Rocky Mountain High

Becoming a national park in 2015, Rocky Mountain National Park boasts the highest major highway in North America (12,183 ft. above sea level) and 72 named peaks above 12,000 ft.

Becoming a national park in 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park boasts the highest major highway in North America (12,183 ft. above sea level) and 72 named peaks above 12,000 ft.

My earliest memory of the winding road to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park is from when I was a kid, on a family road trip courtesy of our station wagon. It was summer, but as often happens in the mountains (at least back then), snow was falling unexpectedly, making the winding road slick and visibility poor. There were no guardrails to prevent us from catapulting us to our deaths. My parents, of course, were terrified, but we kids in the back seat thought it was a grand adventure. Although other memories from that trip have long disappeared, that snowy day sticks out because of a song my siblings and I composed as we were inching alongside the mountain, sung to the tune of On Top of Old Smokey:

“It snows in the Rockies, in June and July, and sometimes in August, and that’s not a lie. And if you don’t believe us, as we certainly know, just go to the Rockies, and wait til it snows.”

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Our campsite at Half Moon

Little did I know that that memorable day would be the start of a long relationship between the Rockies and this Kansas girl and that I would eventually become a parent and bring my own two sons to experience the magic of the mountains. In addition to camping trips when my kids were young, my son Johannes and I camped at what my dad said was his favorite spot in Colorado, Half Moon. The next year we visited Estes Park and RMNP after his soccer tournament in Boulder, even though he was so devastated by his team’s loss that he wanted to cut our trip short and return home to sulk. Luckily, after just a few hours in the mountains, he began to succumb to the healing power of nature.

Johannes in RMNP

Johannes in RMNP

The next trip came when my older son Matthias, 21 at the time, announced he was going on a solo hiking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park and I couldn’t talk him out of going alone for all the obvious reasons—Bears! Lightning! Forest fires! So I said I’d drive and buy the food (he jumped at the prospect of saving money), and because my 80-something-year-old dad loves camping in general and Colorado in particular, I asked him to come along.

I knew the trip would give the three of us valuable time together, allow us to experience the stunning peaks and valleys of Colorado in our own individual ways, and provide Matthias with memories he could cherish for a lifetime if he didn’t fall off that cliff. What I didn’t expect was that our eight days together would bring to light so many similarities among us—our love of nature, the desire to ferret out the absolute best camping site, and the innate drive to strike out on our own. More importantly, the journey carried me to the realization that this stage of my life was about letting go—to support my son’s three-day hike as a coming-of-age experience and, in a broader sense, as a launch into manhood. I also had to acknowledge that because Dad can’t get around as well as he used to, this could possibly be our last Colorado camping trip together and might even be a harbinger of more losses to come. This unspoken recognition made for some teary-eyed moments for me and made our vacation all the more meaningful.

Matthias, Dad and I at our Poudre Canyon campsite

Matthias, Dad and I at our Poudre Canyon campsite

One morning I awoke to find my dad already settled in his chair (to be truthful, he was always up and about before me). “This is my favorite time of day,” he remarked. “It’s lovely. I like to drink coffee, sit and ruminate.” I stole a look at the clock. It was 6:30am. But I knew what he meant. As the sun dappled through slender trees that swayed and rustled with the wind, it struck me that what I love most about camping is being outdoors virtually all day long, being in synch with the sun and the stars and the weather, and living without distractions that devour a big part of our daily lives. We had an easy rhythm, getting up when we wanted, Matthias in charge of campfires, everyone agreeing meals would taste better if I cooked, Dad content to stick around the campsite and “man the fort” whenever the rest of us took off. Dad, who had spent five years of his childhood in Colorado, talked nostalgically about Sunday drives, a summer camp where he learned to ride horses and the cabin his family rented on Grand Lake. And at night we’d look up at the stars and Milky Way, trying to figure out constellations, feeling small and insignificant in the magnitude of the universe.

When it came time for Matthias to set off on his trek, I accompanied him for a while, my heart in my throat when I took a last photo of my son and sent him on his way.

Matthias starting out on his trek

Matthias starting out on his trek

“Mom, I’m just happier in nature when nobody else is there,” Matthias had explained when arguing his reasons for a solo trek. I have to admit I understood, because I too have become almost giddy on day hikes by myself, reaching a spiritual high from the sheer joy of being alone in the woods. We probably get it from my dad, because he has long gone off on camping trips by himself. Although he used to take off for Colorado annually, he has stuck closer to home the past few years. The family worries, of course, that he might fall where no one might see him, and darn if we’ll ever get him to use a cell phone.

So when it came time to head home from our vacation, it probably shouldn’t have surprised me when Dad said he was staying behind to revisit some of his favorite camping spots (we had driven separate cars, because his van is rigged for travel, with the back seats removed and replaced with a bed he built himself). I was concerned, because over the course of the week I’d observed how less steady he’s become on his feet, the result of arthritis and a severed ACL since college that has increasingly taken its toll. And based on what I now knew, he was going to camp as far away from others as possible. But I respected his desire to stay behind, and after a week together I understood why he had to go solo, why, as Matthias put it, he was happiest in nature when no one else was around. I wondered whether Dad thought of this as his farewell trip, too, one last chance to revisit old haunts and, as he likes to say, to ruminate.

But all went well, and now Dad is talking about returning to Colorado. Regardless of what happens, that trip with my dad and son helped me work through some of the mourning stages of letting go. Matthias proved himself a competent young man, ready to forge his own place in the world. And with my parents, I’ll try to make the most of whatever time we have, with an appreciation for every day we get to spend with the people we love.

But letting go doesn’t mean giving up memories. In fact, it might be the memories that help us let go.

“I love the mountains so much, it makes me feel tingly all over,” Dad had said on our first day in the Rockies.

Many years ago he told me he’d like his ashes scattered in Colorado, including that campground at Half Moon. And when I carry out his wishes, calling on the healing power of nature, those are the words I’ll remember.

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