All right, blame it on the schools. For twelve years we’re told to study nine months and lay off three, so we grow up thinking that even as adults, we have a natural right to a healthy dose of indolence, adventure, and recreation in the hot months, Someday our grandchildren, who will go to school every day except Christmas in a grim struggle against Japanese dominance, will raise red-rimmed eyes from their computers and ask what we did before the ninety-hour work week. Was it worth it, all those luxuriously wasted, un-billable hours? And we’ll answer, you better believe it, kiddo.
From the cauldron of a Dallas July we fled to Ptarmigan Mountain in little Dillon, Colorado, where my father-in-law built a sturdy A-frame cabin some thirty years ago-a feat that never ceases to amaze me. The nights cool down into the forties and there’s no central heat (and no phone, no phone recorders, no car phones, no portable phones, no TVs. no VCRs, no fax machines), so when the morning sun nudges us awake we build a crackling fire in the old potbellied stove. By mid-morning it’s mild outside and we’re ready for the three activities that make a Ptarmigan day: walking, reading, and gazing.
You don’t need to go farther than White Rock Lake to know that there’s beauty wherever you look, but there are some places where you just don’t have to look as hard. Each morning, our first sight from the cabin is of Buffalo and Red, two 13,000-foot peaks that are partly hidden as the morning clouds make a stately progression across the valley. After the clouds burn off into a wispy fringe, the vista opens up to include the rugged Front Range of the Rockies, stretching up to the Continental Divide. Beyond is Vail, the overpriced playground of celebrity golfers like Gerald Ford; Leadville, the molybdenum capital; and Independence Pass, the cloud-scraping doorway to Aspen.
So you gaze. A lot. Midway through a sentence, your eye is drawn by some impossible crag in the distance or a chipmunk posing on the woodpile. You forget what you were saying and (all silent, which is probably just as well. Or you’re putting on walking shoes just as the slightest breeze sets the lodgepole pines to swaying and sends the aspens into their shimmering dance. You stare, mesmerized, and a few minutes later you wonder why you’re sitting there wearing one shoe. Or you hear a piercing kree! and look up, startled, to see a great redtail hawk circling overhead. His spiraling hunt takes him down the mountain and out of sight, leaving no sound but the faraway arguments of crows. Then nothing.
Afternoons pass without clocks. We eat when we’re hungry, then eat again because something looks good. We wonder if this is what retirement feels like. One day we climb-or at least walk at a steep slant-to the top of Mount Royal: 11,000 feet according to our book, 20,000 according to our legs. As we climb, the trail takes us through several ecological layers of the mountain, past the leaf-bearing trees and into the evergreens, which shrink to bushes as we near the top. Coming into a clearing, we clamber across a field of slippery shard rock to stand beside a gnarled spruce tree, its limbs split and blasted to charcoal by lightning. We snap a few pictures, looking down at the HO-scale roads and lake tar below.
Then, to my astonishment, the wind carries up from somewhere the sound of construction equipment, the very sound I’ve grown used to hearing from my office next to Central Expressway. Not even the Rockies can stand against the gnawing of machines and progress, what Edward Abbey calls “the growth of Growth” I remember some worried naturalist predicting, years ago, that by the year 2000 no place on earth would be more than ten minutes from a soft drink machine or a pay phone. He didn’t anticipate cordless portable phones.
Of course there are no pure states and no unmixed blessings. “Compared to what?” is always our question. A century ago this wilderness must have seemed indomitable. But a century ago the airplane that whisked us here from Dallas in three hours did not exist, and travelers routinely froze to death or starved crossing the higher passes. Coming a thousand miles just to look at mountains would have struck most people as lunacy.
Yes, things could be much worse-and will be, if some of our artists are right. Try Count Zero, a science-fiction novel I took along on the advice of a friend who knows the genre. In this futuristic nightmare, giant corporations run the world (no, I mean they really run the world), ruthlessly enforcing loyalty among their key employees, scientists who create and perfect the patented organisms that have made the companies richer and more powerful than any government. In fact, the only way out of one of these mega-bidnesses is to enlist hired mercenaries (the headhunters of the future) to do an “extraction.” Of course the mercs will bring along a team of surgeons to remove the little motivators the company has planted in the worker’s brain. And we complain about all the commercials on TV.
It was television, by the way, that let me know I’d had a long, mind-cleansing vacation. I love my work, but it’s impossible to have a re-creating getaway without getting away from the media. So we watched no television, heard no radio, and saw just one newspaper headline, which informed me that Pete Rose was going to prison. I didn’t look for another one. The only summit I cared about was the one I was standing on, and I thought of politics only once, when I dreamed I’d found an old, yellowing copy of Life magazine with pictures of George Bush, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and others on the cover. The story was titled “The Thinkers.” It’s nice when a dream has a sense of humor.
Anyway, we got back on a Sunday night and settled down to watch the news. Immediately we noticed that the pictures looked garish and oddly flat. Every channel was the same. After a while we decided that the problem was not with our set, but with us. We’d spent nine days without seeing any electronic images, talking only to real people in real time. Television looked artificial because it is, and wed forgotten, briefly, how to make it seem natural. I’m back to normal now, but that was a needed jolt, and one more reason why I say viva, viva vacation.