*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on August 20, 2021. The text of the essay is below.
“I see one! Look, there!” My daughter’s finger knifed at the dark sky, where moments earlier, a fiery streak from the annual Perseid meteor shower shot across the black horizon. We’d driven two hours from home in Manitou Springs to Leadville, escaping city lights to see what NASA calls the “best meteor shower of the year” (which runs until Tuesday). It didn’t disappoint. Our family foursome counted 41 meteors in little over a half an hour.
Fifty years earlier and a few mountains west, musician John Denver, 27, watched the same meteor shower with the same awe. Camping with friends near Aspen, he marveled at the 37 miles per second streaks of light, up to 100 an hour, and was inspired to write “Rocky Mountain High.”
Denver described that August 1971 night in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine a few years later: “Pretty soon there were balls of fire going across. It goes all the way across the sky…and I was saying Rocky Mountain high, I’ve seen a ray of fire in the sky and the shadow of the starlight, look at that. And then it took me awhile to write that song, to put the story around that song, which is totally autobiographical.”
The song’s lyrics clearly start with this astronomical event—“rainin’ fire in the sky” is repeated several times — but then the words pack in so many other emotions. It’s a song about loss, a song about finding home, a song that’s since come to define an entire state and outdoors-oriented way of life.
I later found out that Denver had moved from Minnesota to Colorado around the time of his starry night experience. I’m from Minnesota, and, just like him, moved to Colorado in my late-20s. We were both smitten with Colorado’s rugged allure.
For me, it was trail and mountain running. In 2006, still disoriented from my second yearlong deployment in Iraq, I started running the foothill trails of the Front Range. By 2008, having lost a close relationship and comrades in combat, I decided to shake things up and try the Pikes Peak Marathon, a race that climbs over 7,800 feet to the top of a 14,115-foot peak (and then back down). At the end of that race, with just a couple of miles to go, still amid the dizzying zig-zag switchbacks toward the trail’s bottom, in a moment of mountain-induced runner’s high, I broke down and cried so uncontrollably I fell twice.
The mountains weren’t calling me so much as shouting at me (to paraphrase John Muir). I felt alive again, and while that emotion spilled out of me in tears, for Denver, it came out in his lyrics.
After more military assignments overseas, years away, a marriage and children, our family feels like we’ve fallen for Colorado even harder. Over 43% of the state is public land (36% federal), ensuring we’ll always have plenty of places to hike, ski, paddle, and run, to get out into the natural world about which John Denver wrote and sang so well.
Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” lyrics were so potent they became Colorado’s second state song in 2007. It only makes sense. From the moment it was conceived 50 years ago to now, more modern pioneers have moved to Colorado than at any time in the state’s history. While much is made of the 19th century’s gold and silver rushes, at best those early years brought people numbering in the low hundreds of thousands. The “Rocky Mountain High” era has brought many millions.
Just released, full 2020 US Census data shows Colorado was the sixth-fastest growing state over the past ten years. Look back a little further, and the trend is even more striking. In 1970, Colorado was the 30th ranked state in population size with about 2.21 million people, while Minnesota was 19th at 3.80 million. By 2020, Colorado had leapt ahead of Minnesota to 21st with 5.77 million (Minnesota had fallen back to 22nd with 5.71 million people).
While Colorado’s economy showed the fifth-fastest growth over the past five decades, these new pioneers, like my family, didn’t all come just for a job.
They came for something more, something Denver spotted in the sky one night 50 years ago.
Denver died, tragically, in a plane crash in 1997. After his passing, supporters and the city of Aspen built a 4.5 acre public park called the John Denver Sanctuary. Our family picnicked there this summer. My wife pointed out wildflowers, my mother dipped her toes in the water, and the girls ran around the nine roughly 10-ton boulders with Denver’s song lyrics carved into the granite, all at a bend in the Roaring Fork River, where it seems even the water wants to slow down and stick around in Colorado a little longer.