Facing your fears

Rocky Mountain National Park, as seen from Colorado.

I don’t do a lot in downtown Minneapolis, but it’s a perfectly beautiful city and its distinctive neighborhoods offer a bevy of creativity and inspiration.

One of my favorite Minneapolis events is the Stone Arch Bridge Festival, a huge festival that lines the Mississippi River with art, music and antique cars every year. Matt and I went to the festival for the first time last year, and it was so large that we didn’t even successfully locate the Stone Arch Bridge, which is an attraction all its own.

This year the festival caught us by surprise, as most Minnesotans were still waiting to see trees in full bloom come early June. It didn’t quite feel like summer, so it couldn’t possibly be festival season, right? Well, we learned the festival’s date on a Friday and made plans to go that Sunday, making this year special by bringing a brilliant boy we know and love.

The Stone Arch Bridge
It was only after a full day of festivities and eating all the corn dogs and cheese curds we could handle that we finally found the Stone Arch Bridge. When artist booths and entertainers are lining the sidewalks, that beautiful bridge can really blend into the scenery. And there are so many beautiful bridges in downtown Minneapolis, besides!

When we found the bridge, we stood together on the pedestrian walkway atop it, sharing hugs and smiling at the expansive view. We took a few photos and curiously admired the brush directly below us. After all, this bridge has been made famous by photographers and painters, so there must be some great spot to take in the architectural view. 

As we weaved our way to the brush, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there is a tree-lined staircase that takes admirers down to the waters of the Mississippi River. On the steps each landing felt like an adventure in itself, as old trees towered over the riverside, leaning in to hear what it was we had to say. Finally, after passing a cute dog with a blue collar and many small children, we came to the sandy shore below.

The shallow water licked the sand in gentle waves, only broken by another dog who excitedly played fetch with his human. Here, the view was stunning. The Stone Arch Bridge became a work of art, with its giant stone structure sprawling below the Minneapolis skyline. The people collected on the sand, as well as the graffiti lining the rocks, reminded me that I was one of thousands — no, millions — who had come here to look on this sight.

We turned the corner to explore the nook at the end of a path of pavement and puddles, while our 11-year-old guest climbed up to the only dry spot. Standing on a ledge not much more than one foot high yet three feet wide, he held his hands out to balance.

“That was easy!” he said. “You’ve got to face your fears, right?”

I was instantly reminded why I love children so much, and how the things they say can help you grow, and make you stronger as a person. This is exactly the kind of confidence I hoped our adventures would inspire in the little guy, and it was heart-warming to see him come to the thought on his own.

New heights
Recent years for me have been an enduring lesson in “facing your fears,” as things that I once understood to be normal have turned completely upside-down.

My confidence has wavered at times along the way, and my interactions with others, in my own opinion, have sometimes suffered for it. Sure, I may still appear strong and confident during the day, but often the evenings bring me to tears or to lament the outgoing person I used to be.

Now, I might consider that to be behind me, as my travels over the July 4th weekend took my ability to “face my fears” to new heights!

Matt and I had the opportunity to attend a wedding in his family in Denver, Colorado. The wedding was just beautiful, and utterly moving, and so, in turn, was our weekend tour of the area. We immersed ourselves in art on Sunday morning, and by Sunday afternoon, we were buckled into our rental car, embarking on a trip to see the Rocky Mountains.

Our destination? Rocky Mountain National Park, Fall River Visitor Center.
Not far from Estes Park, Colorado.

The last time I went to a national park was with my family growing up. Little did I know it at the time, but Mammoth Cave, the Appalachians and other road trip destinations were actually national parks — huge expanses of natural wonder and preservation. Having been a kid in the backseat in those days, I had no idea what to expect from a drive into a national park, at least not as an adult.

Even if I had known, I doubt I could have anticipated the adventure that awaited us in Colorado.

It felt like we were at the park in no time, because we were too busy admiring the scenery on the way to watch the clock, or the odometer. The visitor center that we came to after we passed all the hokey gift shops had the words “Gateway to the Rocky Mountains” lit above the door.

Less than a mile up from that sign, we paid our admission and crossed into the park…

Rocky Mountain High
By this time on our journey, Matt and I had already been taking turns driving twisted, winding roads that snaked up steep slopes in their approach to the mountain range. Still getting acquainted with
our Dodge mid-sized, we had also been passing each other looks, as the dash lights kept jumping to
3 rpm or higher. A beautiful lake in the valley of Estes Park brought us a sense of calm, but when we entered Rocky Mountain National Park, we were completely out of our league.

The lay of the land made a quick switch to intense climbs up the mountains, with black paved roads spiraling their double yellow lines around each mountainside… literally. With each push of the gas pedal we were getting higher, positioned precariously on the edge of a rocky mountain. There were a few “pull-outs” and park stops along the way, but for us vehicle-minded tourists, the real attraction was UP.

So, we carefully teased the rental around tightly designed roads, often going no more than 10 miles per hour or coming to a near stop, as sharp ledges taunted the tires of the car.

We were both fiercely concentrating, hoping to make it as far as the first hiking trail on the map. It’s not that either of us were particularly prepared to do much mountain hiking, as we only had about a gallon of water in our bag — and maybe a residual childhood fear-of-heights. But we love a good trail, even if only for the first breath-taking view, where the scenery opens up to reveal the valley below.

We never found that trail. Though we did drive considerably high into the Rocky Mountains, making our peak somewhere above 12,000 feet. By this time, the roads were hugging the mountain edge, with each highway shoulder looking down — straight down — onto the road where the car had previously been.

The overlooks were something out of a dream, even in the tundra, when our vehicle climbed to an elevation where not even trees could grow. Despite our ears popping and our heads filling with pressure as we gulped the thin, elevated air, we were completely astounded by the view.

Due to our impeccable timing — and a fair amount of luck — we headed down the mountains at about the same time as sunset, a simple unbelievable time to go.

It was like the sun was jumping, or playing tag, among the mountain tops, as the light shifted and changed with every increment of the sun’s descent from the sky. Sometimes the tip of a mountain would light up with a golden hue, while the rest of the giant fell into shadow, too deep inside the mountains to catch the evening light.

Sunbursts, fire-lit clouds and transforming colors were everywhere we looked, and the most impressive mountain we looked down upon was covered in snow. (Even though the temps hit 95 or something that day in Denver.)

Finally, after taking in the view at every stop on the way down one mountain, we reached the valley below, getting out to smell the flowers and fit in one last photo opp. Standing beneath the towering evergreens and taking in the awe-inspiring view, we even lapsed into a romantic dance, swaying in the golden mountain light. I think it was here that I realized, with a range of mountains above me, why this excursion was so important.

Had we wimped out at the first hard turn or the first warning of rapidly changing weather ahead, we would have never made it to the top of the Rocky Mountains. Had we given up on the idea before we passed through Estes Park, we would have had to live with a much simpler view.

Instead, by entering Rocky Mountain National Park, we fulfilled one of my biggest dreams — one that I wasn’t sure I would ever achieve. And by driving up those intimidating cliffs, we renewed in ourselves a sense of hope and peace, a sense that flickers far too often in this world.

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