Brendan often chooses particularly challenging projects near bedtime—the Lego car kit that requires tiny pieces placed just right, or braiding, or just the other night he turned over a jigsaw puzzle with a photo of the sun’s surface, then he wept because he just couldn’t make the frustrating pieces fit back together. He didn’t do it to make me mad; he really thought he could do this puzzle, just the same as he could when he is fresh, in the morning. I don’t rescue often—I am the parent who doesn’t give boosts for climbing, doesn’t push swings once children grow capable of pumping their own legs for momentum. “You got the wrong mama!” I laugh when children beg me for things they must do themselves. “If you can’t get yourself up on that high rock, then you don’t need to be on that rock.” Sometimes my children wish they had a nicer mama, but a tough mama comes in handy, too. They are strong climbers, and good on the swings.
But bedtime is a different matter: without that sun picture completed, there will be no sleep. And if tears go on long enough, even if the sun picture is completed, there will be no sleep. “Let’s do it together, B,” I say in what I hope is a soothing tone. It’s late. I hate jigsaw puzzles. “Put all the straight edge pieces in this pile, and then we’ll separate the other pieces by color.” I ask Madeleine to go get my glasses— my eyes show the weariness first.
I place the edge pieces inside the border, and too many pieces are shaped similarly. It’s a 48 piece puzzle designed for eight year olds, and I am swearing at it under my breath, muttering and wanting to pound them with my fist like Brendan does. Fifteen minutes of frustration later, I realize we got two similarly-shaped pieces mixed up, and that’s why the puzzle is not coming together. I pat the sun puzzle with pretend satisfaction, kiss all goodnight and tuck them in, and tuck the puzzle in its case, too. I walk out quietly to my desk, where the urge to type in capital letters I HATE JIGSAW PUZZLES AND I WILL NEVER DO ONE AGAIN IF I CAN HELP IT. But I have other things to write, so I don’t waste my time.
But here I am. Mount Ypsilon, Bear Lake, The Twin Sisters.
My Christmas present from Brendan is a jigsaw puzzle of Rocky Mountain National Park, a topographical map of a landscape I loved intimately twenty summers ago.
The Twin Owls, Sprague Lake. Bridal Veil Falls—there are two different waterfalls sharing the same name, and I used to know which was which, but I don’t now.
I don’t know every single piece. I didn’t own a car when I spent my two college summers working outside of the Park boundaries, so my travels were limited to hikes sponsored by the conference center where I worked, or places I could arrange to hike with friends. My second summer I logged 186 miles over sixteen weeks of summer break, as a slow hiker with a short stride trying real hard. I worked the night shift, then caught the first hiking group available two or three mornings a week, when I wasn’t collapsing due to lack of genuine sleep. Most hikes returned by two p.m. to avoid the afternoon thunder storms so typical in the Rockies. I’d stagger to my little village of staff housing, shower and throw myself into bed, just as the morning kitchen and cleaning staffs arrived home from their shifts to make happy mayhem. Often sleep seemed impossible, so I’d grab my pack and hike to the Big Thompson River, to sleep on my favorite sun-warmed boulder. I had the best tan of my life, joking that my goal was “skinny, tan and godly.” My erratic schedule and my solo work at the conference center’s night switchboard made me half crazy, but “work” constituted stacking the fireplace with wood, playing my guitar and waiting for the phone to ring. And I got to hike more than anyone else but the hikemasters. I invited other staff to come enjoy my fireplace, and the fabulous meals the security guard brought me—steaks and fresh vegetables, delicious strawberries, much better than regular staff rations. With the exception of sleep, it was the perfect job.
I closed my eyes to the cover of the puzzle, so each little piece I turn over from the big box finds me delighted. Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda, Sunset Lake.
Not much makes me nostalgic. I don’t idealize high school or college—those were lonely years. My first years in the working world were grueling. But I’m nostalgic for landscapes, astounding landscapes like those mountains, the first place I laid eyes on when I left home, the most beautiful place on earth. I long to go back, though I can’t imagine how our lives would need to change to afford such a trip.
Long’s Peak—I don’t think I could train hard enough to climb Long’s easily. It’s a tough, long hike with some very scary precipices. I am not in any kind of condition for it. Altitude sickness occurs in even the fittest of tourists—it would take most of week to acclimate to life two miles above sea level. I am pale and definitively not skinny. Godliness may be different now than it was before, but that spirit-flame is not quite as dependent on circumstances.
I hiked to Eagle’s Cliff at least one afternoon a week, often by myself, to write letters and enjoy a sunset. From there I could see the vast green Moraine Park, which take up half a dozen pieces of this puzzle, with it’s snaking blue river.
Teddy’s Teeth is not a high ridge, but it’s the ridge between Estes Park and Boulder, and the best place to watch fireworks exploding below you, in dozens of cities, for miles and miles of fireworks in bright splashes over the lights of Denver in the distance. Teddy’s is the last peak I climbed, for a picnic lunch with Peter Reigle, 1985, my last day in the Rockies.
I do hate jigsaw puzzles, and I may never do another. But I’ll gladly assemble the Rocky Mountains, each new piece a dream of where I might go someday, if I haven’t seen it already. Five hundred interlocking pieces, some of them falling into place just as I remember them. It’s all I can manage not to obsess over the whole project right now. I will not pound these pieces with my fist or swear at them. Each one is a dear vision. I’ll just go do a few more, just one or two…