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Rocky Mountain high

I was 20 before I laid eyes on the Rocky Mountains. We had driven what felt like forever from Texas to the tiny town of Lake City, Colorado, nestled high in San Juan mountain range. We camped under the stars, waded in snow-melt creeks, chased black bears and climbed 14,000-foot mountains.

It was the first time I had seen anything taller than the Smokies. It is a trip my wife and I will never forget. We were young, had no worries and lived for a week in awe of God’s creation.

Fast forward 15 years, and my wife and I made the trip once again to our favorite mountain town. This time, however, we had five children in tow. We knew we’d never replicate the magic of that first adventure in the Rockies, but we were determined to try.

So we crammed a 2-year-old, a 4-year-old, a 5-year old, an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old into our SUV, along with a week’s worth of gear, and set off on a 20-hour trek.

Nothing scratches my wanderlust more than a road trip out West, but this was not the road trip of my younger years. Those involved last-minute decisions to drive to Mexico just for fun or Arizona because we’d never seen the Grand Canyon. Those trips were spontaneous.

This trip was nothing but. We started planning months in advance. We made lists and more lists and double checked them. If the road trips of my youth were defined by freedom and spontaneity, this one was defined by meticulous planning and confinement.

Those of you with small children understand how difficult even a short drive in a car can be. Children scream, adults scream, then children cry, and sometimes, adults cry. Time spent in the car can be one of the most difficult parts of parenting — at least for me. Two straight days in a car with young children is my definition of torture.

But we left Brookhaven early and hit Dallas by lunch, then headed northwest through the panhandle of Texas. We made it about 10 hours on the first leg of our journey and crammed into a hotel room for the night in the remote town of Childress, Texas. The confinement of a single hotel room did little to alleviate the confinement of a day trapped in the car.

But thankfully, somewhere on the other side of Dallas, the landscape changed. It started to open up a bit. There were more rocks and fewer trees. The air was dry and cool, and we started to get that feeling of being out West. Just past Childress, the flatness of Texas opened up to reveal windmills, cattle and more windmills. We began to feel less trapped, both physically and mentally.

From there it was on to New Mexico and then into Southwest Colorado. It was in New Mexico that we saw our first real mountains, the Spanish Peaks. Just like I stood in awe of the Rockies 15 years ago, my children stared through the window in amazement at the enormity of these 13,000 foot mountains.

Nothing makes you feel small and insignificant like a towering mountain peak or an endless plain. That’s part of the attraction of being out West. You are reminded of God’s bigness and your littleness.

We continued on our journey another 10 hours that second day, driving through Slumgullion Pass at 11,500 feet and down into Lake City. We climbed out of the SUV at the cabin and into a world that is so much different than Mississippi. I love Mississippi. I grew up here, went to college here and am raising a family here. But the mountains sure are a nice break from the endless pine trees and suffocating heat of the South.

I stood there outside the cabin, breathing in the cool air at 10,000 feet and staring at the mountains around me. The children did not. They took off climbing rocks, exploring the cabin and chasing chipmunks.

We spent the next week getting as much altitude as we could. We fished for trout in a mountain lake at 10,000 feet, made it to the 12,600 foot top of Cinnamon Pass in a Jeep, and hiked and scrambled up impossibly tall mountains. We wished our home in Mississippi was perched as high as our mountain retreat.

And after a week, we descended back down into the muggy, sticky air of Mississippi. We were happy to finally be home after so much time in the car. What took two days on the way out took three days on the way back.

The trip was not perfect. It stormed a couple days. The mountain pass to the trailhead of our favorite 14,000 foot peak was too dangerous for us to drive, so we settled for hiking Cannibal Plateau instead. We didn’t catch any fish, despite being in one of the best places in Colorado to catch trout. No one slept well in the dry mountain air, my wife had a migraine for most of the trip, and one of the kids broke a screen door at the cabin we rented.

But none of that mattered. We had stories to tell (we saw a bear), adventures to relive (I almost drove a Jeep off the edge of a cliff), and memories to cherish (our 5-year-old had to be rescued from a rocky ledge).

If nothing else, I hope the trip sparked a sense of adventure in my children. And the knowledge that the world is more than pine trees and oppressive Mississippi heat. The wanderlust that’s taken me all over the country, and parts of the world, was sparked by the Rocky Mountains 15 years ago. I hope those mountains will do the same for my children.

Publisher Luke Horton can be reached at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.