Pikes Peak or Bust
When I was nine, my parents gave me a tiny toy train engine wrapped up for my birthday, then surprised me by explaining that I was going on a trip that summer on a train with my grandmother, aunt, and cousin. We would be headed to Colorado Springs to visit my uncle, his wife and their one year old daughter.
I was perpetually and chronically homesick as a kid, afraid of my own shadow, and cried a lot. Like, a lot. So, I’m not sure why they thought the trip would be a good idea, but a few weeks later, there I was; on a train, westward bound. I don’t remember a ton about the trip, I guess, but the things that come to mind are the things a nine year old would remember: the feeling of safety; having fun with my cousin, eating snacks and playing cards; a little bit of drama when we missed the train in New York City; the awe of seeing the rockies for the first time; feeling like the world was really freaking huge; and the believing that Colorado was pretty much the best place on earth.
The place just chock full of foreign terrain, like getting dropped on mars. One of the other memories from that first trip was when my grandmother told my cousin Kyle and me that she was taking us to see fossils. One would assume she meant dinosaurs, clearly.
Imagine how far a kid’s face can fall when they are handed a mosquito preserved in amber.
At fifteen I went to Colorado again, and every year after that until I moved there for college. Of course I would move there for college. Everyone should move away from home at least once, if only to see how far the rubber band of comfort can stretch before it breaks. And then they should stay there until they know who they are without it.
Everything about Colorado called to me, but the only place I ever wanted to live was Colorado Springs. I loved how different everything was. It was so new back then. The roads were red. The sun was hot. The air was crisp and thin, compared to the humid thick air of Upstate New York, with its cold sun.
The cars on the road sounded different at night. It was quiet. Really quiet. The planes overhead sounded different with less atmosphere. The sun feels different on my face at 7,000 feet above sea level. I felt lighter and freer with open space and no one knowing that at home there was another, sadder, Me that forgot to get packed in my overhead bag.
And where that other Me wasn’t, was exactly where I wanted to be. It’s where I got to pretend to be a version of myself that I actually wanted to be. It’s where I felt accepted without condition. Not that I wasn’t accepted without condition at home, but when you walk into a new place and see that your own reflection looks different without the mask of that “other” you, that’s where you want to be forever. Maybe the other you would forget to look you up and move back in.
And Colorado Springs is where my reflection looked different.
Colorado Springs is easily identified by two geographical landmarks: Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak.
The former is a park where these huge red rock formations just spring out of nowhere. It’s amazing, truly where the Gods would play.
The latter is one of the 53 “14’ers” - peaks in Colorado at or above 14,000 feet above sea level. And it’s my favorite mountain in the world.
I’ve been staring at that peak for twenty-five years now. I’ve studied her. I know every scar on her face. I know every jut and curve of her body. I know every strand of silver snow that streaks her silhouette in the winter.
Her rugged features have held me when everything in my life changed too fast. The small light from the building atop her my anchor night after bleary-eyed night lying awake when I felt unmoored, lost, and adrift.
She can look menacing when dark clouds crawl over her and down into the city. She can look as if alight by God when the dawn hits her. She has been obscured by fog, and backlit by sunsets. People climb her and drive her and ride up her in trains.
And she never changes. She just takes it all year after year, lifetime after lifetime.
I’ve loved her since the moment I saw her. She stood still, waiting patiently when I would scream at her asking for answers. She’s what looked passively back at me when I sat on the boulders outside my dorms looking to her and cried, helpless and lonely. She watched me as I celebrated. She saw me share kisses, and Boones Farm wine, and was stoic with me when I needed to be. She let me lean on her when others leaned on me as I grew into my role as a helper.
She’s been there, all these years, solidly waiting out time, patiently hoping I’d come back to tell her my latest news.
Which is exactly what I did this last week when I went out for a visit to this place that holds such space in my heart.
I haven’t been back to Colorado in two years, which is a long time for me. Once and a while I’ll poke around and look at tickets, imagining a trip, but with the price of airfare, who can make that kind of splurge these days?
When I found tickets this year in my price range, I didn’t hesitate. Not for a second.
As much as I overthink every other minute of my day, there are two things in my life I will always pull the trigger on: which DeFazio’s pizza to order, and a reasonably priced trip to Colorado.
After picking up my rental car at the Denver airport, and spending way to long panting for breath, being a mile in the air and all, I started my drive south.
Well, I made it out of the parking lot, at least.
I stopped in the cell phone lot and sort of looked around for a second. I couldn’t think of what to do. I’m rarely so unscheduled that I’m paralyzed with freedom. When I lived there, I was going to school or working. After that, I’d be there to visit my sister and her budding family. I’ve never really been there without purpose, and hadn’t realized it until then in my little rented SUV.
So I did what we all do: I picked up the phone. I dialed the first three numbers in my phone. I let my mom know I made it safe; I called my best friend who’s in Spain for a month; and the newest addition to my mental health arsenal, my friend Gabby.
I don’t think Gabby read the fine print when she signed on for this friendationship, but she keeps picking up the phone, and since she’s here by choice, I keep calling.
Sometimes I find it odd when I want to get away, but I still hold the tether of home, but there I was telling Gabby what kind of car I had rented for no reason at all.
I didn’t know how to say, “Um, I know I just got here, but I’m feeling unsettled and out of place. Can you just hold my hand from 2,000 miles away, tell me I’m ok, and that it’s ok if this trip feels weird because you’ll be there when I get back?”
So instead I said, “I got in the car. It’s a Hyundai. That’s it.”
Why does carte blanche freedom feel so terrifying and make me want to crawl under one of those weighted anxiety blankets they sell on Instagram?
And then I remembered something from my sophomore year of college: I felt like I had the opposite of claustrophobia out here...it was too open compared to the tree-covered roads and small intimate spaces of the northeast.
I put my little granny car in drive, and decided that I was going to embrace my freedom for a day. I drove the hour into the little town I lived in for a year after my one hot year of law school in Michigan. I would have slapped a nun across the face to have this very specific calamari with a homemade sweet chili sauce I’ve never had anywhere else. I was too early, because they only serve it at dinner, but it was reassuring that twelve years later, they still serve it.
After my non-calamari lunch, I started the trek down to Colorado Springs, almost on the edge of my seat with anticipation.
There’s a moment on the highway where you can see the profile of Pikes Peak in the distance. I don’t care how often I visit that place, when I see her purple mountain majesty crest in the distance, I feel my little heart jump and I think, “She’s still there.” Every single time.
I had scheduled seeing everyone I could think to see in my five days there. Old friends, family, mentors, coworkers. Every day had someone or something. Freedom is only worth it when you give it to the people you care for.
I spent time looking at familiar faces over coffees and lattes and ultimate carmel apples and huevos rancheros and crepes and coconut shrimp and enchiladas.
Talking over good food is my favorite pastime. Well, my second favorite pastime…
I got to spill my guts and hear everyone else spill theirs. There are some people that let time stand still when it comes to friendships, thank goodness.
It was amazing to bounce from person to person, letting the years melt away between us.
I got quality time with my family, and had nice chats with my aunt. Being one of my favorite people, it was nice to catch up with her. I’ve been sitting in the same swivel island stool for literally twenty years watching her do dishes and wipe the counters as we chat about everything and nothing. She’s more like a sister than an aunt, and has the best western advice a girl can get. It’s a kind of comfort that’s hard to explain, but sitting at that island having those chats is almost as grounding as looking to Pikes Peak to make sure it didn’t change overnight. No matter what the circumstances of our lives, there will always be an island somewhere to sit at and a counter to wipe.
All of those moments were wonderful, as they should be. And then the quiet moments would come...the mornings without a plan, or the afternoon with noone scheduled.
And this is where I know I have work to do, and I’m not entirely sure where to start.
I’ve traveled all over the country, and I’ve always done the same thing: outrun my own shadow. I guess the only interesting thing I haven’t done in my travels is go to a baby naming party with a Nepalese family in a traditional Gunyou Cholo which was too small for me at the Golden Corral after I threw up from being hungover. But a girl can dream that it’ll happen someday.
I know better now than to try and outrun myself. The Me that I used to think would stay home when I was within Pikes Peak’s eye shot would always find where I was. I learned long enough ago that that there isn’t another, better Me somewhere else. There isn’t a place that I’m better, or where I can be more of myself, or where people love me more.
But what I still don’t know is what to do when I feel unsettled in those quieter moments. Do you keep busy and see more people? Do you pack in hikes and drives and activities to wring out every single moment on your short trip? Do you force yourself to sit with the itchy feeling of being alone, letting yourself hear the blood rushing in your ears until your grit your teeth trying not to go crazy with the sound of your own thoughts?
I don’t know either.
I can’t decide if I’m really brave and doing hard, but necessary things, or if i’m just...you know...Catholic. #SufferingNeedlessly
So I did the next best thing: what felt right in the moment, and what I knew was in line with what I valued.
One day I woke up and decided to go to my college’s bookstore and spend too much money. I love giving gifts.
In the same day I spent time hiking to an old bluff where I would sit for a little privacy while I looked at Pikes Peak. I also love reflecting and writing. Sometimes I’d study there on that bluff, or listen to music, or just look. I couldn’t believe the spot was still there, so I sat and took in the feeling.
It was weird to be there after so long, looking at the same exact view, in such a different life than when I was eighteen. Who knew then where I’d be now? Gone are the days of feeling so lost in my own mind that I thought I would never find my way out.
Being there last week was an odd sensation of having to shed a skin, but almost not being ready. And the way the sun was hitting Pikes Peak at that time of day, it was as if she was saying, “I’ve been waiting for this.”
The next day I decided I would take the drive up her. It’s a freaking drive. And it’s hard to breathe unless you’re one of the sherpa natives from downtown, or like a goat or something.
I mean, there’s an actual point where trees stop growing because there isn’t enough oxygen. Trees!
It is the coolest and simultaneously most terrifying thing, and I love it. I wrote half a blog up there, I ate about a thousand donuts (they’re world famous), and bought an ornament for my mom.
It was a weird trip to make, being by myself. I’ve been up to the summit of Pikes Peak at least a billion times, but never alone.
Again with the stifling freedom.
Aloneness is impossible, I’ve decided. We just weren’t built for it. Plus, now I have SnapChat, and I’m sort of all over it...but in like a 34 year old who shouldn’t be allowed to use technology way.
No, we weren’t built for being alone, but maybe it’s not something that we need to mourn. I guess I can’t speak for you, but for me maybe it’s more an issue of where I’m giving my freedom. It’s effort to give the gift of myself, and all that jazz.
Maybe it was the altitude and the lack of red blood cells going to my brain, but as I was telling a family from Texas all about the history of Pikes Peak and Colorado Springs, I sort of realized that I am actually a damn gift.
Why am I spending so much time grabbing onto the first thing that seems ok enough to get me through a tough time? Why is that thing usually a person? Why would I spend so much time and energy trying to convince myself that I should accept mediocrity? Why do I give myself such a hard time for not wanting to settle? Shouldn’t I want the best for myself? Is the attention I’m getting really worth the headache and heartache of knowing I’ve let someone else down...again?
I’ve been spending so much time thinking that I’m flawed and wondering what’s wrong with me for not knowing who I am by now, that I haven’t stopped to think that maybe I was just misplacing where I was giving this juicy Harry and David freaking gift that is my sexy-ass self.
Yo, I’m fabulous. And I’m so happy to give myself to the people I give myself to. Every moment of my freedom that I give to someone else is something that I wish I could wrap up and present to them.
Not because I’m overly into myself (read: I so am).
What I mean is that the vacuum I sometimes feel in those moments when I’m scared of my thoughts could be redirected into recharging my batteries so I can give myself to the people that I actually value.
That’s the feeling I’ve been looking for: the feeling of promise that I’m heading in the right direction with all of the energy I can actually spare. I’m looking for a feeling as unchanging as Pikes Peak...something sustainable.
The vacations that feel almost too good to be true, aren’t sustainable, sure. But it doesn’t mean that they aren’t true in part. That’s still me, even if I feel more whole when I see the Me I wish I was in the reflection in a new city.
It’s me, both of us, and we’re just going to have to figure out which direction to look in as we figure this shit out. That’s the whole heart of this nonsense. There isn’t a magic place, or a magic partner, or a pill, or a book, or a blog (except for this one), that will change things and make you more whole than any other place, partner, pill, etc.
But there is one thing that can help: knowing deep down in the cockles of your tiny black heart that you’ve been through worse. No matter what kind of heartache, or upheaval, or confusion, or grief, or sadness, or fear, or all of the above...you’ve been through this before in one way or another. That’s how I know you can get through this one.
I know because, I have the altitude sometimes to see things the way Pikes Peak sees me through my tough stuff. It takes a different viewpoint to see things more clearly.
Coming home from a place that has made me feel wonderful every day wasn’t easy, but Pikes Peak will always be there, so I don’t need to run to her like I used to. Plus, I really like my new Me at least half the time now, which is something.
On my way back down to the land of oxygen from the summit of Pikes Peak, I thought of the people who I’d like to share her with. I’m very proud of my mountain, and sort of covet her like she’s this thing I could bring to show and tell in school. And I thought of my niece, Zoie. She was born looking at this mountain, after all. I didn’t know what to bring back for Zoie, so I picked a few small rocks off of the face of Pikes Peak. I took my time and really looked at each one, trying to find ones that I felt really told her story. I think she would have liked ones I picked for Zoie. She wants me to share her, and to have the reminder that her solidness is portable, and transferable.
Zoie loved them. Maybe I can take her on a train ride to Colorado Springs when she's nine too.