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A cause for pause

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The “boop boop” of the key fob was all good but the car was so iced over that I had to narf on the front door to crack the shell and get in. Inside my leaky, ancient Subaru, every window was also covered in a film of hard frost. We were on the brink of late with Eagle County Airport an hour away, my impish daughter having hidden the car keys to prevent family from leaving. Energy already somewhat frantic, my sister and I scraped at the interior windshield, shaving a cascade of ice crystals all over the dash electronics. What could we do but laugh? Nature has a way of leveling us, stopping human ambition and forcing us into the moment.
Heading north on 82, alternating cliffs of ragged red rock and craggy chalk were draped in the recent snow, stunning in the morning light. Winking in and out of sight, a river runs through it, dropping more elevation in 28 miles than the Mississippi does the entire length of our nation. Centuries of dark forests above frame the length of the valley, climbing on up to the Flat Tops — magnificent vastness. Amid the rush of euphoria this elicits, I’m surprised to see my odometer kissing the 90s. Time-pressured or not, the drive toward Glenwood is the gateway to every “feel good” drug the human body produces.
Black ice has a sobering effect, putting human hurries in their place. For some, anyway. Lifted pickup trucks charge the twin ribbons of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon. Judgingly, I shake my head — all-wheel and four-wheel-drive don’t necessarily mean four-wheel stop. I already have too many accidents, rollovers and near misses on my driving record to count. Weather and Nature have kicked my ass into awareness.
I hit a yearling elk once. En route from a different airport, in a different decade and a different mountain range. A college bestie rode shotgun; caught up in memory lane, we cruised sinuous curves toward Telluride and the wedding weekend of a friend. It was dusk. Both truck windows were open to the decaying scent of autumn, the wild night and the possibility of our lives before us
The primal scream and grunting of an elk ripped through the black. I slowed down, our eyes searching. Ahead of us: black and tan legs, heads and backsides, antlers and eyeballs, flashed in my high beams. Entranced, our heads turned, tracking the herd as it floated across the two-lane, back into the cover of willows. I remember the fresh, mineraly scent of the river. I remember the rustle and whisper of the willows. I even remember the burble of the river, right there, right out our windows. And then the thud. The impact of body on steel; impact, traveling up my own bones; impact, and a body now dead.
To me, the earth tilted and time froze. In my human distraction, I killed. I hadn’t been speeding that night. I hadn’t been selfish, or careless. There had simply been so much to take in, as often is in Nature, I simply couldn’t do it all. A double whiskey neat at the bar couldn’t chase our sorrow. I hit an elk. Once.
Driving isn’t something I “have” to do to get from A to B. I actually love driving, as a full-on body sport, feeling the road, the forces at play and the landscape around me, wholly. I don’t consciously speed anymore or assume my interests come before yours, although I used to. I’ve T-boned a tree in my ‘69 VW Bug; a panel truck in my ‘86 F150; I’ve rolled and totaled a Bronco after a blizzard; flipped and totalled the F150. I’ve thrown two friends that miraculously lived, unharmed. Broken my neck in a Super Cub, hitting a downdraft over Longs Peak. Touched my baby’s carseat after a summersault on black ice, every wheel and window blown — and thanked God she wasn’t with me.
My sister and I still had 20 minutes to get to the gate as we exited the canyon safely. The highway dried and I picked up speed until, approaching Gypsum, we encountered fog — somewhat rare in the increasingly arid Rockies — and a cause for pause. The small factory town had turned otherworldly in a tracery of hoarfrost. Form and detail popped, the grim film of small town grit now laced in white. Climbing the last hill toward the airport, the fog lightened, and a portal back in time opened.
It was a rural winter wonderland. I rolled the windows of my Outback down, just to let it in. At 15 to 20 miles an hour in a 45, we absorbed the moment. Barbed wire fence lines, each twisted detail flocked in crystals, disappearing into opacity. Blanketed pastures perforated with golden stands of grazed brome, each blade encrusted in weightless frozen feathers of ice. Greylisting shacks, sheds and barns, floated in space. One-hundred-year-old cottonwoods, black trunks towered, cathedral canopies soaring overhead. It was ethereal. I had to pull over.
I ran to a tree with a skirt of ancient, overgrown shrubs below. Her every detail, every muscular limb, each curving branch, sleeping bud, decorated by weather. People say they hate winter because everything is “dead,” because there’s no green. I disagree. Winter reveals the spirit and soul of everything.
We now know trees communicate with each other and other species. They shunt nutrients, fend off attack, sacrifice for and support one another. Standing beneath this sentient, very alive being, I couldn’t help but contemplate the breadth of her life, and all I could do was laugh. In Nature, we are gifted moments of awe, beyond the triviality of human busyness. And what is awe but joy?

Tags: #Glenwood Canyon #Rockies #Telluride
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