He drifted on the water, the man dozing on the inner tube, and didn’t wake till he nudged the wall of scree and shattered rocks at the far end of the reservoir. Not that there is much of a current in that little lake, formed by piling earth and broken boulders across the neck of a red-rock canyon. Just enough to coast him slowly, peacefully, inexorably down the hundred yards to the stone-littered hill of the dam—where he woke with a yelp and a startled leap at the touch of those sharp-edged stones.
She drifted on the shore, the woman in the floppy straw hat, a green-print towel draped over her legs, and the black leotard top of her swimsuit framing her sun-burnt shoulders. Poking at a computer tablet, she seemed to be coasting vaguely from one link or file to another, surfing videos—the little squeaks and tiny tintinnabulations of the computer speaker just audible around her.
I drifted, too, there on the faded gray wood of the old, wobbly dock off to the side, my feet dangled down in the water, while my daughter practiced her swimming, back and forth across the green-gray lake. And the younger children of other families, splashing in the bright sun, with the sky so blue in its frame of red rock cliffs—too blue, really: almost false, and decorated with the kind of wispy clouds that only the hokiest painter would dare put in.
And the long dusty red striations of the canyon, capped with green-black pines: Squint a little, and those horizon-topping rows of trees have always looked to me like caravans, camels and horses and people, heading off to trade with the nearby mountains. Whenever I drift a little and stare at them, I get to thinking that maybe I should have gone with them on their journey. That maybe I should have done things differently. That maybe I have wasted my life.
Then the man on the inner tube awoke with a shout as the rocks brushed his feet—sitting up suddenly, too hard and too fast, so the inner tube squirted out to flip up in the air behind him and dump him with a splash into the shallow water. I think it must have been painful—those broken stones down at the end of the lake are sharp—and he yowled, scrambling along on hands and knees after the inner tube, trying to stand up and stumbling each time as the rocks sliced at his tender feet, before he finally caught up with the spinning tube and surged across it, belly first, puffing like a loud and startled walrus.
My daughter pulled up, bobbing in the water to see what the fuss was. The splashing children all froze in the shallows. The woman in the hat bounced to her feet in worry, shielding her eyes with her computer tablet while she stared anxiously down the lake till the puffing man began paddling his slow way back up from the dam—at which point, interestingly, she turned to check on the children before the uneasy look faded from her face.
The lake is chillier than you’d expect on a bright summer day; fed by a cold stream tumbling down from the hills, it’s maybe twenty or thirty feet deep out in the middle and never really warms up. My daughter was trembling as she climbed up out of the water, so I wrapped her in a towel and hurried her to the car.
The dust of the dirt road swirled up behind us as we drove back to town, a beige so light it looked in the rear-view mirror like a white fog trailing after the car, while my shivering daughter leaned forward, almost touching the heater vents on the dashboard.
This broken western country is home for me; mountain lakes in red-rock canyons hold echoes of the years gone by, and the presence of the past is what makes a moment rich with meaning, thick with memory. But the future: That’s what makes the present important. That’s what lends each moment significance and weight. That’s what forces consequence into the choices we make and the paths we choose.
We cannot drift, really. We cannot coast forever. We cannot agree with a shrug to leave our children a world of abortion, and endless war, and corrupt policy, and hurt souls. Though there is no final victory that we can achieve on our own, still we must fight so things don’t worsen. To have children is to look to the future and glimpse the moment’s consequence. To have children is to understand what it means that down at the end of the easy stream, the rocks are sharp and the water cold.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.