I went to Colorado recently to visit my parents, with my girlfriend. While there, we took a drive up to the top of a mountain. We passed through valleys of pine and aspen. The aspen was starting to turn, and the leaves seemed to sparkle when the wind hit them. If you’re not familiar with that, it’s a real phenomenon. My mother says it’s because the aspen trees are what the elves became. We stopped in a mountain town on the way up, to use the restroom. The restroom was in a gift shop, and while I was waiting for my girlfriend, I talked to the proprietor. He was from Chicago, as it turns out. He’d been visiting Colorado thirty years ago, found this mountain town, and never left. His wife at the time had come and gone, but he was still there. He told me he planned to die in that beautiful place.
‘Top of the mountain’ is a misnomer. You wind your way up by car to the visitors center, park, and then walk up the last five hundred feet or so to get to the summit. It took us a little while. We were above 12,000 feet by then, and were missing our normal sea-level surplus of oxygen. People coming down would smile and tell us ‘don’t worry, it’s worth it.’ We took them at their word and continued on, panting and gasping, until we reached the top.
What did we see there?
Why, everything, of course.
We saw all the places that we had passed from the valley to the peak. We saw where the tree line started, that place where barren grass turns back into towering life – or vice versa depending on your viewpoint. I looked down and noticed a lone ant clambering around the rock. I saw no other ants, which made me wonder about that one. Was he was an old ant, who’d always dreamed of looking down on it all instead of up at it all? Had he decided to make that dream come true before he died? If so, how long would it take for an ant to climb a mountain? In my fantasy world, that was one heroic ant.
My parents had remained in the parking lot. Dad had a triple bypass a few years back, and Mom had broken her hip and never regained full mobility. A sudden realization, a bolt of unexpected grief: that was that. Finito. Mom and dad would never climb up to this summit again. My mother and father would never again look down on the valleys we were seeing. Age had closed certain doors, forever. Someday, I thought, that’ll be us. We’ll have to wait in the parking lot and watch someone younger climb to the top. I comforted myself with the truth that they’d seen a lot of mountaintops in their times, probably more than most.
I told my girlfriend, who had struggled so gamely to get to the top with me: “See, they were right. It was worth it. You’ll never forget being here.” She agreed. We kissed at the summit. The aspen leaves hummed in the valleys below us. The wind made my inner ears ache. The sun lit up the patchwork of snow to a blinding white. Yeah. The kiss was memorable. I said goodbye to the ant, and wondered for a moment if my parents had once kissed here, too.
We drove back down the mountain in a comfortable silence, me, my girlfriend, my dad, my mom. The car was filled with cigarette smoke. My parents are two of the last surviving smokers on earth. Mom would break the silence now and again, because, well, my mother loves to talk, but mostly, we watched the trees go by, searched the valleys below, took it all in.
I thought a lot about writing on that trip down the mountain. Writing is a kind of alchemy, see? You mix elements together to come up with books or stories or poetry. I considered the elements of my own alchemy in that smoke filled car and I decided there were, primarily, three: reading, dreaming, and remembering.
I grew up reading because of my mother. Her home life was less than ideal, when she was a child, and so she was always looking for reasons to stay away. In the summertime, her favorite reason was the library. She’d hang out there all day long at times. The librarian would give her a reading list, and she’d work through it, reading there in the library, or in various other places in summertime Kentucky. Books were her most constant companions. They were loyal friends, certainly more reliable than family.
When I was old enough to get a library card, mom made sure I got one. Good thing, too, because in those early years, we didn’t have much money for books. I remember how startled I was to find out that they were going to let a kid like me walk out the door with a stack of books. I wasn’t sure if they were saints or suckers, but I was thankful either way.
I read everything I could get my hands on. I read and read and read. I was big into fantasy and science fiction, but I enjoyed a number of the classics, too. I loved Mark Twain. My cousins and I would spend time together in the summer, pretending to be characters from Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Reading transported me. I was never bored if I had a book.
When I was nine and ten, for example, we lived in upstate New York. Dad had gotten a job with IBM in Kingston, and we ended up renting a house on the top of a mountain. We had fourteen acres, ten cats, chickens, and a spring fed pond. The owner of the house had left behind bookshelves crammed with science fiction novels. When the snow hit up there, it stayed for about five months. I had a space heater that I’d plug in and I’d curl up with a book and read till I was done. Then I’d read another. That’s how I passed the winters, reading in front of that space heater, or in a steaming hot bathtub, with only my hands and head showing. My memories of that time, those winters, are more intense these days than ever before. They make my heart hurt a little, though I’m not sure why.
I have always read, and will always read. I don’t think you can write anything worthwhile if those statements are not true.
I dreamed, too, wherever I was. Reading and dreaming fit well together. I was a small, skinny, shrimpy kid, a little on the shy side with my contemporaries. Books let me imagine myself in other places, other times, doing much bigger things than I was capable of. Escapism wasn’t the most important aspect. The dreaming was done because dreaming is fun. It was done because I was allowed to dream. My mother encouraged it. She pummeled me early with the dictate that a free mind was not only acceptable, but vital.
The reading and the dreaming all happened through and around what would become the remembering. When I was a kid, mom and dad used vacation time to take us to far-away places. We’d load up in the car, and drive. Like, thousands of miles. We almost never stayed in a hotel during those trips. We camped. We saw so many places that way. The Rocky mountains, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore. On and on and on. We watched thousands and thousands of bats fly up into the night from a cave in California. We drove through a wildlife preserve in Wyoming. I saw the sun rise and set while we camped next to the Grand Canyon. We drove through torrential rains and sweltering heat and freezing snow. My brother and I fought in that car, sometimes bitterly. My mother and father sang songs and made us sing along, and they always did this with enthusiasm, day or night. Sometimes they’d even harmonize. There was the smell of coffee poured from a thermos in that car, as well as the scents of cigarette tobacco and campfire smoke. We counted the miles, and were counted by them.
Everywhere we travelled, I read, and I dreamed. Books were a staple when taking a trip. We stuffed books into the suitcases, crammed them in the trunk, hid them under the seats. The radio never worked, but that was okay. We had books and each other and all the things we were seeing.
Nostalgia is idyllic, of course. The truth is that there were times we all dreaded climbing back in that car for another eight hours on the road together. There were times mom would blow a gasket about having to squat in the woods and not being able to shower. My brother and I could make life a living hell for each other and our parents. The hardest truth? I didn’t appreciate any of it enough at the time.
I appreciate it now, though. Those memories have a keen, sweet edge.
We drove back down the mountain on that recent Colorado trip, and I closed my eyes to dream for a moment, but instead, I found myself remembering. I saw a flash of images, good and bad, right and wrong. I saw my first kiss in those woods on the top of that mountain where we lived in New York. I was ten, Christa was her name, and it was a good kiss. Full of promise. I saw myself watching her change through the key hole in the bathroom after we had gone for a swim in the pond in the summer, mystified not just by what I was seeing, but about why I felt compelled to look at all. I saw myself reading Lord of the Rings by flashlight while rain pounded my tent in Rocky Mountain National Park, and I remember how isolated that felt, and how wonderful. I remembered getting a sunburn at twelve thousand feet, and I remembered hitting my brother and making him cry when my parents weren’t looking. My smug satisfaction at his tears. I remember my own impatience, sometimes, the strength of it, the sense of frustration at waiting for something special to happen while the beauty of the world passed me by.
I’m sorry if all of this is not what you came here for. I know, I write thrillers, about serial killers, about things that take place in the cities, not the mountains. What does blood on the asphalt have to do with aspens and dreaming?
Well…writing is about the whole banana. It’s about it all, everything, a big ball of reading, dreaming, and remembering that you reach into with creativity. The goal is gold. Sometimes, you succeed, sometimes you don’t. But success or not, the point is, writing about a serial killer is tied to that first kiss in the woods just as writing about my main character falling in love is tied to hitting my brother and making him cry. The quality of everything, of who you are, the life you’ve lived, the books you’ve read, the dreams you’ve dreamed, it all filters down into what you write, in big and small ways. Most of the time, it’s just background music. Dust motes. Sometimes it’s direct light.
I am not a great writer, in the sense of a Hemingway or a Tolkien. I stand behind what I write, but I don’t write at that level, and probably never will. I thought about that as we drove down the mountain. How much reading, dreaming, and remembering would you have to do to write like that? I saw the aspens again and let it go. I don’t know how to be ‘great’ as a writer, and in the end, that’s not really my goal.
I just want to write the book someone reads in front of a space heater.
We got to the bottom of the mountain, and then we got home. The next day, my girlfriend and I hopped on a plane and flew back to California. I read on the way, of course, as did many of my fellow passengers. I fell asleep on the last leg of the trip and was woken by my girlfriend shaking me.
“What?” I said.
“The woman in front of us. She’s reading one of your books.”
I was back, with that, at the top of the mountain again. I could see it all, the broad expanse of everywhere I’d been on my trip to ‘here.’ ‘Here’ was a place where a dream about reading had just become a reality to remember. I felt odd and exhilarated, like I was running the mile on a moebius strip.
I wanted to explain all of that to her. I tried to figure out how to boil it all down to a couple of brilliant, perfect sentences.
“Wow, that’s cool,” is what I managed to came up with.
What can I say? I’m no Hemingway. But my books are travelling.
That’s good enough for me.
Cody McFadyen is the author of the international bestsellers Shadow Man and The Face of Death. The Darker Side is his latest novel. Visit his website at http://www.codymcfadyen.com