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Earlier this summer I drove a 1,756 mile loop up, down and around the edges of a tilted tabletop in the heart of North America. Born high in the Colorado Rockies, the Platte River Basin loses 12,000 feet in elevation west to east, draining 90,000 square miles across the plains until it flows into the Missouri River along Nebraska’s eastern border. For me, this geography is home.

I was born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska. As a kid, every summer my folks would load up me, my sister, and our white fluffy dog and head up-drainage to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. As I remember, it was 536 miles from doorstep to entrance gate; 536 miles on the road to escape the ragweed bloom and sweltering late summer humidity of eastern Nebraska.

A wildflower boquet grows out of a crack in a sandstone butte in Nebraska’s Wildcat Hills.
A wildflower boquet grows out of a crack in a sandstone butte in Nebraska’s Wildcat Hills.

Before seat-back video screens, smart phones and computer games, we would tick off the miles by listening to the radio and dad talk with truckers on the CB. We would play the license plate game to see who could check off all 50 states first, or calculate our speed and the weight of my dad’s lead foot by timing the seconds between mile markers with my wrist watch. In the mountains, we would hike and fish all day. In the evening we’d scan the hillsides for elk, deer and bighorn sheep. I loved those trips. They connected us as a family. And gave me a love for high places that, decades later, still holds strong.

Ice out at Lake Agnes in Colorado’s Never Summer Range high in the North Platte watershed.
Ice out at Lake Agnes in Colorado’s Never Summer Range high in the North Platte watershed.

When my mom was young, her Lutheran pastor father would escape the rigors of his parish duties in the Nebraska panhandle and retreat to the high country too. If they had a free Sunday afternoon, he would load up the station wagon and take the family north into the rambling Wildcat Hills. If they had a couple days they might pack the fishing poles and head towards the Medicine Bow Mountains in Wyoming. Or with a rare whole week, into Rocky Mountain National Park where grandpa, free of his pastoral robe, would get a kick out of saying he had visited “The Dam Store”, which still exists today at the foot of Big Thompson Canyon on Highway 34.

Meltwater emerges from an alpine snowfield in the Never Summer Range.
Meltwater emerges from an alpine snowfield in the Never Summer Range.

My friend Mike grew up in a large Midwestern city where the high places were built of concrete and steel. He recalls his closest brush with wildlife was whatever he and his buddies saw in the alley behind his street. When he moved to Nebraska in his twenties, his attentions began to turn west tracing the great Platte River Road. By age 50 he discovered the deep spirit of North Park in Colorado, finding beauty and solace in the cool shade of pine forests and rock-tumbling streams. Now in his mid-60’s, he graciously shares these quiet, sacred spaces with others of a younger generation that he holds dear.

Raven in descent riding the air currents of a windswept ridge.
Raven in descent riding the air currents of a windswept ridge.

My friend Kery came all the way from New Orleans, a place below sea level and as different as it is distant from the Rockies. Kery got bit by the mountain bug and turned down a cozy job in a big southern city to fall passionately in love with the high peaks, their verdant summer meadows, and the rivers and streams that course through them.

A mountain breeze sets aspen tree reflections in motion in the waters of a beaver pond.
A mountain breeze sets aspen tree reflections in motion in the waters of a beaver pond.

Many of us have found allure and value in these high places. We climb a butte to spread our arms like eagle wings, feeling swept away by the wind as cloud shadows race across the plains below. We breathe deep of the clean mountain air and smile as we plunge our feet in frigid, crystal clear waters, a feeling so good it hurts. We sit on slabs of granite as old as the earth and have a picnic.

An elk calf stands on wobbly legs in the alpine tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
An elk calf stands on wobbly legs in the alpine tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

These high places help us strip away our layers. They make us feel closer to a higher power. They make us honest. And they remind us of the mystery and wonder of it all.

In early summer, a massive thunderhead builds over the eastern plains of Colorado at sunrise.
In early summer, a massive thunderhead builds over the eastern plains of Colorado at sunrise.

During the next few years many of these blog posts will follow that wonder and explore this diverse and critically important 90,000 square mile watershed: following the water and telling its stories. So the journey begins. 

Reposted from Michael Forsberg’s “Notes from the Field” blog at www.michaelforsberg.com.

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