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The Complicated Feeling of Nostalgia

Today we favor cut and dry feelings about things. We’re encouraged to clarify our sense of ourselves and the world in terms we can label and therefore categorize: “positive and therefore something to pursue” or “negative so I’ll avoid it.” The things that are complicated, that stir up a mix of feelings, or even force us to sit in a state of confusion, send us chasing myriad distractions so we’re too busy to realize how much of our own experience we can’t neatly label or categorize.

Looking back on the past, whether our own or into history, is something we all do. It turns out that everyone experiences nostalgia with the same inevitability that memories arise in our thoughts—whether intentionally or unbidden. Nostalgia is the emotional flavor of the past. But if you let yourself sink into an armchair, without any distraction at hand, and feel your nostalgia, there will be a dizzying array of warming and chilling experiences, as you both grin and grimace. I think this ability to hold complexity is testimony to the best of our humanity.

I often wonder at the feelings that drive me to write about the frontier days in Colorado. When I was growing up there, so much more of the Old West was present in daily life. From the sweeping views across the plains toward the Rocky Mountains, to the ramshackle buildings and old signs in the various scattered downtowns, to the clear and crisp high-altitude air, I grew up in wonder at the landscape. It was dry and dusty, we begged plants to grow, the sun seemed unrelentingly bright, and highway driving could get boring for all the open spaces. These images evoke the place for me, with a sense of what will never change.

When I travel back there, to visit family and go to my favorite places, I inevitably experience grief. Even as a child, I watched with dread as neighborhoods and stores filled the previously empty, rolling plains. In place of starry skies, now nighttime burns orange from streetlights. It’s impossible to glimpse the sun rising on the eastern horizon for all the buildings. And when you look for the ridgeline of the Rocky Mountains, it’s either brown or obscured by haze. Don’t even get me started on trying to drive across Denver. To me, this beloved place is somewhere I no longer want to be.

Despite this, there is a lingering feeling of the Colorado front range that I long for. That seems to exist within me, and within my imagination. It is alive and full of people, full of stories, full of life. It seems that this longing is only satisfied when I am researching and writing about when the settling began, in the mid 1800s. Therefore, I find incredible creativity when I sit in an armchair and allow the complex feelings of nostalgia to wash over me.

So I invite you to hold your own, complex feelings. Let them be mixed, let there be confusion. Then see where they start to lead you. For me, they led me to imagine a woman named Ann, who was born in 1840, and was among those who settled the West.

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