Five times a year, I go back there. I don't know why it isn't six or twelve. Five just feels right.
It's a quiet drive, but not peaceful. Although it's only a hundred miles as the crow flies, the mountains make it into a 300 mile squiggle of steep ascents and sudden turns. I thread my car through their twisting gray slopes like a Parkinson's patient doing needlework.
In the winter it's damn near impossible to get there in anything less than seven hours. Minutes tick by as I get stuck behind one tractor-trailer, then another. They struggle up the grade and I follow in their slushy tracks. When my tires slip, which they always do, my heart beats a thumping staccato in my chest. I've hit a lot of gray sludge that made me think twice about the whole thing, but I've never turned around. I always make it.
The area I visit has big, green fields that roll right up to the base of the mountains, and a river (or maybe just a creek) meanders through the foothills. After a few minutes, the gentle burble of the water makes its way into my subconscious. Sometimes I hear that sound before I go to sleep at night.
I can even tell what season it is by the sound the grass makes under my loafers, the gentle snaps of fall and the muffled rush of fresh, verdant summer. It's not far to the spot, but these sounds make me feel less alone on the walk there. I take my time after spending so long in the car, letting my legs stretch. I'm surprised when I arrive. If it wasn't crazy, I'd say they were getting closer.
I don't sit, because the grass stains my pants in the summer and it gets too cold in the winter. Instead, I hunker on the balls of my feet while we talk. Sometimes the wind blows hard enough to knock me over, and that's when I smell the musk of this place. It's the grass and the earth and the dust of the mountains. It's an old smell. It will endure, just like them. Maybe it's what they smell like now.
They never say too much, but I listen anyway. Mostly it's just me telling them what I'm working on, places I've been, all the mundane bullshit that makes up a life. It's like what you tell people at the office Christmas party, the ones you don't see often enough to care about. You're both just talking until one of you isn't there.
No one knows about my visits. This is private. I won't say it's my church, but it's close; it keeps me going. Anyway, if I'm not responsible for them being here, I don't know who is. If I went to church I'd say it was God, but I don't believe in God anymore. I don't mean I don't think he exists, I mean I don't believe a word he says.
It's time for me to go when neither of us have anything else to say. This usually happens when I work my way around to the thing I wish I could say, and waste time not saying it. It's like I become the commentary track for a movie that didn't end the way I wanted.
I let my heels fall and start my walk to the car. If I cried, or thought I could, that's when I would do it.
On my way back home, I think about why they're there, why I go back. I suppose it comes down to choices, the ones we make and the ones we wish we didn't make. Everyone's got regrets, but not everyone's regrets come with a longitude and latitude; not everyone's regrets have a voice. Mine have both, and that's on me.
My job is to carry them, and it couldn't be any other way. There's one reality. All I can do is agree with it and do my part. That's what matters.
The drive back never seems to take as long. Ain't that the way?