Rocky Mountain High
“Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear
of the simple things he cannot comprehend…”
— John Denver, Rocky Mountain High
I have known many homes, some for long stretches of time, others for just a handful of months. Each move is its own sort of pilgrimage, embarking from comfort into the unfamiliar until the unfamiliar becomes home again. Place has become a marker of formation for me, like cairns on a mountain trail. Tennessee, North Carolina, Colombia, North Carolina again, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Colorado…and in just a few days: California.
Growing up, we moved just enough to feel a bit disconnected from the place we eventually settled in, the place my parents still reside, the place I met my husband. We were welcomed into a community with the sort of deep roots that date back multiple generations. At church, I met other kids who had known each other since infancy. And I wondered if there was a place for me when circles appeared closed off even just 12 years into life. This move at the vulnerable age of 12 was the first time I experienced the deep loneliness of unfamiliarity. I sobbed in the back of an empty U-HAUL on a hot July day, tears and sweat streaming down my face, feeling the weightiness of starting over again.
But like anything, time aids in transforming an unfamiliar place into a home. That day, 22 years ago, while I cried alone in a moving van, my husband was mere feet away. He was unknown to me, still very much a kid just helping his family welcome ours to town. But 12 years later, he married me. A year or so into marriage, he moved out of state for the first time in his life. And six years into marriage, at the age of 27, he experienced the phenomenon John Denver sings about: the Colorado Rocky Mountain high…
We spent a week driving from Georgia to Denver; we milked our military leave to drive several hundred miles out of the way through South Dakota to see the Black Hills and camp in the Badlands. We were fatigued, emotionally raw. Jordan had recently returned from a seven month deployment. I’d been in the early stages of a great spiritual undoing for a while, carrying unspoken church grief and unspoken theological questions. But I’ll never forget leaving the Black Hills for Nebraska and then Wyoming, and catching that first glimpse of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains beyond the car windows. Storm clouds gathered to the left of us, but to the right, the Rockies stood as iridescent beacons, guiding us all the way from Cheyenne towards Denver.
John Denver writes of “coming home to a place he’d never been before…” And goodness, our first glimpse of a vast landscape and the Rockies slowly emerging from flat, grassy earth was like a homecoming for Jordan and I. We were born again that summer, baptized by cold mountain water, awestruck by vistas we’d only ever seen in photos. We spent the next few months venturing out into nature’s cathedrals, training our lungs to adapt to the altitude, training our legs to traverse greater and greater distances.
It was 10 months of Colorado bliss until Covid arrived, quieting our vibrant city street, dulling our joy. The spiritual unraveling I’d been holding back hit me in those quiet days alone in our apartment, overwhelmed again by deep, oppressive fear and loneliness. In the pain of uncertainty, our new home didn’t feel so much like home anymore. I felt like my 12-year-old self sobbing in the back of a U-Haul, terrified of what was coming, uncertain if anything would ever feel normal again…
. . .
Some of you all have been here since the beginning of this Substack, which was born after a lonely period many (if not all) of you can relate to. None of us came through the last few years mentally unscathed. I took my words and my questions and started writing again for the first time in years, this time without self-censorship. I wrote from pain. I wrote from trauma. I wrote from anger. I wrote from awe for the place we’d landed in. I wrote because everything I’d ever known was crumbling beneath me and I thought maybe others felt the same.
Four years ago, we traveled westward as different people away from certainty and ease into great unknown. This place will forever be a marker of great spiritual anguish and a gentle, presiding presence. I’ve encountered the Spirit in nature’s cathedrals, early morning birdsong, dew-kissed wild flowers. In Colorado, I learned to look beyond manmade structures and Sunday morning services for God…not because I’m anti-church but because I needed reprieve from infrastructure. I craved the sounds of nature. I slowly let go of any guilt and started practicing astonishment. On Colorado trails, I observed the incredible complexity of ecosystems, the countless components working together for life to flourish year after year, eon after eon. My reverence for the oldness and the sacredness grew. I became captivated by the idea of trees holding stories, forests containing wisdom…There is purpose in the created order. There is purpose in our created selves. For the first time in my life, I began to believe I am no wretch. I am, instead, beloved.
. . .
Like John Denver, my life is now full of wonder. I am continuing to be formed as I always will be. I will return again and again to Colorado with gratitude for this land that is not my land, but a land that welcomed us for a time. I observed, never plundered. Honored, never harmed. I learned to stay on trails, leash my dog, allow flowers to grow wildly. I found a therapist and began the hard work of self-healing. I found people with similar and different stories. We foraged for mushrooms and camped beneath the Grand Tetons and cooked paella on open and contained campfires.
In Colorado, lostness nearly broke me but Love found me. I grieve to go, and I hope for whatever waits for us in the next place.