I hunch crammed in the back of a 1973 Ford Grand Torino station wagon with my parents, three aunts, two uncles, four cousins and two dogs. We careen around curves and ascend the hills in the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina. While we try to affix our bodies into a comfortable position, my aunt screeches in incredible speed, “Luk, Luk, Luk, Luk, Luk,”. She finds the first signs of autumn, a beautiful red walnut or poplar shines through the forest and we either roll our eyes in quiet resistance to her over-the-top excitement or actually join in because after all, it is incredibly beautiful.
My childhood was filled with crammed station wagons, drives in the mountains and “luk, luk, luk, luk, luks”. Not always wonderful memories, but never the less, we lived!
Through a set of circumstances and decisions which I will write about later, I found myself single, with three children, living in near the Rocky Mountains, in Colorado Springs Colorado. Keep in mind, my nick name in college was Southern Belle With a Cause, so living in the wild west was quite an adjustment. The first few years were filled with denial that I was away from my beloved east coast, family, and friends. The last five, I’ve made efforts to ensure we experience various seasons in the mountains and make traditions of our own; even if they don’t look like my childhood traditions (which may be a good thing on some levels).
One of our new traditions is to drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park and see the autumn leaves and the Elk rut. This is a wonderfully pleasurable experience. First of all, the teenagers are with me in the car. After the first hour of driving, I can count on everyone forgetting their puberty, electronics, and momentary troubles. We listen to music and talk about life. Secondly, when we enter Rocky Mountain National Park, we feel at peace. There are beautiful meadows, streams of water, trees, and rocks to climb on. We get lost in the beauty. We watch the elk rut and then drive up to Bear Lake for a little hike. The kids usually run up into the woods while I listen to the rippling of water in a little stream and find my zen moment.
Yesterday we took off for our yearly voyage. It was a beautiful day and nothing but hope of family bonding was on my mind. In Denver we hit a little traffic and I wondered if everyone else had the same idea for a day in the mountains. As we ventured on, the traffic worsened. I thought of turning around but no, we had a plan and we would stick with it! I didn’t want my frustration to show so I kept the upbeat chatter going. My daughter lay sprawled out in the back seat because she started her monthly and was feeling terrible. We discovered The Elk Festival in full swing in Estes Park (the town you drive through to get to the park) and so our two-hour drive turned into four.
When we arrived at the park, we idled behind a long line of cars waiting for the gates. I finally pulled up to the gate and handed the ranger my debit card. She said, “it’s free day, enjoy!” Of course it’s free day I growled to myself as we drove in with the multitude of cars. It was beautiful. We didn’t see many fall leaves but the majesty of the mountains moved me.
Several herd of elk gathered in the woods and journeyed across the road. We exited the car and traipsed through the field to see a bull protecting his herd. I glanced at Sallie. She looked ashen. She wobbled and then had to sit down. She felt sick. I looked for a place to hide behind a rock or tree to use the restroom but there were so many people, I couldn’t find privacy for what we used to call a “mountain tee-tee”. Back in the car, my hope for the perfect day sank. We drove to bear lake. Sallie stayed in the car to ward off throwing up. Caleb ditched me when I went into the port-a-potty. I walked around the lake alone.
I saw so many beautiful people from around the world enjoying the incredible scenery. The accents were varied and faces exotic. I saw one Indian family dressed in colorful saris. The dad was dragging his big black roller suitcase behind him over the rocks, pebbles and branches that protruded from the ground. He seemed so happy and it lifted me up for a moment. But then, I felt lonely. I walked alone around the lake on our family mountain day. I passed parents and little children, friends and lovers. I indulged in a moment of I’m pissed that my day has turned out like this.
Back at the car (where Caleb had been sitting the entire time), Sallie reiterates she feels sick. We pull out of the parking lot behind the long line of cars. About an hour later, still in traffic, Sallie actually gets sick……in the car. We all go into warp quiet mode, the kind of quiet you can hear.
I whisper, It’s okay Sallie, here honey, here honey, some wet wipes for you, well be able to pull over soon, it’s all okay, I love you.
After we stop and clean Sallie up, I feel relieved. The traffic is a little lighter. The sun begins to set and the muted hue comforts me. I feel peaceful. We listen to an NPR story that mentions Carl Sagan…….then it happens…… the moment that makes the day so incredibly perfect. Caleb says “Mom, I’m going to blow your mind.” When he says that, I know I’m about to be the happiest mom in the world because we’re about to go heart to heart.
He says, “Mom, I want to read you something that Carl Sagan said about the Pale Blue Dot.”
Pale blue dot? I asked. He says “the pale blue dot is a picture taken by the Voyager 1 space probe which was about 6 billion kilometers way”. He calculates that into miles. He pulls up a photo of the pale blue dot and then reads what Carl Sagan says about it.
With these words, I leave you with a memory of our 2017 autumn mountain trip – maybe one of the most memorable. As he read this to us, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude that I get to live and love on the Pale Blue Dot. No matter what, I live, love, hurt, rejoice, experience life from every angle and that is a privilege!
The Pale Blue Dot – Carl Sagan’s description
That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, ever supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there on a mote of dust, suspended on a sunbeam”