Life in Thin Air

I realize the Squid has been a boring series of political screeds of late, for the most part. I can’t help it. I feel like an invisible Thomas Paine, distributing my pamphlets to an invisible New England. I suppose a lot of us invisible types feel that way. (When everyone has a megaphone, all we hear is a big noise.)

But in America there still exists, for now, a place called RMNP – Rocky Mountain National Park. The family and I recently scootered up there, to a great little rented house right off the main drag in Estes Park, CO. That might seem odd, but this wasn’t our first Estes Park rodeo (they have those too),  and we’ve learned the reason downtown is downtown is that it’s the middle of everything. Being smack in the middle of downtown means you are smack in the middle of everywhere you want to go. What’s more, even with a crass commercial “strip” 100 feet from our door (and down the mountain), if we look any other direction we see – you guessed it – mountains. “Slanty living,” I call it, where there’s nowhere to set your water bottle or your camera bag down because the ground is just not flat anywhere. It’s the same in downtown Estes as it is everywhere else (except the golf course).

I love Estes Park not just for its scenic beauty, but also for its built-in mid-century kitschiness. It’s a compact little vision of what American vacationing was always meant to look like: beautiful views, fresh mountain air and sun, shady RV parks, ice cream and taffy, Indian jewelry, and mini golf. Lots of mini golf. We even took the tram up the mountain this time, something we’ve never bothered to check out on earlier trips. It was fantastic. Very trammy, just like you’d expect. 

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But getting up into the park, into the real mountain air – that is the reason you go. It’s materially different, a different feeling altogether than walking around at sea level, buying gum or waiting for a bus or something. You are acutely aware of every moment – every breath, really – because the air is not giving it up for free, the oxygen. You have to work for it. And if you do you get that new energy that will take you up one more vertical foot, or yard. But it’s not unpleasant (for me, though it can be for some) to work for it. To greedily gulp up the mostly-nitrogen air to capture  those few precious oxygen molecules a lungfull offers. It’s a challenge. And the light – the light seems to be somehow unbowed from the atmosphere up there – pure, brilliant – razor sharp, enough to cut through what haze there might be, the misty mountain mornings, within an hour or so. (From our vantage just above the city, our cabin’s big front window captured the whole “bowl” of downtown Estes, and in the mornings sometimes the clouds were lying down on the mountaintops, a misty blanket. It burned off by 10 or so, replaced with that big smiling sun that, as bright as it shines, can be a devil to locate among all those pointy peaks. They shadow one another, or the cloud shadows roam across their glowing granite rock faces and clingy pines.)

And the water – of course all the water up there is snowmelt, erstwhile ice racing down the mountains on all sides to find its new level. Such a hurry! Over polished boulders and rotting aspens and pines, fish flipped out by anglers where it runs smoother on the levels. Crystal clear, but foaming and bubbling too, mountain champagne – you want to stoop by the bank, cup a hand and drink its coldness (but you don’t). Here you can find a peaceful wood at the Wild Basin – near the foot of Long’s Peak, a few yards from that pond where we saw a young moose at play in the still water –a peaceful place that is not peaceful at all, as you step into the woods and feel the momentum of the river crashing over huge rocks and coming together in that unmistakable sound of rushing water gone mad with flight, obstacles be damned. Subtle at first, like a highway in the distance, when you arrive it’s a jet engine next to your ear, yet it’s peaceful noise, nature’s noise, with just you, your family, the rocks and the water and the trees, those immortal sentinels. A kind of cacophonous silence, a blaring quiet. It’s other-worldly, because usually we don’t get to live in this other world – the real world. Usually we’re stuck in the rough copy we made.

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We won’t make a habit of future trips to the Rocky Mountains, it would not be fair to those who suffer from the altitudes. But I at least will probably need to find my way back a few more times, for the refresh. I have an inner, insistent need now, at this part of life, to find such soul-enriching places and promptly suck up the enrichment they offer. My soul depletes—especially during this tragic moment my country endures, when we continue to phone in our former lives in a kind of embarrassed, resigned dull dread while we wait for the other shoe to drop. And the one after that.

The canyons of Utah proved to be such a place (but also high in the sky, a bit ironic for canyons). So too the canyons of Chicago or New York – electric cities– where the thrill to the soul is more man-made but no less evocative of that unnamed thing—the essence of life—the thing that escapes our book of days and visits us only when we set it aside for a respite, a rest, a difference. Such moments, we think – the fleeting moments, almost invisible as if glimpsed out of the corner of our soul’s eye—such moments are a brief delve into what our world was meant to be for us, before we lost our way: bright, electric, alive, immediate, moving—moving—never at rest, but always at peace with its wild self.

 

 

 

 

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