The strange estrangement
The Aspen flight lifted off last week on a stunningly clear day. As the plane gained altitude, range upon range of snowy peaks spread to the hazy horizons, white-capped waves upon a storm-tossed sea.Looking down over a blur of timbered mountains, my eyes followed a glowing halo reflected from the plane as it swept up the Fryingpan Valley to Hagerman Pass, over Turquoise Lake and across the roofs of Leadville.The mountains gradually gave way to the foothills of the Front Range, which abruptly opened to the Great Plains. Soon the white tent peaks of DIA stood out like the gates of heaven as the plane dropped through an ethereal layer of billowing clouds.An hour later, my connecting flight was cruising at 35,000 feet toward Chicago, the city of my birth and the home of one of my last remaining relatives, to whom I am paying what is perhaps a final visit.My old buddy, Scott, picked me up at the airport and drove straight to a bar, where a steady flow of jets lumbered overhead on their final approach. Sipping beers, Scott and I reminisced about the mountain and desert trips we have made over the last 25 years.Scott opted to stay in the Midwest, where he has raised two college-age daughters and lives with his wife in a comfortable suburb. Scott’s workday regimen requires leaving home at 6 a.m. for his job at a steel-processing plant in Cicero, an hour from home and a long way from the wilds that beckon him ceaselessly.That night, Dave, the boyfriend of Scott’s eldest daughter, dropped by to chat. While the daughter finishes school in Ohio, Dave is living in Chicago, working in a big downtown mortgage and banking firm, earning commissions to pay off $30,000 in credit card debt and college loans.Dave wore pinstripe pants, a dark-blue overcoat and shiny, black shoes. His tie was metallic and his hair was spiked. He spoke in a rapid-fire staccato that took concentration to interpret as he depicted his Dickensian workplace.Dave described “interest-only loans,” where some of his clients elect to ignore principal and pay only interest. He spoke of “negative amortization loans,” where customers pay below the minimum interest. Ownership is an illusion, and the longer they pay, the more they owe. Their children will most likely inherit debt, not equity.Dave complained about his cubicle mate, an alcoholic mortgage broker with a bizarre penchant for beheadings, which he watches daily on a Web site dedicated to that morbid entertainment.The next day, I revisited my old neighborhood, where the home my father designed and my grandfather built has been remodeled beyond recognition. Six blocks away was my grandfather’s house, also designed and built by my forebears. It has been scrapped for a new starter castle.I spent the evening with my octogenarian aunt, who is infirm and homebound. A once vibrant woman who, during the jogging craze of the ’70s, logged 4,000 miles, she now self-medicates with alcohol, cigarettes, TV and Scrabble.She mourned not only her disability, but her survival as the last relative from my parents’ generation. I am her godchild, and we bond through memories of people dearly departed and times long since gone.Driving through the naked city, I pass block after block of high-density urban neighborhoods, each with its corner tavern, sodium vapor-lighted park, fenced schoolyard, and a timeless sense of struggling humanity. Foreboding iron security fences cordon off homes and apartments where people live in cages of their own design.I feel a hollow emptiness and an occasional pang of melancholy. I am a stranger in a strange land, detached from my roots by choice and nature. The return flight cannot travel fast enough for my longing to set foot back in the mountains.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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