The smell of wood smoke rises from the old stone chimney of the Ramble In if my eyes are closed and my head held at a proper tilt. I can feel the thin Rocky Mountain air in my well-adapted young lungs and hear pine needle covered trails crunch under my feet as I scramble up, up, up mountain-goat style heedlessly ignoring my father’s instruction to “stay where I can see you.”
Those lungs are older now, softened not only by time but by living a while at sea level. Today’s feet rarely (ok never) scramble up, up, up mountain trails. What is, however, sharper than that young body with its deep lungs and strong limbs is a mind’s eye and a memory settling into a solid shape rather than consisting of bits of crystalized moments flinging through a brain that had no time to ponder.
It’s the late 1960s. Vietnam. Assassinations. Women’s Lib. Exposed Racism. Sit-ins. Stand-ins. Marches. Bomb threats. Tension with a capital T in Boulder, Colorado on the university campus and I was protected from all of it by parents who spent their days in the thick of it. So they bought a cabin.
When we appear near the first of June, the snow around our cabin retreat is a mere shadow of its eave-covering majesty from just days ago. The early summer melt comes fast, sneaking in just before noon on a day when the local population was finally resigned to eternal winter. Little ground animals come to life; they scurry, twitter, and scatter, surely feeling invaded by lumpy flannel-wearing humans driving their gas guzzling sedans up the canyon highways from the cities far down the mountain.
Seasonal neighbors announce their arrival with horn honks and the crunch of gravel across dirt roads. We wave a greeting toward each other’s cabins and I search for familiar kid faces in their groups, older by a whole school year since we’ve seen each other, but hopefully still willing to do all the kid stuff that young ones think up when faced with air, sun, cold creeks, rocky hills, and an ancient general store down in the ghost town open only from Memorial Day to Labor Day and sporting a circular rack of comic books the likes of Archie, Tom & Jerry, Disney Everything, and the always thrilling Little Lulu. That’s my beloved standing in front of the store when we took a trip in 1989. Clearly it was before Memorial Day opening.
The wildness of this place is in stark contrast to the wildness we left behind down the highway. The mountains and trees rule over it with the wind intricately woven through, first blowing one direction and then another so the hillside shows us every side of every aspen leaf on every tree and then does it again. Consistently. Reliably. Steadily. Even when we’re not watching. The mountains don’t move. They don’t change. They are steadfast, sturdy, strong — marking season after season for generations of the people who act like they own them because of a paper deed for a little old miner’s cabin on a small lot just off a dirt road in a ghost town.
So we, the city families, bearing flashlights, matches, buckets, a reel-to-reel tape player, and other survival items, set up our blankets and suitcases, our decks of cards, steaks for the grill and marshmallows for the fire while the aspens tremble with mirth at our bravado in these old mountains. They know we are just a whisper, soon gone. Their quaking supervision would steadily oversee those who come behind — flannel families like ours for a while. Then the suited developers. Then the Gucci ski folk who woke up one day and decided that Colorado belonged to them.
Maybe we kids of this microcosm of time, this era, were the only ones to ever climb up the short side of what we called Elephant Rock and dare each other to jump off the high side sending tingles up our legs when our flat feet hit the ground from a height that could’ve snapped a bone. Or maybe we weren’t. We were just there because our adults brought us there, escaping whatever they were escaping. We found our fun. They found oxygen.
Here I am in 1989 on the short side of the Rock with our darling eldest and triumphantly alone on the high side.
Mostly I hated the cabin. It took me away from civilization and electricity and toilets. It cramped my style of not having my style cramped. It made my world less about me and more about someone else. Oh, perish that thought. The language of my father when he said to come with him to “check on the cabin” meant, “My head is about to explode so I am going to drive up into these enormous steady mountains and gain some perspective and I want you to go with me.” I heard, “You are not the Queen of the World and All That Is In It. Get in the car.” These cabin-checking trips happened during the off season when we had no plans to actually stay up there but allowed him to have reason to get away from the un-realness of reality every now and then. Often we could get no further than the outskirts of Eldora due to snow but we forged ahead (probably farther than we should have in a Dodge Dart Swinger) until we could not continue. If the season allowed, when the road turned to dirt he would put me on his lap and I would “drive,” wildly steering while he worked the pedals. You know, age 8 seems fairly safe.
On a never-ending list of questions I wish I could ask my folks are several about the whys and wherefores of the cabin. Seems though that what I’ve related here is mostly what it was about. We were not a family of recreators. Recreation was not a thing. Sitting around just did not happen. Idleness was not tolerated. So, yes, the Ramble In was out of character in that regard. I think, though, that it may have been a way to put a stamp of lighthearted goodness on an era of heavy darkness, a raising of the Keen Family Ebenezer as a testament to help in time of trouble.
The biblical account of Ebenezer is found in 1 Samuel. It is listed first in 4:1 as a place where the Israelites camped and then later as a “stone of remembrance” or a “stone of help” in 7:12. Samuel and the Israelites were up against the Philistines and to say they were feeling overwhelmed is probably an understatement. Morale was low. They had been defeated by ruthless Philistine armies in the past, even to the point of losing the Ark of the Covenant to them. It is at this point that “Ebenezer” becomes the name of an altar. Samuel, as a leader in front of his men, built it in acknowledgement that God had been with them up to now and could be relied upon when the Israelites would turn from their idol worship and follow Him. Look how the Message paraphrase puts verse 12:
Samuel took a single rock and set it upright between Mizpah and Shen.
He named it “Ebenezer” (Rock of Help), saying,
“This marks the place where God helped us.”
A quote from The Expositor’s Bible states, regarding the Ebenezer stone, “It was no doubt a testimony to a special help obtained in that time of trouble; it was a grateful recognition of that help; and it was an enduring monument to perpetuate the memory of it.”
God did indeed help our little family during those days of seemingly unresolvable anguish and difficulty. I’m sure having the cabin as a resting place, an Ebenezer marker of His help, whether consciously or unconsciously, was important to my folks and as a “get in the car; it is not about you” lesson for me. It’s good to have enough years under my belt to be able to reflect with the perspective of age (not old age, just more age) about all of that. In many ways then seems like now. And the God of Old Covenant Israel is the same God of the 1960s and is the same God of the 2020s. If we do indeed claim to follow Him it is then our clarion call to raise our Ebenezer acknowledging His past help and our reliance on Him for the future, come what may. We do not sit back and wring our hands at the state of the world. Far from it! We stand up in the middle of the mess and reflect to anyone within our reach His strong, sturdy Rocky Mountain-esque reliability.
That is all. But it is everything.
Would you like a song? Here are two. The first is pretty predictable. John Denver, with his funny little round glasses, sat in my dad’s office as an undergrad at CU and went on to become a Colorado superstar. The second may be familiar to you as a deeply moving hymn of the faith featuring “Ebenezer.” Maybe it will feel different today as you listen.
I’d like to get in the seat of that Dodge Dart and drive fast up Boulder Canyon with my dad. He’d be singing old radio songs and I’d be leaning my head out the window trying not to vomit. Good times. Good times.
Maybe the Ramble In is gone or is unrecognizably added onto with slick and shiny this ‘n’ that. I guess I don’t care. But I guess I do a little.
I’d bet money though that Elephant Rock has not moved an inch. And that it’s still coaxing folks young and old to clamber up the short side and jump off the high side. Steady old rocks can do that to a person.
In the ghost town.
Where the aspens whisper.
And the mountains laugh at people.