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  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

Early Years - The Sunny Side

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities

—his eternal power and divine nature—

have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made,

so that people are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:20 NIV).

A glacier lake in the Rocky Mountains near Silverton, Colorado
The above photo is not the glacier lake described below, but one near Silverton in the Colorado Rockies.

About six months after I was born my parents moved us to Boulder, Colorado. This was where my father began his career as a physicist at the National Bureau of Standards (N.I.S.T. now). And this is how I came to be raised all my growing up years in Boulder, the oldest of seven children. The environment in Boulder had both its very sunny and its very dark sides.

Nearby Denver is called “the mile-high city.” Closer to the Rockies, Boulder is even higher in elevation. This area is also known for its “300 days of sunshine”— if you count the sun shining for any period of time at least once during the day. Because of being so high up, the atmosphere is thinner, and so the sun shines brighter and more powerfully. Sunscreen and good sunglasses are necessary protection if one is spending extended time outdoors—even, especially, in overcast conditions when the sun is reflected back to the earth by the clouds. (Boulderites are generally very natural-health conscious so use hats and clothing rather than lotion or spray.)

The city of Boulder is situated at the base of the Rocky Mountains on low foothills flowing into the great plains. For a backdrop, it has the Flatirons (huge flat rock slabs that appear to be leaning on the foothills) and behind them the greater Rocky Mountains. It was a bright and beautiful place to grow up.

Being engaged with the beauty of the outdoors in the Boulder area while I was young, combined with the influence of my dad’s love for the One who formed it all, impressed on my young soul a deep, expansive, and lasting reverence for God and His creation. This complimentary merging has been a basic, integral part of my faith since early childhood.

In the summer, my father took us on drives into the mountains in our intrepid four-wheel-drive Jeep Wagoneer. In that jeep-car he navigated some utterly nail-biting dirt roads, bumping and winding through steep, rocky, and treed terrain, hugging the faces of high cliffs rising above us to avoid those stretching far below us. We drove through some truly majestic mountain places. Clinging onto seats and car parts for dear life—as if that would save us if we plunged hundreds of feet down one of those sheer embankments—we alternated between the silence of total concentration with my father and uncontainable oohing and aahing at the spectacular views opening before us, near and far. Such wonders—all formed by our Heavenly Father for us.

If we spotted a meadow, we might pull off and get out and romp in the grass and flowers, enjoying the cool, refreshing air. If we came to a spring, inevitably my father would stop, even if there was not a good place to pull off the road. On these adventures he always carried a metal Sierra Club cup. He’d remove it from his belt, where it was snugly hooked by its handle, and give us each a drink of the pure, heavenly water. No matter how much I drank, I thirsted for more.

Hiking was also a pastime. We occasionally hiked rugged but glorious trails, climbing higher and higher into thinner and thinner air. We’d hike through low-lying grasses, flowers, and shrubs; stubby and gnarled pine trees; up and over rocks, boulders, and streams. These same rollicking streams themselves maneuvered over, under, and between the rocks we were traversing, rocks which were everywhere.

After a while, we’d look up and hope the next rise would be “it,” only to find another rise behind it, again and again. My father would encourage me by telling me what a good hiker I was and how proud he was of me for not complaining. This helped tremendously to keep me going and from complaining. Finally, well above tree line, with lungs and legs burning, we would reach our destination—a watery meadow leading up to a giant bowl, carved into one of the still higher stony mountain peaks surrounding us. Within the bowl of the peak before us would be a glacier with a pristine lake at its base. The lake was smooth as glass, reflecting the glacier, the peak behind, and the skies overhead. This lake had been our main aim, though a few intrepid hikers, or my father alone, might also attempt the peak.

We soaked our tired, aching feet in the icy cold water. But not for too long, or we’d ache from the near freezing of our submerged body parts. The glacier behind the lake was the source of the creek we had been hiking alongside, and sometimes through, to get there. It was always well worth our pains to be able to bask in the setting that was before us—compliments of an indescribably awesome God.

One of our most frequent hiking spots because of its proximity to us was Flagstaff Mountain, overlooking Boulder and the plains below. Though not nearly as challenging or inspiring as the mountains behind it, it was still very beautiful.

All this wonder-filled hiking could also be somewhat hazardous. One time I slipped on a rock and went tumbling twenty-five feet, head over heels, down a steep embankment. Thankfully, I was young with elastic bones, and the turf below the trail was softened somewhat with pine needles and brush. The wind had been knocked out of me; I couldn’t answer, "Yes, I'm okay," for a bit; but there was no serious harm done, except to my pride of course. I did amass some scrapes and gnarly bruises though.

On a different hike, I twisted my ankle and sprained it. This wasn’t an uncommon injury in these rocky mountains. Of course, I had to be taken back to camp, ending that hike for some of us. It was so disappointing and limiting—and not just for me. I was much more careful after that about where I landed or placed my feet and body weight.

Tent camping in the Rockies was another favorite way to be close to nature. My father generally did all the cooking on these trips on a Coleman stove, sometimes in the light of our Coleman lantern. Food always tasted extra good to me when we were camping. Maybe it had to do with eating in the fresh mountain air. After dinner, with s’mores in mind, we would roast marshmallows over a campfire on pointy “green” sticks my father had whittled, while he accompanied our singing on his harmonica.

We needed warm sleeping bags or extra blankets even in the middle of summer because the nights were freezing, and the mornings misty and cold. In the morning, the grass and shrubs would be covered with thick dew, and we would be soaking wet from the knee down shortly after leaving our tents.

“Where’s that smell of burning rubber coming from?” my father asked one morning as we were sitting around the fire drinking hot chocolate and waiting for breakfast (I was probably about six or seven years old). He had warned me over and over not to keep my tennis shoes too close to the fire. I was absentmindedly burning a hole in the sole of my shoes trying to warm my cold, soggy feet by the fire—ouch—twice! Not only had I burned my shoe and toe, but I had also sorely disappointed my father through my forgetfulness.

When autumn arrived in our part of the world, a chance to see the changing colors of the leaves, especially of the aspens in their yellow, ever-rustling splendor, would provoke a drive into the Rockies. Estes Park was usually our destination. As we drove, there would be exclamations of, “Wow! Look at the color on those trees! And those!” The deeper into the mountains we drove, the more beautiful the views became. This was one of the times my siblings and I would fight over who got to sit next to a car window. Generally, we would end up taking turns. Eventually, my father would have me supervise this, probably to minimize my extreme jealousy and resentment when it wasn’t my turn.

Once we had arrived in Estes Park, we would pull off the road at an elevated spot overlooking a huge meadow. Leaving us all near the car, with instructions to get in and shut the door should any wild animal (elk, bear, mountain lion…) come too near; my father would circle around to some bushes and using them for cover, quietly move farther and farther away from us—and closer and closer to the animals in the meadow. Then he would replicate almost the same haunting sounds the elk made to get their attention and draw them nearer to us. He was usually successful. It was a thrill, both hair-raising and awesome, to hear the elk bugling in reply. My heart would be in my throat if any animals started moving toward where I thought my father was probably hiding. I would hope he was moving back towards us and be tremendously relieved when he would stealthily reappear out of the bushes to join us by the car.

In the winter we would go sledding and inner tubing in the mountains, now a wonderland of ice and snow with a grandness that limited speech and muffled sounds. The snow would get very deep up there. Most back-wood roads were closed, but a few were kept open as long as possible. The plows would kick up walls of snow and ice on along the side of these roads that seemed thirty feet high. They were probably closer to fifteen.

Experiences like these were the origin of my life-long love for any and every thing God has made in heaven and on earth. Also, perhaps because of the time I spent in the rugged Colorado Rockies, and my own foibles, I have especially enjoyed the quirky, sometimes outlandish, things found amid the splendor in nature. For example, trees or rocks or plants that have been somehow reshaped, changed, or “marred” by weathering or erosion or lightning or whatever else it may be. “Damaged” things which are somehow “redeemed” in such settings and often even add a great deal of loveliness to the sublimity of the whole. All the time spent outdoors, in nature, enthralled by what God has created — or has formed to be re-worked, usually by natural means — has been a major part of the good that came out of growing up in Boulder, Colorado for me.


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