“He was born in the summer of his 27th year
Comin’ home to a place he’d never been before
He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again
You might say he found a key for every door
When he first came to the mountains his life was far away
On the road and hangin’ by a song
But the string’s already broken and he doesn’t really care
It keeps changin’ fast and it don’t last for long.”
–John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High”
For the uninitiated, the first disappointment upon landing in Colorado is that Denver is not actually atop the Rockies, but sits before them. While Denver is the Mile High City, that altitude comes via a very slow gradient across the continent up to the city limits. The next 10,000 or so feet of the Rockies spring up along the “Front Range”–the long natural battlement that splits the continent like the great spine of a planetary-sized beast. In the flatlands, Denver then, is for gazing upon the Rockies at a distance–hotels charge more for the mountain view.
In the time I had in Denver before a major convention downtown, I wanted to get some of that mountain air. With John Denver’s ode to those atmospherics playing in the rental car, I drove right past Denver and straight along State Route 6 until I hit the mountain wall. I didn’t have to drive long, as a mere 17 miles from the Airport puts me in Golden, Colorado–home to the great Coors Beer empire. Shooting past the home of the “Silver Bullet”, I found the winding roadway that would take me above the flatlanders in Golden and Denver and up high–Rocky Mountain high.
That first entree into the Rockies would take me up a mountain road to the top of Lookout Mountain, an outpost of kitch and good humor that separates the urban Denver from mountainside Colorado. The mountain, at 7700 feet, is a mere foothill compared to the “fifteeners’ out in the distance. The Lariat Loop road gave this flatlander both the whiplash and the vistas he was seeking. Up above the valley, I am always taken by how quiet the landscape becomes. Cars below become muted. The sounds of city life are smothered by the skies.
Atop Lookout, I did not find a secluded vista. Rather, the pinnacle has become a tourist trap. In 1917, the legendary showman, soldier and bison hunter “Buffalo Bill” Cody was buried on Lookout, to keep an eye on Denver. It is fitting that a man who made his living on being a spectacle, a caricature of western life would in death continue to profiteer by amusing city slickers. The Memorial Grove is off to the side of the Pahaska “Teepee”–a roadside diner and expansive bric-a-brac shop. Munching on a Buffalo burger, I sat with Buffalo Bill at his memorial, pondering the oddity upon oddity that I was experiencing. Was this surreality the “Rocky Mountain High?”
No, what John Denver eluded to was not brought on by drugs or irony. The troubadour denied that the ditty was about drugs his entire life. While Coloradans recently snubbed federal edict and legalized marijuana, I found a different sort of high had taken over. Altitude sickness. My strategic error, of taking right for the mountains from the airport without acclimatizing, was a bad move. The only cure for that sensation–which could be fatal–is to get off the mountain. My time on Lookout was brief, but the blast of crisp air and the silence that comes with being 7000 feet above was well worth the nausea.
“He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below
He saw everything as far as you can see
And they say that he got crazy once and he tried to touch the sun
And he lost a friend but kept his memory
Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake”
–John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High”
“And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply
Rocky mountain high.”