Raining fire and remembering John Denver
Summer 2004 will probably always have a couple of points of reference for me. It was a presidential election year for one thing, pitting George W. Bush against John Kerry. I cannot remember an election with such strong, to the point of hatred, sentiments from both sides or such an injection of religious fervor. An associate minister at our church strongly criticized President Bush, from the lectern, for the invasion of Iraq. More prevalent (in Arkansas at least) were the bumper stickers saying to “VOTE GOD,” often on the same vehicle with a Bush sticker, but never without doubt as to the political position of the owner. The other strong memory I have, seemingly unrelated to the first, came from a trip I made with my daughter to Colorado. Here is that story.”Did you see that one?”
I probably asked my daughter that question 50 times over the course of the evening and early morning hours. We were witnessing the earth plow through the tiny particles of debris left by Comet Swift-Tuttle. More simply stated, we were watching the Perseids meteor shower. Given our location, it would also be appropriate to say that we were watching “it raining fire in the sky.” The words from John Denver’s signature song, “Rocky Mountain High,” were inspired by a backpacking trip that he made with some friends to a “clear blue mountain lake” in Colorado. The trip was planned to coincide with the meteor shower that occurs in August each year. The memories of that trip formed the basis for the autobiographical song that helped propel him into the ranks of superstardom. Denver’s popularity, which reached its peak in about 1975, had largely faded by the mid-’80s. By the ’90s, Denver received more attention for his arrests for drunken driving than for his music or his humanitarian efforts. He was widely ridiculed, not only for his driving record, but for his two widely publicized divorces and rumors of his philandering lifestyle. Like so many of his fans, I had lost touch with his music over the years. My teenagers, perhaps reflecting the tide of popular sentiment, were merciless with ridicule if I attempted to play one of his CDs. For me, accounts of his personal foibles were disturbing.
His death in 1997 demanded a fresh review of his music and his accomplishments. Today’s celebrities generally lend their name to a cause or two, something exotic like supporting the lost children of Uzbekistan. Denver thought and functioned on a broader scale. Promoting world peace, stopping world hunger and the salvation of the planet’s ecosystems were all on his agenda. In the early ’80, he was the first American musical artist to tour the Soviet Union since the termination of cultural exchanges. He was the first American musician to tour China and Vietnam. He served on President Carter’s Commission on Hunger and worked tirelessly until his death to support environmental causes. Did Denver have any significant impact on these universal problems? His good works have mostly been interred but he is still widely associated with the environmental movement. Some would argue that he deserves credit for helping to normalize relations with our Cold War enemies by helping break down the walls of fear that maintained the walls of concrete. Others would argue that his efforts were so diluted as to be ineffectual. In the end, I am no more able to judge his impact on the world stage than I am to judge the morality of his personal life. Perhaps all that can be said is that he wanted to make a difference.
In summer 2004, my daughter, Kelly and I made the trip from our home in Arkansas to Colorado. During our stay, we climbed a fourteener and did some mountain-bike riding. Our final excursion was to backpack up to the same mountain lake that Denver had visited more than 30 years before. For Kelly, the trip was a chance to get away for some recreation before returning to college. For me, it was a long-delayed, final tribute to a fallen star of a different kind. When we first circled the small lake, Kelly noticed an aspen tree where someone had carefully carved the words “I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.” We set up our camp, the only one on the lake, under the boughs of that tree. In the afternoon, we caught a few brightly colored descendants of the same brook trout that Denver had caught on his trip. As the sun went down, we built a campfire, and later, moved our sleeping bags to a small clearing overlooking the lake to gain the best view of the skybound constellation named Perseus. The first meteor we saw was a fireball that lit up the sky and left a smoke trail. In times past, Native Americans or early settlers visiting the area would have watched the same heavenly display and imagined falling stars instead of small particles of glowing debris. Conversely, they may have believed the stars to be grains of glowing sand on a dark canopy, rather than the colossal suns that they are. I suspect that today we are no farther along in our ability to judge the good and evil that men do. Still, we choose our heroes, make our pilgrimages and stake our claims to the ultimate truth based on their teaching. Perhaps, in the final analysis, our only valid claim is that we were able to view the universe from their perspective for a little while. Rex Robbins writes from North Little Rock, Ark.
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