1900 miles of driving over 4 days and I was exhausted. The road had lulled me into a state of complacency with its perfectly spaced concrete seems that resonated with the suspension in my Jeep Cherokee but I was soon to be awakened like never before. The fresh-off-the-lot little black Jeep was filled to the rim with a summer’s worth of perceived camping accoutrement—the Royce Union mountain bike that was a Sport’s Authority special, the red Gregory backpack that could hold enough gear for a week on the trail, crates full of stoves, pots, food, and of course, my Zamberlin full-leather hiking boots.
It was June 11 of 1999, and I was on the greatest adventure of my life. Having just pulled off the most amazing heroics to complete my Master’s thesis, Micro Air Vehicle Control Design: A Comparison of Classical and Dynamic Inversion Techniques, the good folks at MIT granted me my diploma, I bought the Jeep on the spot, drove to my parent’s house in Moorestown, NJ, and bid adieu to the East for the first time in my life.
First, a 14 hour day, then a 19 hour day behind the wheel. I put the lowlands behind me as fast as possible. Then a soul-inspiring overnight respite in the dew-laden grasslands of Badlands National Park. Mount Rushmore just didn’t do it for me, but the granite hills, Oh the granite hills! My excitement was building, and I knew the long hours on the flat, featureless road would soon be paying their dividends. Another rainy night in my Sierra Designs tent, but that time loneliness accompanied me along with the ponderosa pines and the erratic boulders on a deserted 4×4 road in the Black Hills. I could feel that I was close.
Another day spent behind the wheel, and Wyoming replaced South Dakota. And that’s when I saw them for the first time. Nothing could have prepared me for that. My journal entry said it all: “I rounded a curve and got my first-ever, distant view of the mountains. My jaw dropped, and all I could say was, ‘Holy Shit!’” My first sight of the Rocky Mountains! Well, the Big Horn Mountains to be specific. Sure they might not have been the Tetons or the Colorado 14ers, but let there be no doubt, I had arrived!
The Big Horn Mountains—who has even heard of them? It didn’t matter, because just as St Louis symbolized passage to the West for American frontiersman, those snow-capped peaks marked the first time I ever laid eyes on the grand mountains of the West. That summer was spent on perilous, yet transformative solo journeys through the Tetons, Glacier National Park, and the Sierras to name a few, but after 2 months, the East beckoned and I returned to responsibility and my first position as a professional engineer. My outdoor adventures continued throughout New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, but something was always missing. Finally, after two years of longing, I broke my ties with the East and made the long drive once again towards the Rocky Mountains but this time to a new land of exploration—Colorado. A dozen years have passed in Colorado with hundreds of weekends accounted for in exploration of the state’s grandeur. And in that time I’ve also climbed some of the highest peaks in the world, but never, not ever have I seen and felt such magnificence as the moment I rounded that curve in the road and got my first glimpse of the West.
This personal essay was written in response to homework assignment #3, “To See or Not to See—That is the Question” for the Life Writing class in which we were asked to think back on our lives and writing about a time when we suddenly “see” something that we will never forget (a moment of understanding or a wonderful opportunity of using our eyes to view and experience the world).