As I was driving across South Park this week, the massive open plain settled between mountain ranges in south central Colorado, a hot air balloon lifted off and climbed upward in a diagonal line between earth and sky. From the road I zoomed down at 65 miles per hour, it looked as though the massive rainbow-striped balloon was very near the peaks looming behind it. But the closer I got, I could see that the pilot had launched from the center of a huge pasture, well away from the threatening rock walls. My perception of the middle distance was distorted by forward motion, background and the play of light.
I find my perception is often distorted as I race through middle age to the inner edge of old age. When I don’t hear from my children living far away, I assume something is wrong with them when I should probably assume just the opposite. When I wake up some mornings feeling 25, and others feeling 75, it’s hard to assess reality.
Some places distort perception by their very nature, for example Colorado mountain resort towns. Last week I spent some time at a friend’s home outside Breckenridge, a beautiful place perched on a mountainside, surrounded by other beautiful places, most of them empty a good portion of the year. They are homes away from home and I count myself lucky that my friend shares hers with me.
It’s easy enough when I’m there to spend an entire day moving from comfortable chair to comfortable chair, reading a book and shifting my angle on the panoramic views surrounding the house. But I get up and move late in the afternoons, and have found the perfect amount of not too strenuous exercise is a walk into town from a parking place on a road situated about a mile and a half north of Breckenridge’s center. From there I can hop on a wide paved trail that parallels the splashing Blue River, winding into town. Every few minutes, the buzz of a bicycle moving very fast in a low gear pushes me to the side of the trail. Skateboarders clatter by noisily. Alongside the trail, young mothers let their kids roam the river banks, their delighted screeches muffled by the constant sound of water flowing.
Along the way I stick my head into shops stocked with athletic gear and knick-knacks, all of them run by a young woman in her 20s or early 30s, half engaged with her cell phone and half with the occasional customer drifting in. On the sidewalk, gray-haired couples my age walk holding hands. They wear T-shirts and clean white tennis shoes and are clearly on vacation, some with extended families in tow, stopping on picturesque corners to snap a photo of the succession of generations.
I slip onto a bar stool at my favorite restaurant just as it opens for the evening, a shiny place decked out in light wood and sleek modern lighting, camouflaged by its slightly tilted, gaudily painted Victorian exterior. The bartender exudes the good health of someone who spends time climbing mountains — ruddy cheeks, clear blue eyes, shoulders and legs as sturdy as tree trunks.
“What’d you do today?” he says to nobody in particular. I look over my shoulder, see no one there and realize he is talking to me.
“Oh, I worked a little, then walked into town,” I say, only slightly embarrassed that my answer doesn’t include the name of a mountain or imply the need for sophisticated equipment. His fellow employees, all as young and fit as he, bustle through the dining room setting up tables and trading stories of perilous athletic feats. A couple from the Midwest have taken seats at the bar and are intent on the bartender’s assessment of mountain roads they might want to ride. They ask him how old he is. He pauses.
“How old do you think I am?” he says.
“Twenty-one,” the pretty wife says, glancing at her husband for confirmation.
“I’m thirty,” he says, betraying only a small amount of disappointment in that fact. “But most of the time I feel twenty-one.”
Looking at him and the army of twenty- and thirty-somethings who run this town, I feel like a mother from another planet. Walking back to my car along the Blue River trail, I see a small family headed home — two red heads bobbing at knee level between the outstretched arms of someone gray-haired and slightly plump. A grandmother. She smiles at me wearily as the last of the day’s sunlight drains behind the mountains. I could kiss her.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.