I hit the Colorado border, around 6:30pm local time that night, as the sun was setting. A few hours before, I’d called up an old high school friend who’d moved out there after college, and managed to bum a night’s sleep on his couch. He lived in Colorado Springs, which wasn’t too far from the border, so I’d crash there and then, in the morning, continue on to Grand Lake to see my uncle, by way of Denver.
The first thing I thought of when I got out of the car to fill up at a gas station in a small mountain town was “Holy shit, I haven’t felt sixty degrees in months.” It was September and there had been oppressive heat all the way from Nashville. But up in the mountains, it was sixty degrees, and I wished that I’d brought my jacket along. The other thing I thought was interesting, which probably no one else will, was that there was a USAA ATM. The incredibly easily-pleased portion of my brain (which is most of it) went “Oooh,” and I took out money. Without getting charged a fee.
It was glorious, and, with this experience, I knew that I had made the right choice in coming West. Some cultures have their heroes receive good omens in the forms of augury, or being told a fortune, or any number of other things. My good omen, it turned out, was taking money out of an ATM without being charged. Look, you take what you can get.
So, naturally, this being America and we being two old friends from high school, we went out drinking in town and did the whole reminiscing and catch up thing.
Nathan, it turned out, hit the same realization that I had hit a couple of times before, but was only now acting on: He had to get out of Tennessee before it wrecked him. It was, you see, the hometown effect. I’d lucked out and a) not actually been from Smyrna, b) never really enjoyed living there, and c) moved to Nashville after high school, immediately before going to college. I had avoided the hometown effect. For him, though, he fell into the trap of being in the same county for a good chunk of his college career. Of course, he got out, went West, and things seemed to be working out for him.
We drank for a while, went back, and then I crashed around midnight. I woke up the next day to some great scenery—
—and started on the road after waking him up. (It was eight am! Civilization starts at 7!) I went up the interstate from Colorado Springs toward Denver, keeping an eye on the mountains to the west. I still wasn’t quite sure that those things were really there. Part of me thought that I was still in Kansas, wandering around the great wheat deserts and flatness that makes up the entirety of that state. But the mountains persisted, and that was good enough for me.
I passed through Denver pretty fast. I’ve got fond memories of the city from visiting my Uncle Mike a few times over the years, but just about zero knowledge of anything in the city limits. I did, however, stop off at a Starbucks and watch the rain for a bit, so that was nice. I thought that it was raining a lot for an area that was technically desert, but shrugged it off and went on my way.
The rain continued on as I went West out of Denver and into the Mountains, passing through a place called Idaho Springs—which is where I took this picture:
—and then followed a few county roads to Grand. Along the way, I passed through a town called Granby. According to Mike, the only reason people know about Granby was because, in the early 90s, a man who’d gone to the area to disappear from the radar found that he couldn’t quite do that. So he decided to try and take out a loan in order to successfully remove himself from society, failed at that, and then decided that, society be damned, he was going to weld a bunch of metal plates to a truck, make a tank, and bulldoze his way into the bank and get the money one way or another.
As you might expect, that did not end well for him.
But, aside from that not so great past, Granby’s a pleasant-enough looking town. It’s got one main street that’s full of small shops, a locally-operated hardware co-op, and then a supermarket. It’s also surrounded by amazing countryside and quite unlike the more wealthier towns that lead into Granby from the highway. There’s a good chunk of me that would really like to move to a place like that, since there’s not a whole lot of distraction aside from, you know, the entirety of fucking nature, and that would really make it easier to write, but, again, I do love me some high-speed Internet.
After fueling up at a gas station in town and looking around me at, well, this:
I hit the road again. From Granby, it was a short enough drive to Columbine Lake, where my uncle and his wife, Mary Ann, had their home. The thing that struck me about the area was that it was so different from Tennessee. I’m not talking about people-wise, because, frankly, there weren’t that many people, and those who I was around, I didn’t really speak to. I’m talking more about the terrain and—not to get too New Agey—the vibe of the area. The energy, to get very New Agey. I’ve lived in a few places, and, by and large, they’ve all been temperate foresty-type environment, or, in the case of Canton, a mix of suburb and late urban biome, which is, itself, quite unnatural.
Houston, of course, doesn’t count. It’s nothing but concrete, heat, and mosquitoes down there, and it’s best avoided at all costs. Yes, there are a few trees, but they’re safely confined in people’s yards or in parks, where they can’t hurt anyone. Nature isn’t nature in Houston. Nature is adornment.
Even England was pretty similar to Nashville. Woodsy hills with farmland looks like woodsy hills with farmland, despite the change in people’s accents.
But Colorado was hugely different, and made moreso by the change from the unbearable flatness and madness-inducing Great Plains. The trees in the South are densely packed. You drive through the state on the interstate and you notice that, in the spaces between cities, it seems like you’re going through a jungle. Not only that, but there’s a huge array of wildlife out there, just lurking in the woods, waiting to strike out and take out travelers who aren’t paying attention to their surroundings. (I, uh, don’t really go camping or anything. Deer are carnivores, right?)
Colorado, though, being high desert, was different. The plant life there mainly consisted of evergreens and low brush. And those evergreens that were around were smaller than you’d expect in many places, mainly due to a type of beetle that came through about eight years before and wiped out a staggering amount of trees. But one of the things that struck me the the most was the water. It was so clear. Just crazy clear. Mountain spring water clear. I know, I’m sounding like someone who’s never been through the mountains. Well, that’s mainly because that’s true.
Sure, Knoxville was right next to the Smokeys, but I never really made it up into the Smokeys. And besides, comparied to the Rockies, the Appalachians are foothills. Rolling, relaxed, inviting terrain that wants you to come through, spend some time in them, and maybe perhaps brew up a thing of sweet tea while you’re at it, though. The Rockies, though, are something out of a Dvořáksymphony. They are gigantic peaks, huge slabs of rock jutting out of the ground and not so much inviting you as demanding that you pay attention, damn it, because there is something that is bigger than you, and it is the world.
Paired with that train of thought that had stayed with me ever since I passed out of Idaho Springs and saw this:
and had to pull to the side of the road and just stare, was a whole slew of minor surprises, like mountain spring water. Also a minor surprise: Moose exist, and they are massive. Turns out that there’s a family of moose by my uncle’s place, and they’re not too shy about being around people. Again, this may seem like a weird thing to be surprised by, but I’m very much a city guy. I like the anonymity of being one of millions in a concrete jungle (as long as that concrete jungle isn’t Houston), but I also like the whole nature thing. Of course, moose, as a rule, don’t live in cities, so I have never had a chance to see one just hanging out on the side of the road, watching traffic.
So, I pulled up to my uncle’s house in Grand Lake, where the lake was stupid clear, the weather was crisp, and just a couple of miles away as the crow flies was the Rocky Mountain National Park. It was just a bit different from the suburbs of St. Louis where I’d been the day before, the not-so-pleasant looking city of Kansas City, and what turned out to be the (seemingly) endless sprawl of Air Force bases in Colorado Springs. (Which, also, explained why there was a USAA ATM.)
For a long time, my friends and I in Tennessee would go “camping” every September. (There were electrical outlets, nearby showers, and easy access to Internet from a nearby marina, but we were in a state park, so it was camping.) One year, as we sat around the “bonfire” and tried to roast marshmallows in between rounds of screaming at each other over Risk, my friend Brad’s Dad, Glenn and I were going back and forth about a quasi-Zen idea of “The Quiet.” Basically, it’s the still mind in a sea of noise and action. That conversation has stayed with me for a long time now, and when I stepped out of the car next to Columbine Lake, I thought of The Quiet.
I took a deep breath, sure, again, that I had made the right choice.
I stood there for a few minutes, just taking it in. Mike and Mary Ann hadn’t come back from their golfing excursion yet, but they’d left me the code to get into the house in a voicemail. I figured I had time to take in the scenery a bit.
I got my fill, pulled out my phone to get the code, and realized I had no reception to check my voicemail.
“Shit,” I said.