Almost every summer when I was growing up, my family piled into our Chevrolet Suburban and made a pilgrimage to the Rocky Mountains.
We spent half our summer in the Rockies, so we took everything: giant bottles of shampoo, 20 pairs of underwear, novels, board games, my sister’s entire CD collection in its zipped-up binder, Frisbees and swimsuits, butterfly nets and fishing poles, hiking boots, guidebooks, star maps and compasses.
At less than 10 years old, I was already a good road-tripper. All the way across Interstate 80 I didn’t ask, “Are we there yet?” I knew that when we got close, the horizon line would start to rupture. The mountains would grow in the distance until finally the shoulder of the road became a wall of striated granite on one side and dropped to a snaking river far below on the other.
I would press my cheek to the cool glass of the window, ears popping as the elevation climbed, and I would gaze up past the “Falling Rock” signs at stone that had been silently watching for eons.
To my nine-year-old mind, it might as well have been forever.
Most of my life, I’ve spent my spiritual time wavering on the agnostic spectrum. When asked if I believe in God, I sometimes respond that I believe in nature. Then, to ward off cheesiness, I laugh and shrug. “I don’t know,” I say, “I think there’s something.”
But what I’m talking about when I say nature isn’t some Eastern, New-Age qi or a benevolent queen Poobah of the universe.
What I’m talking about is that awe you feel when you stand in the mountains and realize that you are a guest. They were here before you and they will be here after you, constant, unchanging, unchangeable.
And then last spring I was faced with a common fourth-semester humanities major dilemma: I needed a science credit.
After shopping five different courses, I settled on “Earth System Science,” a paper- and discussion-based seminar that met at 9 a.m. twice a week. It wasn’t a match made in Heaven, but it would do.
So all semester I dragged myself out of bed and through literal blizzards and thunderstorms to study geology in LC 318. I skimmed textbook chapters about river formation, mineral classification and volcano spewage. I drew vague diagrams on the chalkboard and entertained myself with double entendres of rock cleavage and pieces of lithosphere plunging into Earth’s warm depths.
But despite myself, I got interested.
As a child, I had pored over maps and guidebooks, learning the names of rivers and flowers and rock formations, but I had never understood how they got there in the first place. Now, I was starting to.
On a plane to the Rockies for a brief weekend this summer, I grew worried.
Though I don’t admit it to everyone, the permanence of those mountains was still the closest I had come to blind faith. Now, even if I would never be a geologist, I knew that I had lost the inability to understand, and I was scared that meant the mountains had lost their magic.
But the moment the rental car reached that mountain road, I experienced an even deeper awe than before.
When I peered off the side of the road down to the distant river, I saw it wriggling across millennia, flooding its banks each spring when the snow melted and returning to a looping path that was not quite the same as before.
When I pressed my cheek to the chilled window and stared up at the bare rock, colored streaks slicing through it at odd angles, I saw how over time the once-sedimentary layers had warped and buckled and then uplifted into these high peaks.
I saw how, even now, erosion and weathering were easing the landscape through a new transformation.
They hadn’t lost their magic.
To the naked eye they still appeared unchanged, but I could almost feel the mountains humming and vibrating around me. I felt connected to the magic in a way I never had before.
I relaxed into my bucket seat and quietly I thanked nature for science credits.