Seeing Home for the First Time

There is something strange that happens to the place you grew up in when you return to it after you have been away from it for awhile. You start to see it for the first time. You start to understand why the place you grew up in helped to define the person you have become today.

For example, I grew up with mountains always staring down on me from the west. They were such a part of who I was that I started to not notice them. Relatives of mine who grew up in the Midwest would come out to visit and would be amazed at their beauty and majesty. We would wind our way through the peaks, and they would stare out the windows with their mouths hanging open hoping to take it all in.

I would look up out of my window and say, “Yep, that’s a mountain.” They were something that was always there, and I did not need to think about it beyond that. Whenever I wanted to see them I would look west, and whenever I wanted to find west I would look for them. That was how I defined my life on the Front Range, and couldn’t understand why people would be so amazed by the thing that I took for granted.

It wasn’t until later in life when I voyaged to the ocean for the first time that I started to understand what people experienced when they visited the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Here was the complete opposite of the landscape that I had grown up with. Here was this body of water that stretched out as far as the eye could see and was constantly undulating and changing. It wasn’t the steady rock that always hung to the west for me. Instead, it possessed a personality that could change from day to day. One day, it could offer a pleasant respite in the sun.

The next day, the clouds could come in and encase the coast with a dark blanket, giving rise to the waves crashing against the shore. People run to the safety of their warm homes and watch the weather from behind windows designed to frame the beach. The sense of solitude it offers is completely different than anything I felt while driving through the mountains, but I finally understood what others felt while they looked at those peaks jutting from the ground.

But then I moved out of the country for a couple of years, and I started to miss those things I had always taken for granted and those things that I never knew how much I loved. The mountains were the first things I longed for. I could no longer figure out which direction I was pointing, and because of that I always felt lost even though I knew where I was. But it felt as if a part of me was ripped away and I wished desperately to have them back.

When I got back to the states, the beauty and majesty of the peaks just stunned me as if it was the first time I ever saw them. I could start to appreciate them for the way they were meant to be enjoyed. I could feel that isolation that other felt as they were absorbed by the power of these giants. One of the days while I was out in Colorado, I got to enjoy the sunrise from above timberline as it inspired me and melted away the morning chill.

I was also able to complete a goal that I always wanted to achieve but never have been able to because of various reasons. In a span of one day, I summited not just one, but two of Colorado’s 14ers.

Thousands of people flock to these specific mountains every year as they visit the state. They have become one of Colorado’s biggest tourist attractions. Depending on who you talk to, there are 53 or 55 of these peaks that rise 14,000 feet over sea level. The distinction comes from how a person defines what constitutes a peak depending on how much of a rise in elevation occurs between one peak and the next.

Greys Peak and Torreys Peak are two of the more popular ones. There is a clear trail that runs up to the top of both of these mountains, and if you plan for a whole day of hiking you can make it to the summit of both mountains without much trouble because they are close enough to each other. The nice thing about them is there are couple more difficult routes that give the more experienced hikers a challenge if that is what they are looking for, and it is a long enough trail to give the less experienced hikers the challenge they are looking for.

My major concern with the mountains was the altitude. Even though I am a very active individual, I was coming from sea level and once you get above timberline, the altitude can become a serious problem. I remember starting the hike at 9,000 feet above sea level and thinking this would be easy as I talked to my companions on the hill. But my attitude suddenly changed as I was gasping for any air that I could stuff into my lungs and still not getting enough. I was worried that I would fail in my attempt of summiting another 14er.

Altitude sickness can be a very dangerous thing. Basically you are not getting enough oxygen for your body to function properly. First, you will start to feel a little dizzy. Then you will start to get a headache. The worst thing that could happen if you don’t treat your altitude sickness is that you could become so disoriented that you could get lost in the wilderness of Colorado. There is only one thing that you can do when you start to feel this way, head back down the hill, missing your chance of reaching the summit. Of course, you are still alive and well, so I guess that is worth the exchange of not achieving your goal. I was able to get my breathing under control so I could finally do this for the first time in my life.

Luckily, the feeling of dizziness never returned, but that did not mean that dangers disappeared. Many different things can go wrong on a mountain. It is part of the reason I have never been able to complete a 14er even though I grew up with them in my backyard. I have had to cut my expeditions short because of weather numerous times. When you get that high, storms can blow in quickly. If it is a blizzard you find yourself in, you lose visibility as biting snow blow into your face, making the path a slippery slide that could send you plummeting off the peak at any moment.  These storms don’t hold the same danger as a thunderstorm. When you get above timberline, there is no place for you to go find cover if lightning starts to strike, and you are the only thing it is most attracted to because you are the highest point around for miles. There have been many times I have made a fast scramble down a mountain as one of these storms started to blow in. Throw in scree fields with bowling ball sizes boulders willing to slip out for under your feet or come crashing down on you from above, and the random behavior of animals from mountain goats to the occasional bear, and you have the trappings for a spectacular adventure.

The mountains offered me many adventures during my voyage home. Even though the Greys and Torreys hike was the pinnacle of the hikes I took, there were various others I went on that were not as grueling, yet still fun. Growing up on the Front Range gave me thousands of opportunities to look down on the sprawling city. I never took advantage of it very often, and I regret that. But going back I was able to go on a few of these closer and shorter treks.

I had the pleasure of enjoying them with another aspect from home I missed a lot, a canine companion. I have written on a couple of occasions how my voyages overseas started with the passing of my dog, Bear, and even though I will never regret the experience I have had the last couple of years, the one thing I really miss is having that happy friend come to greet me every time I come walking through my front door. I miss the silly things a dog will do in order to get your attention. I miss that unconditional love that can only come from being a dog owner. While I was in the Denver metropolitan area, I had the pleasure of house sitting, and it came with the care of my brother’s malamute, Sakari.

Your perspective on life changes in the presence of a dog. All of a sudden there is another being that needs me in order to survive. And there is a companion there who gets really excited to even go on a simple walk around the neighborhood, getting even more excited when they know that they are going on a longer hike. It made being home that much more enjoyable knowing I was going to get to spend time with this happy individual.

Of course, it was a pleasure to spend time with my family as well. It is the main reason I go home every year. I enjoy watching how much my nieces and nephews have grown over the year. When I was living in the same town as them, I did not notice the change as much. It comes in subtle surges when I got to see them every other month. But when I do not get to hang out with them but once a year, they grow not only in height but in maturity as well. I can start have conversations with a couple of the older ones that are intelligent and go beyond them just agreeing with me. They formulate their own opinions, supporting them with things they have read or viewed on television. It is refreshing to see them grow into young adults.

Of course I get to reconnect with my parents and my siblings as well. It is always a pleasure to see them, but it is a greater experience to enjoy their company on a summer evening as the day cools down and the memories heat up. At this time in my life, these moments are not only about catching up with the experiences throughout the year, but also reminiscing about the moments we have shared in the past. I get to relive a whole lifetime whenever we gather together for an evening.

Of course, it is also about creating new memories as well. This is the best part of going back home. I went to many of the touristy places in Denver that I might make it to if I was living there, but since I was only in town for a short period of time, I made sure that I made it to some of my more favorite ones.

Coors Field in downtown Denver was definitely one of the places that I really wanted to go back to. I have attended a couple of baseball games in Korea and they are fun, but it is nothing like going to a MLB game. The level of play is crisper and more intense when I get to see one of these games. It was an added bonus to be able to see the game as well during one of the Rockies’ better runs for a pennant. The night I went, they had just come off of two games where they came back in the ninth inning from a Nolan Arenado hit late in the ninth inning. The Rockies had the best record in MLB. Expectations were very high that they would be able to continue on this streak. Of course, the night I went, they lost 16-7, and started a losing slide that had them go to the fifth place in the National League. I know there are going to be a lot of Rockies’ fans that will believe that it is my fault for the slide, but I was only there to enjoy time with my family and hopefully see a win. I didn’t get to see a win, but I did get to enjoy time with my family.

And the beer was pretty good too.

This is another thing that I really appreciate when I come back to the states. Certain types of food and beverages cannot be found in Korea. In fact, Seoul is just starting to experience their first ever craft beer revolution. Little pockets are springing up all over Seoul where you can find good beer, but it is nothing like Denver. There are craft beer locations all over the place and many of them make some excellent beers. It is getting to the point where they have to do crazy things in order to compete for the business of the average beer drinker.

One of these places is Dry Dock Brewery. They are a big hit in Colorado, and they have been expanding to other places in the country, so if you live in the U.S.A. and have not tried their beer yet, give it some time and you will soon be able to see it in your liquor stores. It started off as a homebrew kit place where they would experiment with their own beers. Their patrons enjoyed the beer so much that they expanded their operations and soon had a tasting room in Aurora that you could go and enjoy their beer. Recently, they expanded even more to include a place where they could mass produce their beer and can it to send it out to various places in the nation. The new place has a tasting room, but it also expanded beyond the borders of its building to include a nine hole Frisbee golf course behind its building. It is awesome. You grab a beer, play nine holes, and go back in for another beer. I enjoyed the course twice while I was out there.

The only problem with the course was the snakes that slithered around it. You had to be careful while you went out to hunt for your disc because you could have been bitten by one of them. While I was playing, we did come across a big bull snake, and we did the typical thing that all Coloradoans do when they come across a bull snake; we captured it.

And then we took it to scare other people who were playing the course. It was just a flavor of Colorado that I missed while I was living across the ocean, but was happy I got to enjoy it while I was back home.  It was fun to revisit old haunts like the Denver Zoo.

The difference this time around, I got to look at all of the sights through the eyes of a visitor and not as a resident.

It meant that every time I looked around I saw something that I usually would not see even though it was always there to begin with.

All of a sudden, the trees took on a new shape, and a new meaning.

The columbine flower was now worthy of my time to stop and enjoy. Colorado came to life for me in a way it had not for many years. It was as if I became like one of my relatives from the plain states of the U.S.A. driving through the mountains for the first time and being awestruck by its beauty.

But there was a time where I had to say goodbye to the Rocky Mountains and make my way further west. I still stopped at the ocean to stop and enjoy some time in the state of Oregon. When I eventually made it back to Korea and told my friends what I did over the summer, they all explained to me how jealous they were that everywhere I got to go was considered the more beautiful parts of the nation. I am lucky that I do get to spend a considerable amount of time in these parts of the world, and I have always been fascinated by Oregon and the Pacific Northwest in general.

The problem comes with the fact that I have been there so many times that the true beauty of the place starts to get hidden among all of the trees the state boasts of. And if you have never been to Oregon before, there are a lot of trees there.

But once you emerge from that forest, there is a lot to see. And it seems to get better every time I go. I have caught an Oregon sunset over the ocean a couple of times and it is a very rare event because the coast is usually covered in a thick haze from the clouds that roll in. To get a cloudless night is a rare treat, and you should take advantage of it if you are given the opportunity because the sunsets are spectacular.

I also got to spend more time on the beach then I normally would. We stayed two nights in the same location in a house right on the beach which added to the experience of going out there. Pretty much every other time I went out to enjoy the Oregon coast, I took a day’s drive from Portland and made it back before midnight on the same day. Because of this, I rushed through the time I had there hoping I could suck the most out of it. This time I was able to relax in the morning while enjoying the crashing waves, and go out in the afternoon to take part in many of the activities that the coast has to offer.

One day, my wife and I went down to Cannon Beach to take advantage of the breeze constantly blowing by buying a kite. There are many kite shops in town because this is something many people do while visiting this iconic spot. The water is not something people experience as much because it is colder than you would find in warmer climates. So people go down to the beach to enjoy the salt air and warm sand. The place where we bought our kite was on the edge of town run by a man who was clearly enjoying the new laws about marijuana. He had a Grateful Dead concert jamming in the background and was happy to show all of the kids that came into his shop how to assemble their kites and fly them. They usually bought the beginner kites, but my wife is an expert kite flyer and she went with the trick kite instead. It was the perfect purchase for the place because it allowed us to have many hours of enjoyment not only on Cannon Beach but also the beach that our house overlooked.

The next day, we went out to Manzanita, the next town further south from Cannon Beach. It is not as big of a tourist destination that the other place is, but some of the things that draw people to come down here are the salmon fishing and the kayaking on the Nehalem River. There are many places along the river where you can find a guide or rent a boat. If you time it perfectly, like we did, you can travel up the river during high tide and turn around when the tide switches so you can easily float on back down the river. It is also a great place to watch the wildlife. Many herons fly up and down the river in search of the salmon swimming upstream to their breeding ground, and we were followed by a bay seal that liked to pop its head out of the water far enough away where we could see him but not take a really good picture of him.

The beaches of Oregon offer many sights to see. When the tide goes out, you can observe tiny microcosms of sea life in the tide pools. I feel educated every time I stare at one of these natural aquariums from the ocean. I know the elementary schools of Portland bring their students to the beach at least once a year to give them this education, but considering I grew up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, it is a fascinating sight for me.

In fact, when I see sea life, I get really excited. Oregonians will look at a tub full of crab and think about how tasty they would be with a little bit of butter. I look at a tub full of crabs and wonder what it would be like to live that way. How did this creation ever evolve into the beings that they are now? Why do they need to walk sideways? But that is just because they are not something that I grew up with allowing me to take them for granted. I grew up seeing them in plastic containers after they had been processed and no longer looked like the creature they used to be.

It is this way for everything that exists in the town that you grew up in. You never really see it until you move away. But as soon as you come back from that long time away things start to emerge in a new light.

You can start to see the weirdness of the city because it is no longer the everyday you’ve become accustomed to.

It might be overwhelming at first, and the slightest changes might throw you off. It might disturb you that the band that was always promoted on your favorite music store is no longer painted on the wall. The company needed to make changes in order to keep up with the times, and you wish it was still the nineties. But change needs to happen, and the best way to embrace it is to enjoy it as if you are looking upon it for the first time.

And don’t worry because there are some things that never change. It is the combination of the old with the new that make the places you visit and the places you return to the great dynamic expression of humanity. Try to look on as if you have never seen it before, and the world will always remain magical.

This post brought to you by Tag: A Cautionary Tale, available at https://www.amazon.com/Tag-Cautionary-Tale-John-Collings/dp/1533623902/

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