Ruth Baker doesn’t insist on many things, but she was determined about this trip. “We are going to go on a real vacation. And this time I don’t mean another place within eight hours of our house. This time, I want to take the family to see the Rocky Mountains.”
I grew up with trips of 3-4 days within driving distance of our home. We mostly visited relatives or went to the Gulf of Mexico. Those experiences, which I loved, formed my feelings about travel. I begin to get nervous after more than a long weekend away. I hate spending time in airports and worrying about rental cars.
It didn’t matter. We were doing this. After all, my bride had only been asking for a couple of decades.
We packed up four suitcases and at least four backpacks and headed for a Southwest flight out of Nashville. Ruth and the kids managed to tolerate my need to get to the airport nearly three hours ahead of time.
I sat in an exit row. Ruth and the kids sat nearby. I put in my earphones so I wouldn’t hear the engine noise, which tends to fill me with anxiety. My usual eclectic mix of Christian, electronica, and eighties rock drowned out the ambient sound while Ernest Cline’s novel Ready, Player One distracted me from thinking too much about being many thousands of feet in the air. (Short review: Good story with non-stop eighties and nerd nostalgia. I found that I dreamed about it at night. Fair amount of philosophical and religious disagreement on my part.)
Uneventful flight. We arrived in Denver. I was about to go on a forced oxygen diet for the next week.
Baggage claim. Avis rental car. The agent asked if we wanted to upgrade from our Buick Regal. Ruth insisted we did not. We took all our luggage to the car and filled the trunk. Not everything would fit. By the time I sat down and got my seat the way I like it, our daughter had become a sardine in the back seat. She doesn’t normally speak up for herself, but actually decided to express dissatisfaction. Ruth went back to the desk and returned with a brand new Ford Explorer (at an increased rate, but who cares!). (Short review: The new Ford Explorer is the best Ford I have ever experienced. And this one had seat coolers. SEAT COOLERS! My rear end was cool throughout our journeys.)
We made our way into Denver. Thanks to a recommendation from a friend, we began with a meal at a Mediterranean place in one of those hip parts of town. You know. Run down buildings. Nifty, well-aged neighborhoods. Creative vibe. The restaurant featured grape leaves, kebabs, pita bread, all kinds of other wonderfulness. The dry, rare air and the delicious water caused us to drink about twice as much as we usually would. As we enjoyed the meal, a freak hailstorm pelted the world outside. We took it as a good omen.
The next day we went to the Denver Botanic Garden. It is typically beautiful. I found myself surprised to see that there was a scripture garden with a Judeo-Christian emphasis. I wasn’t sure whether something like that would still have a place in Denver.
After the gardens, we went to a doughnut shop that has been discovered by the Food Network. Voo-doo Doughnuts. Parking was a semi-nightmare as I had to find a parallel spot for our rented Explorer. We got inside and waited in a long, snaking queue. The bottom line is that they do the standards well. Glazed doughnut. Good. Raspberry filled. Also good. But they encourage you to pay big bucks for a mixed box that they choose. You end up with very attractive doughnuts with a ton of icing and toppings like Captain Crunch, bubble gum, bacon, etc. We didn’t really like any of the jazzed up doughnuts with enough icing to be cupcakes. Though we are all big fans of doughnuts, the truth is that we pitched most of the souped up versions into the garbage can at a local park.
That evening we encountered something wonderful. Denver’s City Park is a treasure. Acres of gorgeous, soft, green grass. A delightful lake at the center. We made our way around the water to reach a central grandstand which emanated jazz. It was interesting to walk through the crowd, which got a little rough-looking at times. We saw a motorcycle gang. One guy’s jacket said “Enforcer.” And it didn’t seem like a joke. Some of the women had vests that said things like “property of Jack.” Again, didn’t seem like a funny thing.
We kept making our way through the crowd. I noticed signs forbidding the use of marijuana in the park and figured that’s probably a pretty serious issue given Denver’s legalization of the drug. I had seen at least two “green cross” dispensaries offering medical and recreational marijuana. The biggest thing I noticed as we continued around the lake was the predominance of dogs over children. Lots and lots of dogs who were clearly treasured and adored. Not so many kids. Draw the conclusion you will from that.
The next day we left for the YMCA camp in Estes Park just outside the Rocky Mountain National Park. It was extraordinarily picturesque. Just driving from Denver to the area was a spiritual and emotional experience. As a lifelong southerner, my view of mountains comes from the Appalachian chain. There is just something about the scale of the Rockies that induces a sense of awe, especially the sheer size of some of the rocks.
Estes Park has the Stanley Hotel, which I will always think of as the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. In the film, the Overlook appears to stand alone and foreboding in the wintry mountains. Today, it sits just above a semi-schlocky tourist area. McDonald’s is at its base. You can’t drive up and check the hotel out. They have a guard shack to keep out the sight-seers. I was a little bummed about that. If the movie were made today, Jack would never go crazy. He’d just amble down the hill for a combo meal at Taco Bell.
The YMCA camp was much more than I’d hoped. Maybe the first thing to say is that despite the seeming full secularization of the YMCA as an organization nationwide, the camp we encountered in the Rockies was truly a Christian camp. There were large numbers of Christian campers eating, praying, praising God, and having a great time. We saw Josh McDowell at breakfast one morning. He was clearly there as a speaker. I watched as he worked on a powerpoint presentation with an assistant. Though I wanted to talk to him, I am constitutionally opposed to bothering celebrities and appearing like a fanboy.
What happened next is a matter of controversy between me and my son. Andrew got up from our table and went to the bathroom shortly after McDowell did the same. He returned to say that he had spoken with the author. He told him that his father was Hunter Baker, an author and a professor at Union University in Tennessee, and that his dad liked his books. Andrew claims that McDowell responded that he had read my work and likes it. As all of this dialogue happened off-stage, I have trouble accepting it. But I do believe they spoke. And if I apply the professor’s test in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I should believe Andrew. Enough of that.
The camp was uplifting and fun. There was praise and worship. There were outdoor concerts (with proper homage paid to John Denver). We hiked and learned fly-fishing. The whole time I felt astonishment at the natural beauty. Anytime I wanted to, I could look up and see something breathtaking. I also got my first view of a coyote and an elk in the wild. The elk stunned me. We don’t get a lot of fauna that size in our part of the world. We also played a fair bit of bingo. Simple pleasures. It was a nice detox from the usual routines of electronics, electronics, and electronics.
After leaving the camp, we drove into the Rocky Mountain National Park. Ruth had been there before and was determined to get above timberline. I struggled with the thin air all week, but it was at its worst at the high point in the park. Denver’s mile high air is tough enough, but try 10,000 feet and above. As I write this blog post, I am drinking in the rich, humid, oxygen soup of West Tennessee. It is glorious. Despite the clean, dry, thin air which I felt was slowly suffocating and dessicating me, I loved seeing the tundra at the high altitudes. We hiked on special paths and climbed boulders. It felt like being on top of the planet. The wind was so fierce at points it was almost as though you might get blown into space. One young man was up there in a wheelchair and had an oxygen cannister. While I wondered if he should be there in his condition, I also thought that it was a great thing that he could see the same things I was seeing.
Hiking above timberline was the high point (pun intended). We eased out by stopping in Winter Park where we rode the alpine slide and saw what a ski resort looks like in the summer. Then, we went through Golden, Colorado where Coors is made. They are in no danger of losing the massive brewery because Coors depends on the Rocky Mountain spring water for its beer. The Coors complex was one of the largest commercial operations I have ever seen. It was like a huge appendage attached to the quaint downtown of the city.
The Baker clan finished by staying at an airport hotel and returning to Tennessee the next day. Andrew, who likes his predictable world, went on and on about how much he missed all the good things waiting for us at home. He promised to kiss the ground upon our return. I suddenly understood all the old newsreel footage of politicians as they pressed their lips to the tarmac upon returning to their native lands. I’m happy to be back, too.