For catholics, the Vatican is an important place, muslims have Mecca, mormons have Salt Lake and upstate New York. the heathens of the world, myself included, find other places to reflect and grow. my holy sites are found in nature, music, and in-between moments of exploration.
Don’t get me wrong, I love architectural sites and ancient religious grounds from a historical perspective. I love to dream of the historical significance of a place and how it has impacted the globe, good and bad, from its existence and relevance in society. However, the deep healing and emotional management I need comes from beautiful places and moments.
This was especially true recently when I went to the Maroon Bells, one of the most iconic destinations in Colorado. The view is gorgeous but the experience was deeper for me, which brings me to my grandmother.
In 1949, my grandmother was 20 and in august of that year she married my grandfather in Fort Morgan, Colorado where he was a radio show host and maintenance man. At 22 my grandfather was trying to have money for bills, a new wife, and attend college classes when he could to get a degree in engineering. Money was tight, but they made the most of their resources. For a honeymoon they loaded up their 20 year old (1929) Model A and headed to Denver.
They could only afford one night at a nice hotel, and selected the Brown Palace. When they drove up the valet was shocked at the car but proceeded to attempt to take it. My grandfather stopped him “Do you know how to drive that?” the valet shook his head and my grandfather ended up parking for him. I don’t think my grandparents stayed at a nice hotel again in 55 years of marriage, notoriously budget conscious as they were.
The next morning the headed into the mountains for the rest of their honeymoon, a camping trip near the Maroon Bells. My grandmother would tell stories on how all these new cars were overheating as they drove up Independence Pass outside of Aspen, but their Model A kept chugging all the way to their final destination. From what I know, their time in the area was lovely.
However, the biggest piece I took away from years of conversation was that I needed to go see the Maroon Bells and take in their splendor on my own! My grandmother passes away over five years ago, but those ideas sat in importance on my mind.
This year meant I cancelled most of my travel plans out of state, but it also meant I focused on local activities to social distance and see things I never had. This came together when I somehow got a camping spot right by the Maroon Bells in the perfect fall color window. I turned it into a longer camping and hiking trip with a friend and we had a blast even with mishaps.
It took me until almost 30, but I finally made it, and the truth is that they are truly more spectacular in person. The magic came from the morning after our night camping, I woke up early and got a parking spot. I set up with other photographers and watched the sun rise.
The sun rise at the Maroon Bells has to be when the mountain really comes alive. You see the peaks turn to rich maroon, the detailed intimacy of the snow is more acute and in autumn the trees bring everything into symphony. I got teary eyed at such natural grace and wonder. I felt my grandmother’s presence in every moment.
It’s hard to not experience some things with those you love, specifically when they are no longer with us. Yet, for just a few moments it felt like she was there, patting my arm and grinning from ear to ear, thrilled I took the time to just be and be consumed by the mountains and woods she also loved.
To commemorate the trip, I recreated my favorite photo of her, posed a little like a pin up- awkwardly looking into the camera, in glasses, perfect hair. I love the photo because she looks so young and free, surrounded by nature, in love, on her honeymoon, living a life she loved. I know that even as old age took many things from her physically, that adventurous and passionate spunk never left her. I also know those same traits live in me.