Letter from the smokey, sheep-filled mountains

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Photo courtesy of Kayla Heinze.

I have always wanted to see bighorn sheep in the wild. A couple weeks ago, I spontaneously went on a drive that winds up a canyon near my house and spotted a herd just a few feet off the road. My friends and I spent 20 minutes watching in near silence as they grazed along the river. I’m used to having serendipitous moments of beauty and wonder in the wilderness — I’m just not used to them happening this often.

Over the summer, a few of my friends from Occidental texted me asking if I would want to live in Fort Collins, CO with them for the fall semester and take our classes remotely from there. It sounded like an excellent way to make the best of the limitations posed by the ongoing pandemic, since we’d be able to spend time with each other after being apart for months and safely explore the vast outdoor recreation space that Colorado offers.

Still, I hesitated to commit. I would be living with nine other people, most of whom I didn’t know well or at all, but I think I was most nervous about abandoning the loose plan I had for my years at Occidental.

I never envisioned spending any of my college years in Colorado and, just a few short months ago, I didn’t even expect to be spending another semester away from campus. At the time, I felt like the world was teetering on the edge of a cliff and that at any moment everything I had previously believed about my future could fall away. It was emotionally taxing to commit to this vague plan we had created when I was feeling so much uncertainty about the next few months already. After some self-reflection and long conversations with my friends, I decided that I didn’t want to let my anxiety and feelings of loss keep me from trying this new experience that genuinely sounded fun.

The house we ended up renting is by Horsetooth Reservoir, which is a short drive into the foothills from downtown Fort Collins. Looking out our kitchen window, it almost feels like you can reach out and touch the mountains.

Photo courtesy of Kayla Heinze.

There’s been an ongoing forest fire about 30 miles from our house. At one point we thought we might have to evacuate, but luckily a sudden September blizzard blew in and kept us safe. When it gets really smokey and you can’t see beyond the valley and it feels like our little neighborhood is all that exists.

In some ways, living here has been even better than a normal semester on campus. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said, “That’s so beautiful,” or “That’s awesome,” in the past month. We’ve been to forests, sand dunes and mountains. We’ve gone swimming and then been snowed in only a few hours later. I’ve been within 30 feet of elk, Steller’s jays, pika and — most exciting for me — bighorn sheep. There’s also the joy of living with nine other college students. We laugh through dinner and play music loudly while we do the dishes. Instead of bumping into my friends at the Green Bean, I bump into them in the kitchen.

We have our problems too though. Countless times now we’ve forgotten to take the meat out of the freezer in time for it to thaw before dinner. Some nights we just cook it anyway and other nights we feel lazy and order pizza instead. It seems like the dishes always need to be done and the trash always needs to be taken out. There’s one spot on the floor that remains sticky and brown, no matter how often we clean it. We’ve gotten into fights and had to navigate a COVID-19 scare. These things probably would have bothered me a lot more a few months ago but now they mostly feel like sweet little reminders that there are other people around.

Every day here feels unexpected still — whether from an impromptu hike in between classes, a sudden wave of smokey air sweeping in or just the weird musings of my housemates. As the world continues to shift in unpredictable ways around me, I’ve found myself more and more at peace with all I can’t control.

I’ve learned that the growth you need doesn’t always come from the places you expect. Trying to make good experiences out of a bad situation can be overwhelming and unsettling, but there’s a lot to gain if you can gently push yourself over that horizon. From this, I’ve come to trust myself in new and deep ways. I know I’ll be able to weather the smokey, hazy days so that I can make it to the riverside to watch some sheep.