Below the east side of Independence Pass lies a captivating valley. I discovered it for the first time six years ago while in Colorado on a road trip. As with so many valleys, a stream of water flows through this one, the North Fork Lake Creek. Its gentle waters keep one bank separate from the other while the pines, like distant spectators, keep back and watch the water do its work. Every year since my first encounter I have done my best to return to the valley, that I might experience it and the surrounding landscape.
On many visits, while descending the switchbacks of Highway 82, I have pulled over and taken a long gander at the valley, committing its look and feel to memory in hopes that I might create some inner reserve from which I can draw upon in lesser times, like William Wordsworth and his Tintern Abbey next to the Wye River:
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!
Yet the reason for which the valley captures my imagination has always eluded me. Two years ago, I was able to take a short hike through the tall grasses and scrubby mountain willows to experience it more directly. This year, I finally had the time to take a substantial hike through my valley of significance.
Could it be something as simple as novelty? The way in which the valley is situated—how it becomes wider and more leveled out rather than remain steep with deep-cutting slopes further upstream—makes it unlike everything else around. As a result, the creek transitions from its frenetic snow-melt rush to a less urgent pace, cutting a winding path, snaking its way in mesmerizing fashion. Further down the valley, the creek again begins its crashing pace until it reaches Twin Lakes, and from there it eventually joins the Arkansas River. Change the names though and this could describe many other mountain creeks.
Could it be the lack of any noticeable society? The valley is fairly marshy, unsuitable for human development of any kind, other than the lightly trafficked highway that runs nearby. This kind of separation from society is always welcome and makes for a valley filled with life; bugs and birds, butterflies and beavers. It is a place almost out of time, where if enough hours are spent here, I feel like Odysseus among the Lotus-Eaters.
Perhaps the reason though is what the location of the valley and the nature of the creek inspire. The valley exists in between the creek’s downhill, hurried infancy to the roaring river that it will become. It is a quiet space that encourages inward contemplation, a sense of unity, and ignites my transcendental predilections. I am after something, trying to connect an inward desire with something Ralph Waldo Emerson says exists out there: “[Nature] is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead back the individual to it.”
I am out here listening for this spirit. This is the reason the valley captivates me.
There are other places like this for me that suggest something akin to spirituality; the western coast of Ireland and other mountains I have hiked come to mind. These are lonely places, a type of palace where one goes to be purposefully removed, for it is in these places of separation that I can see myself better. It is a type of fortifying solitude, the kind that allows one to return to society refreshed.
It is not only aloneness that creates this strengthening experience, but it is oftentimes, like this valley, the place itself. I hesitate to use the term “thin place,” but that is what thin places were in the Celtic imagination and then by extension medieval Christianity—in between, transitional spaces of mesmerizing location, where the connection between our world and the spirit world is most easily approached. These have always been lonely places.
That is what these spaces I am talking about represent; they are threshold places. The wide, flat valley, and meandering stream, on the edge of what was and what will be; the alpine regions between the treeline and mountain top, the very edge of earth and sky; any remote beach that is harsh and rugged, the ocean in conversation with land, here at what seems to be the edge of everything. Here I am alone, but also entirely at home, and surely something similar to what Emerson experienced when he wrote “Nature” (1836):
“Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball: I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel to God.”
Do these places have power? Are they thinner so that the transcendental is more accessible? “Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul,” writes Emerson. What is this soul to which he refers, and is it found easier here in this valley? I feel as though I am among or closer to something that is more real; perhaps it is I who feel more actual, authentic as a result? Or is it simply because I am awakening to a kind of kinship, as philosopher and poet John O’Donohue suggests in a 2008 interview:
“I think it makes a huge difference when you wake in the morning and come out of your house, whether you believe you are walking into a dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you but in a totally different form.”
What I can say with certainty is that after visiting these kinds of threshold places, I am changed. For me, these places are almost exclusively set in nature. To echo Henry David Thoreau, I need the tonic of wilderness because it is good for the soul. The change never lasts long enough though.
A few days after my valley experience, I was once again in my beloved high-country, above the treeline, amongst the snowdrifts on a short hike near Cottonwood Pass. I did not earn it the hard way this time; there were no hours of hiking through forests, streams, and elevation to reach this point. A nicely paved road conveniently takes one to the pass where the trail begins at 12,126 feet, but it was a joy to be here again in another place of transition, this threshold. To be among the tundra and hard-edged rocks with their bright lichen, the alpine shrubs that grow no higher than my shin, the tiny flowers, the exposure, the wind, the “Eeeeep!” of the Yellow-bellied Marmot, the soaring birds, the flitting butterflies, the bees and other insects. It is in this environment that I again search for a sense of something more. “So intimate is this Unity,” writes Emerson, “that it is easily seen, it lies under the undermost garment of Nature, and betrays its source in Universal Spirit.”
Where I am standing, there is nothing higher; it is the transition point between earth and sky. If I am to find this easily seen Unity that Emerson champions, surely it is here.
We inhabit such a small space, this thin crust of earth. We think 1000 feet underground is so far, yet how much further below? We think the sky is so far above, but limitless space stretches beyond. These threshold spaces are accessible and profound, but so much more beyond: “. . . all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence.”
Here in the high-country or out in the valley marshes, it is easier for reality to impress itself upon my experience, my mind more open to nature’s influence. Our lives in cities are so insulated, so sanitized and inorganic, it is no wonder they’re fraught with existential crises. And the suburbs are worse, to the point where achieving authenticity is near impossible. To feel the earth beneath you, your muscles struggling against gravity and wind, to smell the forest combination of decomposition and life, this is where we can connect with something more real and become like Emerson’s transparent eyeball.
“In the wilderness,” Emerson reflects, “I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”
No doubt the Transcendentalist regularly portrayed cities as something unfortunate in one way or another, something that keeps us from our better selves. This is why these remote places, wild and rugged, cause us to feel more alive, because we are confronted with raw reality. There is little that society impresses upon us that is reality—it is all fabricated. Stand on a mountain top, wind whipping around you; you will discover a different sense of what is important. Cross a meadow in the morning light, humidity rising from the ground as grasshoppers avoid your gait, and you will be more connected. Trudge through snow with your fingers and toes numb, inhaling cold air into your lungs, and your lens will become wiped clear. Thoreau liked to begin each day with a walk in nature. In his book Excursions (1863), he writes:
“I think I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
Such a luxury this must have been. Society provides us very little time to walk in the morning. We are up and going, coffee in hand, ready to work until the evening. And if we had time to walk, society does a poor job of providing meaningful spaces in which to do it. Yet how important?
I do not think I can equate any of this with what might be called a religious experience, unless the collective amount of time spent in these places might be called such. I do not believe the forests and mountains, prairies and deserts, hum with some special quality of spirituality that other places do not have. Inorganic as it is, spirituality can still be found in society. Does all of this taken together equate transcendence? Perhaps. The blinders are off. Nothing here is unnatural. All is organic. But in these threshold places, remote and removed, perhaps I have found what I am looking for. I encounter what is beyond my everyday experience, which produces within me, the subjective perceiver that I am, a greater degree of clarity and it edges me closer to something I call the Divine.