Footprints

Note:  This short piece about the “summer of my 27th year” was composed in 2001 when I was just in the beginning stages of writing personal essays about my life.  One of my friends recently celebrated her 27th birthday, and it has prompted an interest in revisiting this piece of writing and sharing it with her and with others. I’ve changed my approach to writing somewhat over the past decade–but then again, maybe I haven’t.  I trust that the elements of this story will still be meaningful to you.

Reflections On the Summer of My Twenty-seventh Year

"The summer of my 27th year" (Snowy Range, Wyoming)

Now his life is full of wonder    

                                                                   –John Denver from “Rocky Mountain High”

*******

He was born in the summer of his twenty-seventh year,

Coming home to a place he’d never been before,

He left yesterday behind him,

You might say he was born again,

You might say he found the key for every door…

–John Denver from “Rocky Mountain High”

I love the concept of ‘wonder.’ Rachel Carson’s little book, The Sense of Wonder, is one of my all-time favorites.  In the book Carson writes:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.  It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.  If I had influence…I should ask that each child [be given] a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life…

I was fortunate to live six years of my young adult life in Wyoming and Colorado, and to experience first-hand their ‘wonder-full’ landscapes.  I know now that the strong “sense of wonder” that I have carried through my adulthood was fostered during those years.  They were a time when many of my life values, which define who I am today, were formed.

This is the story of that young adult period of my life.  It describes some of Mary Ann’s and my experiences during the summer of 1973–the “summer of my twenty-seventh year.”  It covers only four months, but it was a time of exceptional freshness, beauty, excitement–and wonder–for us.  We had been married just three years, I had been out of the Air Force for a year, and I was well into my Masters program at Colorado State University.  Our lives were relatively simple and we took advantage of every opportunity to explore the majesties of the West.  Our lives were “full of wonder” as we hiked, camped, canoed and bicycled from one adventure to the next.  And we shared many of these experiences with special friends, as well as with my brother, Phil, who worked at Estes Park during that summer.  It was the most concentrated time that he and I have spent together as adults.

John Denver’s songs were at the height of their popularity in Colorado during the summer of 1973.  “Rocky Mountain High” topped the charts and “Poems, Prayers and Promises” was the title track from one of his albums, which I purchased during that time.  There isn’t a better reminder for me of that time and place than John Denver’s music.  The summer of my twenty-seventh year was, as Denver expressed it, a time for leaving behind the stresses of the Air Force years and “coming home” to the wonders of the pristine forests, lakes, streams and alpine meadows of the Rockies.  It was also a time for appreciating God’s gift in the friendships we shared during that special time.  You might say I found the key for every door.

*******

It’s really fine to have a chance to hang around,

And lie there by the fire and watch the evening tire,

While all my friends and my ‘old lady’

Sit and “pass the pipe around”…

–John Denver from “Poems, Prayers and Promises”

We had hiked all afternoon through steady rain with our friends Phil and Sue Shaw, and Dennis and Judy King.  Our destination was the high country of the Snowy Range in southern Wyoming.  Our heavy packs were draped in our “poncho’s” to shelter them from the rain and more than once we questioned our sanity for continuing with our plan to camp in such inclement weather.  But after we had pitched our tents in a peaceful meadow, the rain stopped, the clouds began to break and our spirits rose.  As we     gathered together that evening, Sue pulled a cake out of her backpack and gave it as a surprise to Mary Ann.  It was her 28th birthday and the expression of bewilderment on Mary Ann’s face was unforgettable.  Sue, Phil, Dennis and Judy were four of the friendships we formed during that time.  We have only been able to stay in contact with a few of the people from that time, but our memories of such friends are among our most treasured.

Mary Ann with her surprise birthday cake (July 1973)

We experienced memorable times with other good friends that summer too–among them Scott and Marty Lightle, whom we had known during our Air Force days in Cheyenne.  The summer’s experiences also included canoeing and kayaking outings with my brother and other friends, and sometimes in the company of a friend’s dog, Luther.  I’ll never forget the time Phil, Mary Ann and I capsized our canoe and we–along with Luther–plunged into the icy-cold water of Fall River in Rocky Mountain National Park.  After that experience, Luther refused to get back into the canoe!

*******

He climbed to see the mountains,

He saw silver clouds below,

He saw everything as far as you can see.

And they say that he got crazy once

And he tried to touch the sun…

–John Denver from “Rocky Mountain High”

I had traveled the road between Cheyenne (or Ft. Collins) and Denver many times.  And each time, the distant views of Longs Peak never ceased to impress me.  At 14,255 feet, the mountain dominates others within the front range of the northern Colorado Rockies.  Since I first moved to the west, I had always wanted to climb to the top of Longs Peak.  “It’s a cinch,” my friends told me, although none of them had actually done it.  In early August of 1973, the time finally came for Mary Ann and me to take on that adventure.  We met Phil and a friend in Estes Park, drove to the trailhead, and began our hike before daybreak.  The trail wound through forest at first, but a couple of hours into the hike we climbed above timberline and got our first views of the summit, which seemed deceptively close.  The trail to the summit actually wound completely around the mountain.  The trail may have been relatively “easy” by the standards of more technical climbs to the tops of other “Fourteeners” in Colorado, but it was as difficult as anything I ever want to undertake.  With euphoria– and headaches–induced by the high altitude exertion of our 10-mile climb, we finally reached the summit at about noon, just as clouds gathered to signal the onset of the typical afternoon mountain thunderstorms.  We hastily ate our lunch and began our descent to seek refuge in a shelter we had passed earlier, which we reached just before a hail and sleet storm began. After the storm, we hiked on back to the trailhead.

Mary Ann, brother Phil and a friend on the trail to the summit of Longs Peak (August 1973)

 *******

Now he walks in quiet solitude,

The forests and the streams,

Seeking grace in every step he takes.

His side is turned inside himself

To try to understand

The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake…

–John Denver from “Rocky Mountain High”

I seemed to spend a lot of time that summer near water–and considerable time watching other people fishing.  Phil was an avid fisherman in those days and often brought his gear whenever we made our outings into the backcountry.  John Denver is right–there is a special solitude and serenity about high mountain lakes and streams.  Mary Ann and I, and our friends, often hiked to and spent time relaxing or camping beside special waters in the mountains–Bear, Dream and Cameron Lakes, and the Cache La Poudre River in Colorado, and Lake Marie, North Gap and South Gap Lakes in Wyoming, to name a few.

In September, Mary Ann and I made our first extended road trip to the Pacific Northwest.  Enroute we observed Yellowstone for the first time.  I can never forget the first time I experienced an eruption of a geyser, or heard the sound of an elk bugling across Lewis Lake, or watched morning mist and sunlight play over the lake.

We went through Montana and I tested out our new canoe in the racing waters of the Madison River.  We stayed for a few days with Mary Ann’s brother, Jim, in Washington and took several day trips, including our first encounters with Mt. Rainier and the spectacular coastline of the Olympic Peninsula.  We could not foresee at the time how significant these places were to become for us in our subsequent travels to that region.

Mt. Rainier National Park (September 1973)

Talk to God and listen to the casual reply…

–John Denver from “Rocky Mountain High”

Some of my most vivid experiences of God’s presence and care were during that summer.  Whether during mountain storms, on the Longs Peak climb, on long drives to my graduate studies research sites in eastern Colorado, or during quiet times while camping and hiking, I often prayed with thankfulness for God’s goodness in my life.  And I would listen to the wondrous reply.

*******

Epilogue

The days they pass so quickly now,

The nights are seldom long,

And time around me whispers when it’s cold.

Changes somehow frighten me,

But still I have to smile,

It turns me on to think of growing old.

Though my life’s been good to me

There’s still so much to do,

So many things my mind has never known.

I’d like to raise a family, like to sail away,

And dance across the mountains on the moon…

–John Denver from “Poems, Prayers and Promises”

This past summer marked 27 years since “the summer of my twenty-seventh year.” It also was our eldest daughter, Jill’s, summer of her twenty-seventh year.  Jill was conceived during the summer of 1973 and was with us ‘in utero’ during all of our adventures in August and September of that year.

This past summer Jill made her own journey to the Pacific Northwest–to be married to Eric and to live there while attending law school.   Mary Ann and I went there for Jill’s wedding last September and we had a chance to once again spend an afternoon along the magnificent Olympic coast where we had hiked years before.  It was fitting that my brother, Phil, also shared the experience with us, considering how interwoven his life was with ours during that summer of 1973.

The years since the summer of my twenty-seventh year have been good for us.  We have raised a family and sailed away to “dance across the mountains” on four continents.  And through it all our sense of wonder has grown as we have considered how God is present to us through the world about us and in our relationships with others.  And that is possibly the greatest gift of all.

Mary Ann (center) with friends (Dennis, Judy, Phil and Sue) in the Medicine Bow Range of Wyoming (July 1973)

__________________

This essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2001.  All rights reserved.

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11 Responses to Footprints

  1. Don Coon says:

    Steve, another wonderful essay. It takes me back to being raised in Wyoming and the great times I had as a kid. It is good to look back on the simpler times in life and remember the blessings we have had and the times where we felt close to God and others. Thanks for sharing your memories.

  2. Rebekah Bartels says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Steve. During the summer of MY 27th year, Chris and I honeymooned in Estes Park and other areas in Colorado, where we hiked Rocky Mountain National Park and began our adventure together. Sometimes it’s hard not to look at others and say “they have it all together and we don’t.” But we are reminded of God’s specific adventures and plans for our lives that may not seem practical or much like the “American Dream”, but they are ours. Designed specifically with us in mind. It is especially neat to look back and see the winding but perfect path that has lead us to where we are now, and to be in awe that it could have only been orchestrated by God and our obedience to Him. And I’m with you on the relationships. Building them along that path. That’s what it’s all about.

    • steverobert says:

      Thank you for reading my work, Rebekah. As you know, it was your recent birthday that prompted me to consider posting this particular piece. Thank you! I hadn’t realized though just how similar your milestone and mine actually are–i.e. that you also spent time in Colorado during the summer of YOUR 27th year.

      As noted in the Epilogue, God’s path for Mary Ann and me over the almost 40 years since that time in 1973 has been filled with so many adventures and much goodness. In God’s providence, I trust that you and Chris will say the same forty years from now. 🙂

  3. Jane K says:

    Nice to read this again. It seems we moved to Boulder and we were so close by yet so far. Having that first child and going to law school changed it all for us. Hard to believe that we lived 50 miles apart yet it took years for us to reconnect. Lucky for us you have a good memory.

    • steverobert says:

      You’ve put your finger on an important principle of life, Jane. Looking back, I too am amazed that we saw each other so infrequently during those CSU days and for much of the 1980s and 1990s considering how close we had been during our time in the Air Force. But as you note, we had different lives then. We were into new career paths and forming new and different friendships. But I’m learning that the truly deep and lasting friendships always come back–and today I regard my connections with you and Steve, and the times we are sharing, as among the richest and most blessed I know. You are so special. 🙂

  4. Julie Klassen says:

    Very enjoyable, Steve. Loved the way you wove John Denver lyrics into your essay. I am a fan of his as well.

  5. Betsy Mitchell says:

    Hey, Steve, here’s a little surprise for you. Along with all the other many and varied places, events and memories we share is this fact. I, too, was in Colorado in my 27th year! This just
    dawned on me. We were in Colorado Springs. Can’t wait to see what the next coincidence will
    be!

    Betsy

  6. Michael D says:

    Hi Steve. I see that even back then you were delightfully reflective. I recall making a retreat once and the retreat director encouraged us to be silent for planned periods of time in our lives so God could help us be the reflective souls he intended. In addition to golf I have been trying to develop my fly fishing skills. I noticed your reflections on fly fishing, we’ll have to chat more……to be continued.

    • steverobert says:

      Yes, Mike, definitely more ground to explore together. I noted in the essay that I DON’T actually fish myself, but I watched other people fish that summer, and especially my brother Phil. 🙂

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