Not long ago a friend tried to photograph a Kansas sunset. As the western sky flared into a thousand shades of scarlet, frame after frame was fruitlessly squandered from blown-out highlights and underexposed shadows. The end result was an image taken straight out of Dante’s inferno, the sun an enflamed orb beating down mercilessly on a scorched and cindered plain. “I guess,” he said, “you had to be there.”
Some things just have to be experienced. For a hundred miles I had thought of little else than capturing the quintessential essence of the Spanish Peaks, a pair of rugged mountains jutting up near the little town of La Veta, Colorado. Named by the Utes “Wahatoya,” or Breasts of the Earth, the appellation was organic for the succeeding Spanish noted the same form, or forms, which probably explains the natural state of mind for the average male of the species. The twin mounds lift 7,000 feet from the valley floor with long serrated dikes radiating outward from their base like the spokes of a wheel. These dikes, formed by molten rock forced through seams in the underlying sedimentary rock, attract geologists from around the world. Over 400 separate dikes have been mapped, some of which can be seen from Highway 160, a two-lane stitching Walsenburg, a prairie town, to the broad San Luis Valley on the far side of La Veta Pass.
As we began our slow ascent toward the pass, the peaks unfolded to the south. We watched for a likely vista and found it on a narrow dirt road branching off to dip into a narrow valley before climbing to a grassy rise. Adding to the scene was a maroon wooden barn, not ancient but old enough, and a shattered cross-tie fence. Every element was perfectly in place, a halo of clouds spreading above the snowy summits, the crystalline mountain air, the jaw-dropping beauty, the rustic barn—just as every element conspired against us. Frame after frame went down in defeat. I guess you just had to be there.
Every mile another memory. If a particular patch of ground could be considered sacred to my family, it would be triangulated between the hulking dome of San Antonio Mountain to the south, Cumbres Pass to the west and the Great Sand Dunes to the east. The lower San Luis Valley was a second home for three generations of Parkers, so that as the miles thrummed under our wheels scenes of the past flickered by like an old grainy slideshow.
It’s hard to remain impassive under the onslaught of memories. Memories should be doled out judiciously, in small helpings, and for the most part are until one crosses into a space saturated with personal history. For long stretches I wanted to scream or sob or stumble from the vehicle to sink to my knees and kiss the ground, or to reach with trembling fingers through the membrane of time and touch my young sons, my wife, my parents and brothers and the innocent boy I once was, to not revisit the past but to relive it, though it would change nothing. Through it all a river runs through it, or rivers—the Conejos, the Rio de los Piños—whose very dualities formed the basis of life, one swift and powerful, at times treacherous, the other sedate with long placid stretches and a subdued choral accompaniment, pianissimo to the other’s crescendo. The Conejos was a big brawling river foaming down from the high country to forever pulse through our veins, its undammed, freeflowing waters threading the fabric of our lives into a seamless tapestry silvered under a setting sun. And not just waters but sand, sand as tides ebbing and flowing, sand ceaselessly shifting and drifting, sand sculpted and shadowed by light into its own angular geometry, an improbable ocean of sand lapping at the base of the towering Sangre de Christos. We left our mark on this land visible only to ourselves and then more felt than witnessed, and yet time and the wind swept away our footprints and erased us as if we had never existed. The sands of Medano Creek claimed whatever toys we brought, the little plastic soldiers and tanks and cannons, the colorful dinosaurs and monsters with their perpetual grimaces and razored fangs, the buckets and shovels, the graders and bulldozers, and those of our children and grandchildren as well, as it buried entire forests leaving behind desiccated skeletons like twisted matchsticks impaling the dunes. Never to be reclaimed nor resurrected. The rivers at least were understandable, their erasure assured. And yet we thought our tracks across the wet sands permanent, our entombed toys the symbols of our entitlement, our laughter inscribed in the singing wind. And we were wrong.
But not altogether, for as we traversed the broad valley under the shadow of Mount Blanca the ghosts stirred in their sandy haunts and clawed to the surface, or lifted above the faceted currents like clouds of mayflies, delicate and ephemeral as my sudden appearance. We were still here, we will always be here, young and old and in between, unchanging, enduring, our resurrection contingent merely upon our second coming, or third, or thousandth, a temporary reprieve from the silence of forgetfulness, but only temporary before the long slow years of longing and nothingness return like an inexhaustible and unfading autumn.
At Monte Vista we continued westward, rising toward the distant summit of Wolf Creek Pass. After a while the ghosts relented and slipped away.
(To be continued)