My mother always wanted to see the Rockies. She was a mountain girl herself, born in 1930s West Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Her lineage was West Virginia hillbilly stock.
Her childhood was spent in a log cabin in a small valley (a “holler,” as they called it), on Tug Fork Creek. Her father was a hard scrabble coal miner-a good provider; her mother tended the homestead, was a self taught bluegrass guitar picker and piano player, and took care of the four children.
The Blue Ridge Mountains weren’t as dramatic as the Rockies. They were rounded, covered in a mixed broadleaf forest that often seemed impenetrable, dark, and foreboding - at least that’s the way my mother described it.
In contrast, the Rockies had open, park-like Ponderosa forests in the foothills, and stark grey lines of snow blanketed rock that pointed up at the blue sky in a way that called to my mother’s desire for transcendence.
Her experience with them wasn’t direct.
It came from books and stories her great grandmother told of crossing the range on her way to Oregon at the turn of the 20th Century. Her encounters with big animals like Moose and Bison, her descriptions the expansive valleys flowing with clearwater rivers, and a mysterious interaction she had with an indigenous person sparked a certain fascination in my mother’s mind, one that helped her imagine that other landscapes were out there beyond the one she knew in industrial West Virginia.
The closest my mom got to the Rockies was in 1982.
We were in the highlands of Arizona (my mom, myself, and my 16 year old brother Daniel), travelling across the States from Detroit to Los Angeles. Our car was our home as we motored through the nightmare of American dreamland.
In the previous three years we had experienced a lot of hardship.
My mom, like thousands of other autoworkers at the time, had been laid off from her job at one of Chrysler’s factories during the economic collapse that contributed to the devastation of Detroit in the late 1970s.
Right around that same time she had met and fallen in love with a college professor (aptly named, Dick). They had a Las Vegas wedding and honeymoon, we moved into Dick’s home soon thereafter, and for a very brief moment, we all tried to integrate into one family.
While Dick was secure financially, charming, and at first seemed to love my mom, and maybe even liked Daniel and I, it soon became clear that he was a “controlled” alcoholic with a proclivity toward emotional abuse and tyrannical control over mom. Things got ugly in that house. As any child of an alcoholic will attest, booze can conjure up the meanest spirit in the heavy drinker. Add to this my mother’s own fierce independence and fighting spirit and you had frightening quarrels between them.
We left Dick’s place one morning shortly after he left for work.
Mom pawned her wedding and engagement rings, as well as every other item of value she had. By early evening we were on the road toward Houston, Texas, where a boom in the oil industry attracted many laid off workers from the rust belt who were seeking opportunity like miners during the gold rush.
Houston didn’t go well.
We were third wave northerners who arrived to the promised land too late. Instead of a wide open job market, mom applied for work by standing in line with hundreds of other desperate people from Michigan and Ohio, all holding resumes and literally hungry to land whatever job was available. There wasn’t enough work. Tent cities popped up, mostly populated by “The Yanks,” as Texans called us.
We ended up living in our car. It got worse by the day. I witnessed a man getting stabbed multiple times outside a diner near Preston Street, and sat across from my brother as he played Russian roulette with a .38 Special. Even though I was only eleven years old, by that time I was carrying a lot.
Dick offered to take us back. Mom accepted, of course. I mean, what were her options? We were literally one car repair away from living on streets of Houston’s Montrose District. In all honesty, there must have been some part of my mom that still loved him, and carried some sadness that things hadn’t worked out between them. To Dick’s credit, he was intelligent, could talk literature, music, and art, all of which were great passions of mom's (she was an artist herself - a singer - who had been granted a full scholarship to a music conservatory in her late teens, but my grandfather wouldn’t allow her to accept it). Dick promised to change; he would go into detox; see a therapist, they’d take a trip to Martha’s Vineyard. Just like when we first moved in with him, it was good for a while, but less than a year later, we were fleeing again, this time en route to Los Angeles.
My oldest brother, Chuck, was living out there and seemed to be making it. Mom also had a couple of friends from the auto factory who moved west and were doing alright. They invited us to crash with them in their double wide trailer in Anaheim until we got on our feet. Really though, at that point I think mom was just shooting in the dark. She needed to get away from Dick; needed to get out of Detroit; needed to do something different and she was willing to try anything.
But in truth, who knows?
Poverty and desperation don’t often make the best foundation for sound decision making. Throw in issues around unresolved childhood trauma like my mother carried after being placed into residential school when my grandparents divorced, as well as a lack of family resources and support, not to mention living during a period of economic collapse, and things were just going terribly wrong for us.
And so there we were, the three of us motoring through Arizona.
Everything we owned was contained in a pile of trash bags in the trunk of our Chevy Caprice Classic. We had a little less than 500 miles to go before reaching Los Angeles, and a little less than $400 left. We weren’t eating much. Most of the cash we had was on reserve for gasoline to get there. There was already a lot of stress in that car, but then as we drove through Arizona the snow began to fall.
It is hard to imagine encountering a blizzard in the desert southwest, but in the mountains around Flagstaff, above the Mogollon Plateau, it happens - especially in mid-December which was right around the time that we were travelling through there.
The storm enveloped us. Our tires were going bald so we slid all over the place. It was a whiteout. A winter storm warning was broadcast by the local radio station. The announcer said Highway 40 should only be travelled in case of emergency, and even then, only with winter tires and chains.
A choice had to be made: keep driving and risk our lives, or spend a significant portion of our gas money on a motel room for the night.
We chose to take a room.
The hotel clerk insisted we pay for the one with two queen sized beds. Mom argued. She said we didn’t need it, we could take a room with just a double bed - my brother and I could sleep in it, she said - she would sleep on the floor. Her argument was irrelevant to the hotel clerk.
If we wanted the room, we were paying for the one with two queen beds.
I was excited when mom handed over the cash. I still thought of a motel as a place where people stayed when they were on vacation. My brother got one of the beds to himself, mom and I shared the other. I stayed up watching TV, wanting the experience to be fun (again, like a family on vacation) but the heaviness in the room was absolute and depressing.
In the morning the storm had passed. We went to the motel restaurant, ordered a single plate of French toast and split it three ways. From the window, we could see some of the low clouds lifting, revealing the snow covered heights of the surrounding mountains. These were the first proper mountains with steep crags and big meadowlands that any of us had seen in person. Their presence was not merely topographical, but powerful like a gathering of ancient silent and supreme beings. When the waitress came to refill the coffee, mom asked if these mountains were the Rockies. The waitress chuckled at the question and shook her head.
“Nope. Ain’t no Rocky Mountains in Arizona. Those right there are the San Francisco Peaks.”
Mom took a sip from her coffee. I could tell by the slight tightness of her lips that she was both embarrassed and disappointed. Quietly, just above a whisper, she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Mark my words-one day we will see them.”
As I remember the details of this story 40 years later, I am laying in my tent on the bank of a clearwater river that runs through the heart of the Canadian Rockies. The great spine of the Continental Divide rises above me in the near distance, a wall of sharp peaked sedimentary rock formed at a time that predates most life on Earth.
It’s an ancient, ancestral place.
Within this range that stretches almost 5,000 kilometres, from New Mexico to the far north of western Canada, I first encountered the presence of the living Grizzly Bear, some 28 years back. I speak of it often, because it was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. The energy I felt was powerful enough to compel me out of my life in Detroit, and imagine the possibility of a different way of being. Following the shambling path of the bear has led me on a journey to places of such wild beauty, depth, wonder, and wholeness. Being close to them has put me closer to the oldest, most authentic part of myself. I credit much of who I am today with those animals and that mountain range.
I have made a pilgrimage to the Rockies almost every year since that first encounter. I travel on foot or by bicycle, getting as deep in as I can. I don’t always go back to the place where the original meeting occurred, but to various power spots I know throughout the range. Whenever I return I get the feeling that I am in the presence of a very old, welcoming, and trusted friend. I make little offerings to the mountains and to the animals that inhabit them (especially the Grizzly Bears). These arise in the form of tiny prayers and poems, and I sing spontaneous verses of reverence to the invisible forces that slink in the forests, or swirl in the wind. I will often write these down on pieces of paper than place them into the campfire at night, so their energy can be released as billowing plumes of smoke.
And always, I make a special offering to my mother, thanking her, for even though she didn’t get to see the Rockies herself, she was the one who originally pointed me in the direction of my own transcendence by making me aware of the existence of this great sweeping uplift of ancient rocks
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