I wonder why the brain hangs onto certain mundane memories. They’re the ones that didn’t seem significant at the time. Yet, they remain as vivid as if they’d happened yesterday rather than decades ago. The recent flooding in Colorado reminds me of a couple of my own. As I’ve mulled them over this weekend, I think I understand now why they stayed with me.
Northwest Indiana, where I grew up, is flat as far as the eye can see. The town I lived in is a small blue collar place that’s pretty much a stopover along Interstates 80, 90 and 94 for long haul truckers. The railroad tracks I crossed everyday on my way to school, or that lulled me to sleep at night carried the trains that hauled freight across the country, including steel from the mills that dotted the southern end of Lake Michigan. I didn’t grow up in the kind of wide open wild spaces that I love so much as an adult. The extent of my experience as a child with wild things and places were summer camping trips to Indiana Beach State Park, squirrels, digging up earth worms and avoiding the wasps that nested in our swing-set.
Then came the Big Thompson Canyon flood of 1976 in Colorado. My grandmother lived in Loveland, Colorado. She and my uncle talked my parents into moving to Loveland because my father could get a better paying job working to help clean up the devastation left in the wake of the flood. I vaguely remember getting piled with my three siblings into the back of my parent’s car. We drove across the country without stopping. Truck driving is in my father’s blood. He loves the challenge of “making good time” and not having to spend money on a hotel. The things I remember most about the drive were playing slug bug with my sisters, and the extreme cow manure smell in Nebraska. I was more used to the scent of steel mills. As an adult though, I’ll take the smell of cow manure any day over a steel mill.
We ended up staying in Colorado for less than a year. I don’t think my parents were happy there, and whatever my father saw during the clean-up bothered him. But in that small amount of time, I gathered the following vivid memories that have stuck with me over decades. I remember arriving in Colorado going from the flat lands of Nebraska to being able to see the foothills and Rocky Mountains in the distance. They rose like giants over the landscape and pulled at me. They were silent, yet spoke volumes. I wanted to know what they had to say. I wanted to keep driving until we were on top of and immersed in them. The entire time we were in Loveland, I could not stop looking at them. They were the first mountains I ever remember seeing, although I was born in mountains. Even though I’d grown up in Indiana, I was born in Idaho and must have mountains in my blood like my father has truck driving in his.
The other two memories I have are from the day my father took us for a drive into the Big Thompson Canyon. We drove as far as we could go before the road disappeared. It had violently been ripped away by the twenty food wall of flood water. I remember feeling scared and awed. The place was beautiful, ominous and filled with energy that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Then my grandmother flicked a cigarette into the river. It got caught in a little whirlpool behind an eddy. I can still picture it swirling round and round in the foamy water. It had the pink from her lipstick and a blue line at the filter. It was at the mercy of the water just like the road, people, animals, and things that got swept up in the flood. One day you’re here, the next you’re not. The message to me was better enjoy life while you can, kid.
Processing these memories leads me to my confession. It’s one I’ve hinted at before and hoped to write about at some point. The memories gave me my inspiration to do so. I grew up in a very religious family. I was taught that dying was more important than living because if you lived a good life, as defined by the preacher, you’d go to heaven. That was supposed to be the good part. And, when terrible things happened like the flood in the Big Thompson it was all part of god’s grand plan. That never set well with me. Nevertheless, I tried too long and hard to believe in things that I simply don’t believe in.
There’s a reason those memories stay with me. They were the beginning lessons from nature and her wild places about what life means to me. I’m not concerned with the afterlife. I can’t imagine it could be more spectacular than sitting on a mountaintop in the sun, or paddling on a shimmering crystal clear lake, or listening to the loons at dawn, or falling asleep to the sound of a river rushing by while snuggled up in my spouses arms. Wild places and things are my religion. They fill me up, keep me humble, inspire and make me want to be a positive energy force while I live and breathe. I don’t believe in god, I believe in life. Peace.