Here Comes the John Denver

You knew it was coming, right? I mean, who writes about Colorado without referencing Denver? He’s the epitome of Rocky Mountain platitudes. I was prepared to eschew him altogether, hoping to bring something new to the body of writing about the Rockies.

And then I heard Rocky Mountain High again over the weekend, and was swept away.

I’ve heard this song since I was a kid, and I’ve always thought the line “he was born in the summer of his 27th year” meant that a 27 year old had a son born in the summer. Poor syntax, I thought, but whatever; it’s song lyrics. Poetic license. Wouldn’t be the first time lyrics didn’t make sense. The next line, “Coming home to a place he’d never been before” embodied something I had long hoped to experience. The idea of feeling like you belonged someplace, like this was where you were meant to live–I wanted to know what that was like.

I was born in the suburbs of Chicago, and lived on my own for 12 years in southern Illinois, but neither place has ever felt like home. Since I made a commitment to my kids to remain in this area until they are finished with high school, I cannot follow paths that might lead me out of this area. Instead, I’ve struggled to remove myself from the suburban landscape in abstract ways, refusing to conform to the behaviors and habits of other suburbanites. This area, surrounded by concrete and exhaust, natural areas eaten up by developments that now sit empty, gnawing at the earth with their unsightly footprint, provides little escape from the equally onerous human environment. Beauty here is measured in manicured lawns, expensively (and professionally) decorated houses, ostentatious vehicles bought at exorbitant prices, expensive clothing worn with labels clearly visible so no one can ignore how much the wearer paid for the privilege of advertising for the manufacturer.

Natural beauty is available in here, but must be sought. Suburban Chicago does an excellent job–far better than southern Illinois–of providing forest preserves and open spaces. I have always sought refuge in the woods, from the area behind my house growing up to the cliffs of Giant City, to the re-purposed farmland of the LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve. But there’s a limit to how far you can go before you run into high-traffic roads or a frisbee-golf course (really?). Nature is contained here, confined to a given area. I sense that there are people who have fought to protect every inch of the ground that has been set aside for this purpose, but the battle isn’t over. There’s always a new “for sale” sign popping up on fields that once hosted only golden sunsets. Soon there will be another pedicure spa right around the corner.

On my road trip west, the first area that took my breath away was the grasslands of South Dakota. There were long stretches of miles where was no evidence of man as far as the eye could see. I breathed in the space, the wind of the open prairie, feeling like I could *finally* stretch to my full height. I felt like I’d lived my entire life squashed into a 3X3′ box, and now, out in the middle of nowhere, I could expand to my real size. I could breathe.

When the mountains exploded on the horizon, I was transfixed. I finally saw the world outside of what man can contain, can understand. I refuse to believe that Man should have dominance over the earth; we are but travelers here, visitors. The mountains stretch beyond my ability to see, beyond my ability to understand. They cannot be confined or manicured or controlled. They’re wild, eternal, beyond the scope of man’s tiny imagination.

And so here is what I want for the rest of my life, the way I want to spend time when I’m not earning a living.

“Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake”

I am ready.

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