(Denver Post, Oct. 7) It was fifty summers ago, at age 13, that I gained admission to Princeton. Soon I was also attending Harvard, Yale, and Columbia (long before its Ahmadinejad disgrace). Later, with mentors who insisted nothing is impossible, I matriculated at Oxford. Not to brag, but readers of this column deserve to know the heights I began ascending in boyhood and continue scaling as a grandfather. My son enrolled with me in these demanding courses decades ago. We’ll enroll his son one of these days. Okay, the joke is obvious. I’m referring to Colorado’s Collegiate Peaks, not the towers of academe. Since 1957 I’ve seldom missed a summer to climb one of these or another of the magnificent 14ers. The steep trails have taught me as many lessons as my college days at Principia or my years in the Navy and Washington.
If you’ve spent any time on the high ridges, hiking or even ascending by car as one can do on Mount Evans and Pike’s Peak, you will relate. But as more and more Coloradans are transplants, living in laps from subdivision to mall to office park, too few now taste the joy of a day above timberline – the bracing air, infinite skyscapes, keen risk and sweet reward.
Do yourself a favor by enrolling soon at this unique wilderness campus and returning often: so advises an old Princeton undergrad. Hiking season on the 14ers pretty much ended with September, of course, though my friend Matt did Quandary Peak last winter on skis. However this is a good time to get in shape and read up, ahead of next spring.
Along with the Colorado mountain guidebooks, there’s a great shelf of naturalists and historians. John Muir’s writings, though set in the Sierras, resonate powerfully in the Rockies. His paean to “these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, opening a thousand windows to show us God,” was a watchword to my father and mother, who introduced me to the Collegiate Peaks.
Men to Match My Mountains, Irving Stone’s stirring account of the opening of the Far West before 1900, was another favorite in our family. Its title comes from a Sam Foss poem of 1894: “Bring me men to match my mountains, bring me men to match my plains, men with freedom in their visions and creation in their veins.”
The two authors, as everybody understood until recently, weren’t talking about males. They meant human beings capable of nobility and heroism, men and women of character “whose thoughts shall pave a highway up to ampler destinies,” as Foss wrote. In this inclusive sense the quote long held an honored place at the Air Force Academy. But in 2003, feminists forced its removal; too bad.
Writing just a year after Katherine Bates penned “America the Beautiful” atop Pike’s Peak, Foss entitled his verses, “The Coming American.” Americans worthy of these plains and mountains, Colorado heroes, did come as she and he both prayed. Many are enshrined at our state capitol, but you wonder if we still have the spirit they did.
The war monuments outside, like the water engineers glorified on rotunda murals inside, are politically incorrect today. So are some of the Senate’s stained-glass memorials: Otto Mears who relocated the Utes, Gov. Edwin Johnson who stood against unrestricted Mexican immigration and the wartime danger of a Japanese fifth column, Sen. Charles Hughes who fought federal land policy, the mining and railroad magnate David Moffatt.
Though neither defense nor development is fashionable now, where would we be without them? Modern as we are, summits remain to be climbed with sacrifice and daring – or our civilization will not endure. Men and women of spine are still needed, here on the backbone of the continent. The high trails still have much to teach.