Vagneur: You can’t go back
It used to be I traveled that road almost every day, a nice, quiet country lane populated by down-to-earth working people. They had kids, much younger than I was but old enough to interact with many of the activities we older folks had going on — fun things, mostly involving horses or driving tractors. Many of the men worked for Mid-Continent up in Coal Basin or for Morrison-Knudsen, the trucking firm that hauled the coal to Carbondale from the mine. The women were busy raising kids and taking care of things around home.
Thirty years at least have come and gone since I paid much attention to that road, although I’ve been down it eight or 10 times since but not really paying attention, always worried about where I’m going or what I’m going to do when I get there. The other day was different.
The house on the corner, the once-vibrant jewel of the neighborhood, likely because it was the closest to the road, the one with seemingly endless rows and terraces of flowers, the one with the huge vegetable garden along the side of the house, caught my attention first.
Maybe it was the trim around the windows that initially caught my eye; the paint was peeled and faded, so out of character with what I remembered. Curious, I rolled my truck to a stop.
The metal gate to the yard was closed, a sure sign that no careless neighborhood kids were running in and out, filching snacks from the vegetable patch, and the quiet was unsettling. There were no goodies to be had anyway, as the garden was full of weeds and obviously hadn’t been spaded up for a very long time.
The history, the change in the place, was etched there in the garden fence, a barrier designed to keep the horses and wildlife from eating up the produce. Once impeccably straight and impervious to large animals, the posts were now weak and leaning in different directions, and where once a stout board might replace a broken one, cheap wire had been utilized to fill the gaps. As a final measure, the last remaining clue to the debilitating robbery of energy and coordination perpetrated by old age or illness, simple yellow nylon rope, now badly faded, had been desperately strung along the top of the bent-over and broken fence, a last-gasp effort to keep the horses or deer out. That was the last year for the garden, I reckon.
And the realization came that the fence wasn’t needed anymore, for there were no horses to call this place home. The pasture, well-watered and cared for over the years, was still marginally green even in its ignored state, but an aura of loneliness and enervation rang out. Not even the ever-present sprinkler was running in the front yard.
At first blush, the word “deterioration” comes to mind, but that’s too easy. Deterioration implies willful neglect, something that seemed to be absent from this particular scene. Sure, the rows and terraces of bright flowers no longer existed, and the yard was more brown than green, but in an effort that was probably just as relatively monumental this summer as it was 30 years ago, a few well-watered flower pots were placed here and there, the hand-painted metal containers not as bright and polished as they once might have been. Unmistakably, no one had completely given up, but the pace had slowed considerably.
In a back corner of the pasture sat a reasonably new motor home, the grass grown up around it since early spring, the dust and grime of a hot, dry summer giving it more the appearance of an abandoned rather than recreational vehicle.
Missing most of all was the energetic, always-smiling woman who never failed to look up from her labors and wave when I drove by. She never really knew me except to know that I seemed to drive by all the time and that her youngest son probably told her stories of how I occasionally let him drive my truck around the ranch. I don’t think she and I ever had a conversation, but she’s one of those people I will never forget.
The changes are mostly imperceptible to those who see us all the time, although our ways and energies are continually shifting. We don’t let them go intentionally — time takes them away from us, those things that others have always attributed to us. But as long as we’re happy in our own skins, we keep hurtling forward, leaving the puzzle for others to ponder.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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Like the trails we hike and ride upon, our forest journeys can be capricious, going down an intriguing path, unintended in the beginning, but bringing a sweet, or bitter, experience before we’re through.