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Paul Andersen: Choosing the right place

Paul Andersen

Bedtime at the Andersen household is a little like the old TV show, “The Waltons.” After feeding the cats, calling in the dog, damping down the wood-burning stove, brushing teeth and reading a few pages in the latest Harry Potter book, we follow a simple tradition of giving thanks.

Ours is a secular blessing that recognizes our good fortune in the cohesion of our small family, in the material gifts we enjoy, in our belonging to an interesting community, and in appreciating the place we call home.

Home is a perpetual gift that we savor on a daily basis. The place where we live is peaceful, unsullied, and resplendent in the beautiful Western landscape that surrounds us with red-rock spires, deep canyons and soaring mountains.

The other day, as a winter storm converted the Frying Pan Valley into a cloud-washed dreamscape, my 10-year-old son stared out the window and marveled at his surroundings. “This is beautiful,” he said. “The way the clouds are low on the mountains and swirling around, it looks like Alaska.”

My son has never been to Alaska, but he’s seen pictures that resembled the view from our window. I stood there with him looking over the ever-changing cloud patterns and mentioned that most people in the industrialized world live in far different environments, like the one in which I grew up.

Chicago was my birthplace, but as a kid, I gravitated to the wooded lots and forest preserves of my suburban neighborhood. Tree forts and shrub-covered dens were my wild playgrounds. When we were my son’s age, my friends and I wore loin clothes and smeared our bodies with purple berries. We went native at an early age.

Most of my childhood peers still live in cities. They drive through rush-hour traffic to and from their jobs. They breathe polluted air and drink questionable water. They endure the rush of highways and the din of airport flight paths. They cope with a faster, frenetic rhythm that “Time” Magazine recently pointed out is pervasive in distressed urban households.

By the time I was a teenager, family camping trips had revealed for me the mystical allure of the Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone, Glacier Park, the Olympic Peninsula, the redwood forest, the Adirondacks and other parts of wild America. I was hooked on nature.

When the choice for colleges came along, Colorado was on my radar. I had skied Aspen in 1965 and knew where I wanted to be. I went to Western State College and discovered my dream town ” Crested Butte. The Elk Mountains became my reason for being, and they still are.

The swirling clouds in that storm last week made our window the frame for a picturesque and dynamic landscape. Sharing that with my son, just for that moment, unified us in our mutual appreciation for our greater back yard.

I know that many others feel the same. When I meet friends on the street or in the grocery store, after pleasantries are exchanged, the topic of natural beauty is a recurrent theme. “What a day! We are so lucky to live here!”

Luck is part of it, but so is choice. Choosing a place to live because of quality of life often runs contrary to career moves or economic realities. Choosing place is one of our greatest luxuries, a privilege that we sometimes forget.

We who live here and love it are lucky, but we’re also smart. We saw our life choices and we made them. It doesn’t mean the living is easy, but standing at the window with my son, watching the clouds swirl around the canyons and cliffs, emphasized the importance of choice.

I would not be the same person if I lived in a big city. I would long desperately for the freedom I feel in the mountains and the deserts. Without the inspiration of wild places, I would feel a deep and painful void. Could I adapt? Maybe. Would I want to? No.

Peace, natural beauty, vast open places and wilderness are among the vital influences that shape me and my family. To hear my son say so in his own words was meaningful proof that place is perhaps the most important decision of all.

Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays in The Aspen Times.


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