Nonfiction by Josh Potter
My parents late twenties, newly dating, visit the Maroon Bells wilderness outside of Aspen. These two people, John and Suzie, are in love, will inevitably conceive my brother and I, and will return to this place again and again though neither of them know it yet.
Aspen is still a cowboy town. Its coming explosion of wealth and erudition seems as unlikely as an Indian Summer.
The Maroon Bells are a pair of massive, pink and green summits pulsating out of the continental divide like lazy dog ears unfolding. John Potter and Suzanne Serwin have come here to visit her old friend who’s moved here to follow a man.
John wears tight bellbottoms and a deer hide vest. His hair is thinning but he still wears it long, just now getting used to the end of the Sixties. Suzie’s wearing sensible slacks and a fleece. She’s a comfortable Midwestern Jew, the daughter of suburban Yiddish-speakers and the granddaughter of a Polish Rabbi. She’d never smoked pot until she met my dad. He’d never known what a Jew was until he met my mother.
This moment is, in itself, a precipice, an eventuality: the tectonics of both their lives are splitting and neither of them can tell. The only thing more impossible than their future life together is the dizzying height of the Maroon Bells.
They leave early in the morning in a rented car for a hike into the woods. John brings a flask or a few beers and a pot brownie. Suzie brings snacks: nuts, cheese, a water bottle; a change of socks. She’s already thinking I shouldn’t love this man. I should love Ronnie, from Temple Beth Israel, the future orthodontist. But I do. I love this man. Why do I love this man?
He looks at her and thinks: This is the future mother of my children. Her parents, Sylvia and Moishe, they’re the future grandparents of my children. She’s going to get mad when I buy the kids electric guitars, when I brew my own beer in the bathtub. But she’s going to love me. I don’t know why. But she loves me.
I can picture all of this now because, like Maroon Bells, not much has changed in my parents. What I don’t know—what I’ve never asked—is what they talked about for those hours in the woods. Was their anxiety for the future secret? Did they want, then, to say how much they loved each other? Did they truly know it? Or just feel it? What did they know? What did they know they didn’t know?
They picnic in a towering grove of Douglas Firs. These trees are enormous like landlocked, dried leviathans and my parents listen to the creaking of their knotty trunks bend in the mountain wind. Too large for their own bones and, the trees have managed to stand here, unbothered, for hundreds of years. Yet, when my parents return to this place years later, the trees will be unrecognizable.
In the Jewish Passover tradition, you ceremoniously dip your finger into a glass of saltwater and drag it along your dinner plate to symbolize tears shed by the Hebrew slaves of ancient Mesopotamia.
Suzie, who’d been taught like all non-secular Jews to bare the weight of her delirious history, thinks of this as she hikes with John, who’s Lutheran family name she’ll take, through the conifer forests of the Maroon Bells again. The alpine lakes here tumble through the low valleys and Suzie—and this has always been her way—can’t help but think of tears even as she’s ecstatically happy.
They are back here to marry themselves in the cold light of a down winter. Somewhere among these mountains is the place where they’d fallen in love years before and they’ve returned so to come full circle under the eyes of their individual Gods and their earth.
They walk, their breath like braided silver, crunching through the snow. John’s hair is now almost entirely bald on top and defiantly, unnecessarily, long in the back. Suzie is in love with how little he cares about these things and how much he cares about everything else.
They ascend the trail in search of that same, ancient grove of tall Firs. It’s more difficult in the calf-deep snow but any minute they’ll summit the ridge, leave the Cedars behind and plunge deep into the endless evergreens.
But they can’t find it.
Something is different, wrong, lopsided. The clearing they find themselves in, now, is nothing but an endless, snowy blanket of tiny shrubs like little Christmas trees not ready to be chopped. The same trees are a fraction of the size they’d been just a few years earlier and, while they are nice to look at, they have none of the power they’d had half a decade earlier. These trees have shrunk back into the earth.
To John and Suzie, this is a cosmic mystery. Their bewilderment, even still, is charming. I like them for this. They marvel at the natural wonder of shrinking trees, of the completely inconceivable scope of the natural world. It is unsettling to them, as they walk into the field of tiny pines, the scale on which time operates.
“But these used to be huge,” John says. “What happened?”
He walks around, touching the leaves and scanning the ridgeline to make sure that this was, indeed, the same spot. Yes; there is that little creek that ran through here. And yes, there is that band of red rocks along that cliff. And yes, remember? We saw that boulder up there the last time.
“So what happened?” Suzie asks. She’s trying not to think of it as a warning, as a metaphysical omen, that the place where she fell in love with her fiancé has shrunk and shriveled and hidden itself in the earth.
Neither of them know how to interpret it either when, later, they discover that these were, indeed, the same trees; that they’d been buried, only the previous day, in a cataclysmic avalanche which they’d escaped by a margin of a single evening and half a morning.
Aspen is a web of resorts, tied together along the Rocky Mountain spine. In the years since they’d been here last, my brother, Ben, and I have arrived into the world and, so, their marriage like a gust of wind through a circus canopy.
Mom and Dad have taken my brother Ben and I to visit the place that was once so special to them. It’s obviously the same place but different in every meaningful way. Its natural wonders are resources; its people are characters; its beauty is an advertisement.
I notice none of it. I’m here to learn to ski. My legs, at ten, are spindly and uncoordinated. I spent my own childhood, until this point, faking injuries during little league soccer and baseball to get off the field. But, although I’m hardly even interested in participating in the sports played on the groomed pitches of the flat Midwest, I’m convinced I have a future as a mountain athlete.
John and Suzie’s marriage—due to Ben and I—has, for better or worse, reshaped itself. With two young boys, my parents understand now that love modeled on spirituality and mysticism is a concept, not a marriage.
John and Suzie’s priorities are, for the foreseeable future, no longer one another but are my brother and I. This, to them, could not be a more worthy sacrifice.
We have enough money to take family vacations when the rooms we stay in are the guestrooms of my parents’ friends. My parents work long hours back in the Midwest. Dad drives a Ford Taurus. Mom drives a Ford Windstar minivan. My brother has now taken to spiking his hair and reading books by famous, over-masculine addicts: Ginsburg, Hemingway, Thompson. He’s recently had his Bar Mitzvah. He’s learning to play the electric guitar. He’s bored by everything and, as much as I worship him, I am overly enthusiastic about the snow and the chairlifts and the nacho fries in the lodge and hot chocolate and new snowsuits and I only get to fly in an airplane once a year.
What I remember most about that trip is Dad walking me, with my hand in his, through the valley on the snow as I throw up a bacon cheeseburger for two days. A mix of the altitude and emotional over-exertion keeps Dad and I off the slopes for the entirety of the vacation.
Instead, Dad and I sleep on the foldout couch in his friends’ living room while my mom makes tea. My brother catches rides with the other family to ski with the one pass anyone ever gets to use.
We’re all on vacation again. John and Suzie stay with their friends, again, while Ben and I hike. As Mom and Dad sit on the deck with the other couple, they think: this is the life, isn’t it? Fresh air and booze, and our hardy little kids with dirty clothes and cuts and bruises from mountain biking and running around the hills.
As the adults sip wine on a hillside deck, Ben and I hike to a natural hot spring with a borrowed tent, borrowed sleeping bags, borrowed water bottles, hiking boots, backpacks, food, and maps. It lies at the end of a miles-long trail sutured to a small creek under the alpenglow highlights of a wide ravine. It’s deep summer and the valley, a mile closer to the stars than it is to the ocean, is scorched. The sun is a hot bulb of onion skin. But up here, there is a breeze. The sun goes down quicker behind bare peaks.
John and Suzie are on the deck of their friends’ house enjoying a clear view of the Maroon Bells’ twin summits that Ben and I are, at that moment, working toward. The moon comes out early in the high divide summer and shares a similar hue to the indigo sky behind it. The afternoon so long ago, when John and Suzie narrowly missed an avalanche has become family lore, and my mom is telling it now to an audience of rapt adults.
“We survived,” Suzie says, while enjoying a sunset over the mountains in which my brother and I are camping. “We barely missed a catastrophe.” She’s talking about the avalanche, but she means so much more.
It’s incredible, isn’t it, they wonder, together, hands held tight. Who would’ve thought? Somewhere in the Maroon Bells wilderness, the field still exists where the trees expand and contract by the seasons and the snow; where my parents’ future with each other—as lovers, spouses, parents, grandparents—had been, inadvertently, folded into the movement, somehow, of snow and ice along the ground.
And we’re still here, John and Suzie think, Mom and Dad think. We’re still coming back all these years later. Yes, indeed. This is the life.
Ben and I pitch our tent in a small gap between two poplars. He puts on sandals he’d packed and struggles with the water purifier at the river.
He’s been on edge all day. It took some convincing for him to even come with me and our parents weren’t going to let me go alone. My big brother had been a fan of the outdoors for as long as I’d ever been aware of the things he was a fan of. But his hands shook uncomfortably in the cold water and his knees bothered him after the hike. Now, he’s shivering in the shadows of the canyon while I sweat over a camp stove.
Though neither I, nor Mom and Dad know it yet, Ben is withdrawing. He’d begun taking opiates – Oxycodone and Oxycontin – and will, within the year, begin to cook it so to mainline it. By the time he turns twenty-five, he’ll be shooting heroin and will be living near an on-ramp of I-75 outside of Detroit with a sign asking for change and kindness.
For now, though, we soak in the natural hot spring. We say next to nothing to each other. We’re digesting a dinner of summer sausage and bread. We go to bed before the sun is fully down.
My brother’s body tries to recover from the shock of its brain’s opiate receptors aching for some kind of relief. I sleep soundly in my sleeping bag. Somewhere, my parents are pouring another glass of wine. The coming years of heartbreak already exist but so too do the years beyond those, and the years beyond those, and so on and so on. They, like I, my brother, and my parents’ devotion to one another, have always existed in this valley where the trees are buried and re-discovered each new year.
Spring, the near future:
There is a field there. You would love it. My parents did. They fell in love with each other there. It has trees as tall as ships standing on end. The snow comes through and buries them and, somehow, the next spring, there they are as if nothing had ever happened.
Sure, the valley has changed. The couple who’d come through there? They’re changed. But, despite all the violence and agony that the rotating seasons inflict, everything returns.
I think that’s why I love it, still. Unlike everything else, we can come back and everything’s as it ever was. Whoever my parents were then, whoever they thought they’d become, all the possibilities of my life, theirs, and ours are all still possible.
I don’t know if you love me; I don’t know if we’ve met. I can’t promise things will always be this good. But, at the very least and, despite everything, this place persists.
Josh Potter received his MFA from the University of Washington in 2015. His fiction, nonfiction, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Shelf Awareness, Sick Lit, River Teeth, Driftwood Press, City Arts and Juxtaprose Magazine where he won that journal’s 2017 fiction contest for his short story Snowdrift. He was a finalist in the 2017 Montana Festival of the Book Emerging Northwest Writer Contest. Potter lives in Seattle where he runs a reading series in the basement of the bar where works. Learn more at www.jmaxpotter.com