I keep thinking about the first paragraph of Moby Dick, the whole of which is on my fall reading list.
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or the Whale
It is undoubtedly a damp and drizzly November of the soul now for many of us. I find myself restless and cranky, with much to do but little motivation. My ongoing search for work and the self-directed retraining I have undertaken feel grim and relentless.
Fortunately, Mr. Melville’s ideas about the ocean (just in this paragraph, I’m not speaking to the book) are incomplete. It isn’t only the ocean that one can turn to in such conditions. The majesty and grandeur of nature in all its manifestations can be an antidote to the desire to knock everyone’s hat off.
Bearing this in mind, Mom and I took advantage of a break, earlier in the week, in the pall of wildfire smoke hanging over Colorado this late summer and early Fall. Mom is recovering from a bout of non-COVID-related pneumonia. On Monday, I bundled her, her oxygen tanks, and her battery-operated yellow pulse oximeter into the front seat, packed the dog into the back seat, and headed for the high country.
We were a little early for proper leaf-peeping, but brilliant gold branches gave us a preview of what is to come. We drove up Fall River Road, stopping to investigate the glacial rock deposits, and then headed on up I70 to Silverthorne. Years ago, driving back to the front range from Buena Vista, I had spotted the sign for Boreas Pass. At the time, I didn’t dare take my little red Scion on the rough dirt road. But now I have the vehicle for it, and we aimed for the pass from its northern end, accessed via Breckenridge.
Boreas Pass follows an old railway grade of the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Rail Road. It crosses the Continental Divide at 11,482 feet above sea level. There isn’t a lot of air up there, and we had to crank Mom’s oxygen up to its max.
It was worth it, though. The spectacular views of the Tenmile Range, Boreas Mountain, and Bald Mountain were a balm to the soul in these troubled times. There is something both terrible and reassuring in the reality that whatever happens in the coming months, those peaks will stand, pushing into the sky, impervious to our short time frames.
And there is something to consider, too, in the history of the place. I suspect it is likely that it was known to the Ute for centuries, but for white people, it started as a route for prospectors looking for gold to get to the valley of the Blue river around Breckenridge, called Breckenridge Pass. In 1866, they widened it into a wagon road that could accommodate stagecoaches. In 1882, the railroad began laying narrow gauge tracks and renamed the pass Boreas in honor of the North Wind. When they built it, it was the nation’s highest narrow-gauge railroad. They made a little town at the top, of about 150 people, to keep the line clear, and put in lots of snow sheds. The town boasted the highest Post Office in the country, and the only one to straddle the Continental Divide.
The Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad (DSP&PRR, apparently known to locals as Damned Slow Pulling, and Pretty Rough Riding) gave up its narrow gauge right-of-way in 1937, and during World War Two, the government pulled up the track for the steel. In 1952, the Army Corps of Engineers created the current road on the railroad grade.
Just think of all the individual, fascinating lives in that tale. Every prospector had a story. Every stagecoach driver, every railroad engineer, every man whose job was to live in that tiny town at 11,482 feet and shovel snow off the tracks had a story — a full, rich life, with at least as many, and probably more, uncertainties and complications as our own. There is something reassuring about that. If they could survive History, surely we can, too.
These are people who lived in an environment that is simply built to a different scale than that of humans. It is a scale we have tried to match throughout civilization’s history, from pyramids to skyscrapers. It is a scale that we cannot match, and likely should not. It is a scale that puts us in context.
On the other side of the pass, going down into South Park, thousands upon thousands of aspen line the road. It will be stunning next week, or the next. It’s stunning now, for that matter.
It’s hard to put your finger on why getting out into that environment that is so much bigger than you, be it the sea or the desert or the mountains or the vast plains, is such a remedy to human mental health woes. It is easy to return to the idea that many humans live in a built environment that doesn’t much resemble our evolutionary habitat. But I live in the woods. There are houses and roads, yes, but still, it isn’t that different from the world where my great-great-grandcestors lived.
Perhaps it is simply that it puts us and our troubles into a larger, much larger, context. Or maybe it is about taking time away from the busyness and complexity of our lives as social animals. During the pandemic, I haven’t had much by way of a social life anyway, but even the twice or more removed interactions of social media and TV demand something of us.
The high mountain peaks and the vast single organism that is an aspen grove demand nothing of us, really. They are simply there. If we wish to survive them, and to appreciate them, we must demand things of ourselves. We must demand caution and respect for the power of nature. We must demand reverence and honor for forces so beyond ourselves. And we must demand humility for our place in the vast scheme of things.
If we’re lucky, we come back refreshed when we make this demand of ourselves and we are not so tempted to knock hats off.