Life is Grand, Yet Underneath . . .

My love for Colorado grew with every hike I took along the trails through her mountains. I took one flight back to Ohio for Christmas and afterward had nightmares about being stuck there, unable to return to the west, to the mountains I had learned to love. To that amazing cerulean blue sky, the clear air, the wind in the pines, the open spaces where nothing is heard but the call of a jay or hawk. One summer I spent every weekend hiking in the mountains, nearly every weekend backpacking.

Camp high in the Rocky Mountains below a snowfield at treelike.
Camp in Rocky Mountains

In 1972 saw John Denver in concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater; these were Rocky Mountain High years. I felt that song in my bones and sang it with friends around a campfire high in the Rockies. It may sound corny now, but the words were true. I started smoking pot while in Colorado, and there is nothing like it a mile high, or higher in the mountains with good friends after a long day’s hike. Or in the desert.

I discovered Utah desert and canyon country these years, too, and was with dear friends on a backpack in Arches National Monument in August during the Perseids Meteor Shower. Not a one of us knew the meteor shower was happening that night. I don’t recall who first left the camp fire to look at the stars. We were all pretty high . . . and . . . Hey Chicken Little, the sky is falling! What a trip! That clear desert air, our camp fire lighting up Dark Angel monument and the falling meteors. What a memory.

Plus the magic of New Mexico. We tripped Utah and New Mexico for early spring and late fall when the mountains were socked in with snow. “We” included my husband at the time, who was game for all this hiking and backpacking, but I don’t think he loved it as I did. He had a bad back, a wound from Viet Nam, which made it difficult to sleep on the ground, but, as I said, he was game. Backpacks in those days were not as comfortable as they are now, and I had constant bruises around my hips from the belt. 

Me and my backpack hiking along the Rio Grande River through dried willows toward Alamo Canyon in the background
Hiking along the Rio Grande River toward Alamo Canyon in the background.

Bandelier was our New Mexico haven. Think of a spread hand, pine-covered highlands the palm, canyons between the fingers, the Rio Grande River runs across the tips of the fingers, and you have Bandelier. I have hiked along the river and into the tips of the canyons as well as across the middle of the canyons and into the bottoms of three of them. I have also approached the canyons from the palm. In the last five years a good deal of Bandelier has been burned in fires. The beautiful southern-most canyon, Frijoles, has water and a waterfall year round.  

The next canyon also had a spring and water if one knew where to find it. I camped there years ago with a good friend and listened to the echoing call of a mourning dove in the early evening across the head of the canyon.

Our camp site among the pines in Alamo Canyon
Camp in Alamo Canyon

In the third canyon over is Painted Cave with numerous pictographs. Hopefully, they are still there and haven’t been ruined like so many others.

To get to New Mexico, one must pass by southern Colorado, and that’s where my favorite Colorado mountains reside—the San Juans. Someone labeled them the Switzerland of America. They are younger, wetter, and steeper than the Rockies. This means these mountains are more difficult to hike, but the rewards are greater: more waterfalls, streams, wildflowers, steeper, closer peaks, grander vistas. Plus, more four-wheel drive trails because these mountains were full of silver and the miners left roads in the most unbelievable places. You can rent jeeps locally, and we also had good friends who loaned us their Toyota Land Cruiser that outdid the jeeps we met on the worst trails. Sorry, jeep lovers, but that’s the truth.

The problem with a four-wheel drive is often it will get you further than you should go. My hubby, Clem, being the passenger, kept at me, “Go, go, go,” and up, up, up, we went through the trees on this terrible rocky trail that got smaller and smaller and steeper and steeper till I couldn’t see past the front hood . . . “Go, go, go,” I finally had the sense to stop. Thank, God, because “go” had us perched on the edge of a ten-foot cliff! 

I don’t care for going into nowhere, thank you.

So, the Cruiser would get us to trailheads even farther into the mountains. But so would the narrow gauge railway.

You could get a special ticket to Silverton, ride the boxcar, get off halfway and take a trail to one of the fourteeners. We did this with another couple and it rained the entire hike up the canyon. Most exciting, you could hear   rock slides and boulders falling in the rain on the other, steeper side of the creek but couldn’t see them through the trees. We finally reached the upper canyon where it opened into a valley and pitched our tents (still raining). How fine and cozy to heat up hot ramen on our little stove and cuddle into a warm, dry sleeping bag with the sound of the rain popping on the rain fly above us. Later, after it stopped, a critter ran over the top of our tent. There’s nothing so cozy as sleeping out in the fresh air in a warm, fluffy, bag. We carried extra padding to sleep on—it’s worth the additional weight.

Our friends hiked out the next morning. They were younger than us but couldn’t handle the weather; though it had stopped raining. The sun came out and we hiked to the top of the pass and watched clouds pass by the peaks. Seemed like nobody in the world but the two of us and a few critters—whistling pikas and marmots mostly. Take deep breaths. Glorious.

The next day we hiked out and caught the train to Silverton where we stayed in the old hotel, had a shower and a cooked meal in a restaurant. Gee, life is hard. Another Colorado memory to savor.

These years gave me many opportunities for risk-taking, for facing my fears. I recall one in particular, a leap from one low boulder to another higher one, where—if I fell a broken leg would be the least I could expect. “Don’t think about it too long or you’ll lose your nerve; just do it.” I did, and the ensuing high was tremendous. The three fellows I was with seemed to think nothing of the rock climb, but the other woman with us was left behind at that point. This was typical for me—having to “keep up with the boys.” Also, never letting show how sometimes difficult it was doing so.

Climbing at Red Rocks Amphitheater was eventually closed, for too many people were injured doing so. It is a shame how people are allowed to sue for everything in this country. We need to be responsible for our own actions and not expect others to be responsible for us.

In the main, these were good, exploratory years, but getting married had been a mistake. Clem was a good guy, but he was not the man for me. I was depressed and the migraines were worse, but it was years before I admitted to myself why I was so unhappy. 

We bought an old house in town to refurbish. I sewed clothes, grew a garden, canned tomatoes, cooked, painted, smoked more pot.  

Clem and I at our little fire below one lonely tree with our blue tent under the full moon at White Sands, New Mexico.
Clem and I camping in the full moon at White Sands, New Mexico.d

We moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, hoping a change of scenery might help. My folks visited us along with my Uncle George and Aunt Betty. I recall clearly when they were at our house and Dad, once again, made one of his usual cutting remarks to my mom. I stood in the doorway, heart beating furiously, and let it happen. In my house. How many times since I wish I would have said something. In my mind I’ve gone over and over what I would have said if I could. But I did not. He still had such a hold over me.

Some time later, months? I don’t recall. A phone call from him. His voice, low, soft. “Will you forgive me?” Nothing else, not about what. I could say nothing. But I felt pressure, pressure to forgive. Maybe I said, “Mmm,” but I don’t recall.

We were still in New Mexico when I received a call from Ohio telling me Dad had died from a heart attack. 

I flew back to Ohio to help Mom bury him and face the relatives.  

To Be or Not To Be

These days, it’s hard to be anywhere when you have no internet or phone connection.  Absence is one of the trials of traveling around the country like we are–you never know when you will be out of touch.  I’m writing this from the local Ignacio, New Mexico, library on the Ute Indian Reservation.  All you readers and writers out there, remember to support your local library!

“There are eight computers lined up against the south wall of the library.”

Hey writers, do you know what is wrong with that sentence?  It reeks of dullness.  When I read it, I think, “So what?”  Unless, of course, your point is:  “Here’s a list of the things I see, a rather uninteresting list and they don’t do much but sit there.”   Your reader doesn’t know why, but is disappointed and unexcited by your writing when you use a “to be” verb phrase, especially at the beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or chapter.  Like Hamlet, these items exist, but don’t contain any action.  Even Hamlet wasn’t all that interesting until he decided to act.

It is, there is, there are, etc.  When you are editing your work, look for these “to be” verb phrases and replace them with more interesting, active verbs.  Doing so might even lead you into a nice metaphor or simile.  As in:  “Eight computers strategically line the south wall of the library like little soldiers waiting for duty.”  Okay.  You may think the sentence is a little silly, but at least it’s interesting.

So, find these little devils and perk up your writing by replacing them.  You will be surprised by how much better your story or article will read.  I was.

I may be posting from the Sky Ute Casino next time.  They are supposed to have a pretty good buffet.  Oops, was that a “to be” beginning back there?