The Light and Air of the Rockies

I woke up this morning to the bracing air and clear-edged light of the Rockies. Ever since I was a boy, I’ve always been deeply affected by the quality of air and light. Our northern air of Minnesota winters made the lungs gasp and filled me with excitement, and the heaviness and liquid haze of the summer humidity depressed and defeated me. Part of the lure of the Pacific Northwest is that deep underpainting of blue that is always in the air. It is a color more felt than seen, but it is as recognizable as the voice of an old friend once you become familiar with it.

When I was doing my book on Chief Joseph, I kept thinking on what it was like for Joseph and his people to go from the clear mountain air of the Wallowas to the heavy, sodden air of Leavenworth and Baxter Springs and Indian territory.

As I traveled the route of their exodus, trying to apprehend the spiritual as well as the physical changes they were enduring, it was the change from western light and air to Midwestern humidity that they encountered as they passed across North Dakota that affected me most deeply.

For people who were alive to the spiritual presence of every aspect of their environment, this change must have been devastating. Suddenly, the sky above you has weight, and the light, even on the clearest days, is filtered through a thin gauze of liquid haze. If you are raised in it, as I was, you don’t see it. But if it is not your native air, you notice it. The sky pushes down on you, it does not draw you upward. This is not to denigrate it. I still love the way it holds in the smells and richness of the earth so much more fully than the clear emptiness of the brilliant western skies. But it is decidedly different.

Being back in this mountain air reminds me of that difference. You stand outside in this air and light and you want to sing an anthem to the sun. It is good for me to be here. I can see why children of the mountains never want to leave.

Posted on: September 20, 2019knerburn

10 thoughts on “The Light and Air of the Rockies

  1. Wow. Beautiful writing. Made me think totally different. Grew up in Ohio. Now live in the southwest, with a bit of time in the high country of Arizona. So love the mountain/tree air. And so true about that Midwest haze. Thank you, Kent.

  2. Here on the east coast…occassionally..in mid summer…instead of 90 degrees and humidity….we will get upper 60s with clouds and a northerly breeze….and I immediately this forest…woods…trails…scouting

  3. That’s very interesting. I remember my reaction when my dad moved us from Wisconsin to So California back in the late 60’s. The difference in color was what struck me – bright blue and green of clean sky and well-watered earth to desert tones was a huge adjustment. Even the birds have little color here. I still am not a desert person but I have come to appreciate those dusty colors – especially since concern for the environment has noticeably cleaned up the air. But whenever I return places of brighter colors and songbirds, it is like coming home.

  4. I just rode a 1600-mile loop from the north Oregon coast, to Elko, Nevada, to the Owyhee area of Idaho, and back, smack dab through the middle of Oregon. The air changed along the journey, but maintained a clarity of personality that I found very comforting.

  5. Thanks for adding the distinction that “This is not to denigrate it.”
    Sometimes, it is hard to say something is beautiful…without inferring that the other is not or is inferior. It’s a tough line to walk, especially when one loves something really deeply. I think we humans have a hard time with this when we are really passionate about something. I know I do.
    I’ve spend a fair amount of time fishing in Quebec and once in MN near the Boundary Waters, I think it was. How it can get so hot where it gets so cold always just blew me away!! Yet, once in May or June at Lake Evans in Quebec, it snowed in the morning and was at least 80 in the afternoon when I filleted 40 walleye on the sandy beach with no shirt on (while we waited for the Beaver to come in and fly us out). But still, it never seemed as humid in those places as here in central NY–I can enjoy humidity, haze and buzzing cicadas only when I’m doing hard physical labor outside, but then I love it.
    The mountains that I know out my way are the Adirondacks and Whites and you are sure right; the light and air are really different.
    Someday I’ll make that “road trip” and see the Rockies, Badlands and prairies.
    I always enjoy reading what you write… So, keep writing!

  6. I was raised in Southwestern PA but when I visited Arizona for the first time and saw the beauty of the mountains from Lake Havasu to Parker and inhaled the vastness of the desert I felt that I had
    “come home”. PA is beautiful but so different from the Southwest. I often hike the trails in our local parks, but I often feel suffocated and long for the open spaces.

  7. I too feel the colors while seeing them while in or near the mountains. I moved her in 2009 from the East and have a deep love for the expansive and everlasting blue sky. The clouds speak to me not just in shapes but in whispers from God. Just this past weekend I went to the Welch Gulch trail at Lory State Park near Fort Collins, and swore I heard a whisper in the gentle winds and flickering shadows on the trail. I had a hint of fear not knowing if snakes would be looking for food in the high afternoon sun and heat on the dirt beneath my worn nike’s. I had the opportunity to lie down on an old wooden bench partway through the trail and breathe in the cool shady air while looking up towards heaven knowing that my parents are watching over me. I hope to meet you tomorrow in Boulder. I just purchased your book today and would love to hear you speak in person. Thank you for helping me to remember I am alive despite trauma, failure, and sadness. Thank you for your clear voice in a crowd of noise. Kristen

  8. Thanks so much for sharing your work with us in Florissant this week. Our Shining Mountain community is the better for it. Our Rocky Mountain air will always welcome you back. After 35 years in the Redwoods my Colorado home and skies called me back. I treasured the deep forest colors and smells of the Redwoods but now I’m back to the wide open skies where my father taught me how to appreciate nature by a fishing stream. We all need a nature home.

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