Some years ago, I expressed a wish to get out of Dallas during the summer while it’s so God-awful hot and come to the mountains where, in part, I grew up. Allen suggested I do just that and take work with me and spend a couple, three weeks, immersing myself back into the place where I came of age and love so much. I wouldn’t have to run errands, market for groceries, cook dinner, etc. I could just hike and paint.
So, this marks the 5th summer that I’ve come to Manitou Springs by myself to work and hike and work and hike, I have.
The hike I enjoy most is the Manitou Incline. Essentially, it’s taller than any stairway you’ve ever imagined and in places, the grade is very steep, 68% even. Though it’s only a mile up, you gain 2000 feet so that when you’re at the top, the elevation is near to 8700 feet. Allen says there aren’t very many “O’s” up there and for those of us who’ve just come from 400 feet above sea level, remaining conscious is no small feat. 😉
It’s one heck of a fitness challenge. The trail is made up of railroad ties that used to be the foundation for an old narrow gauge railway that would hoist visitors up to the summit. In 1990, a rockslide washed out the rail bed so “they” decided not to fix it. Sad though that may be, I wonder if it doesn’t attract more people now than before.
I think of it as a metaphor for life and each time I make it to the top, I smile to myself and feel empowered.
One of the things that attracts me most to the mountains is the peace I feel here. They’re my church. “Rocky cathedrals that reach to the sky,” John Denver once sang. I love the quiet and beauty of a hiking trail and hearing the wind blow through the pines and the sound of the water rushing in the stream below. The sounds and rhythm of the mountain and that fresh pine smell feel like home to me.
The day after I arrived, I got word from home that a relatively new but dear friend of Arden’s had committed suicide. Shocked, I was poised to get back in my car and head home and be with her but she told me to stay. Staying put was very hard. I felt such a pull to be with her but she insisted I stay. In the ensuing days, I learned more details about Cesar’s death and my heart broke for the young man who felt his only option was to end his life.
As I began to think about the work I brought with me, I had little motivation to make art, for all my sad thoughts of my sweet girl, struggling with grief but also Cesar’s mother. What hell must she be living through? She, who buried two sons in as many months for the same reason.
Making art seemed so trivial in light of Cesar’s death. Like, what is even the point?
But I had work to do so, I forced myself to show up at my easel for at least 15 minutes and see what happened. Doing this started the wheels turning. The more I showed up, the more I needed to show up. The more I thought about showing up, the more ideas I had about what I was going to do when I showed up. In the process, I remembered the artist's job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote to the despair of existence.
There's this thing in art, the chiaroscuro, there's the way light shows in darkness and, it is extremely beautiful. And, I think it essentializes the experience to be human, to see light in darkness. It is so much more beautiful in that place. It's in the moments when everything seems so dark that the most beautiful things happen.
Making art, whatever your art is, is powerful medicine. And, there’s only one way to triumph over death: by making our lives masterpieces.
One of the things I looked most forward to while I was here was a date to reunite with old friends from my 9th grade Spanish class, including our beloved teacher, Dan Roque. What a tonic that was for me! To see him after all this time and find him virtually unchanged was literally like going back in time. He and I immediately went back into the banter we used to have each day in class. God, he’s the best example, like Ooma was, of living to laugh and have fun. What is life for, if not to enjoy? We toasted each other, reminisced and laughed and laughed long into the evening. Those days were halcyon days and he reminded me of something very important that I will never forget.
On my last hike this morning, knowing I wouldn't be back here for a while, my senses were on high alert, wanting to take it all in and remember everything. As I walked, I was struck by the vast array of smells I kept noticing. First, always, was the cool, piney air. Down in town, I smelled fresh coffee brewing. Walking up Ruxton, I smelled patchouli, weed, and funnily enough, a real skunk. Up on the trailhead, the awful fragrance of port-o-potties that needed a change, assaulted. On the Incline itself, the sun had warmed the ties sufficiently that I could smell the creosote they're soaked in, which as a railroader's granddaughter, is a definite comfort. As I climbed, I passed people whose laundry detergent or fabric softener had begun emanating from their clothing as their bodies got steamed up. There was a plethora of aftershave scents too. Intermittently, I smelled the wonderful butterscotchy smell of Ponderosa Pines. It was near the top when I realized the smell that had been underscoring everything, was smoke. 😔
Still craving an umbilical cord to the past when my mom and I lived here, I spent my last day alone going to some of my favorite places in town. I got a henna tattoo at La Henna Boheme and a Frito pie at Patsy’s and strolled through the arcade. I drove by our old apartment, my junior high and high school and the bluffs I used to climb, behind our house.
How I long for my mom and those days…
In the midst of all this, Aretha Franklin died. I found this meme of her so fitting.
And now my mountain time is drawing to a close, I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of Allen’s flight and my reunion with him. Being solo for over two weeks, working my plan to hike and paint has been important for me but also incredibly isolating and definitely not for sissies. There were stretches of days where, apart from the occasional “good morning” on the trail, I didn’t interface with anyone. I have some sense of what it feels like to be a mountain aesthete. Small doses, yes. Steady diet, NO.
We’ve got a date tonight at the Penrose Room and know that Lila will sing “At Last” just for us as we dance and I can hardly wait to celebrate the life I have and love so much.