A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
Most people forty or younger probably think of Steve Martin as a movie actor. His roles in solid hits like Cheaper By The Dozen, Father of The Bride, and The Pink Panther have established him as a reliable, if not spectacular fixture in Hollywood.
But people of my age will always first think of him as a stand-up comic who burst upon the pop culture scene in the late 1970's. His signature white suit, banjo and stage props, and outrageously ground-breaking material were entertainment icons of the day. A frequent guest host for Saturday Night Live, he was a kindred spirit with that ensemble crew of emerging superstars. Fueled by the incomparable imagination of the show's writers they not only entertained; they shifted the tectonic plates of American entertainment, and redefined comedy as we know it. Martin was one of the few hosts who could withstand the withering blasts of Belushi, Akroyd, Murray, and Radner, and hold his own as an equal talent. One of his signature monologues was titled "getting small" - a reference to the use and effects of marijuana.
This summer our family had a chance to get small - a trip to Colorado's fabulous Rocky Mountain National Park. As always, the long drive provided some of our favorite memories, thereby proving Cervantes' maxim that the road is indeed better than the inn. Two of America's greatest waterways were crossed, and as we viewed the mighty Missouri I told our kids of Lewis and Clark's mythological journey; a trek which began by pulling and poling their way UP that river, an effort that can only be considered super-human. Our son's soul felt the pull of the tale, and he is now reading Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose's chronicle of their epic quest. On the return trip we crossed the Mississippi under the cloak of night, and thrilled to see that great artery illuminated by hundreds of moored boats, anchored in anticipation of fireworks on the Fourth.
Hiking up, down, and through the Park's mountains leaves no alternative other than to "get small". Walking through forests of pine, the overarching trees forming a canopy that all but blocked the alpine sun and my aching feet delighting in their inch thick carpet of needles, I thought of Robert Jordan, Ernest Hemingway's protagonist in the timelss tale of love, war, and betrayal - For Whom the Bell Tolls. The end sees Jordan alone, facing his imminent death, and Hemingway's signature simplicity, "He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest".
And the arduously magical climb to Sky Pond (pictured below), a five mile, three-thousand feet ascent that took us past roaring falls and cool-calm pools. We watched a trout spawn, rolling on her side to fan her eggs into the stone-covered bottom. We gazed slack-jawed at boulders the size of Winnebagos, sliced by glaciers out of the mountain stone like so much ham off a bone. We marvelled at the fragile and delicate beauty of the wild flowers, growing just yards away from enormous mounds of snow. Standing with your children at the exquisite waterfall before the final vertical climb to the Pond, heart in mouth as you watch them ascend that rock wall...........Gazing down the miles of valley just traversed as the sweat crystallizes on your shirt, trying vainly to sear the image into your consciousness. I listened to Song for America by Kansas, my thirsty eyes drinking in the scene as Robbie Steinhard's soaringly exultant violin provided the perfect audible backdrop for that stunning vista.
And staring into the pounding torrent that is Alberta Falls, gazing transfixed into the green-blue pools and feeling the cool mist of the spray on my face. I thought of Starbuck; Ahab's first mate in that greatest of novels, Herman Melville's Moby Dick. His soul in torment over his growing awareness of Ahab's madness, Starbuck's words, murmered to the ocean as he gazed over the bow, came back to me - "'Loveliness unfathomable, as ever a lover say in a young bride's eye. Tell me not of they teeth-tiered sharks or they kidnapping, cannibal ways. Let faith oust fact, let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe".
And everywhere in the park, the sound of water; urgently probing and inexorably finding the shortest route downward. The pristine, arctic calm of Sky Pond, the roar and spray of the mighty falls, the pastoral calm as it wends through the meadows of the exquisite Moraine.
But burned most of all in the lens of my memory is the Big Thompson River. Birthed by glacial melt atop Long's Peak nearly three miles above the sprawling cattle ranches of northeastern Colorado, it exits the the lovely Moraine, gathers volume and speed, and morphs yet again from a quietly soothing vein (below) into a raging torrent. We sat for an hour on those boulders with our kids, and as I watched them; I knew their souls were being both humbled and expanded. I thought back ten years to our first trip to the Park - standing in that exact spot, our son in a harness on my back. I thought of the changes in my life in those ten years; the changes in our country and in our world. I wondered if the four of us would come again to that spot in ten more years. I thought of how much I love Rocky Mountain National Park and the Big Thompson River, and how I hope to return to it some day, perhaps then with a grandson upon my back.
And I thought of the exquisite prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his ending coda of The Great Gatsby; "so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past".
And finally, I heard Walt Whitman's simplistically eloquent murmur from Leaves of Grass.
"I hear America singing, the various carols I hear".