A venerable friend stops by one day to recommend a poem. He’s on his way to fish the Colorado River, which runs between our houses, but instead steers his old truck into our gravel driveway, apparently with a singular purpose. His name is Walt. He once was a big-time Wall Street bond trader. He’s hard to reach now because he never answers his phone. “I spent too many years with one of those things stuck in my ear,” he says. I didn’t know him then. I just know him now, as the 84-year-old who hugs his wife goodbye each spring, motors away from his home in New Jersey and, for six months a year, lives alone in a Grand County hayfield.
During his annual Colorado idyll, Walt reads weighty and important books. (He’s just finishing up an 800-plus-page biography of Mao Zedong.) He listens to music. For exercise, he rides his bike five miles into town and rewards himself with breakfast. Some days he fishes. Then, when Rocky Mountain weather becomes less hospitable in November, he heads back to the East Coast. It’s been the same routine for decades.
When I tell people about Walt, the reaction is predictable and universal: Now there’s a guy who has it all figured out.
Which is why I’m always happy to see him turn into our driveway. He steps out and approaches the front porch where I sit. Sometimes I work there. More often than not, I don’t. On this bright and clear day, I’m just sitting and thinking, waving at occasional passers-by like a Walmart greeter. Anyway, Walt says my presence on our porch reminds him of a poem. He can’t remember the writer’s name, but he remembers the title: “The House by the Side of the Road.”
“Look it up,” Walt says, and after he leaves, I do. It’s by the late Sam Walter Foss, and it begins like this:
There are hermit souls that live withdrawn
In the peace of their self-content;
There are souls, like stars, that dwell apart,
In a fellowless firmament;
There are pioneer souls that blaze their paths
Where highways never ran;—
But let me live by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
It occurs to me at that moment how blessed I am, to have arrived at a time and place in life where a well-read friend feels free to stop by unannounced, just to recommend a poem.
Like most people we know, my wife and I spent decades buried in the bittersweet mania of city life. Heads down, we ground through a triathlon of demanding professional lives, active kids, and the endless obligations demanded by both. I marvel that we managed two full careers (me as a writer and editor, she as a city manager) without ever being laid off or fired, raised two children who seem reasonably happy, and never had to deal with any serious health issues.
We are privileged, without question. And lucky. But we also made a lot of choices that led us to this particular front porch. We’ve always lived simply and within our means. We drive our cars for a decade or more. We pay our credit card bills in full every month. Vacations? We took them but always waited until we had the money to pay for them. Turns out, living deliberately all those years eventually presented us with an amazing late-life opportunity.
I have always believed that our lives, like most good stories, unfold in three distinct acts. In the first act, we become who we are and set a course for the future. In the second act—the “murky middle,” I call it—our lives become increasingly complicated. Conflicts arise. Drama ensues.
The third and final act—that’s the tough one, in both fiction and real life. We so want it to end well. If that final act seems illogical or deeply flawed, the resolution isn’t satisfying. No one wants to look back on their own story as being inconclusive or a regrettable waste of time. So, as we approached our 60th birthdays, my wife and I found ourselves with the chance to make a profound choice: What did we want our third act to be?
For years, we had invested some of our earnings in a house my older sister built on a few acres just outside of Granby. She was an incomparably gracious soul, and she designed the kind of place that had the power to instantly melt the tension from our shoulders each time we rolled into the driveway, to make us forget the urban stress in our rearview mirror, and to make us say, “Aah.” My sister, a mother of six, spent 18 years there, mostly alone, creating a precious private place where she could live out her days exactly how she wanted. Between visits from her kids and grandkids, she’d sit on the porch, smoking and thinking and watching the world pass by. I believe that she, like her friend and neighbor Walt, had it all figured out.
When my sister died at 72 in September 2015, we considered our options. Selling the place seemed wrong, and we never gave it serious thought. But keeping it meant moving from the teeming Southern California hardscape where we’d lived our hectic second act to a ranching town of around 2,000 people. It meant leaving behind the security of a satisfying job, longtime friends, and our grown children. It meant finding an off-ramp from our fast-lane lives and starting over, committing to an unfamiliar way of life a thousand miles from everything we’d known.
I had a role model. In 1938, writer E.B. White left a soaring Manhattan career and lit out for rural Maine. His collection of essays from that period, One Man’s Meat, reads for me like an escape fantasy, as it played out during White’s generation. Without that decision, he might have toiled the rest of his career among the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the world might never have gotten the gift that is Charlotte’s Web.
White may as well have been speaking for my wife and me when, during a 1942 interview, he said he moved to a distant farm “because it was something we’d always wanted to do, and we could do…. A good many people in New York seem to think that going to live on a farm the year round, especially a farm so far away, is some sort of height of affectation. They seem to think that you must be either washed up or very rich to do it. But we just wanted to do it.”
By the spring of 2016, we were convinced the universe was sending us a clear sign, a flashing arrow directing us to a clearly marked exit. We weren’t quite sure if I could find enough work to make it possible, or how exactly the accounting would play out, but we imagined a satisfying third act set amid Grand County’s ranches and accessible wildness.
Historian Robert C. Black III once called the county an “island in the Rockies,” and even in Granby, its largest city, that remains true today. Westward migration carried many homesteaders to the base of the mountains that rise just beyond Denver, but they tended to move beyond Grand County and the Continental Divide like a stream flowing past a massive rock. It was just easier to go around than over.
As a result, this part of Colorado’s Middle Park is still relatively unpopulated. We’re currently watching a pandemic-driven land rush fueled by remote workers fleeing cities, and we’re warily noting the increasing number of ski-racked Teslas and Range Rovering Realtors cruising past our porch. But for now, we can still get fresh eggs from nearby ranchers and pay for them by leaving cash in an honor box. The woman who used to run the local post office always greeted us by name and seldom had to ask for our box number when we picked up a package. We’re tuned in to the natural world in ways we’ve never been before, and for the first time, we’re enjoying life on a human scale. Five years in, and we’ve downshifted into joyful slow motion.
Our choice to live by the side of the road may not work for everybody in this hyperwired, need-it-now world. There are undeniable pleasures to living in a place where you can get good Thai food whenever the mood strikes, or where getting yourself to an airport doesn’t involve serious logistical calculus. But this life suits us. Even as we consider the cost of a dinner out more than we once did. Even as we limit our travel to places where the dogs can come along. Even as we struggled to pay for health insurance until Medicare kicked in.
Regrets? Not one. Our third act, so far, has been the energizing revelation I’d hoped it would be. True, the world may be passing me by. I’m OK with that and find the distance and solitude a tonic. My role now, as I see it, is to wave and wish those travelers well. Or, as the final stanza of the Foss poem puts it:
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
Where the race of men go by—
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish—so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat
Or hurl the cynic’s ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.