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WOW: Rocky Mountain National Park

“I’m Like a Bird” by Nelly Furtado came on the radio as we flicked through XM Radio across Colorado. I made Brandon go back. He doesn’t love that song, but he also doesn’t know the girl that loved that song, that needed that song in 2001 when it came out.

We rolled into the north side of Denver, where our friends live, late after stopping for Cane’s chicken strips in Littleton. As we drove across Colorado earlier in the day, I thought about all of the people I know who live here, either as transplants or natives, who have intersected our lives at different times. There’s power in knowing your place in the world, your physical place; it grounds you, it gives angles and curves to who you are. Driving through a place you’ve never been does something to the memories of people you haven’t seen in years. So this is your place! So this is the geography that defines you.

We stayed in Denver with two of our oldest friends that we’ve known together as a couple; in fact, I met Brandon and this friend at a church picnic 20 years ago. He told our kids how he wasn’t going to leave the church parking lot until Brandon chased me down and asked me out to lunch. We haven’t seen this couple in at least five years, perhaps more, and the last time we were actively engaged in each other’s lives was right after we got married. I used to babysit their son in the afternoons after school. 

Their son is in the Air Force now.

When they knew us best, they knew different versions of us, and us of them, just as the other people that came to mind as we drove through steep cliffs and tree blanketed mountains have known different versions of us at different times in our lives. It’s as if I’m visiting these different versions of myself as we trek across the country, introducing myself to my old self again for the first time.

Our friend is a police officer out here and has lived in the Denver area now for 17 years. He drove us in their SUV into Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park. I sat in the backseat with our kids while Brandon rode shotgun. The two of them reminisced, laughed and chatted, telling and retelling the stories that made us, our children interjecting questions as we rode along. 

It took me back to another trip, with a former boyfriend, whose best friend showed up unexpectedly as we made our way from Sydney, Australia to the southern island of New Zealand. I was 18, a new Christian, torn between my love for my boyfriend and my love of Christ, certain I had to make a choice between them. When his friend arrived, I was bumped into the backseat while the attention stayed centered in the front, focused on their lives, their plans, and their dreams, with no space in between for me. I was young, in love, needy, and growing tired of defining my life by the men I was with. Being out of my home place had been both liberating and disorienting. It had given me new roots. It had given me new wings.

“I’m like a bird,” I sang throughout that trip, telling myself and Eric, “I’ll only fly away. I don’t know where my soul is, I don’t know where my home is, but baby, all I need for you to know is…” 

I was that girl. That girl was the skeletal formation of the girl Brandon met at church a year later. She is 20 years older now, riding in the backseat with her three tween and teen children. She knows where her soul is. She knows where her home is. Her love is rare, her love is true. She knows that wings don’t mean you have to fly alone. Wings don’t mean there isn’t room for a whole flock of birds in your world.

We drove into Estes Park and up into the mountains, our friend guiding and narrating while we hung our heads out the window and gawked at another massive natural masterpiece. We climbed over a recent rock fall from the 80s or 90s that created a new landscape. We saw a moose bathing in a lake and a bighorn sheep creeping along the valley nearby. We drove through groves of aspen, all clones of each other and interconnected through a shared root system. We drove through evergreen patches that had been eaten by pine beetles, leaving behind the spruce they don’t seem to like as much. We drove past acres and acres of wildflowers in bloom for their short season on the tundra before the snow covers them again. We drove by elk grazing and lazing about on steep hillsides. We drove up and up, until we reached Alpine Visitor Center, 11,796 feet above sea level at Fall River Pass, one mile west of the highest point on Trail Ridge Road and four miles east of the Continental Divide at Milner Pass (according to Google). It’s the highest facility of its kind, according to the National Park Service.

Trail Ridge Road is the highest paved continuous road in the United States. As we drove, our friend tried to find the state flower, columbine, among all of the buttercup and bluebells, St. John’s Wort and clover, aster and phlox. Eventually we spied some. We worked our way back below the tree line, where the habitat is still harsh, where trees only grow branches on one side of their trunk because of the wind. 

Even on the tundra, life is adapting, finding room for abundance in all of this wilderness. 

We exited the park and parked in Estes Park to shop and eat ice cream before we drove back to our friends’ home, listening to music and quoting movie lines from our days when we were in closer proximity to each other’s lives, remembering who we were and celebrating who we are now.

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