We Were Free.

Three months and three thousand miles later, here is my Colorado diary.

We take on our roles, as driver, as passenger, as navigator and sandwich artist. We pick a spot on the map, fill up our tanks and drive off into the sunset. That week I was the driver, maneuvering my mother’s silver Corolla half way across this great nation – Tamrin was everything else. She opened my water bottles, feed me corn chips dipped in queso, read the map, slept and extracted killer bugs from within our makeshift home. I would especially like to thank her for never once complaining about our frequent reststop breaks – the byproduct of the five plus cups of coffee I consumed on days involving ten plus hours of driving. My father always drove on vacations, after much speculation my mother and I decided it was a pride thing. Every year we would offer to take a turn behind the wheel so that he could rest, but he always refused. Up until Colorado, I never understood that mentality. It was my intention to drive in shifts, but as the hours passed and the miles rolled on, we fell comfortably into our routines. There were no words exchanged about this, although we spent hours discussing other topics: politics, religion, our pasts, our futures, art, boys and country music. “Friends in Low Places” came on, the only station with reception, as we rounded the mountain and began our decent into Estes Park. Wordlessly, I reached over and turned up the volume, the two of us singing as we entered into the little mountain town.

Tuesday we drove into Estes and spent hours trudging through Rocky Mountain National Park, 4×5 in tow. Off and on all day we kept looking at one another and saying, “this is going to be such an awesome thing to tell our students about someday”. It occurred to us at some point that this was our futures, that our dreaming of lives running around experiencing, seeing and making had already begun simply because we decided to make it happen. If two broke artists from Ohio could make it to Colorado on little to no money, three beers and a pack of hotdogs, where else could they go? With the 4×5 on my back and the mountains overwhelming my vision, I felt like an artist. This was no longer two film backs, a hot pink bath towel (instead of a dark cloth) and a quick trip to the park beside my efficiency apartment. This was so much bigger than that; this was twenty-five film backs, a denim jacket (instead of a dark cloth) and a twenty-four hour drive across five states and two thirds of America. We had filters, light meters, changing bags and a bottle of wine (to be used for commiseration or celebration). If I said that the two of us hit the ground running, I would be a liar. However, for two girls who hadn’t picked up the 4×5 in over a year and a half, the failures were few and far between. I pulled the dark slide with the aperture still open and Tamrin slid one or two dark slides behind already exposed sheets of film. As the day progressed, we became more successful, easily remembering that which we forgot. Just like in the car, we fell into our roles. She pulled the dark slide and I pushed the shutter.

We left Columbus, Ohio, at six in the morning on a Saturday and drove to a campground just east of Kansas City, Missouri. I had a box of twigs and a box of matches; a kind family of campers donated some of their firewood to our cause. With only one match and half a roll of paper towels, the first fire of 2016 was made and dinner was served: burnt hotdogs on white bread with gas station relish. The temperature dropped with the sun and we shivered as we ate and drank around the flames. The next morning we awoke to a light dusting of snow, a foreshadowing of what was to come, and set forth across the great, flat, state of Kansas. The second day of driving from Ohio to Colorado via I-70 is plains, windblown hair and no radio reception. It is flat for so long that the first glimpse of the Rockies is a mirage. Once you spot their grandeur you are reenergized, driving with a renewed fever towards both them and the setting sun.

My cousin Olivia graciously opened her doors for us (for what was supposed to be) the first three nights of our stay. A blizzard, dumping three feet of snow, unexpectedly blew in on Tuesday night which probably would have been less shocking had any of us checked the weather. My main concern of driving to Colorado almost immediately after flying to and from Vegas wasn’t the fact that I hadn’t been in the same climate, let alone timezone, for more than four days straight in over a month, but rather that I would have no time to relax during spring break before heading back to Ohio and finishing up my thesis work. After a few days spent exploring the Denver/Boulder/Golden area in seventy degree weather, waking up on Wednesday to whiteout conditions was an unexpected, but welcome, surprise. From our bedroom window you could see the rooftops of Denver, even thought they were nearly twenty miles away, this was no longer the case. On Wednesday we were supposed to head back into Golden for coffee with a long lost cousin of a cousin, after which we were to drive two hours south to Florence and the Colorado Smiths (the first of which never happened, the second of which eventually did). Instead, Wednesday was one of those rare college snow days. Olivia couldn’t drive to work and we couldn’t drive south. The three of us sat in front of the glass patio door watching the accumulation build with her two cats Remy and Zeus, drinking tea and reading our chosen road trip books. Mine being Sally Mann’s memoir “Hold Still” and Tamrin’s “All the Kings Men” by Robert Penn Warren. I even had the luxury of treating myself to a bubble bath before the decision was made to grab the 4×5 and brave the elements. Often, I am accused of exaggeration, but I swear to you that the following account of the weather is nothing but the truth. Monday and Tuesday it was seventy degrees; we sat in tank tops and shorts reading on the balcony. Wednesday, while lugging around the 4×5, there were places the snow reached up to my hips.

Although the blizzard delayed our plans, it gifted us with the most incredible view of the fog rolling off of the snow capped mountains, revealing their splendor after a day of hiding. By Thursday morning it had melted enough that we decided to pack up the Corolla and head south towards Florence and the Garden of the Gods.

The drive to Florence was smooth sailing once we dug our way out of the four foot snow drift that enveloped the Corolla. Of course my cousin Olivia, who lives high up in the mountains, does not own a snow shovel, or any other kind of shovel for that matter. Fortunately, three weeks prior to this predicament, my Uncle Paul (who was the reason we were heading to Florence in the first place) was in Ohio trudging through the junkyard mud alongside my father and I (read about that adventure here). While at the junkyard Paul gathered eight or so license plates that he conveniently left at my parents house. When we packed up the car to hit the road, the plates were thrown into the trunk to be hand delivered to my uncle in five to seven business days. And so, as Tamrin and I stood shoveless staring at the Corolla’s just visible bumper, I remembered that those plates were buried somewhere deep within the trunk. We threw everything that had been not so neatly packed out onto the snow and I grabbed a Michigan plate and began to hack at the ice. An hour of ingenuity, oxygen depravity and brute force later, we were free. Immediately after our escape we headed to Walmart for a bucket of fried chicken and a gallon of sweet tea which we drank from the jug as we spent the next sixty minutes in a traffic jam never surpassing five miles an hour.

Eventually, by the grace of God, with “Sympathy for the Devil” humming softly in the background, we made it to Colorado Springs and the natural wonder that is Garden of the Gods. Upon our arrival Tamrin turned to me and said, “I bet Zeus peed here and this is what happened”. I agreed with her sentiment; that park is a gem hidden within a land of mountainous beauty. It was there that we began making art with the 4×5, aesthetic choices far exceeding our previous “let’s just try to make a picture” mentality. We spent a solid five hours in the park, though I could have stayed longer. The last hour aligned with golden hour and as we rounded the bend we saw what I believe to be the best photographs of the trip. Sun beams hit a horizon of jagged rocks causing their gold flakes to dance in the late days light. The earth was so orange and the sky was so blue, bright green foliage speckling their complimentary pallet. That was our final view of the Garden of the Gods before we made the drive down to Florence.

We arrived to chattering family and the sweet smell of barbecue chicken. This chicken fell right off of the bone, putting our fried bucket of lunch to shame. We ate and talked, enjoying the warm welcoming feeling of coming home to somewhat long lost family. Molly talked about playing the clarinet, her younger sister recapping the entirety of “Marley and Me”. Their mother, my first cousin, shared stories of past pets. Her mother, my aunt, told us about the rest of her grandchildren. All of these conversations overlapped while my Uncle Paul sat silently in his recliner. It was a wonderful, chaotic, tornado of excitement.

The next morning we left just as my uncle returned from his daily walk with Bubba, their sweet, varmint of a dog. An hour into our drive we stopped for gas and unknowingly bought the same five dollar t-shirt. We had no clue until we got to our campsite in Missouri and changed into the clothes we would sleep in, then proceed to wear the next day. I walked out of the bathroom to see her in an outfit that mimicked my own overly patriotic bald eagle t-shirt with ‘Colorado’ scrawled across the chest. Apparently, while at that unknown gas station, we both realized that we had run out of clean clothes and wanted something somewhat fresh smelling for the last leg of our adventure.

At four a.m. we rolled out of bed and into the Corolla eager to make that final drive, this time into the sunrise. It was the day before Easter and Johnny Cash sang hymns on the radio. Never has a sunrise more closely mimicked the resurrection of Christ than the resurrection of Christ itself. A huge Sahara sun shone through cotton candy clouds, the ends of a rainbow circling on either side. We watched those rainbows as the subtly shifted, finally disappearing as the sun slowly ascended, less than an hour after they appeared. Roadside Missouri is lined with dozens of giant American flags, coupled with our early morning farmer’s radio station, they were a patriot welcome back into the midwest. Next was ‘the land of Lincoln’, followed by ‘honest to goodness Indiana’ and finally back to ‘the heart of it all’ for Easter Sunday and class on Monday.

Here are a few 35mm photographs; 4×5 images to come.

2 Replies to “We Were Free.”

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