On Monday, I flew out of Denver, Colorado. I’m on book tour, so I’d flown in from California, which has been my home for fifteen years, and flew out to Arkansas, where I was born and raised. And yet, somehow, during this short stay in Denver, between these two homes, I learned something important about myself. Perhaps something that only a mile high city can teach.
One of my first stops was the Museum of Nature and Science — it’s a great sprawling museum, including a fantastic “Space Odyssey,” planetarium, and Egyptian Mummies section.
But the part that affected me the most was the Wildlife Exhibit, where dioramas display animals from across the globe and their environments. I’ve seen dioramas like this before, at other museums, but these were particularly exquisite — beautiful, detailed scenes that took my heart and soul out of the museum and transported us to an island oasis, the arctic, an African savannah…
These dioramas spread from room to room; one beautiful landscape after another. They were pieces of art, in the truest sense of the word. And my imagination was happy, hopping into these scenes and going on a journey to far-flung places.
After the museum, I stopped at the Lighthouse, a writers’ community in Denver that offers a range of workshops and events. And once again, I was taken out of the Colorado capitol and transported to a new place. The Lighthouse resides in the historic Milheim House, originally built in 1893 by Swiss immigrants. Walk inside, and you’ll slip into a time long gone (a perfect place to fire the imagination of any writer).
At the end of my trip, I drove up to Greeley (an hour north of town) to speak at Greeley Central High School. That’s where I met an art history teacher who doesn’t settle for “just teaching,” but hand-paints projector cabinets, hangs the old masters on his walls, and takes his students to Europe, where he relishes seeing their faces light up when they see those masterpieces face-to-face for the first time. Mr. Rohnke showed me — and those students — that there’s a whole world beyond Greeley.
Denver is an interesting city. It isn’t in the mountains, but they always loom in the distance. They taunt the city with their snow and ski runs.
And while in Denver — as teachers, writing houses, and museums transported me to new and wonderful places — I felt a pull to be up in those mountains.
When I was a kid, almost every year, my parents, brother, and I drove from Arkansas to Colorado to ski. Every time we approached the Rockies, my dad and I would laugh: imagine, we would say, being the great explorers Lewis and Clark, riding across the planes and then seeing those Rocky Mountains looming in the distance. Imagine looking at those mountains and thinking, we have to cross that? On foot, with a horse, a canoe? How? There’s no tunnel, bridge, or road. No car, train or plane. It’s just man versus mountain. And don’t the mountains usually win that battle?
Sitting in Denver, I kept wanting to strike out toward the mountains. To see what was on the other side. To climb the peak. Keep going. The mountains weren’t an obstacle that stopped me; they called me to push further.
Just like those amazing dioramas at the Museum of Nature and Science calling me to travel to Africa and the Arctic. Just like the Lighthouse begging me to disappear into an earlier time. Just like that teacher in Greeley making me dreaming of Rome.
All of Denver felt aspirational to me. Sitting in the valley, but with an eye always toward the mountains…
There’s a quote that’s often attributed to Michelangelo:
The problem for most of us isn’t aiming too high and missing our mark, but aiming too low and hitting it.
Maybe I’m crazy. Or delusional. But I always want to aim too high. I always want to head toward the mountains, not camp out in their shadows. I want to be the teacher striving to be better even when he’s already great. Be the Lighthouse, not settling for some bland office space, but moving into a great old building. Be the Science and Nature museum, not putting up some standard display, but creating works of art with their exhibits that transport us all to worlds far away.
And in Denver I finally accepted this fact about myself. I will never sit in the sunshine in the valley. I will always load up my canoe and head toward the mountains.
Because here’s the thing: Lewis and Clark? They didn’t stop or get discouraged or turn around when they saw the mountains. They forged through the Rockies until they touched their toes in the Pacific.