Sunflowers are blooming now in northeast Colorado. Between Greeley and Loveland they line Highway 34 in both directions, accented by a golden prairie grass that grows knee-high in the center divider. The grass looks like a thin, wispy wheat. It bends over in the wind that never stops blowing. I’m driving west, alone except for John Prine on the radio, and we ain’t hurtin’ nobody. Ahead the Rocky Mountains rise up from the high plains, looking blue-gray and blurred behind the haze. There is not much snow on the high peaks this time of year, but that will soon change. Gray clouds building over them mean someone’s getting rain later today. The mountains make their own weather.
I went to Colorado for the first time when I was thirteen. My parents had a rich friend who loaned us her vacation home in Vail. It was on that trip I was hit by the thunderbolt, as the Sicilian’s are known to say. We were driving in the mountains one afternoon, and we stopped at a market in a working-class neighborhood of Leadville. I saw a girl across the road, sitting on the stoop of a neglected house, one of many neglected houses on the street. She was about my age. She wore a sweatshirt that was too big for her. She had the face of an angel. Even from a distance away, something about her affected me like no one ever had before. I wanted to take her away from the poverty I assumed she lived in, as if she was some kind of Cinderella and I was her prince. A few minutes later we drove away. She never knew I existed. I never forgot her. I was a stupid kid.
I’m not an overly religious man, but if someone said to me, “Show me proof of God”, I would say, “Look in Rocky Mountain National Park.” I would tell them to drive on Trail Ridge Road, to the heights above the timber line, where Blue Columbine grows in the alpine tundra and bearded mountain goats look down on you from bare rocks. Park your car and go off by yourself. Listen to the wind. It is the only sound you will hear. Look to the northwest at the Never Summer Range, whose rocky peaks wear a cloak of snow all year. Go in the fall, if you can, and see aspen leaves shimmer in the sun like gold medallions. Then come back and tell me if you found the proof of God you sought. Your heart is hard if the answer is no.
There is a road near Winter Park that winds high up into the back country. At the place where it stops there are alpine lakes, meadows brimming with wildflowers and mountain vistas that will take your breath away. It’s a rugged gravel road, rife with dips and holes and wash-outs. The going is slow.
I had been driving on the road for about a mile when I saw a young man walking up ahead. He carried a long, odd looking skateboard under his arm. It had ribbed rubber tires, smaller versions of the tires you would see on an all-terrain vehicle. As I got close, he turned and stood in the middle of the road, facing my car. There was no room to go around him. It seemed like an aggressive thing for him to do, but for some reason I didn’t feel threatened, so I stopped. He leaned in the passenger window and asked me for a ride. I said okay, and for the first and only time in my life I picked up a hitchhiker.
I guessed he was in his early twenties. He had long, sandy hair and an easy-going way about him. He said he was a ski bum. He spent winters on the ski slopes in Winter Park and summers hiking and skateboarding in the mountains. He had a job, but he worked part-time, because he needed only enough money to pay his share of the rent, feed himself and buy ski lift tickets. He didn’t say so, but I suspected he also budgeted a little something for pot. I found myself so envious of this young man I could hardly stand it. He lived the carefree, vagabond life I had always dreamed of, responsible only to himself, beholden to no one. When I was his age I was married. I worked in an office and wore tie.
We rode and talked for a nice little while. I was surprised how much I enjoyed his company. Just before we reached the end of the road he asked me to stop and let him out. He thanked me for the ride, mounted his skateboard, and I watched him grow small in the rear-view mirror as he descended toward the bottom, fourteen miles below.