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ELWAYVILLE: Lost in Place

Rocky Mountain sunsets are the reason I will never leave the West.

On a recent flight back home from New York, I took pictures of the clouds as we emerged from a thunderstorm. The range of colors split the sky, with purple castles of clouds, a bloody sunset, and below, the golden glow of the earth.

In one photo, I felt certain I captured the image of a blue-crowned angel facing west, riding a spreading throne of cumulus. It occurred to me that as a Colorado kid, I always thought every angel faced the West.

Why? Because any fool among us can see heaven in a sunset, no matter our thoughts on the miracle of every moment, or the potential promise of the afterlife. And in what I have been privileged to see of this world, it’s my humble opinion that Rocky Mountain sunsets are among this planet’s very best.

Toward the Sunrise

In the Rockies, setting suns and mountain ranges provide a daily sense of direction—a kind of constant North Star, with the homing pulse of Polaris emanating from the profile of every peak—as well as a sense of place

My wife, who also grew up in Colorado, and I went to college at St. Lawrence University, in upstate New York. It’s a small, close-knit school, with just over 2,000 undergraduates and a tiny haven for skiers, since it’s just a short drive from Lake Placid, which hosted two Winter Olympics, and a half hour from Canada, with negative-30 degree cold spells in the winter which can often last a week.

We both loved it: the Adirondack isolation, East Coast exposure, life-or-death collegiate hockey grudges, and thrillingly cold Saturdays when ice storms swept across the campus and everyone collected in a room or one of three downtown bars to celebrate the shivering smiles and bone-warming reassurance of human warmth, and maybe play a couple hands of Pitch.

Angels Facing West

We made friends for life. We made the kinds of memories that still sneak into our dreams at night. But when we graduated, we flew like fugitives back west. It turns out, the lack of mountains on the horizon could confuse us in the middle of the day, leaving us wondering which direction to look.

In the east, trees hide the sunsets, as does the curving distance of the world to the horizon where Denverites expect instead to see the rising silhouettes of peaks of titanic rock.

There’s also the humidity, which, as any traveling athlete or summer wedding guest knows, can suck out your high-altitude superpowers like Kryptonite. There’s even something foreign in the lush tangle of trees, the giant lawns and ponds as big as lakes, something like the drunken ease of impressionism as opposed to nature in the abstract. There’s an almost over-bearing leisure of being—of bounty—where in the west we want stark, jagged borders between us and the stars. We want to be in a place where outside every door, there’s the opportunity for a daily epic.

Bringing it all Back Home

I went back to New York, just outside Manhattan, for a kind of reunion in June, to see a Dead band at Garcia’s in The Capitol Theater in Port Chester and dance and laugh with about 100 of the best people I have ever met. For 48 hours, I felt a deep sense of nostalgia for the part of the country I loved, but never completely embraced. I envied the ease of access to the ocean. The big(ger) cities. Traveling from state to state in a matter of hours. The fall colors in Vermont.

Then I got on that cloud-washed plane headd back West. As I drove home from the airport, I could feel the Emerald City promise of the East Coast being sucked out of me by the famish of drought. The hush of dry wind and the hoarse catch of moisture-less breath. Already there were fires in Durango and New Mexico, with evacuations and scorched homes, and untamed infernos that by July would be dwarfed by what came next.

In this warming world, wildfire has become the signature symptom of the season. Friends have lost everything. Woodland creatures have seen their habitat turned to ash. We are becoming refugees from ourselves, ready to run from the changes we have wrought. But we love each other more because of it. We offer each other a helping hand, a bed, sustenance, and a chance to get back on our feet. We stand together on the frontier of the future, with emergency bags packed by the car, ready to ride the phoenix. For better, and worse.

We are, all of us, looking West.

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