• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On Colorado

"Colorado men are we,

From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus,

From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come,

Pioneers! O Pioneers!"

Walt Whitman

Colorado man am I—at least lately I’ve become. It’s as though I experienced a sequel to the infant sacrament, the solemn rite by which the babbling child is welcomed to the Roman Church. I feel myself to have been baptized anew.

Yet, unlike that hairless initiate, that sinless bundle of joy swaddled in the warm affection of kindred love, it was, for me, a rite of which I was fully conscious. So much the better for me, as I enjoyed it in the fullness of feeling and the depth of piety of my awakened state. It was, I’m glad to say, an act to which I offered my effusive consent. How could I fail to do so with all the sincerity and enthusiasm of a true believer, and the energy and zeal by which the convert is moved? It was, after all, a transformation and a renaming for which I fervently prayed. Yes, its procurement required of me some effort; it demanded a pilgrimage to a distant state, a foreign world to which I’d never previously been. It called for a western adventure to what was, for me, an unvisited land, a great journey on which I was only too happy to go.

Within hours, I arrived in this alien world, and I speak to you of my experience therein. The Coloradan waters by which I was immediately showered, to which my Atlantic head played no unwilling host, fell upon me sweetly. They were as profuse as they were delicate and welcoming—as cleansing as they were deliciously free. It was as if they were released by the gentle hand of a beaming, tender god—one interested in my purity, and supportive of my fate. The sluice since closed by that immeasurable power, that almighty arm by which the holy spigot is turned, I’m left awash in the drops of a faceless ghost, a higher spirit, to whom I’d do well to spill a fermented libation, and offer my most heartfelt thanks.

In a word, I feel as if there’s something, lovely, refreshing, indelible, invigorating by which I’ve been not only bedewed, but blessed.

Colorado man am I—such is the new identity by which, henceforth, I’d like to be addressed. What of it that I spent but five days in that timeless state, to which others have devoted a lifetime, if not longer? I may have departed its borders, and now tread a path consistent with the plummeting level of the sea, but it has not left me. Within me does it still persist; it’s taken residency in a corner of my life in which, heretofore, only the great expanse of emptiness resided. Our brief liaison had all the markings of an incipient love, a precious spark enkindled with an eye turned toward the heat of a future flame. I think that, and that alone, enough to justify me taking her name, and wearing it with the pride of a husband upon whom so fine a distinction has been conferred.

Colorado man am I, indeed. My soul’s in agreement with the very sound of the self-made title, despite the fact that she’ll never be exclusive to me. As I understand it, everyone can participate in her warmth, her beauty, her bounty, and her bottomless love. She is the possession of all who can take her, though she’s not so easily held. She is, to her root, autonomous, wild, untamed, and free—much like the ranging broncos to which she gives birth, or the fearless eagles for which she provides here a crag, and there a perch. This is cause for the arousal of no jealously, but of a larger appreciation for her indiscriminate gift. By day, she can be the vital poetry to any man’s life, and, by night, the fertile muse by which every dreamer’s thoughts are seeded. Being such a dreamer, I know I’m not alone in having been smitten with her rugged caress.

The state is a marvel. Seductive yet chaste, enticing yet clean, she induces in all her lovers a fluttering change of heart.

Part I: The Air

She does so not only in body, but in soul. From flesh to spirit, the whole of one’s constitution is markedly changed. One is, perforce, completely transformed after having visited her hamlets, traversed her rivers, met her children, felt her friendship, and ascended those mountains by which the clouds’ swollen bellies are playfully tickled, and—so long as the glittering cosmos turns its jealous eye—the moon’s pregnant tummy affectionately poked. To the depths of his being, one is radically changed after having ventured her valleys, suffered her heights, and inhaled the aroma of her thin, empyrean air.

And what an unusual air it is! I can almost still taste on the brim of my lips the residue of its foreign flavor. On my tongue’s bumpy tip, at which the mouth’s stern Rhadamanthus passes judgment on all incoming food, I feel the delicate spice to which this tall state gives exclusive growth. It always enjoys ready admission to my mouth, and is never subject to the gatekeeper’s scrutiny. It’s a striking feature of hers, perhaps more noticeable than the rest, on which you must permit me the opportunity to linger. It would only be just, for the air itself yet lingers with me.

And so, I declare again, with all the ebullience of a man freshly inspired by a song, and the harmony of two lungs overflowing with the shared ring of an echo, a eulogy to Colorado’s trademark air. How delicious a fragrance is this atmospheric gift, yet how frugal and sparse in its giving! It is, as I can attest, a perfume as pure as it is sweet, a commodity as resplendent as it is rare. It is, at root, a delightful intoxicant on which one never tires of being drunk, yet for which one struggles, if he’s to fill his thirsty glass with her priceless nectar.

In a word, it’s an invigorating plume by which the dead are enlivened, the somnolent stirred, and the chronically downcast gladdened.

One returns, dizzily, to the unexalted place of his birth, or to the adopted city in which he has the misfortune to labor, a radically different and improved being. He no longer is a man, merely, as once he was, but a Colorado man, and that’s quite an improvement. That’s to say, he’s a stronger man, a more vigorous man, an awakened man into whom the vital breath of that virile state has been copiously breathed.

The purity of the air, the vernal delicacy of the climate, the fullness of the clouds and the sparse oxygen with which they’re impregnated—all combine to have an effect upon a man that’s not easily described. Yes, breathing is made difficult, more so with each upward step, but that which is effortlessly had, is very seldom loved. Should it come to us too easily, we reverence it not. Should it demand from us neither exertion nor strain, sacrifice nor toil, its value is at once diminished. We begin to think little of the glory in its acquisition, and less of the trouble by which it might be procured. We treat it not as the priceless commodity that, in truth, it really is, but as a shiny coin suddenly debased.

In short, the harder its attainment, the greater our pleasure—which explains our enjoyment of this taxing place.

In Colorado, the pure, thin air is a direct export from the granary of heaven. It’s untainted and glowing, as if scrubbed by the wings of an angelic laundress. With an equanimity immortal, and a smile serene, she plays the part of cherubic intermediary, of the gossamer being by whom this windy gemstone is moved. It’s the cleanest of all air by which this Earth of ours is shrouded, yet it arrives not without making itself known. It reminds us of its importance with the acute pinch of breathlessness, with the frightful fit of gasping and coughing into which we’re quickly thrown.

And so, it greets us roughly. Once touched by so ungentle a hand, we never again take its invisible bounty, its Aeolian gift, for granted. One becomes, upon stepping out into this world so many miles taller than the rest of mortal life, suddenly cognizant of that precious, ubiquitous molecule on which all terrestrial beings exist: two pieces of oxygen, very tightly knit. One’s stricken with the knowledge of what the breach this happy union would portend, and how little a chance of survival there would be, should it opt, in a trice, to end its chemical matrimony, and vacate our gasping planet.

There, in Colorado, the atmosphere itself feels as though it’s less forthcoming. It feels at times as though it’s withheld from human consumption, and shy to meet you where you stand. Perhaps it’s less concentrated, and more finely spread out across this boundless state. I think it’s more hidden and cautious, subtle and precious, like a fleeing coquette after whom one must chase. We sea-level groundlings, oversaturated with our appetite of oxygen’s excess, are unaccustomed to daily flirtations such as these. We must, with all haste, find her, hold her, and keep her—if survival is to be a part of our plan. Like Apollo in pursuit of Daphne, or Pan on the hunt for Syrinx, she must be chased, venerated, inhaled, and hallowed, if only to ensure a continued existence in this land.

Part II: Acclimatization

Once adjusted, and westward moving from the limits of city Denver, the mountains take hold of one’s attention, and refuse to relinquish their mighty grasp.

It is, mile after mile, town after town, a sublime image at which—for fear of offering offense, or missing the picturesque apex of some yet undisclosed summit—one wouldn’t dare blink. The eyes are completely arrested by the scenery in which they are, for many a happy hour, totally engulfed. Before and behind, to the left and to the right, the mountains are omnipresent, and your stare—once subject to the thoughtful limits of your control—is now involuntarily transfixed on their heights. You are, for this and many moments like it, but an infinitesimal speck, a particle of dust admiring the grandeur of something against which you can never be measured. In the valley you sit, as if a child in his cradle, marveling at the spinning structures by which your tiny form is encircled.

The broad backs of the hillsides, those limitless canvases across which feeble eyes scan, and playful creatures leap, are painted in the vibrancy of every earthy hue. They change from rusty red, to verdant green, to the granite steeliness of grey. They’re awash with the blackness of coal, and the amethystine glow of an inner, diviner purple. They’re dotted with an assortment of tranquil herbs, sturdy shrubs, and flowers unfolding to the musical advent of spring. Among their blossoms, by which the eye is met at every stop, virginal whites mix with healthy yellows, between which azure blues jump to intersperse themselves. It’s an explosion of vitality and color by which the sight of every other clime is rendered comparatively dull.

Part III: The Water

The main highway along which one drives, the nearly trans-continental Interstate 70, is faithful in its imitation of the Colorado River, to which it sets its course as though it were an inerrant guide. And why should it not be considered unerring? Why should it not be the hoary, liquid landmark by which every map is oriented, and every heart inclined? Why would we ever think to deviate ourselves from the avid stream of its unfailing current, a current of which, in their passage from east coast to west, countless natives, pioneers, pilgrims, and generations have also availed themselves?

The river, whose origin rests in the state for which it’s named, touches along its route four others: Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California, from which it then disembogues in deference to the awaiting sea. Like a drop of water into a larger pond, it sacrifices itself to the yawning Gulf of California. It trickles into that vast Mexican pool by which its contents are thirstily swallowed. Thence does it travel, to the capacious belly of the Pacific Ocean, around which it swirls in preparation for its tumbling journey through the rest of the world.

At points peaceful, at others, turbulent, the Colorado River is never uninviting. It flaunts a sinuous design, as if crafted by the midnight musings of a Rubenesque artist. Its bosom is ample, its waist enticing, and its legs, as limpid as they are long. Its curves are of such delight, that a man can’t refuse a sip of their draught, a taste of their nectar, a bath in her spring. Its depth is unfathomable, and its width, elegantly adorned. Its liquid road is occasionally rough, and often smooth, but neither its docility nor its shakiness deters potential bathers. It’s an inexhaustible source of aquatic recreation: from kayaking, to rafting, to fishing, and swimming, it’s a welcoming home to every conceivable sport.

I happened one day to stand upon its rocky banks, laved by the chilly waters of its fearless tide. Curious, as if a puppy confronted by the smiling visage of a stooping guest, it ran to me, forgot its manners, and licked the tips of my hairless toes. In response, they retreated, but became slowly accustomed to their dewy acquaintance. And so, the water resumed bathing my barren flesh with salty kisses unimpeded. It talked to me in moistened whispers, in the dulcet language of some ancient tongue. I know not how, but it was a wordless chat in which my body, though untaught, was completely fluent. It was calm, refreshing, and well-behaved, and we enjoyed our silent conversation together.

I watched as its roiling eddies calmed themselves, checked their haste, and assumed a much more subdued and mellow manner. The fervency of their dance yielded to the equanimity of their saunter, with which they chose, at this point, to carry themselves. Doubtless, they sensed my shyness and unease, and pitied the unconcealed anxiety written on my face. They hoped, with a deluge of goodwill, and a torrent of bonhomie, to put me at ease, and to establish cordial relations. They determined, in the elegant gait of their approach, and the charming friendliness of their current, to endear themselves to me. This, they did.

But, just as quickly, they left me behind. No sooner did I make their acquaintance than they carried on in search of their pre-destined way. I saluted them for the fleeting friendship, and watched as they moved to banks more deserving. But a few yards downstream, they changed their lovely countenance and put on a sterner character, a visage hardly recognizable compared with that which came before. Once more did they transform into dancing, whirling, intractable currents, by which great vortices are formed, and dangers made. They formed, in miniature, a Scylla and Charybdis, a real-life whirlpool and beast, mischievously awaiting their Odyssean victim. Farther still removed from me, they began to gyrate as though intoxicated dervishes, into whom the Bedouin spirit of Allah has just been breathed.

How multifaceted this meandering river, and how unknowable its depth! How capricious its variable character, and how beautiful its form!

Part IV: The Plateau

Prior to my arrival in Colorado, I was unprepared for all its aquatic energy. None had warned me of its liquid splendor. I thought, rather, it would be a dry, endless, arid plateau beneath a low-hanging western sky. I expected to find a state unbedewed by the refreshing mists of life, and the raging torrents of its wild. On the banks of the river, however, I came to realize I was submerged in an unusual oasis. This oasis, of course, is not ubiquitous. It is very sparsely scattered one place to the next. A day spent at the National Monument in Grand Junction, the last town beyond which the Utah border waits, reminded me, once again, that water is a scarce and, for that reason, cherished commodity at such towering heights.

The aptness of the name can’t be understated; the plateau, in its towering splendor and boundless girth, is in every way monumental. It’s of a scale impossible wholly to comprehend, much less recreate in the words of a rambling essay, such as this. Its entry necessitates a steep and toilsome climb, an ascent to which both legs and wheels are only too glad to commit their hours. They do so not for some masochistic enjoyment for the difficulty of their endless trudge—ever upward, ever higher, ever closer to the bosom of god—but for the promise of the vistas by which they’ll soon be met. There is, as always there should be, a noble end toward which their tireless work is oriented, by which their sweaty exertions and hearty grunts will be, in due time, rewarded.

Having negotiated its barren, twisting, rusty incline, and exchanged the simple pleasantries with which the sun-bathed ranger greeted me, I arrived atop the famous high-mountain desert. The vantage point at this altitude is unparalleled and, as such, defiant to he who might tempt its depiction in words. I at once came to the realization that its beauty is untranslatable, and that my pen, though it fancies itself equal to any challenge of eloquence and art, was rendered on this rare occasion utterly mute. With but a single gaze upon that plummeting vista, and one stifled taste of that awesome sky, my trembling hand let loose its grip. The pen it wielded fell silent to the ground, as did the bottom portion of my slackened jaw. The scene, I assure you, must be felt, experienced, embraced, lived—not read.

And, yet, here I go—undismayed by the prospect of rendering into words a sight ineffable, and a feeling divine.

Stepping out into the height, one sees the rocky clusters shoot forth from the gaping, dusty valley below. Like fearless stalks, they stretch to astonishing heights, and reach to widths unknowable. Upon their faces, these earthy bodies wear an elegant rouge, a blushing hue with which their smiling, stony cheeks are delicately painted. Each lineament of their face is marked by a roseate glow, a deep scarlet to which one’s own veins are mystically drawn. It is, I think, the charming ruddiness not only of chemistry, but of antiquity that ensures the attraction, and ties together the consanguineous bond. It’s the color of timeless exposure to both water and sun, the very elements that determine the history of all life.

What’s left is a ferric residue by which the entire scene is emboldened, and the beat of the viewer’s heart, quickened. With a palpable flutter, it dances along to the jaunty rhythm of an innate song. One must step back, check his pulse, and govern the pace of his breathing. He must do so, if he’s to digest all that’s offered before his eye. Once recovered, he’ll see cast before him the cerulean sky, punctuated by the aimless, doughy clouds by which the sun is occasionally eclipsed. They bob across the heavenly ocean in a languid, blithesome way. He’ll see the iron-encrusted mountains, reflecting and absorbing that oft-inescapable heat. He’ll feel that same heat on the surface of his own neck—that same reddening fire by which those old stoic rocks are unresistingly baked.

He’ll look downward, and outward—for he senses the inutility of looking up. Has he not, at this great altitude, encountered something of a natural ceiling? He’ll instead look out and see the plummeting, verdant valley below, festooned with an antithetical green (it appears so vivid in contrast to the red of the boulder). The shrubbery, daubed with an unusual coat of verdure, offers in this inhospitable place a strange temptation to life. He’ll look to the labyrinthine straits and the hardened gullies through which, in some forgotten epoch, ancient rivers undoubtedly flowed. And he’ll notice nowhere a single drop of water. Where, he’ll wonder, has that vital mist gone?

No need, however, to answer the questions for which the geologist is commissioned, and the local professor paid. He’s interested in this awe-inspiring landscape not as a man of science, but as a man of art. He’s entranced by this uncategorizable terrain not as a pedant, but as a poet. And so, identifying as such, he’ll remark to himself: What a convergence of breathtaking colors! What a grand affirmation of life! What a place to lose one’s theories, and assert one’s love for all things sublunary and free! What good is a muddled hypothesis to a man joyously convinced of his feelings?

Part V: The Mountains

Then, within the short distance of some picturesque miles, I witnessed the exchange of the National Monument’s aridity, for the snow-capped sublimity of Maroon Bells. Thither did my journey take me, eastward from the Utah border. The boundary now behind me, I travelled toward Colorado’s craggy center, the rugged core at which Maroon Bells sublimely rests. This magic mountain, dressed—peak to piedmont—in her finest gown of femininity and alpine aura, called to me on the last day of my western trip. How could a boyish adventurer like me resist the tuneful melody of her siren’s song?

Admittedly, she hasn’t the opulence of a Veil, nor the adulation of an Aspen, but she’s undoubtedly possessed of the finest figure of the three. In a competition of the fairest, over which I—playing the mythical role of the rustic Paris—would be made to preside, Maroon Bells is the lady to whom I would give the golden apple. She’s the chosen goddess deserving of that succulent, eristic fruit. She’s the buxom Aphrodite, the voluptuous Venus, the primus inter pares among a hilly pantheon of gods. She is, in short, the uncontested belle before whom, in my opinion, all other maiden mountains must swallow their vaunting pride, and respectfully yield.

I mounted her trail, and pursued her lofty splendor. Upward, continuously upward, did she send me, step by step on an interminable ascent. One great promontory proceeded the next, atop which, uninhibited, I was compelled to leap. The unequal terrain on which I landed failed neither to impede nor stop me. Crystalline lakes sat idly at their piedmont, in which—depending on the strength of the sun, and the warmth of the season—her melting snows gather. They join in making a frigid well of a divine source, a pristine pond to which natural concavities in the earth welcomingly play host. I dipped both head and hand in these sacred waters, and was, once again, joyfully renewed.

Ever upward did I climb, until the well-trod path soon perished beneath my boots. I hardly noticed its departure, so indelible did it seem. My feet were suddenly left to the guidance of their own intuition, a fickle compass that’s far from infallible in such distant climes. Thousands of miles above the flattened world whence I came, I was left alone, resigned to my oxygen-depleted self. I was suddenly reliant on my famously poor sense of direction, an ignorance of my place in the world on which neither map, manual, nor training has yet had its intended ameliorative effect.

The snow was deep, and the wind inhospitable, but the trail required further blazing. Thus, I continued, until the summit was reached. I knew not where to go, but upward. And, so, upward I went. I staggered like a blind man to an unspoken destination, a place of which I had no knowledge, save an inexplicable sense.

Once there, as if a sacrificial rite, my nose opened up its pulsing wrists. It slit its bounding, chilly vessels, and released the ruddy contents held so tenuously within. It imbrued the virgin soil in a wanderer’s blood—the blood of a man most certainly, incalculably alive. Out of that twofold orifice in my wearied face, through which such sweet aromas only moments ago passed, the vital liquid descended. It fell upon that holy, lofty land, to which my sanguinary offering was humbly made. As you know, every ounce of oxygen-carrying blood in that thin atmosphere is precious. Thus, a half hour’s convalescence was needed after the small hemorrhage fell from my face. Once complete, I turned from the summit, and began my descent. Maroon Bells had been the loveliest of partners, a veritable goddess from whom it was now time to take my leave.

Part VI: Conclusion

The drive back to Denver, the restless city at which my plane slowly imbibed its potent fuel, was rainy and difficult. Dribbling hail mixed with ceaseless showers, by which the visibility of every motorist was dangerously obscured. As the miles went on, the towering scenery by which the highway is engulfed became less and less accessible to my awestruck gaze. Clouds and darkness overspread the same mountains along which, but five days ago, my boyish eyes merrily raced. I consoled myself with the knowledge that, though I was now precluded from again enjoying their lovely sight, the valley’s verdure was in a state of bliss. So too was the hillside’s flower. Both were drinking the vital nectar of the storm’s nourishing dew, that heavenly honey to which we give the name, “bad weather” (an ugly epithet with which the plants would disagree).

Hours later, many miles removed from the banks of the Colorado River, the flats of Grand Junction, and the summits of Maroon Bells, I stepped out of the vehicle. No sooner did I emerge from that tired machine than the deluge through which it drove greeted me, full force. It did so withholding none of its vigorous strength and soaking fury. I was immersed, yet again, in that state’s baptismal waters. Refreshed, I repeated to myself my newly christened name: Colorado Man. Such am I, and hope forever to be.

Colorado Man—It carries with it a wonderful ring. I boarded the plane, found my seat, and drowsily muttered a passage by that fellow, self-professed Coloradan; the great and timeless Walt Whitman:

“Spirit that formed this scene,

These tumbled rock-piles grim and red,

These reckless heaven-ambitious peaks,

These gorges, turbulent-clear streams, this naked freshness,

These formless wild arrays, for reasons of their own,

I know thee, savage spirit—we have communed together,

Mine too such wild arrays, for reasons of their own;

Wast charged against my chants they had forgotten art?

To fuse within themselves its rules precise and delicatesse?

The lyrist’s measured beat, the wrought-out temple’s grace-column

And polished arch forgot?

But thou that revelest here—spirit that formed this scene,

They have remembered thee”.

As I will remember you, Oh Spirit Colorado. Yet, I cannot but dare ask, will you remember me?

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