A connoisseur of words and ideas would not say that the Rocky Mountains are beautiful; they are (in that useful but forgotten term of the eighteenth century) sublime. Beauty attaches to things that manifest an intricate, mysteriously harmonized order; sublimity belongs to things too vast to be appreciated by the human eye. The Milky Way, an ocean that fills the horizon, a cloudbanks whose muscular swells obscure each other as they obliterate the sky… these are natural objects that (according to yesteryear’s philosophers) cause a person to understand his puniness and to cringe in awe before the majesty of cosmic forces. Sublime sights may well reveal a dominating order to the theoretical analyst in his laboratory—but merely mortal eyes cannot behold them directly and grasp their logic from so shrunken, ant-like a perspective.
That’s an important idea to hold in reserve if you want to follow along as I try to explain how I feel about Denverites. I’m completely willing to grant that they appreciate natural beauty… but I don’t think they begin to understand sublimity. You treat a sublime object with trepidation and respect: you don’t go dance on it or throw a party beneath it.
My son led my wife and me up to Saint Mary’s Glacier during our brief visit. Having just come from a city about 500 feet above sea level, I think we two old folks acquitted ourselves well on the trek up to 11,000 feet. The climb was the more challenging in that the only way up was through a dry wash strewn with stones of every size from pebble to boulder. But a still greater challenge, we found, was the steady stream of local hikers who poured past us on their way both up and down. There were more than hundreds. Late that Saturday morning, as we began the ascent, I would place the figure at a couple of thousand up and down the two-mile arroyo. It wasn’t as bad as waiting to reach the ticket window of a Colorado Rockies game… but it was worse than negotiating the aisles of a typical grocery store on a typical weekday.
For these people, most of them young (since Denver is definitely a young person’s town), the jaunt was something like a weekly jog along an unusually scenic track. Believe it or not, a few even brought skis. They would continue their hike around the glacier’s lake and up to the top of its immobilized white blanket, then shoot down to its base. We saw a few actually doing so as we arrived (suffering from just a touch of altitude sickness) at the lake’s chilly but sunlit, placid waters. Others had galavanted all the way up to the highest ridges. I thought of the Lilliputians dancing and prancing on Gulliver’s recumbent form.
The whole thing seemed just a little bit insane to me. Do Colorado’s gorges not spill down torrents after sudden afternoon thunderstorms, as happens dangerously in the mountains of West Texas and New Mexico? Considering how quickly the weather changes in this area, I kept hearing a little voice repeat, “We can’t be here in mid-afternoon. Too risky.” Yet the trail of pilgrims showed signs only of thickening as we finally reemerged from the arroyo’s bottom and the sun increasingly ducked behind dark clouds. I recalled my feelings during last spring’s visit about seeing a huge open-air theater constructed directly beneath the titanic sandstone walls of Red Rocks—fissure-riddled cliffs that could release thousands of tons of rock at any moment. But, hey… marijuana is legal in Colorado. Chill out!
Among the young, supposedly educated demographic that claims to worship the environment and always votes for more state control of it, I’ve often been shocked at the absence of rudimentary scientific knowledge. The love affair that young Denverites have with their Rockies seems to me to be of a, “Hey, let’s play!” variety: somewhat infantile and disturbingly void of a healthy fear for nature’s raw power. I think of joggers in this same demographic who’ve gone running or hiking along Southwestern trails outside of LA or Phoenix and been attacked by mountain lions—sometimes fatally. More distance, please! If you really must live so close to this caged beast, then don’t lean up against the bars!
But the young citizens of Denver just keep right on hiking, biking, skiing, and sledding up or down any slope that looks fun to cuddle with. They certainly show no sign of suspecting that their sheer numbers are smothering the grand spectacle… and one can only hope that the gods of the mountains do not exact a terrible vengeance one day when they awaken.