Constellations Turned To Polaroids In A Cardboard Box

The sky over Central Park looked like a bruise this morning, all deep gray, purple, and blue. It reminded me of the sky over Telluride before a summer storm.

I first visted Telluride in July, 1990. I spent a few days in the San Juan mountain, there in the southwest corner of Colorado, in my 8553 mile road trip from Philadelphia to San Diego and back. I fell fast in love with the jagged, snow-capped peaks, the broad meadows below, and their stands of whispering aspen trees. I swore I would return.

One year later, I pointed my rusty-red Nissan Sentra into that great box canyon with a K-Mart pup tent, a North Face sleeping bag, and Takamine acoustic guitar in the trunk, an aqua Cannondale mountain bike on a rack, and $700 in cash in my pocket. I was twenty-years-old.

The first night in Town Camp, a small patch of pine needles just east of Main Street, passed uneventfully. On the second, I woke to the steady drum of raindrops on canvas. Soon enough, the waterproofing failed, and I climbed into the Sentra’s cramped backseat.

I pounded the pavement with vigor in the morning, shaking hands and knocking on doors in an effort to find a warm, dry place to stay for the summer. My best lead came from a house full of twenty-something, bong-ripping, frat-boy ski-bums who offered a small closet with musty carpetting for a thousand bucks a month. It was precisely the environment I sought to escape.

Crestfallen, I walked to a phone booth on the edge of town as the sun began falling towards Utah. Thick gray clouds were gathering. Lightening was flashing on the mountains. Thunder echoed through the canyon. I dialed my mother, and cried.

“I’m cold, I’m tired, I’m sore, I have no job, no friends, and nowhere to stay tonight… and a storm’s about to break!”

That night, I spent fifty bucks on a hotel room, ten bucks on a pizza, and watched “Cheers” as lightening lit the night, thunder shook the mountains, and the San Miguel River rushed outside my window. The next morning, I met Suzi Goeller, and moved my tent, sleeping bag, and guitar into a loft above her apartment. I spent the summer pumping gas at the local Texaco, reporting local news on KOTO-FM, and studying creative writing at the Telluride A-Ha Institute.

On the afternoon of my first day in Telluride, I decided to hike to Bridal Vail Falls, a 385 foot waterfall east of town. Telluride, for starters, sits 8750 above sea level. The falls — Colorado’s longest free falling waterfall — are some five hundred feet higher. Within just a few hundred yards, I was doubled over by a racing heart and a pounding head. A few weeks later — acclimated, I figured — I tried to jog to the top of Bear Creek, another beautiful waterfall south of town. Again, I found myself stopped dead in my tracks from exhaustion.

I ran into a friend last night who had just ended a three-month relationship — her first in nearly ten years — with a married man. She was beside herself with sadness, rage, and hopelessness. “What difference does it make?” she asked, over and over and over through tears.

You know that my favorite, most-often repeated quote is Tobias Wolff’s: “We are made to persist, to finish the tour. That’s how we found out who we really are.” Still, I couldn’t share that with her. She wouldn’t have heard it anyway.

One of my favorite books as a kid was “The Little Engine That Could.” Sure, it’s right up there with Annie’s “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” for hokum, but it’s good stuff. Like Annie, it’s stayed with me. Last night, as I listened to her, I felt so grateful for that it had. So grateful that, even in my darkest moments, even when I’m cold, tired, ore, jobless, friendless, and homeless; even on the 24th mile of the NYC Marathon; on every worst-day-ever, I have thought to myself, “I think I can.” I have thought to myself, “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.” I have thought to myself, “Persist.”

In the school year between visiting and then living in Telluride, I taped an 8 1/2 x 11 photo of Mount Ajax, the 11, 212 foot peak above town, just over my desk. I spent an entire year pledging to myself that I would stand on top of that mountain.

In the waning days of summer, Suzi, her dog Heidi and I slowly and steadily climbed to the summit of Mount Ajax. In the photo that’s survived the intervening fifteen years, there is a thunderstorm gathering just over my shoulder. I know this from the clouds, the streaks of rain, and the fact that my hair is on end from static electricity.

The best part is that, standing there two miles in the sky, I didn’t even notice.

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