Part 2: At the Santuary
Fifteen years after an experienced pilot and irreplaceable American folk artist was lost in a panicked moment over the waters of the Pacific Ocean near Monterey, California, people from all over the world gathered in his hometown of Aspen, Colorado. Hundreds of devoted fans traveled thousands of miles to celebrate this man’s vast contributions—a full fifteen years after he was forever gone from the earth and sky he so steadfastly celebrated. Some of the people were friends and relatives, band members and constituents, and some of them had been coming every year for all fifteen. Many were musicians inspired by his craft, spanning in age from the early twenties to the mid seventies. Although it was my first attendance at Aspen in October, the pilgrimage offered unexpected insights and unanticipated personal growth, some connected to my experience with post-concussive syndrome, and some not. Old friendships were reignited, and new ones were forged as the spirit of this man, John Denver, was palpably with every one of us throughout, and with all of us at once.
On Wednesday evening, we attended a concert by Mark Cormican in the intimate setting of the Aspen Community Church. Mark’s rendition of “This Old Guitar” at the end of the evening moved me to tears, but I did good with this (losing it) until a couple days later when I heard Keeper at one of the musical sessions Friday afternoon perform “Poems and Prayers and Promises.” That was one of the toughest moments, not only because Keeper is good, but also because that was my first-ever John Denver favorite, the first John Denver song I played a thousand million times on my little record player in my early teenage room. It is noteworthy when a songwriter’s music punctuates one’s own ideology, as John Denver’s music does for me. I’ve never grown tired of that song, and it simply represents so much about who I am and how I’ve lived my life.
Still driving from Denver during Wednesday morning’s Meet and Greet, our initial bond took root with a volunteer cleanup and bulb planting Thursday morning at the John Denver Sanctuary, sponsored by the City of Aspen Parks Department. This event was especially well organized, well attended and well supported. The moment we appeared, we were warmly greeted by other workers and by the Parks’ office manager, Teresa, with whom I had corresponded via email. Much to my delight, there were packs and stacks of planting gloves, kneeling pads, and even metal bulb planters. There was even a pre-made picture sign indicating the types of bulbs we would be planting (Purple Allium, Yellow and White Narcissus, Blue Muscari, Orange and Red Tulips).
Everything I worried about was attended to in advance, and we were off to a perfect start. They also had refreshments set up, some snacks, including hot water for tea, and cold and delicious water with which to rehydrate. I must have had four or five glasses of that water, so refreshing it seems I can still taste it, taken during short breaks to catch my breath in the thin mountain air. Planting was surprisingly more work than I remembered. Though it is something I did most springs and falls, it is not something I had done since obtaining my closed head injury. It made me realize how much I missed it, if I had forgotten. I was so grateful on this day to have enough stamina at last. For all I had missed over the past five years, and for as bad as all of it had made me feel, I was here, fairly pain, fatigue and nausea-free, maybe not feeling terrific, but fully aware, participating in a meaningful event that re-connected me to a part of my lost and worn self. I worked conscientiously in the magnificent Aspen sunshine, enjoying every moment, remembering the many quite contrasting, darker days when I couldn’t even lift my head, let alone leave my bed. Those years were certainly no bed of roses, but here I was after so much agony. I was mindful with the drop of every bulb of the great spirit of the man who did not survive, of the remarkable human we were honoring—how pleased this tribute would make him, how delighted he would be to see the flowers blooming in the spring. It was an incredibly beautiful morning under the bluest autumnal sky.
A perfect place to leave the past behind.
I stood solidly on sacred ground, sensing a long awaited emancipation. You can’t imagine fresher air than that in the Rocky Mountains, and you understand when you are there, even all these years later, how it became the perfect inspiration for so many of John Denver’s most famous lyrics, and why he felt compelled to capture it in a song (in this clip, “High Flight” begins at 3:55, but fans will want to watch it in its entirety).
All around us, people planted the four varieties of bulbs, many in small groups, some more individually gathering bags full of fallen leaves. As we worked, the city office manager, Teresa Hackbarth, came by to chat some more. She was curious where we were from and how many times we’d been to the sanctuary. I explained this was only my second time, that my daughter had gifted me the past Mother’s Day with a weekend together, hiking, which I once did avidly–and visiting John Denver’s sanctuary, an item on my “bucket list.”
Our conversation led to a somewhat less brief introduction of my condition. Teresa seemed intrigued. She said, “So, this is a bit of a spiritual journey for you, then? I love that!” Her interest seemed rather foreign to me, yet genuine and sincere. I thought, what would it be like to have this kind of validation always? To be taken seriously and not dismissed? To be believed, and to be given sufficient notice? To be regarded, valued? To meet head to head, not watching the other’s back turning, then walking away? Those who suffer know what I mean, those who are ill. Something about Teresa just read “Aspen” through and through. She had purity of spirit. Perception. Identification. Focus. Goodness. These were many of the very things that fed John Denver as he strummed new chord progressions, as he wrote songs that touched heart strings far across the continents. His influence seemed palpable throughout the town.
And, really, this event set the stage for the rest of the week. People everywhere just being real, fully alive. As my new friend Leslie kept saying, “happy.” There’s a wonderful level of trust enjoyed by travelers, and sharing so many of these moments was magical and uplifting. It removed all suspicion, any lingering doubt, and gave well deserved meaning to that controversial phrase, “Rocky Mountain High.” Skeptics generally don’t know this particular world. Perhaps one actually has to travel to Aspen to find it.
© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.