Saturday, July 3, 2010
Summer in Colorado
I imagine that Colorado appears on many people's lists of favorite vacation spots. Either they've been to Colorado on vacation, or they want to go there someday. It's probably high on the list, somewhere near Hawaii, one of the Disney resorts, and the ocean beaches.
And most people come to Colorado for the Rocky Mountains. This chain of mountains, the backbone of a continent, stretches from New Mexico on the south all the way through Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon Territory in Canada, to Alaska. I didn't mention Wyoming and Montana, did I?
I will write about the beauties of the Rockies in those states and provinces another time. But when you mention "the Rocky Mountains," the vast majority of people think of Colorado. (This may not be true north of the World's Longest Previously Undefended Border.)
Ah, Colorado. In less than an hour, I can be on a mountain trail, walking beside a stream swollen with snowmelt, the air filled (I mean redolent) with the smell of pine, spruce, wild herbs and wildflowers. If I'm paying attention, I can also take in the fresh smell of water splashing over rocks and cliffs, and the bracing alpine crispness of air above timberline.
The mountain views are ... well, the term "breathtaking" has become a cliché, but there's no better way to describe them. It doesn't matter if you're viewing the mountains from the plains sixty miles away, from a highway or trail deep in the middle of them, or from the summit of a fourteener: the view really does take your breath away. Tourists and natives alike, on Colorado's mountain highways, stop to admire the view and try to get their breath back.
I live on the plains, a ten-minute walk from the foothills, and every morning I look to the west, see the high places of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, and think, "Boy, am I lucky to live here." Every evening when I drive home, the setting sun plays with the mountains, casting highlights and shadows on different ridges, and I realize that I've never seen the same sunset twice.
If you're lucky enough to be up in the mountains on a moonless night, you will see a star show like you've never seen before. The air is so thin, and so clean, that no celestial feature is obscured. The absence of light pollution creates a black velvet backdrop for the trail of spilled diamonds that makes up the Milky Way. The stars' colors are easy to discern: the red of Arcturus and the blue of Sirius, for example. You can see the double star in the handle of the Big Dipper without squinting. And if you let your eyes adjust, you will see the world at your feet illuminated by nothing but starlight.
At the right time of the month, you can be sleeping in a tent or sleeping bag and be awakened by the light of the rising moon, its brightness rivaling the mercury-vapor street lamps you left far below.
Sunrise and sunset might be my favorite times of day. The clear blue daytime sky (or the starlit blackness of night) gives way to a multicolored wash, across which the moon and the planets chase each other in an ever-changing race.
Every afternoon, the cold air tumbling over the mountains collides with the warm air rising from the plains. Great billowing cumulus clouds rise higher and higher into the sky, until the jet stream shears off their tops and stretches them into the anvil shapes of cumulonimbus. The clouds, heavy with moisture until they cannot hold any more, let it all go. The winds and the moisture build up massive electrical charges in the clouds and, with or without the rain, Mother Nature puts on a light show to rival any Fourth of July.
Although Colorado residents normally take to the hills between Labor Day and Memorial Day, leaving the summer months for the tourists, summer is the best time to enjoy the Rockies. My favorite time of year is early to mid-August: the mountain passes are open, the streams are still flowing, the wildflowers are still in bloom, and the wild berries are ripe.
To hoist a backpack and disappear into the mountains for a week or more, or to park the car and walk half a mile to a scenic overlook, so carefully hidden that you'd swear you were miles from civilization, that's what makes summer in Colorado so perfect. Sometimes I can't believe my luck, to live in a place that is a destination for millions of people, and call it home.