Colorado, The Land Of The Free

Flickr / Jasen Miller
Flickr / Jasen Miller

Colorado; the word, quite literally, means “land of color.” Take one look around this crown jewel of the states and one will immediately understand the namesake. Red rocks, sculpted into breathtaking formations by centuries of wind and water erosion. The deep emerald pines, as well as the pale greens of the aspen leaves, and every shade in between. The stark, white snow, serving as contrast to all the other hues in attendance at this symphony of life. Overarching all of these things is the one that, quite literally, outshines them all – the big, bright blue, open sky. Look up and you will see not a cloud in sight; like peering into a deep, deep, sapphire pool, endless and clear. The sky, a blank canvas, and I, the painter – what I do with the day is up to me. This sky, surrounded by beautiful peaks, full of possibilities and hope and some sort of omniscient tone from the future, whispering to me that everything will be just fine. There are very few things in life that provide, for me, a true sense of freedom. Locked up in classrooms, libraries, houses, buildings; this leaves very little time or energy for exploration. When I’m in Colorado, staring up into that big, beautiful, miraculous sky, I feel empowered; on top of the world; as if I can do anything.

As if the sky isn’t reason enough for me to love this place, the mountains are the real stars of the show. When you’re standing in the middle of the Rockies, surrounded by these massive rocks, everything just feels…right. The mountains, standing firm in their solidarity, serving as constant reminders of the power of this planet we call home. How gorgeous, how great are the things the Earth is capable of? The childlike sense of wonder I sometimes fear I’ve lost with age is always reawakened in me when I’m surrounded by these natural feats. The urge – no, not urge – the need to explore and traverse every last inch of this magnificent place overwhelms me and I am incapable of resisting. This place, for me, is like a drug. I feel as if I’m on a natural high whenever I’m there; high off of the freedom I feel, of how powerful – and yet, how powerless – I feel at the same time, of the overwhelming beauty of it all. When I’m not in this place, it’s all I can do to not let thoughts of it consume me constantly, so in awe of its beauty I am. When I leave, I feel a deep withdrawal from it, and the days, weeks, and months that follow my departure are filled with frustration and torment.

I contemplate these musings as I walk along the trail, a pack on my back, a hat on my head, and a swing in my step. The soft dirt, topped with a layer of dead pine needles, cushions my every footstep as I continue on my way. The occasional spill of pebbles and small rocks provides an energizing and satisfying crunch, and it invigorates me; it gives me a sense of accomplishment as I progress along the trail. I reach out to haul myself up a smattering of large boulders, and I catch a glimpse of the summit. My heart all but leaps out of my chest, and I feel an addictive mix of extreme longing and determination bubble up inside of me. It is unlike anything I’ve ever felt before.

A second passes, and all these thoughts within it. My hands are pressed against the rock, still cool from the previous night, not yet warmed by the heat of the afternoon sun. This rock, this mountain; how long had it been here? What had it seen, what had it felt? It was a movie waiting to be made, a story waiting to be written, a song waiting to be sung. The stone cold, rock solid boulder upon which I leaned echoed with the breaths of a million winds, with the whispers of a different time, a different place. The rustling of tree branches, their leaves and needles fluttering in the mid-morning breeze; the trickling of a small mountain stream, the winter snow runoff causing the flow to swell to thrice its normal size; the chatter of birds, happily talking about the sun and the sky and the leaves and the dirt; the soft rustle of the underbrush as a gray squirrel scampers toward the trunk of a tall pine, narrowly escaping some invisible predator; the light crunch of twigs and gravel as a hiker meanders up the trail, coming to stand at this boulder, resting his hand on the very same spot that mine sits now. A faint undercurrent, the vibration of all life, of the whole world, is palpable – at least by those who are in tune. The Earth’s core, the crust, the dirt, the water, the trees, all of the things in the world hum at this certain pitch, a hum that unites everything that is the planet. And I am a part of it. In this moment, leaning against this rock, this boulder, I am in sync with this harmony; I am a member of the symphony. For a moment, I can hear and feel all of these things, suspended in a timeless juncture where everything exists as one. Just as quickly as this moment comes, it passes, and I push off of the boulder, swing my foot up to the next rocky crevice, and continue to climb.

This is a place I’ve come often throughout my childhood; my family, being the traveling type, came here every year, sometimes twice a year, to enjoy the outdoors and the history this place has to offer. Although Colorado wasn’t my actual, physical home, it was, more than anywhere else, where I felt most at home. The trips here, every year since I was two years old, had left their collective imprint upon me; had molded me into a different shape, bent me in new ways and granted me new perspectives by their awe-inspiring beauty and their thought-provoking existence. This wasn’t my home by societal definitions, but it was my home in all the ways that mattered.

Shifting my gaze upwards, I again scan the tree line and the ridge, and view the peak in all of its glory, the morning sun just beginning to break over its crest. This image is one that I know now will forever be preserved in my memory. The shade of the crisp golden sunlight, the luminescent blue of the wide open sky, the line of the summit, edged sharply against the blue, as if it were cut out of a magazine and pasted onto this brilliant blue background. It glows, really; that’s the most accurate word I can think of to describe how it looks. I often think about these mountain peaks, if not this one specifically. These mountains elicit within me a supreme sense of freedom, of exploration, of wanderlust. Gazing up at this peak, I start to realize just what kind of a place these natural settings hold in my heart, and in my mind.

As a child, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to many different places and people and things; my parents really valued travel and well roundedness, and thank God they did, otherwise I never would have discovered this love of mine. Although we did travel a few times a year, my day-to-day life was actually quite restricted. I have parents that love and value me, there’s no doubting that. However, I was constantly fenced in by rules such as what to eat, what not to eat; what to wear, what not to wear; what to do, what not to do; when to go to bed, when to study, when to eat, when to practice piano, when to make my bed and clean my room. I know that these forms of restriction hardly seem exotic, seeing as all children must deal with the woes of a dictatorial campaign at home. But for me, they represented something more; these restrictions formed a cage around my heart, my soul, my being; the very core of who I am. I needed to get out, to get to wide open spaces and big blue skies. Colorado, for me, represents freedom.

I grabbed onto a tree branch and hoisted myself up a steep ledge, then hopped onto the next boulder and began the traverse of a narrow path that led me across the side of the mountain, ever nearer to the top. I could feel myself getting drawn along the trail, as if the summit and myself was a pair of magnets, and with every step the pull between us grew stronger and stronger. How could I feel so drawn to something, so enchanted by a mere physical place that seemingly gave nothing in return? I felt as if I couldn’t explain it. Upon further contemplation, however, I realized something: Colorado did give me something in return. It gave me a space to explore, the freedom to contemplate who I was and who I wanted to be. It gave me a profound respect for nature and for the wonderful benefits of travel. It gave me a sense of comfort, while at the same time providing an intense rush of excitement. It made me calm, serene, happy. This place not only instilled in me a supreme respect for the natural world, but it taught me how to embody these qualities that I otherwise struggled with.

It’s been said that life isn’t about the destination; it’s about the journey. I beg to differ. While the journey can be exciting and fun, I very much believe that all things are about the destination. Without a destination, there’s no point to anything. There are no goals, no motivations, nothing towards which to strive. If you don’t reach your destination, what’s the point? What’s the purpose, really, if not to succeed in all of your efforts? Successes aren’t measured in efforts and tries, or in “would-haves” and “could-haves” and “should-haves”. Successes are measured in hard evidence; they’re measured in “dos” or “don’ts”, “dids” or “didn’ts”, the satisfaction of knowing you accomplished your goal or the overwhelming sense of failure if you fall short of it. Everything is about the destination. The destination is all that matters.

But, then again, is it? All my life, I had been measured by certificates of achievement; by medals and ribbons and plaques and names on boards. These achievements, or “destinations,” were what defined me. I was taught to value only the outcome, to place my finish, my standing, above all else. I was taught to measure myself by these things, to value the importance of a destination over the learning experience of the journey. Up until this moment, I hadn’t ever even considered the value that could be found in the path towards the summit, in the journey towards the goal.

These explorative thoughts are what played on a reel through my mind as I trekked along the trail, having finally reached the ridgeline. The summit was my destination; it was my goal, the North direction on my internal compass, the light at the end of the tunnel, the sole location for which I hungered. The journey was mainly a means to an end, a string of miniature stopping points along the way. Throughout its entirety, the journey ebbed and flowed with a natural sort of candor, but the destination remained unaltered, unchanged. This was what could be measured, could be quantified, could be written down on a piece of paper as a part of one’s list of achievements: summited Mt. Royal, August 2010. People could try to fool themselves into thinking that it was the journey that mattered; the amount of fun you had on the voyage, the personal revelations you had along the way, the memories you made. But that was merely a façade. Everyone knew what really mattered was where you ended up.

At least, that’s what I had thought, throughout my whole life, up until today. I listened to my boots crunch along the path with every footstep in the gravely dirt; I heard the birds chirping in the trees, flitting from branch to branch; I felt the breeze gently rustle the pines and felt it rush up underneath the edge of my bucket hat and kiss my ears. As I contemplated these feelings, these moments, I became aware of these thoughts bathing my brain, my being, and began to realize that, perhaps, it wasn’t only the destination that mattered. Perhaps the journey wasn’t merely a means to and end. What if, instead of the end result being what defined us, we were, in fact, an amalgamation of our various journeys? Instead of a list of our achievements, we were an elixir of our experiences? Over the course of the last two hours, this is the debate that raged in my mind.

There remained a few hundred meters of easy climbing between the summit and me. From this elevated vantage point, I could see what seemed like the entire world. Various ridgelines, each unique in its own way, sprawled out beneath me for as far as the eye could see. The adjacent valleys, lined with highways and trails, accentuated these ridges and peaks. The small town of Frisco, Colorado was splayed out beneath me, bustling with activity like a little ant hill, the tiny people and cars going about their daily business as the buildings and parks slowly slipped into the shadow of the mountain as the sun began its gradual descent. One hiking-boot-clad foot in front of the other, I stomped onward and upward, until the summit was right before me. A few wind-whipped and storm-bent trees passed me by, and then the trail ended. I was here. I had arrived.

I reached an internal conclusion to my own mental gymnastics at approximately the same time that I reached the conclusion of this ascent. Perhaps the journey is equally as important as the destination. I yearn for those feelings of supreme accomplishment that come with achieving a goal, such as the moment when I summited my first mountain all those years ago. Each place I travel, each destination I conquer and make my own, leaves a unique mark. However, the paths towards these destinations also leave marks – marks of a different kind, but marks all the same. The places I go remain unchanged by me, but I remain forever changed by them. Such is the cycle of the traveler’s heart. Each summit, each destination marks a notch in my metaphorical belt, a stamp on the passport of my soul, a thumbprint in the clay of my being. We are marked by our environment; by the achievements we collect, but also by the experiences we have along the way.

Colorado – this land – represents many, if not all, of the things that I strive to be. It allows me to see inside myself in a way very few places can, and thus helps me to realize realities that I otherwise would not. It embodies the goals I set for myself, and the qualities that I’d like to cultivate in my character; patience, kindness, respect, excitement, a calmness and harmony with a certain tenor of anxiousness for what’s to come. In this big open land, with the big open sky above me and the magnificent mountains beneath me, I feel that anything is possible. I can do whatever I want, be whomever I want, see whatever I want to see. I can jump and run and climb and explore and lay in the warm grass. I feel at peace with myself and with my environment; I am one with the natural world, and I am free. TC mark

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