I’m on my second or third attempt at Anna Karenina, and though I’m barely past the twenty-page mark, I’m optimistic that I’ll make it through the remaining 960. I’m in Colorado for the first time in five years and while I’ve spent most of my time hiking, staring at the mountains, hanging out, and picking from an extensive collection of enjoyably mediocre rom-coms and action flicks, the luxury of unstructured time still feels like there will be time to get well into the novel, too.
I’ve always felt like an observer of character, and this is a time at which I can more enjoyably resonate with Tolstoy’s verbose affinity for that. The at once most accessible and elusive characters to observe are our own, and returning to my stepfather’s cabin on a Christian dude ranch has me thinking more on what we observe in others and how we happen to mirror them.
I first came to Colorado in 2005, the year my mother married my stepfather. Shortly after we arrived there, I was struck down with lightheadedness, nausea, and aches all over. After a brief period of thinking I was just a wimp, my mother diagnosed it as a bad case of altitude sickness, due to the quick shift from an elevation of 620 feet above sea level in Illinois to 8,400 feet at the foot of Mt. Princeton’s Chalk Cliffs. Looking back, I’m more willing to say I was a wimp. That visceral reaction to the change in altitude was my city mouse rite of initiation to a country way of life.
When I went to Calvin, I started working jobs that I didn’t feel I could take a week or two off from in the summer. I regret that it’s been five years since I came to Colorado. In retrospect, I probably could have. I probably should have.
Admittedly, there’s a lot that’s kitschy and cushy about a Christian dude ranch in the Rockies that caters to decidedly un-rugged Christian conservative families. There are hot tubs, a coffee shop, and guided encounters with nature. It is a very white space. Prices are steep for guests who don’t have a cabin in the family. College kids swagger around in Wrangler jeans or, as I saw yesterday, a red, white, blue, and star-spangled button down paired with a swim trunk variation on the same patriotic theme. Signs with pithy phrases like “Horses & Hospitality” and “When we are in the mountains we forget to count the days” abound.
It’s a kitsch I find myself unexpectedly into. I try to keep up with the quick footwork at square dances, I voluntarily turn the radio dial to the country music station, I pronounce the names of nearby towns like the locals do.
A not negligible portion of my high school peers frequently wore cowboy boots to school, went line dancing on the weekends, and were constantly angling to upgrade the paint job and detailing on the pickup trucks they drove. I was incredulous of rednecks living within an hour of downtown Chicago, but when I come out here, I pay attention to the way people live and lean into a similar way of being.
In the past few years, my mother has drawn a loose association between her remarriage and a softness of speech and lack of self assurance that I’m slowly, slowly outgrowing. I think that’s her shorthand for more specific factors like moving from the city to the suburbs, transferring into a new school system, and entering adolescence. But when I think about the before and after of her remarriage, going out to the ranch in Colorado has been a wonderful, unexpected boon.
I’ve gone from trailing behind groups on easy hikes to scrabbling up boulders. I still enjoy fashion, but I’m more inclined to wear an oversized magenta and turquoise fleece than the mod dresses I wore in high school, and I’ve claimed an old pair of cowboy boots for early morning horseback rides.
It’s a completely different genre from my usual urban, occasionally neurotic, biracial sense of self, a self I’ve documented and admittedly further mythologized for myself in my posts here. But that version of me doesn’t make much sense here, and I surprise myself at how quickly I switch codes, mirroring the relaxed, enthusiastic, adventurous people I see around me. At home, I’m eager to have darker skin because it makes me look more biracial, but when I’m here, a tan is just a sign I’ve been enjoying time in nature.
I’m both delighted and unsettled by who I am here. How much of it is authentically me? How much of it is thoughtless mirroring of a lifestyle that realistically is not my own?
I know people who have made it their lifestyle, like my stepfather’s niece who just bought fourteen acres down in the valley and is living in a trailer until she and her husband can afford to build a garage with an apartment above it. My stepsister, her husband, and three children lasted just over six months in the land of Chicago skyscrapers and suburbs before they moved back to mountain views and scrubby plains just outside of Denver.
Observing their characters puts my own identity crisis in perspective; I see I’m not the only one who feels happier and more balanced out here, closer to forested mountains and far from reliable cell phone reception and light pollution that obscures the stars at night.
I don’t think I’ll be the next to drop everything and move West, but it makes me more willing to accept who I am here, closer to creation.
India Daniels graduated in 2017 with majors in history and English literature. Her first year out of Calvin, she moved home to Chicago to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Turning the Page, a nonprofit promoting parent engagement and literacy in North Lawndale schools. She now assists Turning the Page’s used bookstores and coordinates a citizen-reporter program for City Bureau, a civic journalism lab on the South Side.