The deep, broad-knifed grass next to the roadway is the same, the overgrown lilac bushes, crab trees and peaches, but what for me was once a sleepy town with dirt streets, wooden sidewalks, ashpits and summer swollen ditches can only be seen in sideways glances, an old plank barn, a sculpture created with rusted barbed wire from a field. When I visit my old hometown of Boulder, the cliché “You can’t go home again,” sticks sharp.
I wander up the area called “The Hill,” close to the red flagstone University buildings and sense the ghosts of hippies gone by, hawking their leather sandals on the street, patchouli oil clouds choking their customers as, in dirty bare feet, they try on the hand-tooled shoes. Now Starbucks’ tables encroach on the sidewalk with blonde co-eds in their REI shirts Pi Beta Phi logos and shorts, their hiking sandals made in China.
Into the University I flee, passing by Mary Rippon Outdoor Amphitheater, hearing the moans and groans echoed in my head as an actor rehearses King Lear for the summer production. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child…” The giant slabs of the Flatirons loom on the mountainside above my head; I recall the time we hiked among them on the steep slopes; my father forced to carry my childhood friend Susan piggy back, her ankle swollen, all the way down to town.
If I walk on Baseline, now famous for Jon Benet Ramsey, I skirt up to the old wooden Chautauqua buildings, once the healing hope for tubercular patients and venues for arts and music, I squeeze through unexpected crowds in the now hippest-place-to-be-seen-at-brunch and watch as revelers play frisbee golf on the lawn.
No more Louisville spaghetti, the Blue Parrot closed, now probably a place with fusion cooking and grilled brussels sprouts in balsamic vinegar. The hay and alfalfa fields are a multitude of breweries, wine tasting rooms, and sports bars. The cold spirits of pinto horses, evaporate through the stone and cement buildings, through the table where the realtors are sealing a new development deal, spectral horse muzzles eternally searching for a good bite of green.
There is our old house, now called a “Mid-Century Modern,” sadly jammed on a sub-divided lot. The Russian olives bloom yellow and sweet, the ones my father planted, reach higher than they should in their last years of a prickly life. I wonder if someone covered up or backfilled the well when they hooked up to city water and if anyone ever looked down the stone-sided hole to see Dad’s wire cage that held the cakes of fluoride, the first in the county to heed the dentists’ call.
A house now on the site of our two-story playhouse, no more the hiding place filled with dusty hay. Many a child pulled his or her pants down and “showed” up there in that playhouse, naïve and trusting that no harm would ever come and no harm did, at least to me. The corral and cherry trees now a xeriscape garden to the 1990’s modern home. Do they ever wonder who tread the earth before they installed their stamped cement sidewalks and planted their heirloom tomatoes? Is their earth yet fertilized by my dead horse’s road apples? Does our septic still keep their garden green?
I walked today around Coot Lake, now an exercise path with stations to build the triceps, biceps and internal obliques. I wonder if the frogs still sing, do the lizards and the muskrats, scamper along the sandy beach, do mosquito clouds drive out the incessant humans seeking to stick a toe into their ancestral swamp.
I am home today, kayaking at the reservoir. Does the ghost of my preteen-self, sit and shiver at the phosphorous of her 66-year-old reality, paddling with her grieving comrade? Do the waves heal the teenage loss and an old age one too? I see her, myself, standing on the sand in a yellow and white two-piece, eyes shaded by a hand over the brow, watching what no one else can see, her future self, paddling on the horizon, a grief boat, trying to outrun the past.
She turns to the west. Can the Arapahoe Glacier hold off another year until it’s seen us through this demise, through the empty chairs, through the medical gloves, the diapers, through the open gaping mouth of the almost-dead? That young yellow-and-white-bathing-suit-girl shouldn’t know this future. She should only see us paddle by and wave, we love her, envy her, and wish we could protect her for the next years to come.
But we are tired and only wish some solace for our now-selves. Our mother-selves, our wife-selves, our grandmother-selves. Can Janine and I sail around and around the reservoir, with our paddles, the wind at our face, side, back, the frogs croaking, the great blue herons landing, the pinto horses wading, the speed boats waking, until we no longer have sleepless nights over the fate of our children, grandchildren, mortgages and cars. Can we sleep without hearing every voice and wondering if this moment is our last—my murdered friend Angela’s apparition warning us, shaking her finger at our epic battles against mental illness, not wanting us to be a statistic in her book?
I remember that girl, me, gliding these streets on horseback, now three lanes of traffic. I remember that girl, lonely, now six people deep at the checkout. I remember that girl heading west, up the Front Range on her horse, now fenced, now divided, now parking lots for Teslas.
Tell me progress isn’t the loss of me, tell me it isn’t inevitable, tell me I can still climb, lickety-split up to the first ridge with Rollo the dog leading the way, ducking the barbed wire, annoying the cattle. Tell me I can buy a guinea pig at the feed store on Broadway, I can hear the clank of spurs on the wooden sidewalks on Pearl.
My grandpa’s three-story high school academy, a Greek Revival stone structure from the 1890’s is now a one-story bank and parking lot. How can I shout and tell the people who bow to beep their cars locked, that there is history here, something happened here, a desire passed by? To beg them to stop a moment and listen to the lives that manifest through the ether, the young man struggling to be free from a life of manual labor, to be free from the narrow-gauge engines and to open a door that his family kept locked.
I saw the store where another friend got arrested for stealing a nickel candy. The police took her home and turned her over to her father, who beat her. I watched and dawdled on my Schwinn as she, escorted to the back seat of the black and white, tossed me her stash and astonished, I pedaled it home, in reverence. I ate up every bite, like communion, an homage to her battle to defy the whippings, the authority over her beautiful female body and self.
In the cracks and in the alleys, I see the past holding on. There is a Boulder nursery that still welcomes the children of the poor and troubled, the pathways in the garden deepened from the little feet wandering this way and that on a journey to find a haven for body and spirit after one parent shot the other or before he woke up one day and no one was there at all.
There are the schools, still cranking out the Boulder elite, the white children whose parents compliment themselves on how liberal they are, how progressive, how complete. But the Mexican kids still sit on their cut-off bikes, still a silent audience for the golden people who ride away in SUV’s and Lexus, who fly to Hawaii on winter break.
As I pack my bag—is it an escape? —and struggle with the details of dirty laundry and charging wires-now-gone-awry, I force myself to remember, that I am here to say goodbye.
Goodbye to Jim who stood like a strong redwood for those of us who needed the example of a gentle man. He showed us there are some, well one, at least. Like the redwood, there is no replacing his spot, his presence, his laugh, his correction, his brilliance, his resolution, his generosity, his biting tongue, his appeal, his self-deprecation, his singularity, his backward glance at ambition, his blessed-blending with the soil, the plants and the creatures of the earth.
I envy Jim. He did it, this dying thing, and he did it right. He made it, he crossed the line, not like everyone else wanted him to, but he left the way he thought his own going should be.
Goodbye Jim, we will watch over what you left for us to do. Goodbye Boulder, you took my hearth and built a brewery, you took my riding paths and made a cross-fit course, you took my lilacs and planted Russian sage, my catalpas and made a mall. You took my dandelions, my crags, my cactus, my ditches, my Charles Trees, my pastureland, my graveyards, my father and our Jim. It seems fitting that my last act here is to spit on the earth and watch the liquid sink deep