public land. We could put up our tents and be lords of a manor that no monarch could match. We could hike in whatever direction our whims took us, without fear of barbed wire or stares backed by shotguns. We could raft into frothy little streams, light out for even bigger country, guided only by gravity.