I have seen hockey’s Heaven on Earth, just barely on Earth, and it’s a basin-oasis of blue in a barren land of rugged granite gray nestled within a glacier at about 14,000 feet of Rocky Mountain elevation. It’s too striking to be a mere mountain pond, too modest in acreage to be a great lake. Almost certainly it is a deep-water basin forged by millions of years of avalanches and glacial runoff.
I’m reasonably confident it’s never been skated, in the history of our planet, which is why Pepper and I stared at it on Tuesday during our tourist visit to Rocky Mountain National Park and deemed it “God’s shinny spot.” We couldn’t take our eyes off it. It was that beautiful.
We just have to find a way to get to it.
The car ride up and through Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is one that ought to be pursued by every American. It is a breathtaking journey that staggers the common mind on thoughts geology and excavation. Mankind’s muscle and determination chiseled and paved appreciative paths through Earth’s oldest and most durable and most impenetrable terrain in forming this national park. The result of that extraordinary labor is that today every American can, by car, ascend virtually to Heaven.
If you do make the trip be sure to pack layers of clothing: it can be 80 degrees at the entrance to the park at some 7,500 feet of elevation in Estes, Colorado, but one hour later, even in the middle of August, at five thousand feet higher elevation, it can be snowing on photo-taking tourists. Pepper and I on Tuesday experienced a few moments of frosty moisture pelting our cheeks as we gawked at the heavenly beauty all around us.
Also on your visit, play the license plate game Pepper and I did on Tuesday: in 20 minutes’ time in the park you’ll identify tags on passing cars from at least 20 different states. This is America the very beautiful.
Rocky Mountain National Park ever reminds its visitors who’s the ultimate authority in this remarkable environment, and it isn’t man. I’m not so good with heights, and while navigating our rental car up high into the clouds on Tuesday often I had to avoid looking out over my left shoulder onto land fall-offs measuring in the thousands of feet. Miles of such journeying occurred without the calming influence of guardrails.
At 11,500 feet elevation Pepper and I arrived at tundra terrain. That necessitated our layering in additional clothing. Still we climbed higher.
Deep into Tuesday afternoon we parked our car at a popular parking pause near Heaven, with the goal of crossing over to 12,000 feet of elevation, and I wanted to tough-guy it out by roaming about with my camera in shorts and flip-flops. Which I did. But I also wanted a tall hot chocolate upon our return to the car 30 minutes later. Still, back in the car, I treasured the sensation of feeling chilled air race all about my bare skin with our car’s windows rolled down. At one point I kicked off my flip-flops and dangled my bare feet out the window in 40-something degree temps, thinking back to the inferno state of the District’s underground Metro platforms all this cursed summer long.
It occurred to me: this week I may be very far removed from the hockey beat in Washington, but in this particular park, with its year-round snow advisories, I was very much in pursuit of a spirit that’s animated OFB from its inception: life is best when a freeze is lasting and deep. Snow showers and whipping winds created winter-like conditions on our summit climb for Pepper and me. That’s when our smiles were widest.
At most of the park’s tourist stopping points the general vista is comparable: sprawling, snow-crusted Rocky Mountain peaks (even in August), birthing enormous valleys of pine tree-studded foothills. Rocks large and small add additional rigor to the landscape and are a staple of this terrain. And life seems limited to tourism in such elevations. But the park’s literature and signage is rich with warnings about indigenous wildlife none too friendly to the camera toting.
The thought occurred to Pepper and me: even if a remarkably hearty hockey soul could traverse the rugged terrain to the base of the glacier looming in our cameras’ eye, and then climb another thousand feet to reach the heavenly shinny sheet, what defense would there be against grizzly and mountain lion and cougar? We laughed at the notion of somehow organizing a game of glacier shinny there only to see a hungry grizzly patiently await our game’s end.
This was no moment, however, for practical considerations. This was Heaven’s shinny site, and somehow it needs to be skated. The pursuit would be drama of the highest order — cinema verite, ‘Mystery, Alaska’ on steroids. It would make for a remarkable documentary. If only we knew of a hockey-loving film financier, who could charter the helicopters necessary to deliver a set of shinny players to the site! This would be extreme tow-in surfing but for winter enthusiasts.
This glacial basin of beautiful blue is a blue like you’ve never seen blue before, perhaps the most naturally and patiently formed and unspoiled body of water on our planet. And Big Beautiful Blue beckoned us from across a chasm range of cascading pines, rock-scarred bluffs, and low-growing plant life adaptable to our continent’s most extreme conditions.
Pepper and I are calling this vacation in the Rockies this week our healing trip for two broken hockey hearts. Near the top of the world Tuesday he and I discovered our planet’s greatest hypothetical skating spot — a sacred site for shinny among the gods. Parting clouds and a warming sun enveloped our descent from Heaven late Tuesday afternoon, and in the awed silence of our car ride out of the park I’m pretty sure my blogger buddy and I meditated on a similar thought: it’s time to say goodbye to hot summer and hello again to the game we are beginning to miss.