For a time in my life I lived among the jagged peaks of the Colorado Rockies. I have never breathed air as crisp, soared quite as high, or skied so dang much since. Indeed, the days I question why I ever left are more numerous than I’d like to admit. Yet what lingers more than the memories of bottomless skiing and readily available legal weed are the lessons taught by the mountains themselves.
At 8,000 feet above sea level the summers in the Rockies are quick as a lightningbug’s flash out in the meadow. The topography of the landscape compounds the shortened summers; at midday the sun arcs high across the sky, but the sun isn’t seen until late morning and it disappears in the early evening due to the height of the surrounding peaks. In the shadow of mountains, sunshine takes on an increased value. With these factors as teaching tools, the mountains taught me to appreciate the ephemeral warmth of summer sunshine.
The mountains’ lessons of winter are where their teaching skills really shine. By early October, snow begins to dust the caps of nearby mountains, a harbinger of winter’s approach. A few weeks later, winter fully arrives, manifested in snow banked parking lots and ice covered sidewalks. (I once performed a slip on the ice so acrobatic it must have looked cartoonish, like Charlie Brown missing the football. I ended up flat on my back, squashing my laptop which now has a permanent red spot on its screen). Come December, the daylight fades to its dimmest, and the sun barely makes an appearance, just skirting above the ridges. Living in the shadows of 14,000 foot peaks, the mountains offered ample lectures on living with limited light.
I spent weeks that winter prepping the firewood stash at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, where I worked as a snowshoe and ski guide. With the help of a rusty maul with a splintery wooden handle, along with a hydraulic wood splitter for tough pieces, my coworkers and I broke apart countless rounds of maple, oak, and cottonwood. We stacked the cleaved chunks in piles neat enough to our liking and wondered how it would ever all get burned; as winter temperatures plummeted and the pile rapidly shrunk, the meaning of the towering wood stacks became self-evident.
The darkness, as well as my appreciation for a good stack of firewood, came to its climax that December on the night of the Solstice. The ACES staff gathered around the fire pit to acknowledge the darkest night of the year. We opened a bottle of whiskey and threw the cap to the flames. We stoked the fire, sang rounds that echoed through the quiet forest, and sat without speaking to hear the burble of the spring creek nearby. We were witness to the darkness that night, sitting with it, being present to all that it is and the balance it brings to the cycles of light on earth. We kept the fire alive that night until morning, when the sun could take the torch from there.
I learned that winter that when light is low, even in the darkest shadow of the tallest mountains, you can make your own sunlight. Gather friends close, sing or dance or do what suits you best, and throw another log on the fire.
Jon Gorter (‘17) graduated from Calvin with degrees in English and environmental studies and holds an MS in natural resources from the University of Michigan. He enjoys fly fishing, mushroom foraging, and waterfall scrambling near his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.