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The Search for Eldorado

Finding paradise, however fleeting, in the mountains of Colorado.

By David Gessner

March 29, 2023

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old—
This knight so bold—
And o’er his heart a shadow—
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

- Edgar Alan Poe, “Eldorado”

Most of us who were born in the eastern United States have stories about our first time seeing the western mountains. My initial sighting came when I drove west after college with two good friends, and from the far back of a Toyota Tercel, where I had been banished after falling asleep behind the wheel back in Alabama, felt my jaw drop upon seeing the hazy, trippy mountains of New Mexico. The next time I visited the interior West I came from San Francisco and the next on a train trip from Massachusetts to Denver where I pulled in at night. It was the fourth trip, my third from east to west, that stands out and retains something of the feel of personal myth. 

I was thirty years old and had spent the previous year back in my depressed and depressing hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts. I was there because my girlfriend of seven years had, with my urging, chosen to attend medical school in Worcester, and I’d thought myself mentally strong enough to withstand a return to that dying place. I was wrong. The first few months back I sunk into a morass of depression and unemployment, and that was before I found out I had testicular cancer. Later, after the operation and lab tests, my doctor would inform me that the small tumor had been growing inside me for approximately eight months to a year. When he told me this I knew what I would discover even before I finished counting backwards on my fingers. I was sure of it and it proved true: the little black growth was born during the same month, maybe on the very same day, that I moved back to Worcester.  

I wrote, only half-jokingly, in my journal: “I don’t know what’s worse, cancer or Worcester.”

My operation occurred during the week of my thirtieth birthday, followed by a month of radiation treatment, which sapped me of energy and hope. But it was in the midst of radiation that I was delivered from Worcester through a kind of deus ex machina. The December before I’d applied to graduate schools, but in keeping with the overall failure of that year I had been rejected by all of them. All except one. That one was in Boulder, Colorado, and by the next August, recovering now from radiation and growing stronger, I found myself heading there.   

Declared clean from cancer, I was so excited that I drove across the country in little more than two days. My car, a Buick Electra, was overdue for inspection but it seemed to make no sense to register it in Massachusetts when I would soon be living in a whole new state. The unregistered car leant a western outlaw element to the trip, as did the fact that each day, after my coffee buzz wore off, I turned to sipping beer.

Mine was the classic American road trip. Leaving behind the claustrophobia and restrictions of the East, I drove west to start a new life just as so many others have. Driving the unregistered Buick, I was the yee-hah escapee American who is headed for greener pastures, for the gold rush, for the big rock candy mountain. I made it to Buffalo that first night where I stayed over at the house of an old ultimate Frisbee teammate, and we reminisced about our glory days. I left early the next morning. I drank coffee all day and then in Gutenburg, Iowa I pulled over and bought a six pack of Miller Genuine Draft.  A full moon rose in my rear view mirror and the headlights from the east-moving traffic came at me in a glimmering necklace of silver-yellow. I poured the beer into a Texaco Food Mart coffee mug and it tasted strangely sweet and yeasty, like German Weiss beer. Sipping the beer, I kept driving and driving until I finally pulled over in a hotel in Eastern Colorado.

The next day provided one of the true jaw-dropping moments of my life.  When I saw the line of mountains rise up on the horizon I felt something close to ecstasy rise in me. This wasn’t Worcester, that was for sure. There they were, the Rockies at dawn—the peaks white and full and completely unexpected. What followed was one of the most elevated moments I have ever experienced. It hit me with a jolt: my new life! Had John Denver himself come on the radio I would have started weeping and whatever did come on I assure you I warbled along. I felt real joy then, and hope. It was a feeling of coming back from the dead, a feeling of renewal, and it is a feeling that I will forever associate with going west. 

Photo by Claudia Landreville.

For a thousand miles before that the land had rolled out, sometimes up and down and sometimes flat like a carpet, all the way from the old crumbling eastern mountains. But then came this kink in the carpet. A big kink. The continent lifts itself up, its back rising, and most homo sapiens who are seeing that lift for the first or second or even the fifty-third time feel a corresponding lift in their chests. A feeling of possibility, of risk, of excitement.

That was what I felt, at least, as the West announced itself. What had been a sometimes imperceptible rise for the last few hundred miles suddenly became an undeniable one. It is an inherently American moment. The same moment that trappers and early pioneers wrote about in their diaries. That mystical moment when East becomes West. The place where the country finally gets bored with itself and reaches for the sky. 

That exhilaration stayed with me. I moved into a blue gingerbread cabin in a canyon’s cleavage in the small town of Eldorado Springs, ten miles south of Boulder. Eldorado Springs is a town of dirt roads and maybe a hundred cottages. It is also home to a state park, where rock climbers ascend sheer lichen-stained cliffs. The dirt road–and the roaring creek–run down through a canyon of salmon-streaked rock, and when I climbed out of the car the rocks rose so high above me that I had to bend my head all the way back to see their tops. 

I loved it from the start. It was like living inside a painting: at night the moon would set over the strange gorgon-like rocks of the canyon, and in the morning lambent light would pulsate through the leaves and play shadow games on my futon. The mornings were cold and full of birds; I took my coffee up the trail behind the house and watched green swifts darting low over the rash-red sumac. And eagles too, and falcons and canyon wrens and towhees and bluebirds, and a great blue heron stalking fish in the always-gurgling creek, and then deer and coyote, and even a rare ringtail scampering up a scree pile. It was said that the Arapahoe people had put a curse on this land: it was so beautiful and unique that anyone who lived there would not be happy elsewhere. I understood this right away. I missed my girlfriend back East, but I also felt stronger than I ever had. "The hero is one who goes into the underworld and comes back again." I taped that quote from Ernest Becker on my computer. 

During those first weeks in Eldorado I scribbled down notes about the wonder I felt at living on my own in that strange new place–notes about the birds, plant life, and weather–but soon enough my sentences wended their way back fully to the year I had just lived through.  Every morning I attacked my book, the story of my cancer year, writing the first draft straight through. All my efforts before had been halting, but now I finally had a story to tell. I wrote in my journal: "I feel like ripping off the top of my brain and writing, painting, drawing, and walking until I drop dead from exhaustion." Soon painting and drawing fell by the wayside and just words remained. The novel came out pure, what Thomas Wolfe used to call "taking a book off the brain."  I began to type as if taking dictation and I didn't stop, the words pouring out.  I wrote the first draft straight though in about three weeks.

While I typed, I let my hair and beard grow, and I smoked cigars and drank coffee, my erratic heart taking off like a racetrack rabbit. But it was during that fall that I finally, reluctantly, gave up the cigars and cut down on the coffee. The reason I could give them up, in the end, was simple. I didn't need them; didn't need the rocket fuel, it turned out, to type like a lunatic. Even sipping on weak Lipton tea, I still stared at my computer screen with the manic intensity of a coke fiend, only occasionally diving in the creek to cool off. Still prone to excess, I was now steadfast and consistent in at least one thing: my work. I had my first story to tell and I would tell it. I’d always been a fanatic, but now my fanaticism was focused. Madness wouldn't be mad if it got results.

I romanticize, of course, but after the Worcester year you can perhaps forgive me. The Chinook winds blew down through the canyon and the creek lit up silver in the fall light while my story poured out of me. I wrote and wrote and wrote. The canyons and mountains loomed above me. Eldorado. I used to laugh about the name. It was perfect. The anti-Worcester. I had spent my twenties trying to be a writer but before that fall my writing had come in fits and starts. Now suddenly, living below those canyon walls, I was writing a draft of a book straight through. As it poured off my pen I was half-convinced that it was the place itself that had done it. 

I should mention the weather. It had been a glorious fall. When I was done with those long writing sessions at my desk, I would hike into the great cleaved canyon of the park, not a hundred yards from my front door, and study the names of the trees and birds and rocks. I wanted to know everything about my new home. I watched swifts carve the air above the mountain meadows and water ouzels, called dippers, do deep knee bends in the creek, and saw a ringtail on the scree pile. I hiked the squiggly red trail that led almost from my door up into the mountains, gasping for air from the altitude at first but with each day getting stronger and more acclimated. Before long I was running the trails instead of walking them. In the afternoons I took baptismal baths in South Boulder Creek, stripping down to my boxers, parting two tamarisk bushes like a curtain, and dipping into my tub behind the pink-purple rock. When I climbed out of the water I trembled with cold. 

All in all, it would be hard to exaggerate how transformed I felt. It was not just being healthy again or the new life I found there. I felt, rather, like I had become a new person. A kind of giddiness about where I lived came over me, a definite sense of liberation. On coming west Edward Abbey spoke of a chord being rung, as if he’d found a match for something inside him in his new landscape. It would not being going too far to say that I knew a little of how he felt. I was coming back from the dead after all, and playing out an essential American trope: heading west to re-make myself.

***

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
‘Shadow,’ said he,
‘Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?’

‘Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,’
The shade replied,—
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’

Paradise is never really paradise of course, idylls never truly idylls. There is no Eldorado.

If I didn’t know this already (and I surely did) I would soon learn that there is a snake in every garden. As it happened, I didn’t live alone in my tiny gingerbread cabin. I had a roommate who was also my landlord, and who smoked non-stop, filling the house with poisonous clouds, and played heavy metal on her bass guitar late into the night. I also suffered from sudden acute pangs of worry that my cancer had returned. Soaping up in the shower, I felt for lumps. Was there something dark growing inside me?

I had another worry that plagued me, one that might not at first seem on par with that of the possibility of cancer returning. But to me it was not just on par, but possibly more worrisome. That was my anxiety that I might never publish a book. I had lost my virginity relatively late, and during the years before the fear that I would never have sex thrummed like a current below the rest of my thoughts. It was almost an exact parallel with that: would I ever get published?

The year, then, was messy. But living in that mountain town made it easier to push forward. Adapting to the altitude, I got more and more fit, running the trails and then biking them. Also, I wrote the damn book (even while I was plagued by worries that I would never sell it). I also broke up with my girlfriend of seven years, or rather she broke up with me, and fell in love with a woman who I first got together with on Valentine’s Day. And there was this: I lived in a beautiful place, and would continue to live in beautiful places for years to come.  

“First be a good animal,” wrote Emerson. I was a good animal that year. That alone might have lifted it out of the ordinary, but what really made the year worthy of even half-jokingly using the word paradise was the place itself.  Come to think of it, all of the most striking years in my life are associated with special places, often with living in those places for the first time. But none compare with my first year in the West. Eldorado! I read books about mountain men howling as they hiked along mountain ridges and did some howling myself. I could walk right out the door and hike a mile straight up, and then, from the meadow up there, choose to look in one of two directions. If I made the tamer choice and stared east, toward Denver and beyond, I could see the flatlands rolling back toward where I had come from. If I turned around I could see the first line of mountains, knowing that a hundred miles or more of peaks lay behind them, wild places that I hoped to travel to.

Photo by Jared Chambers.

Yes, I am romanticizing as I look back, but I swear I romanticized even as it was happening, especially as I grew healthier. The place blew up my spirit like a balloon. The New Agers counsel us to live in the present and we try. But even as I reveled in my present in Eldorado I couldn’t help but imagine the years ahead and when I did I imagined living them in the West. Why not stay in this glorious state for the rest of my days.

That is not what life brought. I wouldn’t quite make it even seven years in the West. I would move to Cape Cod, then to Boston, then to North Carolina, all the moves more or less for career reasons. Every year my wife, who I met in Boulder, and I would try to get back to Colorado, daydreaming of moving back but never doing it. 

That paradise was brief does not make it less intense. What the West represented for me was what it has represented for so many in this country. A place to remake myself. A place to restart, redefine, renew. It was in some ways my afterlife. Worcester’s afterlife.

Right before I left Colorado, at thirty-seven years old, I finally did manage to publish my first book. In recent years my writing, which has always celebrated nature, has turned darker. The country seems to have the cancer I once had. In the east we are constantly threatened by hurricanes, and Boulder County, our old paradise, is plagued by fires. “What to make a of diminished thing?” asked Robert Frost. My old places now often seem diminished.

And yet I do have something I can hold to. That is a memory. Paradise is by definition fleeting. There is not such thing as a permanently heightened state. If there was what would it be heightened over, what would it rise above? 

And it was a heightened year. A year that lifted off the plains of my existence like a peak. Higher than the rest. And though I am a born easterner who now lives in the South, I will always be a secret westerner and will always associate my best and highest times with that year in Eldorado.   

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