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.

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