First Sight

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Since I am heading back to Colorado today it seems the right time to post this tidbit from the second chapter of All the Wild That Remains, “First Sight”:

 First Sight

The land buckles and rises.


For a thousand miles it rolls out, sometimes up and down and sometimes flat like a carpet, all the way from the old crumbling eastern mountains. But then comes a kink in the carpet. A big kink. The continent lifts itself up, its back rising, and most homo sapiens who are seeing that lift for the first or second or even the fifty-third time feel a corresponding lift in their chests. A feeling of possibility, of risk, of excitement.


That was what I felt, at least, as the West announced itself. What had been a sometimes imperceptible rise for the last few hundred miles suddenly became an undeniable one. The continent convulsed and lifted, mountains thrusting into the sky.


It is an inherently American moment. The same moment that trappers and early pioneers wrote about in their diaries. That mystical moment when East becomes West. The place where the country finally gets bored with itself and reaches for the sky.

Here is the eighteen-year-old Ed Abbey’s reaction upon first seeing the sight he had dreamed of: “There on the western horizon, under a hot, clear sky, sixty miles away, crowned with snow (in July), was a magical vision, a legend come true: the front range of the Rocky Mountains. An impossible beauty, like a boy’s first sight of an undressed girl, the image of those mountains struck a fundamental chord in my imagination that has sounded ever since.”

My first sight came at about 130 miles out. A hazy blue outline like a whale half submerged. I would hate to argue with Abbey, but the mountains I was seeing were not really the front range, or at least not the front line of the front range, but the mountains behind them, mountains that, as I got closer, would be foreshortened out of sight by the view of those in front. These farther mountains loomed, bald for the most part after the weak winter but a few tiger-striped with snow. For someone coming toward them from the plains they stood as a clear statement of change, serving notice you were entering a different realm. They shimmered like a mirage but they were not a mirage. Ledge after ledge, ridge after ridge.

I rolled down the window and it was cool. A godshaft of dying light slanted down, coming from behind Longs Peak. The weather had broken, but all summer the mountains had been on fire, and those fires, the most destructive in the state’s history, had scarred the hills both to the north and south of Denver. In June the mountains had been hidden behind a veil of smoke. And yet there they were, and, despite the fires, despite the drought, despite myself, I was feeling that old feeling and getting excited.

Most of us who were born in the East have stories about our first time seeing the western mountains. My initial sighting came when I drove out here after college with two good friends, and from the far back of a Toyota Tercel, where I had been banished after falling asleep behind the wheel back in Alabama, felt my jaw drop upon seeing the hazy, trippy mountains of New Mexico. The next time I visited the interior West I came from San Francisco and the next on a train trip from Massachusetts to Denver where I pulled in at night. It was the fourth trip, my third from east to west, that stands out and retains something of personal myth. I was thirty years old and had spent the previous year back in my depressed and depressing hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts. I was there because my girlfriend of seven years had, with my urging, chosen to attend medical school in Worcester, and I’d thought myself mentally strong enough to withstand a return to that dying place. I was wrong. The first few months I sunk into a morass of depression and unemployment, and that was before I found out I had testicular cancer. My operation occurred the week of my thirtieth birthday, followed by a month of radiation treatment, which sapped me of energy and hope. But it was in the midst of radiation that I was delivered from Worcester through a kind of deus ex machina. The December before I’d applied to graduate schools, but in keeping with the overall failure of that year I had been rejected by all of them. All except one. That one was in Boulder, Colorado, and by the next August, recovering now from radiation and growing stronger, I found myself heading there.

Declared clean from cancer, I was so excited that I drove across the country in little more than two days. My car, a Buick Electra, was overdue for inspection but it seemed to make no sense to register it in Massachusetts when I would soon be living in a whole new state. The unregistered car leant a western outlaw element to the trip, as did the fact that that each day, after my coffee buzz wore off, I turned to sipping beer. I drove through almost the entire second night in that manner, grabbing a hotel for a few hours near the Colorado line. Seeing the Rockies the next morning at dawn–the peaks white and full and completely unexpected–was one of the most elevated moments I have ever experienced. It hit me with a jolt: my new life! Had John Denver himself come on the radio I would have started weeping and whatever did come on I assure you I warbled along. I felt real joy then, and hope. It was a feeling of coming back from the dead, a feeling of renewal, and it is a feeling that I will forever associate with going west.


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