40 Years Outdoors

In 1972, I was living in the house on Niagara Street in Denver with the sandbox in the back where my dad would cut our hair. There was a flagstone porch as wide as a stage and the sour apple tree with the bucket beneath it where our big German Shepherd Toby would stick his head and think that he had become invisible because he couldn’t see us — and wouldn’t come — when we called.

It was the year I broke my nose in three places when I took a Flexible Flyer to the face sledding up above Lakewood on what we called “Motorcycle Hill.” I had to sleep for three weeks sitting up so the infection wouldn’t spread to my brain. And every time we drove by that hill, I would press against the window to watch for hangliders pushing off from their perch, falling at first like stubborn, stuttering birds. I would listen closely to the stories about whenever any one of them was fried like a barbecued hippie Pterodactyl in the power lines below.

“C’mon,” my father would say on the trail, as much coaxing as he was commanding. “There’s just another mile to go.”

I was just beginning to learn how to read and write, but I could already carry my own pack and smell the weather through the window. And I could start to see the difference between the world I was beginning to live in, and the world I was starting to know. The way we crossed little creeks on cut logs like they were rivers that fed the world. Those first flags that we planted in our minds with every view. And the way the gas stations excited us like malls out there in the mountains, with all of the baseball cards and Slurpee cups and sugar that they could hold.

It makes you who you are, the way the sun comes down through the aspens on the trail. The smell of pine so damp and sudden, and your initials carved onto your own camp cup so that the memory of Tang tastes like metal even now. That natural magic you could always imagine out there with the eagles and Indians all walking on clouds, and the proud wolf with his worried eyes, and the wise, curious black bear. How all of that stuff has always been better than any of the shit I ever learned in school.

If it changed, then it changed the way it always does, so that some barometer, both real and imagined, both media and mental, was always insisting that the experiences had to get deeper, and the stories had to get better, and that sense of danger you might find started to become more important — more awesome! — than all of the times you spent just sitting on a ridge staring into the infinity of a sky full of blue mountain air.

“Do you want to get high?”

“Do you want to race?”

“Have you ever tried other boots?”

So that the accessories become the biggest part of the conversation if you want them to. And all of the things that were inconsequential when you started, when all you knew was that you were outside, can begin to get bigger than the experience itself. So the spice becomes the meal.

In the 1970s, there were already people getting high on mushrooms and climbing the Flatirons on rollerskates wearing tutus. In the 1980s, there were guys in Adidas short shorts and Vuarnets talking about their heart rate like it was some scientific breakthrough, and the math of carbohydrates they burned going uphill. In the ’90s, there were the people who watched their watches instead of the view, accelerating each outdoor event into a kind of race with themselves, then going off to save the world with all of the time they saved, I suppose.

“It was a personal best, dude.”

I want to be clear when I say this, “I don’t really care.” That’s because what I do care about is something that we don’t seem to talk about enough anymore. Which is all of that magic out there — or that was out there — including those watchful wolves, those patient arcing whales and the mighty grizzly bears.

What I mean is that there are magical parts of our world that are literally getting the shit kicked out of them right now. From habitat encroachment (obliteration) to poaching to a vast array of vanishing natural resources, we are the cause, the agitator, the consumer and the disease in so many places on this planet, demanding no matter how much it hurts that every ecosystem provide more, more, more.

Maybe it’s naïve to think there was more hope for the natural world 40 years ago, long before we knew about things like climate change, tar sands, mountaintop removal and how with every tank of gas we buy we all feed the tyranny of big oil. If I could put a finger on it, I would say that we have lost our backbone, and the will to change or stand alone in protest of something that we know is wrong. And maybe the anniversary of this magazine provides one more chance to remind ourselves that we are all still here, united across the Rockies by our collective cherishing of all those pristine places

Maybe it’s one more reminder that it is really up to us to work to keep all of that natural, dangerous, breathtaking magic real. To keep working to ensure that the wilderness is wild, and to keep helping to decide how the future thinks of us all.

Editor-at-Large Peter Kray is a lover of dogs, beer, and pouring tall bourbons for his lovely wife. He is the author of “American Snow” and “The Monster,” and for the past five years (OK, 10), has been telling himself this is the year he finishes writing “The God of Skiing.” He may be right. Kray lives in Santa Fe.

A look at gear and the good old days over these past 4 decades.