MY FIRST TIME BACK HOME: Contemplating life lessons on a trip back west

Business took me back west recently for the first time since we moved to Marblehead. We’ve been here nearly six months now. Since almost every experience in Marblehead is a new one, I expected home would feel very familiar. I am here to report that it sure did. And also, it very much didn’t.

The first thing I noticed disembarking at Denver International (the closest reliable airport to home) was the light. Days in Marblehead have a soft gray texture, even when it’s sunny, like the sunlight is just peeking on a place it rarely visits.

Out west, on the other hand, sunlight is a glaring full-time resident. There are no clouds and no trees, nothing to diffuse the light.

I have this pair of sunglasses that I’ve used very sparingly since moving to Marblehead. A dozen times, maybe, in six months? Well, I stepped off the plane, immediately started squinting and slapped those things on my face.

The other most immediately salient feature of life on the plains is the distance. From Denver to Torrington, Wyoming, is 200 miles, a solid three hours at highway speed. You might go 10 minutes without seeing another car on those highways.

Professionally, I used to routinely drive six hours each way to visit a single property. When my daughter competed in her first Wyoming state cross-country meet, it was an eight-hour trip of 500 miles … to witness a 20-minute race. 

‘Wyoming windshield time’ is a little different than the Boston commute.

Now, people complain about Boston traffic, and boy do I agree. An hour and 45 minutes from Marblehead to Alewife? Madness! This has become my go-to local traffic stat, because this is my partner’s commute to work.

With interested parties, I can also segue into other fun facets of Boston-area commuting, such as the 11-way intersections paved, apparently, in the path of old ox-cart trails, as well as the rotaries with 14 exits and 700 cars backed up at each.

People back home shook their heads at my stories of Boston traffic horror.

“How can folks live that way?” I was asked.

I answered, “Well, Dunkies.”

So sure, to traverse the 3.5 miles from my house in Marblehead to the Market Basket might take 20 minutes sometimes. But back home, it takes 40 minutes to go 33 miles to Safeway.

So there’s traffic, and then there’s windshield time. With the latter, you get the majesty of the fruited plains. With the former, you get Dunkies. A real toss-up!

Home was laced with the scent of freshly turned dirt. The spring planting season has commenced, tractors roaring across the fields and newborn calves frolicking in the grass in the great springtime race to feed the world.

Highway traffic often slows to a crawl this time of year to allow for behemoth tractors towing gigantic pieces of equipment commuting from field to field. It is the time of year to put your shoulder to the wheel and get to work, because Mother Nature waits for no one.

This is the agrarian rhythm I grew up with on the farm, and I instantly felt at home. And at the same time, it felt supremely strange to be so distant from these ancient cycles, as it did when I lived overseas

My brothers and I own some land along a creek (pronounced “crick”). It’s been in my family for four generations. By Marblehead standards, that is not an impressive length, but four generations is a long time out west.

Our land isn’t just a pleasant retreat but working ground that has to earn its keep each year. I’ve been going down there since I was a child and, in turn, I often took my own children. I sometimes think the true definition of conservatism isn’t a political one, but rather taking pleasure in doing as your parents did, and teaching your own children to do the same. By this measure, I suspect most of us have a strong conservative streak.

There is a certain oxbow bend where the crick meanders, slowly cutting a new course. The place where I rested by the water from a long day working cattle as a boy with my dad and grandpa is now overgrown with grass and trees.

The oxbow in the Merrigan family creek

Should my own children work hard enough to hold this land into the fifth generation, that oxbow will surely have moved again, and what they remember as children will be unlike what they see as adults. 

They are also now growing up 1,900 miles away in a whole different world in Marblehead. I wonder what rhythms will feel like home to them, and it feels strange that I don’t know. They will seek out opportunities I never imagined growing up. But that’s the flip side of the conservativism I mentioned, ain’t it? Setting out on a new adventure for new vistas? Making a new home in a new place?

Meanwhile, the crick flows on, wherever I happen to be. Both home to me, and not home, not anymore.

I suppose in order to make a new place home, you have to relinquish the old one. I did that when I chose to be with my partner here in Marblehead, and we’re not looking back now.

As always, if you’ve got an idea upon which I can embark for a “Marblehead First Time,” drop me a line at

Court Merrigan and his family arrived in Marblehead from Wyoming not too long ago. His columns, usually titled “My Marblehead First Time,” appear regularly in the Current.  

Court Merrigan
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Wyoming transplant Court Merrigan is a new Marblehead resident. His column “My Marblehead First Time” appears regularly in the Current.

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