Was there ever a perfect time? In my life, yes. The three blissful summers I spent as hermit in residence at the Homestead, a small, family-owned resort in Midway, Utah. The first was 1967, also known as the Summer of Love. The second, 1968, a year marked by war, riots, protests and political assassinations, was almost as good. The third, 1969, was bittersweet, because I knew it was the last of my three perfect summers.
Let’s begin with 1967, which probably shines brightest because it followed on the heels of the three worst years of my life—years I had languished as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University. There I had been a member of a radical group known as The Three D’s (Three Democrats), two of which had the good sense to transfer out. Sadly, I soldiered on until graduation day, laboring under the delusion that a liberal arts degree from the nation’s most conservative college might prove useful somewhere down the road.
The day following graduation, I took a job with the Jewel Tea Company as a route salesman, a job I landed by answering each and every question on the job application incorrectly. Did I enjoy interacting with people at parties, or would I prefer to stay home and curl up in a comfy chair with a good book? Am I passionate about football, or would I prefer to stay home and curl up in a comfy chair with a good book? Do I believe that making money is the most important thing in the world, or…?
Nothing I enjoy more than discussing football and money at parties!
By summer’s end I was an emotional wreck. I’d fared poorly as a door-to-door salesman, and most likely would have been fired had I not become romantically involved with the boss’s daughter. Come September the boss’s daughter dumped me—and returned to her previous beau Tony, a man who loved parties, football, and making money.
My goal that summer had been to save enough to continue my education at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, where I had been accepted into the MFA program. Alas, I didn’t have enough cash even to buy a bus ticket to Mexico. So I bought a guitar and took up residence in Reservoir Park.
After the last of my savings ran out, I notified the Selective Service that I was a free agent, and was promptly drafted. Three days later I was released, with a note from an Army psychiatrist. So I enlisted in the Peace Corps. Three months later I was sent home—again, with a note from a psychiatrist.
Fortunately for me, the Homestead did not run a background check on potential employees. My duties would entail lifeguarding and occasional janitorial work. Wages were insufficient to cover the cost of renting an apartment, but happily there was a place where I could live for free: a one-room cabin at the resort’s edge—what had once been a bait shack at a lapsed enterprise known as the “Fishin’ Hole.”
To my surprise, when I threw a lever on a box affixed to the rear of the shack, I discovered I had electricity! There was also furniture: a large brass bed, a floor lamp, a chair, and one small cabinet. No television, no radio—but what the heck? At the time I had very little interest in current events.
Within two weeks I had settled into a comfortable routine. I discovered—to my surprise—that indoor plumbing was not a necessity. I could shower at the pool, and in case of an emergency, there was an old outhouse in the woods on the opposite side of the creek. I could brush my teeth and shave creek side and I could piss—well, I could piss just about anywhere I wanted.
One day I ventured south to Provo, where I traded in my little 50cc Honda Cub on a brand new 305cc Superhawk Scrambler. I’m fairly certain Henry David Thoreau would have done the same, had there been a motorcycle dealership on the opposite shore of Walden Pond. And even though I was now committed to a $29 monthly installment payment, whenever I cracked that throttle, I felt like a free man. Freer by far than I had ever felt before!
By and by I became a completely different person. No longer the pallid Mormon sad sack, I was now the tanned and mysterious biker who lived in a shack in the woods, with no television and precious little companionship save the multitude of visitors who queued up at my door day and night, begging me to expound on the meaning of life. Because I had no extra chairs they didn’t stay long, so I had lots of time to curl up with a good book. Or go for a ride on my motorbike, up over the mountain to Park City for a milkshake at Pop Jenks’. Park City or simply “Park” as it was known to the residents of Heber Valley, was in 1967 a virtual ghost town. Houses there could be bought for a song; however, at the time I had no interest in owning property, and no money to buy anything if I did. No matter. I was content, and my contentment persisted until fall, when the last of the tourists drifted off, the pool emptied out and the resort closed down for the season.
I decided to follow the sun southward to Mexico. I lashed a sleeping bag and a couple of extra gallons of gas to the rear seat of my Honda and set out across the San Rafael Desert to Mexican Hat, thence south on pavement to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where I hooked up with my friend Clark Hunt for the next leg to Guaymas.
A month later I was back in the states, where I vaguely remember having spent one semester at Utah State University in Logan. Autumn in Cache Valley is beautiful, and I spent almost every day riding my motorcycle all over Cache County, from farm village to farm village and then up Logan Canyon and down the other side to Bear Lake, where I’d sun myself on the shore and day dream about how wonderful life would be if only I had something in the way of a soul mate. Then came winter, and the sad realization I’d never find a soul mate among the milling herd of doe-eyed, incurious Mormon farm girls from southern Idaho. I dropped out the day after finals and blew town without bothering to pick up my report card. What did I care about grades? What good are they? One doesn’t need a graduate degree in order to be a lifeguard. Or a janitor.
I spent the remainder of the winter and spring in a number of dumps, including a basement apartment on Apricot Avenue in Salt Lake’s Marmalade District. Upstairs was an alcoholic shut-in. Next door lived a pair of jailbirds recently released from prison. Said jailbirds confided that the landlord had asked them to keep an eye on me!
1968 was not a happy year in America. The assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and the ongoing war in Vietnam had cast a pall over the nation and in particular my generation—we who in 1967 had vowed to “make love, not war.” At this time I was making neither love nor war, for I was too poor even to make the hippie scene. The low point came when I was forced to surrender my library card because I couldn’t pay a fifty-cent overdue fine.
One day in early June I rode my motorbike up Big Cottonwood Canyon, over the summit to Cloud Rim and down the other side to Midway. I was standing outside the fence at the swimming pool, jawing with lifeguard Diane, when a cry of distress sounded. An unconscious boy had been found lying at the bottom of the warm pool. “Help, someone please help!”
I decided to give it a go. I cleared the boy’s airway with my fingers and pinched his nose shut. I breathed into his lungs. Immediately I was rewarded with a mouthful of undigested fragments of Homesteadburger. Both the patient and I coughed and sputtered and gasped and sat up. Whatever guilt I bore from having distracted the lifeguard vanished. I felt great!
Several people came to shake my hand that day, including the boy’s father and the resort’s owner, Ferrin Whitaker, who offered me my old job back. Soon I was back in my happy shack, so far removed from the troubles of the day that when my friend Max came to visit in late August, still nursing bruises he’d incurred at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, I could only stare at him blankly. Why is everyone so unhappy, I wondered? Life is beautiful!
September came round, and once again I decided once again to follow the sun south. Come January I found myself in San Marcos, Texas, working as a photographer’s assistant for fifty bucks a week. My exasperated parents were hoping that at long last I might abandon my goal of becoming a writer and acquire a marketable skill—but as always I was determined to dash their hopes. Each night I could be found pecking away at an electric Underwood purloined from the Job Corps. Under the influence of a co-worker’s “diet pills” I was cranking out novel-length letters to various people I scarcely knew, convinced that someone out there actually might give a hang what I thought about anything.
Then one day a miracle happened. The Reader’s Digest sent a check in the amount of two hundred dollars in payment for a single paragraph! Better still, a post card came from Annie, a girl I had met two years earlier in the Peace Corps. “Where are you?” she wondered. She was working toward a master’s degree at the University of Texas in Austin, only thirty miles up the road.
The next day I quit my job and relocated to Austin, a most mellow place where in the Sixties, if you were young and in love—and a published author to boot—was paradise! Whatever musty residue from BYU still clung to my erstwhile tortured soul was completely washed away as I strolled the lovely UT campus, whistling a tune by Country Joe and The Fish while dodging flying Frisbees and the occasional bullet from the direction of the Texas Tower..
Unfortunately, my two hundred dollars didn’t last forever, and, try as I might, I couldn’t sell another paragraph to Reader’s Digest. So in April it was back to the bus station and off to Midway for my third and final summer at the shack. This time I arrived before the robins, before the snowpack had finished melting, before the aspens had finished leafing out. I was penniless, but Guy Coleman at the general store granted me a line of credit until my first payday.
Lifeguarding is without a doubt the world’s greatest job, and I suppose I would have kept at it indefinitely were it not for the problematical aspects of growing older. In the excellent movie LIFEGUARD, Sam Elliott comes to the painful realization that he has lost a step on his fellow lifeguards and is too old to date young Kathleen Quinlan. Much as I enjoyed basking in the sun while leering at bikini-clad sixteen-year-olds, I knew that my days on the lifeguard stand were numbered. I was now getting three and four love letters daily from Annie, and come autumn the two of us would be setting off for parts unknown. One thing for sure, we wouldn’t be shacking up in the shack! Henry David Thoreau remained a bachelor for life, as did Theodore Kacynski—and I think I know why. Their cabins lacked water heaters.
For three glorious summers I had gotten along just fine without television, except for the evening of July 20, 1969, when I joined a group assembled at the resort to watch the first manned moon landing. Afterward, I stepped outside to take a firsthand look at the moon, now occupied by astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin. I thought of getting closer by scaling the hot pot, at the top of which was a coin-operated telescope. From above came the sound of excited voices.
“Does that say “bowling?” someone asked. Evidently the learn’d astronomer was training the telescope on downtown Heber, six miles distant.
I continued down the darkened lane to my beloved shack.
“In the mystical moist night air, And from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
My sojourn in Heber Valley was ending. In a month or so I’d be moving on, never to return. In any event, there would be nothing to return to, for today my little shack is gone, replaced by multi-million dollar homes built by folks who had the good sense to embark upon actual careers at a time when I was a naught but a carefree grasshopper savoring glorious sunrises and sunsets, star-spangled nights, and one perfect sun-splashed summer day after another.
Well, somebody had to do it.