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Colorado Lessons: Rounding that Sharp Corner Into The Teenage Years and Beyond

It dawned on me this summer in Colorado, as my son, now a teen, embarked with us on our annual journey, him through the filter of adolescence: every family vacation, every trip to an unexplored land is framed, like a portrait, by its time and place in our family history.

Whether we know it or not, travel is less about where we go, but who we are when we share these times together. Family travel, by nature, is just a vehicle for shared experiences. Our group dynamics are ever-evolving - half of our family today is changing so fast as to be unrecognizable to their former selves of a few years prior. Today, a vacation is a different can of worms, a product of the early teen experience.

This was the year when I first noticed that my 13 year old had packed a teenage perspective in with his sandals on our annual summer vacation. We set out for Colorado much like we always have to other places, full of hope and expectations. My son didn’t look that much different from last year - a little taller, hair a little longer. So the changes took me by surprise. I was expecting Last Year Part 2. We won’t be passing that way again.

Flew in, drove south, landed at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. The massive, copper colored monoliths stretched up into the clouds. Artists battled it out for a patch of solitude, trying to capture its aura in paint on giant white canvas.

I was enthralled by the rocks shaped like giant faces. I loved wandering through this Never World on windy paths. Yet here I first discovered a truth of an early teen vacation, the birth of Rule Number One: Don’t lead a teen around. To a teenager, it seems, pathways are not on the To Do List. Explore the real wild, not one manicured and preserved by Joe Parks Department. Let him find his own way, not be led by someone else’s blueprinted trail. Okay, got it. What’s next on the agenda?

A squeezed-in side trip to Florissant Fossil Beds National Park, after a plane ride, car rental, hour’s drive on the highway, and a trek around Garden of the Gods, turned into a case of exhaustion triumphing over beauty. The massive fossilized tree stumps and prehistoric peacefulness couldn’t compete with my mistake: pushing too hard, not reading the signals. Rule Number Two: Don’t push a teen. Unless you want major static. And who needs static on vacation? Tempers flared, heels were dug in. Where’d that stubbornness come from anyway? The gorgeous scenery called out to me but all I could see was steam. Live and learn.

In the morning we could see our breath as we boarded the Cog Train up to Pike’s Peak. Though we didn’t spot any wildlife, the treeline views were inspiring and peaceful. Inside, the ride was bumpier: I’d forgotten to stash the Nintendos in the car trunk; my kids had forgotten to look out the Cog’s window. I fumed and steamed until, stepping out of the train car, onto a sheet of ice, the frigid air caught me by surprise.

Now, we aren’t winter wimps: we live in frosty Minnesota, no less, but it was so frigid and windy up there at 14,110 feet, tears came to my eyes. Gasping for breath, (a desperate move, since the air is about as thin as a Girl Scout cookie up here), I glanced at the stunning views, and slid, desperately, into the one safe haven: the gift shop complete with cider and freshly made donuts. Here my son and I commiserated about our dizziness and downed refreshments in unison.

It must have been the next day when we finally hit our stride. As morning broke, we headed to our Grand Destination: Rocky Mountain National Park, the gem that inspired this trip. We found our salvation at Streamside at Fall River: full kitchen, indoor swim spa pool, outdoor personal hot tubs with views of the Rockies, and the entrance to RMNP just 2 minutes down the road. This time we got it right. I didn’t push. I didn’t lead. We kicked back, messed up the schedule, and barbequed right there on our own deck. Guess you can teach old dogs a few new tricks.

Entering Rocky Mountain National Park, our day began with an elusive search for mountain goats, the symbol of the park. We searched, we looked, we did not find. No matter. Driving up into the mountains we found something even better.

Perched atop rocks at the end of a paved pathway, teetering on the edge of the purple mountain’s ragged heights, was a group of marmots. In the East, they have groundhogs. But here in the western U.S. they are called marmots (French, for mountain mouse). The wicked wind fluffed the little guy’s fur like a giant hairdryer, nearly blowing my camera right over Forest Canyon’s precipice. While his furry friends busied themselves with the other tourists, my marmot stood on his hind legs and looked me straight in the eye. It felt like a lifetime, though it was probably just a minute that we stood and took each other in, meeting in spirit, making a connection. For me, it was the highlight of the trip.

I can still hear it now: "Mom, you’re obsessed with that marmot!" That marmot, my friend, led us to the way my teenager and I came to interact best on this trip – ribbing, joshing, having a laugh. That would be Rule Number Three: Try humor with a teen.

Quaint shopping districts in Boulder don’t cut it with a teen. Not a teenaged boy, anyway. File that under Rule Number Four: Don’t window shop with a teen.

Panning for gold, at Argo Gold Mine in Idaho Springs, the destination both kids requested before we’d left home, was a huge hit. We skipped the tour (remember Rule One: Teens don’t like to be led around) and went right for the real experience. At the foot of a steep mountain, over a trough filled with water, our instructor demonstrated the best technique for separating the gold from stream water. Later, searching for gemstones within gravel warranted a thumbs-up. Call it Rule Number Five: Involve teens in the planning process. If you can.

Too bad altitude sickness and a nasty virus caught up with us right after this. We passed through the Eisenhower Tunnel, an arbitrary dividing point signaling we were now truly in the mountains, but illness hit us like a low lying cloud formation. Our hotel, across from the lovely Lake Dillon, became our base: Urgent Care in town for oxygen replenishment and an evening flat out on the bed watching Cable and eating Jersey Boys Pizza was all we could allow.

Next morning, I snapped a few photos of the view, before we headed down to lower elevations and got our groove back. Rule Number Six: Slow down now and then. Teens may think they’re invincible; they’re not.

Down in Denver, we hiked up Red Rocks where U2 and others have played out-of-this-world symphonies of sound. It was a steep, angled climb up to the awe-inspiring amphitheater, and my jokes ("If Bono can do it, so can we!" pant…pant) were hardly appreciated. Okay, they like humor, maybe just not mine.

Across the road from Red Rocks, up a sharp hill, lies Dinosaur Ridge National Natural Landmark, where ancient history rocks out every night and day. No, not Keith Richards, traces of Iguanodons and Ornithomimuses .

Dinosaur Ridge isn’t flashy. It isn’t even promoted. Here, atop a bluff looking out over a wide, grassy valley, it doesn’t need p.r.: this is a spot where dinosaurs left their tracks all over these hills.

Next to a wispy salmon-pink tree, I pictured these beasts lumbering like kings over the green valley below. My daughter beamed as I photographed her tiny hand inside one massive footprint. Thousands of trace fossils molded into the earth; they sit wide open by the side of the road, available for close inspection. Rule Number Seven: Give teens an impressive experience. (Just don’t expect them to gush about it). That wouldn't be cool.

Which brings me back to this trip’s place in our family’s timeline of vacations. Within our teen-filled family, I smile when I remember my encounter with that marmot: seeking a connection, finding a way to reach another soul, despite different perspectives. I found that common ground with my teen in flashes, up in the mountains of Colorado.

Later, back home, I grabbed a laugh from my son with my suggestion for our annual Christmas Card photo: someone perched on a windy, mountainous cliff, at the edge of civilization. "Mom, you’re obsessed with that marmot!" Connections.

This post first appeared on The Road Traveler, please read the originial post: here

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Colorado Lessons: Rounding that Sharp Corner Into The Teenage Years and Beyond


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