Independence Pass, July 4th

I grew up on the west coast of France where the ocean played a markedly more significant part in my relationship with nature than the mountains. Most of our family vacations were spent on the beach, swimming in the Atlantic, with but a few forays into the rocky milieu of the Massif Central, the Vosges, or the Alps. For whatever reason, the mountains had not pulled me in yet, as I felt distinctly more drawn to sand and salt; that is until I took my first solo trip to the United States at age 12, to visit my grandparents who were living in Indiana at the time.

I remember the journey beginning with some apprehension as I desperately tried to navigate the strange, circuitous tubes of the Charles de Gaulle Airport that led me to my departure gate–a daunting task for a 12 year old that I still find challenging as an adult. That initial agitation quickly gave way to excitement.

Once I reached Indianapolis, we set off on a classic American road trip, driving the 20-some hours to Aspen, Colorado for the 4th of July holiday.

We made our way up the narrow, winding road from downtown Aspen to Independence Pass on Independence Day. It was snowing. I wore my grandma’s multi-colored jacket, ran around in the snow, and soaked in the dramatic view, dominated by La Plata Peak. This was well before I knew what a fourteener was or had any idea of how relevant this first Colorado experience would become.

After the trip, I created a diary with a collage of photos and writing as a thank you to my grandparents. I recently dug it out of the attic, and under a photograph of the Maroon Bells, I had written: “We saw the two mountain peaks called the ‘Maroon Bells.’ They were beautiful. We also saw a rodeo with a little boy stuck in the mud. We saw fireworks and the Rocky Mountain Institute, and Snowmass Village. But, the most fantastic thing was the mountains. We went up to 12,000 feet. I had snow up to my waist. It was the greatest experience of my life. Colorado – July 4th, 1995″

A dozen years hadn’t bestowed much life experience on me, but something had clicked on top of the pass that day. I’d felt a visceral connection to the place, a deep enthrallment with these monolithic rock formations, unlike anything I’d witnessed before. Little did I know then, this preamble would lead to a lifelong love affair with Colorado.

Last week Deanne, dog, and I went camping in the area. For nostalgia’s sake, I wanted to stand on Independence Pass, on Independence Day, curious as to how I’d feel, 24 years later.

Driving up to the pass, we marveled at the sheer destructive power of an avalanche path that flattened an entire forest in its wake. My mood wasn’t particularly joyous though–too many cars and people, all this excessive commotion felt woefully distracting to appreciating the mountains. Somewhat begrudgingly, I walked over to the bench I’d stood on 24 years prior overlooking La Plata Peak to shoot a photo. As I neared the spot, dog yanked on her leash and peeled off into a snow patch bordering the trail. She flipped on her back, rolling around, sniffing, digging, with not a care in the world. People started laughing as they watched her giddy exuberance. Others joined her, giggling as they tiptoed in flip flops on the cold, wet surface for a snap.

It dawned on me right then and there that I was missing the point. I’d returned here a quarter of a century later with the hope of seeing the mountains again through a child’s eyes, to relive that spontaneous, unencumbered reaction to their beauty. Instead, all I could focus on was the clutter and the noise. But, dog gets it, as do the people taking photos with their families, and those skiing in jorts off the pass, hooting and hollering in full celebration of life. For some, this might be their first experience in the mountains, their first time on snow, and who knows, it might even be the greatest experience of their lives thus far. The only hindrance to love and joy is self-created and sometimes a good laugh and a little snow is all it takes to remember that.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you ever find yourself getting in your own way of enjoying a moment, experience, or place? What has it taken for you to let go and experience something independent of your own judgement of it?
  • Can you think back to a moment in your history that had a significant effect on who you have become?

Joe Grant on Colorado’s Independence Pass in 1995. All photos: Joe Grant

Joe, Deanne, and dog on Independence Pass in 2019.

Dog having her moment in the snow.

Same pass, same bench, same Joe, 24 years later.

Joe Grant

frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.

There are 9 comments

  1. Andrew McHenry

    Growing up in SoCal as a kid, one of our summer vacations was at Yosemite. Loved it, this was back in the late ‘80s. Great memories hiking around – my first real experience on the trails.

  2. DOUGLAS PEACOCK

    Super article and photos Joe. We well remember that first pose from nearly a quarter of a century ago. Didn’t turn out too badly either…

    Love from Nanna and Gramps UK

  3. TH

    I was shocked by the amount of snow in the 1995 photo. Much more than this year comparing the 2019 photo. I quickly referenced the Hardrock historical snow report. It was cancelled that year due to snowpack.

  4. Ken M.

    Marvelous. I remember the first time I experienced Independence Pass… it was truly amazing. And yes, I have found myself in my own way too many times to count, unfortunately. Last September, I returned to Colorado to carry my dog’s ashes to the summit of Mt. Elbert. She was my mountain dog for the 7 years I lived in and loved Colorado and I had to return her to her rightful home. It had been a decade since my last 14er, and it was harder than I remembered… but I did it for her and was with my best friend… so it was a truly memorable experience.

  5. Sam

    Excellent post! I think we often come into the mountains with too many expectations when really it’s nice to just slow down and enjoy the experience we are having that day

  6. Joe

    Wow, this is so familiar. I visited Independence pass that same week in 1995. I was 16. I had the same kind of awakening. I moved to Colorado and lived there for 4 years, climbing all the 14ers and becoming a trail runner. I moved back to Minnesota and still feel that pull to the mountains. Really funny that we experienced the same kind of epiphany during the same exact week. I remember being in Nederland on the fourth.

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