It’s fall equinox weekend, and suddenly everything points toward winter. Just a few weeks ago, everything was brilliant green—but now our yard is layered with gold, brown and maroon. The color for today is orange: flames in the wood stove, pumpkins from the farmer’s market on the kitchen table, my favorite wool sweater pulled out of the closet for another season. Summer ends in a hurry here. I know this by now, but every year it seems worthy of comment.
Just a little over a week ago I was in Colorado, sitting on my mom and step-dad’s deck, feeling the deep heat of the sun on my arms and legs for what I knew might be the last time in many months. I closed my eyes and turned my face directly toward the sun and thought about how in February I will dream of a moment much like that one. It was a good visit home.
I went by myself on this trip, and my mom and Stanley were excellent tour guides. I’d mention something I’d like to see and they’d make it happen. We tromped through the remote territory above Steamboat Lake, near the Wyoming border, where my step-dad’s father lived as a young boy. They drove me to Dinosaur National Monument where we viewed petroglyphs that looked like aliens and picked grapes that have gone wild at the old homestead site of Josie Bassett. They took me to their cabin and pointed me in the direction of a trail that harbored messages engraved on aspen trees by lonely Peruvian sheepherders.
The whole time I was in Colorado ordinary things seemed extraordinary: The smell of ozone during a lightning storm. That damp, earthy odor of beaver dams and aspen trees. The way the wind kicks up dust in the evenings when a storm is blowing in. Tumble weed, antelope, deer. Mourning doves perched on power lines. Fresh cut hay and sheep on a hillside. Stars up close through a dry sky. Ranch houses, cows, birds of prey. Dinners of elk steak, sliced tomatoes, ripe peaches. Rabbit brush in yellow, spindly juniper trees, sagebrush. Grazing horses and sheep dogs keeping watch. Back roads in all directions, blue heron fishing on bends in rivers. And every once in a while, a cleansing shower that quells the dust.
One definition of nostalgia is the pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing you could experience it again. So even though the word ‘nostalgia’ kept going through my mind when I was back in Colorado, I suspect it was something different that I was experiencing. Is there a word for appreciating things you couldn’t appreciate when you were younger?
I left Colorado for Montana when I was twenty-one years old. Then I went back for seven months a couple years later, but that time it was with one foot already firmly out the door and headed toward my new life in Alaska. I go back there now and I see things I’ve seen a hundred times, but it’s as though everything is in sharper focus.
And so now I’m back in Alaska and I’m thinking about the notion of home. As is usually the case, I have more questions than I have answers. What is it that makes a place a home, really? Is it familiarity? Is it where the jobs are or where the beauty takes your breath away? Or is it simply where you put your energy into fostering love and comfort and friendship? Does it change over a lifetime? I’ve heard it said that home is where you make it, but then what do you call that place your senses yearn for?
For me, for now, I’m thinking of a place with plenty of open spaces and mountains, where summer afternoons are hot, but mornings and evenings are cool. There, you might have winter days that dip below zero or storms that dump a lot of snow, but the sun, it still manages to shine most days, and it has the potential to warm your skin any time of the year—sometimes even in February.