“Longer Livin’” read the homey homily on the weathered rustic cabin edged against the Big Thompson River downriver from Estes Park. It was one of those cute commentaries folks tend to paint on the stern of their boats or on the metallic husks of their travel campers, and on this cloudy and sometimes stormy afternoon, the Big Thompson was cascading beautifully and peacefully alongside the highway guiding down from Rocky Mountain National Park.
Interestingly, our drive was on the 46th anniversary of when a 20 ft. wall of water surged through this very canyon and 146 people were “no longer livin’”, including five of whose bodies have never been found — surging right past where this weathered, rustic cabin now sits. My long ago friend from my Denver Post days, Ernie Leyba, who had covered the tragedy for the newspaper, posted the reminder of this sad and deadly anniversary on social media mere moments after I’d pointed out the sign to my son, Aaron, who was driving, and his wife, Michelle, here on holiday from Bergen, Norway.
Forty some years ago Colorado was home, when my work with the Post took me into numerous nooks and crannies of the state, from small towns in the Plains through the mountain passes, from peaches on the West Slope to “wheaties” harvesting the golden grain out in the Plains. This is where I grew up, where I began to become a man despite too many missteps to count, and even now in my late 70s I sometimes cringe on the number of people I may have hurt on my journey of growth.
Earlier in the week, as we drove across those same rolling Plains toward Denver, my eyes kept venturing toward the approaching Front Range mountains hoping to witness another majestic welcome as I had on my career- and life-changing trip back in 1969, entering a world yet to be explored and experienced. On this drive the skies were bluish-gray and overcast, then about a half hour from Denver a peek of the Front Range mountains momentarily broke through the clouds. Staunch and proud, and once again welcoming!
So began our nearly week-long journey of visiting family, a handful of old friends, a beautiful bookstore and an incredible farmer’s market on South Pearl. An old home week with the Norwegian branch, and my other son, Jacob. Midway through we were off to the mountains so Aaron and Michelle could make their traditional horseback trail ride they attempt to schedule on their trips. After hitting the trail on the saddled horses, Urchin and Grain, Rocky Mountain National Park beckoned. We realized going in that we had a limited time frame due to a patio party being hosted by another former “Postie”, Mardy Wilson, in nearby Fort Collins.
Ah, but the mountains. With Michelle at the wheel, we entered the Beaver Meadows entry point before veering off the pavement onto the one lane, one-way Conata Basin Road, for a climb up and through the alpine meadowlands on a picturesque graveled jeep road. It was an interesting trip beyond the physical beauty, for I learned the youngsters from Norway were taken in by the vast and tall mountainous vistas while I sought flora and fauna; they leaned across the front seat grasping views of the massive mountainscapes as I once had while now I craved for quick stops along the pocket meadows on the opposite side for wildflowers featured in palettes of vivid colors.
Apparently the road “engineers” agreed with Aaron and Michelle, for the half-car wide pullouts certainly favored the mountainous views over the pocket meadows on my side of the road. Plus, there were too many cars on the one-lane gravel for her to suddenly stop to allow her eager father-in-law time to jump out for a few moments of floral imagery. I also learned that my viewing of mountainscapes had shifted, for I was now looking for patterns and rhythms of those same shoulders of the valleys and peaks, of how the mountains framed and offset the towering clouds that rose above them, of how they lent themselves to an overall composition rather than as stand alone towering mounds of stone.
It was in the midst of such thought when Michelle suddenly braked the car to point excitedly, “Look! An elk!” Indeed, lazing beside a log and partially hidden by pines and tall grasses was a majestically antlered bull elk. I quickly changed lenses to more closely capture the reclining beast.
For a long while this was my highlight of the drive … until we climbed toward the top of our last pass where an entire herd was easing down a slope of the mountain. Dozens, perhaps, all easily ambling and grazing along their way. Cows and a few bulls, yearlings and calves among them. Moments later, as we capped the apex of the pass, two more elk were spotted at the crest. It was like the topping of a sundae. A few hours earlier, upon entering the park, we joked about even seeing one elk and now this!
My aims for flora and fauna were certainly satisfied despite the steady passings of the numerous pocket meadows with hundreds of wild flowers beckoning from each. Besides the elk and the few flowers I was able to capture on our one stop at a gravelly, toilet-friendly pullout, the mountains with their patterns and rhythms were heavenly. It was splendid afternoon for a photographer, and actually an afternoon I hadn’t expected. After all, it had been four years since we’ve all been together as a family, and to share such a grand experience was godsend. And this doesn’t even factor in seeing my late wife’s family and a few old friends.
As we descended from the gravelly pass past the park exit, ambling along the Big Thompson, my thoughts drifted toward wading the beautiful cascading river with a fly rod angling for a colorful, battling trout or two. Another sense of being back home in the Rockies, however briefly.
I realized while passing through the cascading Big Thompson that these river views truly captured that essence of being back, offering an odd sense of familiarity and comfort. “Longer Livin’” read the sign on the rustic cabin as we traversed the curvy and picturesque Big Thompson Canyon Road toward the Plains, providing an unexpected message that gave this guy a ray of everlasting hope that maybe someday, God willing, we’ll pass this way once again.
Awesome!! I felt like I was there, reading through your account of it. My Mom and I were there July 4th, 1974—-we took the __?__ Falls road, gravel, to the top of the pass, where it proceeded to HAIL on us. (on the 4th of July) I saw an elk herd on the slopes down from the gift shop at the top.