The early-summer rain-washed air is cold, and we turn to leave Grand Lake on Highway 34, a two-lane blacktop that unspools due south. In the rearview mirror, I glimpse the beautiful, somewhat mystical calm of the place receding fast. But my mind is still filled with questions.
I should admit that like most melancholics I've never quite been able to surrender the past. I didn't have an especially happy childhood, yet the objects and people of this time of my life seem imbued to me with a special, aching significance I can't let go of. This is not sentimentality but deep, even hysterical attachment. As someone who writes novels, I end up reconstructing lineages through time, pointing out the flow-charts of marriages and relationships—in a phrase, telling stories. Stories are our way of making sense of a past—and sometimes present—which would otherwise be too various, symphonic, and overwhelming to be understood. By spotlighting individuals struggling in the sliding seas of life, and drawing the connections between their acts and consequences, we universalize the particulars of their lives, and in so doing—we hope—provide insights into the larger human predicament.
I've delved into the past of Judy's family not in a novelistic way but as someone looking for a glimpse into a constellation of relationships not his own, which might yet shed light on them. Contrasts sharpen understanding. In comparison to her family, with its firm, calm boundaries and essential dignity, I grew up in a permanent production of Aida. Someone was always singing heartbreak; someone else was always getting down on bended knee to pour out his or her wounded soul. There was a hectic, feverish feeling to my childhood, different from the firm edges that stable habitation of a place—especially a place wrested from the land—bestows.
As a child, I dreamed of the West as a place of wide-open spaces where epic battles were fought, and people were either friends or foes. It was war without consequences, and the West as cartoon. As an adult, living a regular life here, I'm grateful not only for a relationship with a grounded, loving woman and her family; I also feel a sense of unexpected pleasure in the reality of all that sagebrush, chaparral, and, yes, Western candor. It's calming. By yanking me outside the habitual frame of my self-involvement, it opens up a slew of fresh perspectives. The scale of the land and the views are like a happy version of the old skull on the monk's table, the reminder of death that allowed you to appreciate life that much more richly. And this understanding on my part is something of which I think even grand old Mr. Pettingell would have approved.