In most ways, the road to Chetro Ketl and back began on a Friday afternoon in mid-summer.
Lori walked in from work, took a long look at me and asked, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I said.
I lied. I was standing on the brink of an unimaginably vast black hole and my footing was none too steady. Nor, as is the case with these things, was I sure I wouldn’t rather just tip forward and fall in.
A marriage is made of honesty and openness but I’m still trying to figure out what my mind is doing. If I don’t understand, how can I explain to someone else? The last thing I want is my wife worrying about my mental state.
As I worry.
Not ten minutes before I’d been washing dishes, hands deep in sudsy water, when the walls disappeared and a clear-running stream appeared at my feet and I heard the sound of it rushing over its gravel bed, and the air was crisp and clean and snowy mountains rose up in the near distance and about me a cluster of sunwashed wooden structures. I recognized Fairplay, a rustic town in the middle of an extended ovoid bowl of grass called South Park. My eyes held the long sweep of meadowlands, saw sunlight reflecting off the South Platte River, the stony peaks of the Mosquito Range snagging the clouds. I felt free as a bird, severed from bonds I’d only suspected. And then as suddenly as if a door slammed in my face it was gone, and I was back in our little kitchen in Blue Rapids.
I couldn’t breathe. My hands shook violently. I sagged against the counter, closed my eyes, gripped the rim of the sink and held on tight.
The stream still echoed in my ear. “Come back,” I begged. What remained was a mirage, there but not, translucent, fading even as I struggled to hold onto it.
By the time Lori walked in it was like nothing had happened. But something had. I had gone and returned in the blink of an eye, not a chance memory but a bodily visitation, but why or how were questions not all the angels in heaven could answer.
The itinerary was three pages, handwritten in pencil by Chod Hedinger, Lori’s distant cousin. When it came in the mail I glanced over it and set it aside. There’d be more time for planning as the time approached. The end of October seemed as distant as the moon.
For weeks I mulled over my visitation, looking for reasons or meanings, and the deeper I searched the more bitter I became. Before moving here I told Lori that I needed to see the mountains at least once a year, and now it was going on three barren years and I was feeling thin and stretched out. Which might account for what happened, but why so vividly?
One afternoon, when darkness settled over me, I walked to Mr. Bun’s cairn and slipped into the trees where I could not be seen, and I berated myself long and harsh over being so weak. I thought of South Park, and of the time I slipped into waist-deep water at the head of Antero Reservoir and cast to fat trout that ignored my fly, and the recollection was a metaphor for everything that failed me. Savagely, I cursed the memory and myself.
The truth is, I never had any of it. Only a short section of serpentine stream that I shared with cows. The mountains belonged to the citizens of the United States, the meadows to the ranchers, the road was long, the traffic fierce, the view heartbreaking, and nearly all of it inaccessible. Every trip there ended in some sort of frustration, whether from fishing or not finding the right camping spot or simply not knowing which way to go. I wanted it all and ended up with nothing but a handful of bad memories. For my mind to whisk me there was senseless and cruel. I hated it.
There is no darkness so deep that light cannot pierce, and slowly, slowly, it filtered through.
I ended up with nothing. The statement was patently false. I have an Orvis medal for the one that didn’t get away—the largest trout I ever caught, and that on a stream so narrow my nine-foot flyrod could touch both banks. What’s the worth of that? Of fishing the small feeder streams, of teaching Joel to fly-fish in Tarryall Creek, the bright brook trout, the ice cold water, the alpine flowers on the slopes of Mt. Sherman, and Lori’s 35th birthday wish to bag a fourteener, when Joel got high altitude sickness and Lori lost her footing and cascaded down a snowfield. The time a friend and I photographed the abandoned mines above timberline and the wildflowers blooming along the tiny rivulets dripping down from the snowpack—does that mean nothing?
When I was more or less myself again, I took out the itinerary and set it beside a map. With a finger I traced the route from Blue Rapids to the red rock canyons of southeastern Colorado, familiar territory, across northern New Mexico and into the Four Corners area, home to the Dineh, where scattered ruins were not just cities but astronomical observatories aligned with solar solstices and lunar standstills, back into Colorado and over Wolf Creek Pass and past Antero Reservoir where the trout snubbed me, and on down to the prairie and homeward. It was not, to my surprise, just desert and Anasazi ruins I would see, but the mountains of memory.
With tears blinding me, I began adding to the itinerary. I started lists of things to take, and things to do, and things to find, which would be the biggest challenge. And then I went off on a tangent. The road to Chetro Ketl begins here, I wrote. I am going on a long trip. I will walk in beauty.