By Sam Larson
I grew up in a region designed for big words. It demands superlatives. Expansive, solitude, endless, topographic, soaring, plummeting, overwhelming, all mouth-stretchingly excessive words that fail to fill or define the utter bigness of the mountain west. Here, where I grew up, left, and returned, the far-rolling Great Plains of the continent’s vast middle meet an abrupt and ragged end at the edge of the Rocky Mountains and here, at this juncture, two distinct varieties of vastness collide. The prairie, traditionally long grass east of the 100th meridian but now almost completely converted to soy and corn agriculture, transitions to dry land farming in western Nebraska, Kansas, and the plains of Colorado. Scrub grass, grama grass, and soil more sand than dirt replace the thick loam that more successful farms back east can count on. Cities, towns, and people dry up and blow away like so much topsoil in the near constant wind. The plains, at their westernmost extreme, are unforgiving, dry, filled with crackling heat in the summer and razor-edged wind in the winter. In the spring avil-topped thunderheads pummel the plains with golf ball-sized hail and sporadic tornadoes. It’s hard to live in a region where all four seasons can turn against you.
Still, keep heading west and the plains rise, slowly for certain but rise nonetheless, climbing towards the stark delimiter of the foothills, an upthrust of rumpled stone with formations of snow-topped peaks marching away behind. Visitors first see the Rockies as a smudge on the horizon, a dark band that slowly builds into what could be clouds or fog but ultimately forms into the first real view of the Front Range. They are still distant, still hazy, but now distinctively mountains stacked on mountains stretching to the horizon both north and south. It’s a catalyzing moment for first-time viewers. These mountains have been adopted by people who fled their homes for whatever reason and ultimately landed here, beneath the feet of the Rockies. For anyone from Colorado, raised beneath or within these mountains, this same sight is a clear indication that, yes, you are headed home.
“What’s behind those mountains?” people from out of state often ask when they first notice the split between the Front Range and the Continental Divide beyond it, a trick of visual foreshortening that collapses the enormous distance from the plains to the Divide into an easy-to-digest perspective. More mountains. Higher mountains, in fact. Mountains that stretch through Colorado, into Utah, and continue, in fits and starts through the basins and ranges of Nevada until you cross over top the Sierras in the golden state of California to experience a steep tumble down to sea level before rolling smack into the Pacific Ocean. In short, the bigness continues. When what you see is both the inside and the outside of the view, the thing you see as well as what surrounds it, size becomes something of a joke. This is a country so vast it hides within itself and careless observers lose track of which monumentality is greater, that which is seen or that which contains it.
We find small words within the larger ones to try and reduce them from seamless enormities to simple aggregates, less one giant unknowable thing and more something made up of smaller pieces, each knowable in its own right and lending some part of what it takes to understand the whole. Conifer, deer, creek, aspen, ridge. Valley, scree, peak. Start with something small, like a trout. It lives in a creek. If you understand the trout then you have a handle on the creek. If you can know the creek, in its curves and shimmering gravel beds, then you have a hold on the valley, or at least it’s shape and size. If you can use these small words and trace the valley upwards then you can describe the shape of the mountain you stand beneath. And if you can describe the curve of a mountainside, where the river has carved a path through stone and how it bends around a granite outcropping that always hides a trout or two then you are on your way to knowing and understanding the big words.
Small words lead upwards to big words in spiraling free associative trails. Small creeks lead upwards to tributaries and glacial streams, their beds caroming from rock to rock. Names and places, as crisp and new as a fresh shirt when compared to the things people like you and me attach them too, rumple and fade and change until maps are a welter of words without context. And at the end, when there is no one left, there is always the forest to fill in roads and trails, the rivers to rise, fall, and obliterate banks and crossings, and trout. Let there always be trout so that, in the midst of all this, we can lay claim to knowing one simple thing and from it aspire towards understanding.