It’s not real clear to me how memory works. Sometimes memories seem to drop right out of the sky. They’ll plop into your head like the first few warning shots of summer rain, when the sky has gone dark and the air has cooled and the first wet drops plunge to earth. Images fall into your head from some place far away. Then a downpour of impressions follows. Sometimes memory is like a landscape you rediscover. It reveals itself as you go back through it, unfolding its secrets as you retrace your steps one turn or corner at a time. That’s how it feels now.
It is dark, and I am driving. I have been driving pretty much all day, heading back east across Montana, into Wyoming, into the Bighorn Mountains where I used to live. It is dark, and it has been years, but I remember these mountain roads pretty well. They wind and veer; they switch back and forth and wheel around and climb higher. They are narrow two-lanes, and all I can see is what my headlights show me, like when the singer stands alone on the stage, single spotlight on a stool and slender figure. The light pools around an image. All else is darkness.
It’s been years, but the hairpin turns and rocks and chasms come back to me, and I know I’m getting close. Ah yeah, I remember now, and I soon spy the rutted dirt road I was looking for. I ease the car off the asphalt and head out into the inky, bumpy night. I have been here before. First time almost 30 years ago. I was young and free then, all my possessions packed into a car—a little blue Ford Pinto.
I roll my window down, nighttime air sucking in, follow the lumpy road as it rises and falls and meanders. I am at 9,000 feet, a rock-studded meadow, high above the timberline. When I have driven far enough, I stop. Turn off the engine, turn off the lights, step out into the chilled night air, mountain air. No glimmer of light in any direction—except for the stars overhead, an awesome, vast, sweeping sky full of stars. Glimmering. Twinkling. Seemingly within reach, but also dizzyingly untouchable, like tiny twinkling nightlights at the farthest outposts of creation.
I turn slowly, rotating full circle, eyes upon the horizon, where black earth borders near-black sky. The circle is a jagged pantheon of mountains and peaks, an irregular line of vaulting summits, notches, raggedy formations. I am alone here. The rock in these mountains is billions of years old. No one can see me; no one knows I am here. I have just delivered one son to school in Montana, my other son is heading to Oregon, their mother and I having parted ways some years back. I stretch my legs, bend over, stretch out my stiff back. Then I climb onto the hood of my car and lean back against the windshield, looking up at the infinite sky. The hood is still warm, the mountain breeze is loose and cool.
Sometimes memory is a landscape you rediscover; it reveals itself as you go. Sometimes memories fall right out of the sky, plopping you on the head like cold, wet beads of summer rain. It is only in hindsight we see the truth in themes.
The first time I came here I was maybe 25, just out of school. Loaded up the car and headed west, out of my past, away from my parents’ home. I was leaving school behind, and all those years of preparation, all those years of dreaming, doing duty, wanting only to be on my own, embarking on the journey of my life, as if this new threshold was the real beginning, the gateway to my independent self. Sure about time, I thought back then, wanting nothing more than to get out of town, not be my parents’ son.
So I headed west, in a little blue Ford Pinto loaded down with boxes and clothes. And I drove alone, windows down, big blue sky overhead. Away from the city, the cornfields and crap that comes from people living too close together. Across Iowa, across the Missouri, across Lakota land and the Black Hills, through Deadwood and Sundance, past places with names like Rockypoint, Spotted Horse and Recluse, the Powder River and Crazy Woman Creek. Here was Wyoming, the land of my cowboy dreams.
I had fallen in love with wide open spaces, with horizons that stretch like the sea. With tall skies and empty places. With being away and on my own. That’s been a repeating pattern in my life, and I can see it now—the desire for freedom, flight, escape, the need to be alone. I suppose it’s a common refrain in a small library full of coming-of-age novels whose authors, too, had outgrown the bedrooms and classrooms and backyards assigned to them. So as a boy, I headed to the frontiers of a neighborhood park. And soon my bicycle took me beyond that. And a car farther still.
First times are always best. I was 19 when my best friends and I set out across Texas, heading west, chasing wild roads. I remember when we’d left the human stuff behind, and how big the land felt, how vast the sky, how full our laughter. I remember driving through the middle of the night. Headlight glare on the two-lane blacktop, dotted line pulsing yellow, black-dome sky overhead, and how distant were the radio stations, coming to us in Spanish, coming from Kansas City, Terlingua and El Dorado, staticky voices and wavery music, a whole exotic universe full of wayfaring calls and anthems and sound waves. The road ran straight and fast into darkness, no end in our imagination.
I remember jumping off cliffs at the reservoir near Del Rio and hanging out in dusty little towns on the way to Big Bend. We sat on street corners drinking pop and eating burgers, basking in our carefree disconnection, the anonymity of being no one anywhere. We backpacked in the Chisos Mountains and swam naked in the Rio Grande and bought beer at a shabby cantina in Boquillas del Carmen, just across the border. Footloose and fancy-free, kings of the road. With a whoop and a holler, we had shed our childhood skin and ran headlong into a life we really found worth living. Free as a bird. Doesn’t get any better than sitting in the desert, campfire and stars, sleeping bag tossed out on the ground, a whole sweet lifetime spread before you, telling jokes, drinking beer, talking about girls and triumphs and trials and all the wondrous places your own particular roads would lead.
There’d be other roads and other trips and other exploits we dared repeating, but none like that first time. I will never forget the thrill and fear of leaping into the air off red-rock cliffs and into the water 50 feet below. Or the first time I slept out atop a mesa, lantern moon tracking slowly throughout the night across the Milky Way sky. Or driving 80 on the two-lane with antelope racing to keep pace. A joyous, glorious Yawp! of life inspired by Emerson, Thoreau, Kerouac, Twain and Easy Rider.
Freedom is a fleeting thing. It doesn’t stay. It’s a kind of momentary forgetting. That’s what it is about freedom. I don’t know if you ever really get loose; you just think you do for a time. You do get out, you do get away, so that you forget what holds and binds you. That’s what I love most about roadtrips, empty spaces and games. You get so caught up in the going and the playing that you forget yourself and everything else. Time goes away; the world goes away. There’s this great release, this flight of joy and engagement. You’re so caught in the moment, so wrapped in the present that everything else evaporates. You run full speed, like a herd of horses in a jailbreak of flight and hope and beautiful transcendence.
But it doesn’t last. The game ends. The fences close in. And you’re pretty much right back where you started. At least that’s how it feels tonight on the hood of this car at this point in my life in the mountains.
But for a time, for those sweet leaps and runnings, the whole world is a gallop and a song. Haa.
And you know what else? Maybe best? While you were there, while you were caught in the midst of that moment, that game, that experience —you lose yourself. Forget yourself. Stop thinking about you and who and what you are. Now that’s the best. That’s some good freedom. Getting beyond the me.
I think of childhood when I think of free. I think of long, full summer days of wiffle ball and playing war. Innocence and magic. Kick-the-can and lightning bugs. Building forts and riding bikes. Charmed existence. Not a care in the world. And yet even then there were chores and church on Sunday, a list of pictureless books to read, someone telling you when to bathe and eat and go to bed, and summer’s end. I hated school. I hated the doom and gloom of Sunday nights. I hated homework and tests and word problems in math. I suppose childhood really wasn’t free, although the memory of it paints a playground of carefree existence, not burdens and restrictions. Back then I thought freedom could be found by growing up; now I’m pulled by the desire to get back there.
One way you do get back there—you have kids of your own. You make this deal. You take care of them, provide for them, take them on as your responsibility, and they set you free. They help you grow in ways you hadn’t thought of. They take you to places you could not go without them. And you read to them their storybooks and tell them fairy tales and myths, and you play wiffle ball and kick-the-can again. They take you back to Never Never Land, the Hundred Acre Wood and Narnia, into the company of Muppets and puppets of Sesame Street. You enter their kingdoms and play their games, and you pretend the world belongs to kids again, the way you once thought it belonged to adults.
In the end you learn it really doesn’t matter. There are always chores and obligations, someone telling you what to do, or a conscience filling in for those now silent.
Years ago, when I first came to this meadow in the Bighorns, I was running away and running toward. I have come back here time and again through the years. It is an island in the world. It is a refuge and a hiding place. It is a passage to tomorrow. Perhaps that is why I have stopped here now, at this intersection in a life, heading back east to a solitary home, wondering what’s next for me. Freedom’s on my mind again. But maybe not exactly like it was when I was younger.
For one thing, my life no longer spreads before me like a West Texas plain. For another, I see now that other people can set you free in a way you can’t create alone. People get you out of yourself; love—both given and received—delivers you from harmful self-absorption. I’ve also learned that you are only as free as you think or feel, and that freedom is a condition, an attitude, a state of mind. And I’ve seen how greater freedom really means greater responsibility. I learned this last from periodically giving my sons the freedom they had asked for, while realizing it simply meant there was more they had to do for themselves (from getting to the park safely to coming home on time). And while they were taking more on, I tried to teach them that the best freedoms come not from escaping, avoiding or dropping out but from liberating yourself from things that constrain, finding ways to overcome and rise above.
On other levels, freedom is a promise, a lure, a destination you never quite reach. Once you think you have arrived, you realize the plateau you once thought liberating now presents new obstacles, encumbrances and restraints. Freedom is not a delusion, but it probably is best appreciated as one of those things that’s relative in nature. Freedom on a sliding scale, not as an ideal you might someday really possess. Certain factors always limit what you choose. Sometimes you feel freer when other people make decisions for you.
Still, I have spent a quarter-century now taking care of other people. Putting their needs first. Fulfilling obligations and commitments. And while it is true they have enabled me to be more than I was, it is also true you devote a lot of family life to helping others stand on their own two feet and eventually to be free of you, gone from their parents’ house. Freedom is nothing if it is not a coil of irony and paradox. I know that now.
The mountain air has grown colder, it fingers at my neck. I rustle a bit, figuring it time to get off the hood of my car. My back is achy and stiff, my legs and shoulders sore and fatigued from driving all day. My body is not what it used to be. Now there’s another confinement, I think, wondering when I first thought of myself as being trapped inside a drying husk. I move slowly but manage to pull my sleeping bag out of the backseat. I toss it on the ground, among the grass and sage, and pull on my hooded sweatshirt, yank a black knit cap upon my head. I take a little walk before bedding down, brush my teeth, pull off my shoes.
I stretch out flat on my back and stare up at the stars above. I listen to the wind. I gaze at the mountains all around. I remember the times I came here with friends, with sons, alone. In many ways I am alone again, the captain of a ship whose passengers have chosen different steerage. The world is once again my playground, I think. I could go almost anywhere I choose. But I am tired. I resolve to think about that tomorrow. I have a thousand miles to go, and no one but me to talk to.
For now it is enough to accept that it is all about trade-offs. You take this route and you get this, but you don’t get that. That’s how it is in life. You choose to go here, but it means you don’t go there. It’s always a trade-off. You take and yet give up. And that’s how it is with pretty much everything. You can’t have it all, can’t be two places at once, can’t drive two highways at the same time. So it goes.
My sons and I have talked of freedom. I have talked about freedom with dozens of college kids, and friends, and people older than myself. Another thing I’ve learned is that freedom may seem like a fine destination, but it is not an end in itself. Because when you get it, when you get there, well, then you’ve got to do something with it. It’s not enough just to have it. What good is that? Freedom itself is a kind of empty thing, a state of being. It’s what you do with your freedom that matters, how you use it, what freedom enables you to be. To do.
It’s good to have choices. Not everyone does. But it’s what you do with them that makes a difference. Or not.
So here I am, intersection in a life, standing at the crossroads, like any other day. But I come back to this place and to other places like it because places like this set you free. Because I can lie on my back and scan the sky and see millions and billions of stars. And I can look at the mountains and know they’ve been here for millions and millions of years. The grass grows, and the wildflowers survive winters, and the winds blow constant and strong. And the water flows, and rains come, and the animals go about their business. And what happens in Chicago or New York or Singapore doesn’t really matter here. In the big scheme of things all the worries and anxieties and fears and dreads of my little life really don’t matter. Coming here frees me from my own little life. I do the best I can, but measured against the unfathomable richness and wonder of creation, my problems and hopes and gifts and failures don’t seem nearly as monumental, as urgent, as exacting.
I like that juxtaposition—the placing of my life against something vastly bigger, deeper, higher, more eternal than I could ever comprehend. There is something liberating in that—for me at least. There is something liberating about putting myself in the natural world, far away from fabricated things, man-made devices, structures, cities, conglomerations. It’s a matter of perceiving, disengaging, letting go. It leads to faith, I think, to placing your life in the hands of something bigger, wiser, less temporal, far more holy than yourself. And that, I suppose, is the ultimate liberation—to give up yourself, your desires, your needs, your wishes for something sacred, something other. Some higher calling than your own voice talking, urging, plotting.
I am not sure just what to make of memory. Sometimes memories arrive unannounced from who knows where; sometimes they are landscapes whose secrets emerge as you walk back through. But as I lie here, my back against the earth, I remember being here before, and I see how decisions I thought I was making sometimes feel—in hindsight—like I’m just following a lifetime path laid fetchingly before me.
Tomorrow morning I’ll try to figure where to go from here.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.