Colorado (2/2) – Couldn’t get much higher

written by Marc E. Check July 21, 2017

Monday – July 10, 2017
11:26am Mountain Time
Keystone, Colorado

As mentioned in part one, we took away some huge epiphanies and memorable experiences from our time in Colorado.  I had mentioned the peafowl* stalkings and the possibility that our energies may be attracting certain “spirit animals.”  Here, in part two, I’ll recall another slightly surreal animal encounter, perhaps merely coincidental but strange nonetheless. For all I know this happens all the time, but I’d never want inconvenient facts to get the way of a good story.

Three – Close encounters of the strange kind

Dillon, CO Amphitheater

Dillon, CO Amphitheater

Being this high (altitude-wise) means getting accustomed to changes: changes in atmosphere as the air gets thinner and crisper and one’s breathing becomes more labored to adjust; changes in temperature where the shade prompts one to don a jacket or sweatshirt to stay warm – until minutes later the clouds pass and the glowing direct sunlight requires you to toss the cover-up and any other layers you can quickly jettison to now stay cool; and then there’s the overwhelming and constant changes in landscape.

Lookout Mountain CO


Colorado is known for it’s natural beauty, and the upper Rockies are a smorgasbord of “holy shit!” provoking sights, pretty much around every corner.  Photo ops abound, but it’s still nearly impossible to capture the scale and magnificence with a two-dimensional image. 

I wrote about the beautiful music venues and Red Rocks Amphitheatre specifically, but all the in-between drives and missions to local points of interest overwhelmed us on a continuous basis.  Every blind corner has the potential of revealing a new and interesting landscape flanked with mountains of green, red,or blue enormity.  The most breathtaking sights of our trip came somewhat by accident, while seeking other experiences.  

Let’s take the Garden of the Gods as an example.

I was encouraged by Andie to visit because she had been there last year, for a brief amount of time.  I had heard from her and from Colorado natives that it was amazing, beautiful, and similar to Red Rocks in terms of the color of the enormous rock mountains and outcroppings, but no one could appropriately prepare me for the experience that was greatly enhanced by our personal connections and chance encounters during our brief visit.  

Garden of the Gods - Jagged Peaks

Garden of the Gods – Jagged Peaks

We arrived about ninety minutes before dusk on July 4th, with no other plans and really no sense of it being a holiday (every day is a holiday of sorts when living on the the road) and proceeded to explore the park from the end furthest from Colorado Springs.  What I immediately realized was the understated majestic nature of the park, and a landscape seemingly contrived for a television series about life on some strange planet like, but not of the Earth we know and love. 

From the parking lot we are already minimized to irrelevance both in our size and our age by a mammoth red mountain of rock ahead of us, billions of years into it’s development.  

As we enter the park, the left side boasts a more grey and eerie jagged mountain of stone, juxtaposed with a red range of rock mountain to the right.   As the path leads us around the rightmost red end of the range, we continue with new outcroppings in sight, a feast for the eyes and the soul.  It is a few minutes down this new path when I see movement.

A mule deer pokes out of the woods about sixty yards ahead of us and begins foraging around the treeline.  I ask Andie for my telephoto lens and begin snapping off 

pictures, trying to focus and still the camera while tracking a subject that is moving slowly but moving nonetheless with a lens that is sensitive to even the slightest of motions.  As I snap the first few pictures the deer seems to look up, as if hearing the camera shutter, and I expect it to retreat back into the treeline.  The deer instead seems to be attracted to the

shutter noise (or something else we might be emitting… pheromones? friendly vibes?) and begins to walk towards us via the grass and tree-lined side of the fence.  When it gets about twenty yards away it pauses, assessing us us momentarily, and then in a counterintuitive maneuver it jumps the fence in a single, seemingly effortless hop, landing on the paved pedestrian path. 

Once again it casually walks towards us, this time down the path itself, eyes locking with ours the entire way.  It gets closer and closer until the window of my telephoto lens is filled ears to hooves and I realize it is so close that I’ll need to switch lenses if the proximity becomes even a single yard less. The deer pauses again at five to six yards out, and with a more cautious and calculated consideration, our new friend keeps a single eye on us while veering to the left, keeping a buffer between us that communicates simultaneous curiosity in us and a general mistrust of human intentions.  

As quickly and casually as this creature appeared it then disappeared, with a right-face turn towards the treeline on the opposite side of the path, a waggle of it’s hindquarters, and another effortless hop over the second fence.  

It seemed to come close to merely say “Hey,” as if it were being dared by other juvenile deer peers, huddled and giggling in the woods as they watched their friend, either bravely or stupidly, muster the audacity to get close to these pink-skinned alien creatures that they have been warned so many times to steer clear of.  We immediately came to a consensus of, “that was weird/cool” without much to add or say.  

We still had park to explore, fading sunlight, and many hours and days ahead to ponder the motivation for and meaning of this mule deer’s close encounter with us.

Four – Alien landscapes and surreal skies

Balancing Rock at GOtG

Balancing Rock at GOtG

As the sunlight continued to dwindle and cast the surreal shadows and hues that only a summer sunset is capable of , our walk revealed increasingly stranger formations of landscape.  I continued to pop the camera shutter as I stepped up the aperture size every few minutes to compensate for this increasing lack of natural light. We realized we were likely running far too late to make it back to the parking lot, drive a couple of miles to the other end of the park, and capture a personal view (and photograph) the most widely recognized formation in the Garden of the Gods – the balancing rock.  We nonetheless started on this trajectory, and arrived just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, only able to snap silhouetted images of the precariously poised boulder.  

Andie explores that surface

Andie explores that surface

We noticed a dozen or so clans of other visitors seated  on the rocky incline behind the formation, seemingly there to enjoy the view of the horizon, dotted with lights of towns that stretched out for miles below. We decided to partake in the same activity, choosing a rock outcropping one hill over, and much less populated.  

Shortly after the earth finally capitulated to it’s inevitable axial rotation and the last rays of sunlight streaked across the sky, we realized the motivation of our fellow rock-squatters.  With a “fffffiiiiissssss- crack!” the first of what would be hundreds, if not thousands of colorful patterns of burning packets of potassium nitrate painted the close horizon in the sky above Colorado Springs.  We had perhaps not entirely forgotten, but had surely dismissed, the fact that this was the dusk of Independence Day, and the Fourth of July celebrations would ensue across the state with us poised, quite by accident, at an enviable and surreal vantage point. 

"The sun and the moon, the clouds and the stars"

“The sun and the moon, the clouds and the stars”

From the closest towns with the brightest and largest, to the furthest towns on the distant horizon with quick and small firefly-like bursts of flashing color, we had the pleasure of observing dozens of Colorado counties and hundreds of towns celebrating two-hundred and forty-one years of independence from our oppressive and dentally-challenged British overlords.  

…the rocket’s red glare
…the bombs bursting in air
so gallantly streaming

Wanting to capture this moment, but hindered by the vast darkness of a Colorado mountainside and lack of artificial light, I began playing with my camera and experimenting without any great hope of producing anything worth sharing, let alone intimating the surreal nature of this unique time and space  in which we found ourselves. 


"Contemplating Scale"

“Contemplating Scale”

Thankfully, low-light situations are what I had become increasingly prepared for as a photographer, constantly dealing with dark stages and venues intermittently interrupted by interfering lasers and lights making it sometimes frustratingly improbable to find reliable shutter/ISO/aperture settings that result in crisp and balanced shots.  I had never applied these compensation techniques, or my new low-light performance lenses, to a natural, outdoor, sunless environment.  I quickly realized the advantage in this environment that is rarely possible in live music photography is the luxury of shutter speed, allowing the shutter to remain open and gather light as the landscape remains largely unmoving,  Stepping up from one second to two seconds to an eventual eight and twenty seconds, I increasingly narrowed in on the “sweet spot” settings for this particular environment.  For the first time, I was proud of myself as a true “artist,” blending my technological sensibilities with my creative mind and the desire to share with others the dark and strange beauty of this alien landscape. 

"Limb by Limb"

“Limb by Limb”

The trees, the rocks, the occasional lights of cars winding around the mountain roads, and Andie herself, with the glow of her phone and red dress all begged me to tell their story, to share with the rest of the world their unique and fleeting beauty of the moment…of the now

As the firework fireflies grew more intermittent on the horizon, I turned my attentions to the art of photography and my immediate surroundings.  I took away two things from this experience:

  • My personal favorite photographs to date, ones that are unique and personal enough for me to consider true “artworks,” and dark and strange enough to convey my own personal perception of beauty, which is non-traditional to say the least. 
  • A renewed and much-needed affirmation that I fucking love doing this.  Passion and purpose are as real as the camera in my hands and the billion year old rock I set it on to keep it perfectly still as the shutter remains open for an eternity, allowing these ancient rays of light to tell our story. 

Five – The overshadowed 

Golden, CO

Golden, CO

So many stories remain untold from a short week in Colorado,  I didn’t even touch on the intrapersonal and spiritual connections of meeting with old friends and hearing the messages and stories they were meant to share.  I see so many in Colorado, surrounded by this natural beauty with so little time to enjoy it.  Even here, surrounded by the Garden of the Gods, lakes, mountains, forests, rivers, fields, and endless trails to become lost (or found), I hear over and over the pressures, stress and long hours of work required to live in an area where the cost of living continues to rise exponentially.  We took away a strong and loud message from these conversations… DO NOT go back.  Keep moving forward.  Find the balance in life you seek. Life is much more than money, security, safety, and normalcy.  Life is simply the experience of it, day to day and moment to moment.  Our goal is the freedom to experience, and it is now more paramount than ever before. 

Golden, Colorado is an amazing town I failed to mention so far, discovered as we explored places to “float” on a particularly hot day. First observed from Buffalo Bill’s gravesite on top of Lookout Mountain (a location that never fails to set the Drive-By Trucker’s song of the same name spinning in my head), we wound down the mountain and parked along the river that runs through downtown.  It is a shallow but rapidly running river where residents and visitors are encouraged to grab an inflatable and ride the rapids from one end of the town to the other (using appropriate safety gear, of course).  While we did not partake this time, we did observe, and it provided incentive for our next trip westward and upward. 


Colorado remains the highlight of our journeys so far, always the source of stories we recount first when asked, “So, what was your favorite…?” or “What was the most amazing…?”

Since Colorado, we have traveled to Minneapolis/St. Paul for a few days to spend time with friends, Chicago for three nights of Phish at the beautiful Northerly Island venue, back to Ohio for the Dayton Phish show (which was an epic and inspired performance), then on to Cleveland for some rest and reconnection with family, including the celebration of my daughter, Kiley’s sixteenth birthday(!).  I attempt to share these stories with her as she expresses only moderate interest in the manner only a sixteen-year-old can easily dismiss stories of freedom and beauty, but I know she understands and respects the concept despite her willingness to embrace it. If I can now only model the passion of such a lifestyle for her, I feel I’ll be doing her a service when, in future years, she questions the meaning of life and purpose of self.  

Our next stops bring us to Virginia and Pennsylvania (and back to Virginia again), and a return to the true festival circuit.  In September, we meander and begin another journey out west with another stop in Colorado.  

We can only hope the next trip there is even half as magical as the last.

         – Marc and Andie

* thanks to Ann Norback for identifying the correct terminology as "peafowl" 

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