Our Founding Fathers would have been in awe at the sight of Independence Pass, just east of Aspen on the spine of the Rocky Mountains.
But they never saw the Rockies. Let alone the Pacific. They never even laid eyes on the Mississippi. It took them days just to reach the western edge of Virginia. The dreams of our Founding Fathers were boundless — of freedom, of opportunity, of independence — but the scale of the nation they forged was beyond the scope of their imaginations. Confined by the technology of the day, their aims were expansive, but their horizons were limited.
They only knew what they knew. Which was that independence meant separation from a monarchy. How thunderstruck they’d have been if they could have seen where it all would lead: to a nation that would swell in size and strength, to a nation that would long hold sway over cultural creativity, industrial brain and global brawn.
This has struck me every time I have driven — and once, many years ago, pedaled my bike — over Independence Pass.
Independence Pass is a metaphor for the founding of America. Not just by name, but by vision. For as you ascend this 12,095-foot-high summit you feel like you are approaching a place where your horizons will be endless. Because if independence for the Founding Fathers meant tearing away from the monarchy, it also meant turning toward something new, if untested. Toward endless opportunity. Endless liberty. An endless American Dream.
The pioneers of this nation reached for all of those. Soon they crossed these mountains, built their settlements, created new governments. Climbing Independence Pass from Aspen, you come to the ghost town also aptly named Independence. As you wander amongst its ruins, with the river rushing below it and the wind blowing across it and the old hand-sawn wooden doors creaking on their rusty bolts throughout it, you infer how tough and visionary those pioneers were. In amongst the hardest of American climates, what they built still stands.
Yes, in today’s America there are divisions that the pioneers never might have imagined. Deep ones, that can make the dream less dreamy. America can feel divided unto itself, and Americans can feel divided from the world around us. But that only reminds me of how I felt during the three dozen launches I was lucky enough to watch from the Kennedy Space Center while covering the last six years of the Space Shuttle program.
Because although I never rode a rocket, even from the ground I could see limitless horizons. Every launch was an astounding feat of science and engineering, a bold illustration of American ambition, an inestimable show of the astronauts’ courage, and an untold infusion of patriotism in the hearts of all who got to see it — men and women, Republicans and Democrats, young and old, rich and poor.
Just two weeks from now, we shall all be reminded again of those horizons by the half-century anniversary of the first men to land on the moon. There were six landings altogether. There are six flags planted by man’s own hands on the moon today. American flags, all.
This also reinforces the reflections of the hundred-plus astronauts I interviewed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in the run-up to every flight I covered. Those who already had flown in space, those who had been privileged to gaze down at our planet — sometimes at the better part of whole continents at once — almost uniformly said the very same thing about the experience and the emotion that it welled up inside them: from up there, where it is so obvious that we all occupy the same small sphere spinning through space, it is hard to believe that we don’t all get along.
From up there, their horizons truly are limitless. And that’s what they come home with.
It’s the same looking out from a place like Independence Pass. It is on the Continental Divide, where all the snow and water that fall on the eastern flank end up in the Gulf of Mexico and ultimately the Atlantic. All that fall on the western flank make their way to the Pacific.
What Independence Pass symbolizes is we all share in the land of the free and the home of the brave. On Independence Day, or any other day, it speaks to the principles on which America was built. And from its heights, offers limitless horizons.
Greg Dobbs, who has lived in Evergreen, Colo. for 33 years, is a professional speaker on global affairs, author of two books and journalist for five decades. During that time he has worked as an Emmy-award-winning correspondent for ABC News and other television networks, authored weekly op-ed columns for The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News and hosted a public-affairs show on Rocky Mountain PBS. He initially wrote this column for a website he co-founded, BoomerCafe.com.