Certain times of year resonate with rituals that become lifetime touchstones -- treasured traditions of season and place. "Going to the mountains" (one of the main reasons people move to Colorado Springs is to be able to get out of town) means, for many, hiking, skiing, hunting, fishing, scenic drives; then there's gambling, film or music festivals, resorts, vacation homes.
Our family tradition of immersion among autumn aspen is one from my childhood that I still honor every fall -- not a drive-by viewing but a total sensory experience. It's the dusky fragrance of decomposing leaves; the wind's breath among branches; sunlight splayed out on the forest floor, slanting between stately ivory aspen bodies, streaming through translucent gold leaves like holes in the crisp blue sky, leaking glory.
We'd drive up Ute Pass through Manitou -- no bypass in those days -- past the plaster Indian statues on pedestals (the present metal sculpture at Ute Chief Spring is a copy of one of these) and up the two-lane highway.
Beyond Woodland Park's main street, no houses existed, just ranchland all the way to the southward turn at the few shacks that comprised Divide.
Often we stopped at the stream just before driving through -- not around -- the tunnel, drinking deep of cold, delicious mountain water (no fear of giardia at that time). Emerging from the gold-blanketed hills to the broad empty meadow where the town of Gillett stood a century ago, we'd look for the dim outline of the vanished racetrack where the only bullfight in the United States took place in 1895. The ruins of a stone-and-brick church -- built by the elderly Father Volpe's own hands a century ago -- stood forlorn in an empty pasture, just north of the windsock and the incongruous tiny airplane hanger.
Beyond Gillett lay favorite haunts -- Bill's Ranch (an abandoned cabin in a lovely, aspen-forested valley), and our own decrepit ranch buildings -- barns, house, two-room log cabin, outhouse -- near Goldfield that we'd bought for $75 in back taxes.
As a kid, I didn't know our family forays into the mountains had any history. All I knew was that fall meant the radiance of brilliant yellow aspen against a cobalt sky, shuffling through springy earth strewn with a dragon's treasure-hoard of golden coin-like leaves, the feathery kiss of falling leaves crashing against my face.
In the 1930s, the abandoned buildings in Cripple Creek's dormant mining district attracted aspiring artists from Colorado Springs' Broadmoor Art Academy. The poignancy of the angular, geometric buildings -- scattered small among the sweeping mountains, silent but for the occasional screech of rusty corrugated iron blowing in the wind -- inspired not only the artists' sense of composition but also suggested the romance of ancient ruins.
One summer, three of them established "the world's smallest art colony" in an abandoned glory hole, scavenging building materials from a defunct mine. Among the characters they met was one Bill Banks, whom my father described as a "lovable old reprobate, a holdover from the boom days of the District. He had been miner, assayer, highgrader, bootlegger and gambler. ..."
Banks took a liking to my father, urging him to sketch and paint at his hidden fishing camp down a wild canyon -- "beautifullest place in the world" -- and at his -- Bill's -- ranch.
When I make these mountain pilgrimages each fall, the beauty and clarity are as immediate as they were in childhood, yet intertwined with layers of family background and memories. That's what makes a true tradition, after all. But the familiar places are hardly as timeless and endearing as childlike impressions would have them. The highway carries commuters as well as urban escapees; the many new houses west of Woodland Park, for example, may once have been mountain retreats but are now a neighborhood. Realty signs have sprouted at Gillett where broken sculptural walls, the tenacious remnants of Father Volpe's church, preside over the pasture like a frail Stonehenge. Whole ghost towns where we used to ramble are buried -- completely -- under the tailings of current mining and ore-processing enterprises.
This year, under the aspen at our old cabin, I contemplate the impossible brilliance of gold leaves against blue sky -- as radiant as the gold leaf and lapis-lazuli pigments used in the most lavish of ancient illuminated manuscripts. The wind sings a sustaining silence in those loquacious leaves, creating a stillness that's so loud you can hear yourself speak, and it's the thinking itself that's noisy.
The grove where I sit is the original eight aspens in their multiple new trunks -- natural clones, as are all aspen groves. There's no trace of the barn where, almost half a century ago, we discovered an antique carved oak table -- but most of my work is done on that same table today.
I'm here with a spiritual and nostalgic territoriality, no longer owning the place. But I've relinquished my emotional claim on Bill's Ranch; there's suddenly a splendid rope swing near the renovated cabin, and aspen memories are etching themselves indelibly into the hearts of a new set of children there. And while I resist imagining development at the lonesome open meadow that was Gillett, I have to admit that a century ago the SPCA had a showdown with bullfight promoters in that busy town, and the church walls echoed with song.
Through all these noisy thoughts runs a thread of continuity, of cycles. Seasonal traditions of time and place are like the new tree trunks in a timeless aspen grove, carrying life on, springing forth from strong old touchstone roots.