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Diaries from Analog Mars, Part 13: Rocky Mountain High

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Welcome back to Diaries from Analog Mars. If this is your first visit, consider reading the previous entries here.

In part thirteen, Jin breaks sim to get a COVID test and falls in love with the Colorado landscape again.

But the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullaby
Rocky mountain high (Colorado)
Rocky mountain high (Colorado)…

JOHN DENVER, ‘ROcky Mountain High’

I was dreading having to break sim to get my COVID PCR test, but there weren’t any good alternatives. I was worried that I would stop feeling like I was on Mars, but I also wondered if I had ever really felt like I was ‘on Mars’ at all. I felt it strongly when looking out the porthole and seeing a pair of crewmates setting off on an EVA in their bright orange spacesuits, but when sitting at the upper deck table working on a report (or blog post), I might as well have been back in my dorm room in university.

My test was scheduled for 12:30 PM at a town called Fruita in Colorado. It’s an approximately 10-minute drive west of Grand Junction. By around 9 AM, Dr. Rupert had parked the CrewCar in front of the Hab, which we called the PEV (Pressurized Exploration Vehicle) in-sim. I changed into street clothes and walked to it with Dave out the airlock, my face shield strapped on to make some facsimile of a suit visor. As we drove away, I radioed in: “EVA team to HabComm, we are now departing the campus.”

“This is HabComm – Roger that, EVA team. When do you expect to check in?”

I leaned over and conferred briefly with Dave. “Sixteen-thirty hours.”

This MDRS mission is the first time I’ve worked with a group of people who all prefer to use 24-hour time. I began using that when I first came to Canada; it’s just easier to do time zone conversions with it. The CrewCar left the site and turned onto the highway, unceremoniously dumping us back onto good old Earth. It didn’t seem like much of a shock. As we drove out of Utah, the landscape smoothly transitioned from Marslike ochres and reds to the dark greens and bleached oranges of the vegetation-matted mountains of Colorado.

Utah Desert
One of the ochre mesas of Utah, near Hanksville (image taken by me.)

When we arrived at Fruita, we rolled down the window so I could get tested. I took the tube from the test site worker, provided my sample, then stopped in the parking lot to stretch our legs. The wind blew on my face for the first time since entering sim – and it was so familiar that it didn’t register as anything special at first. I don’t know if it was because I had only been in-sim for ten sols or because the sim was somehow not extreme enough.

After buying Dave lunch from the Burger King as a small token of thanks, we began the long drive back to the MDRS from Fruita. This time, we decided to play music for the drive. I had assembled a playlist before heading out to MDRS from a friend of a friend’s borrowed Spotify account but hadn’t had the opportunity to play through its full length in-sim. The music created some powerful moments during that drive – the first was ’Rocky Mountain High’ by John Denver playing as we drove through the beautiful mountains of Colorado. It had been recommended by my father as a soundtrack for driving.

Utah Desert
Some of the Colorado mountains that presumably inspired John Denver (image taken by me.)

When we approached the reddish-brown mesas of Utah once again, we had reached the instrumental music part of my playlist. A familiar track came on.

“Dave, I’m sure you know this one.”

“Oh yeah?”

And when the very first note of ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame began to play, Dave burst out laughing.

As we drove through the strikingly Martian landscape, ‘Jupiter: Bringer of Jollity’ and ‘Mars: Bringer of War’ from the Planets Suite by Gustav Holst came on. Dave stopped the car at the entrance to the truly Marslike terrain where the facility is situated. As the music swelled, we just sat there, minds properly blown. We drove on through the awesome scenery around us and eventually came up on The Outpost and the Musk Observatory, where I relived the uncontained, simultaneous excitement, joy, relief, and wonder I experienced when I first saw the MDRS with my own eyes.

It seemed like it had been a lifetime ago.

When I first came to MDRS, it had essentially been my first time visiting a desert. Everything was new and intriguing because it was so far out of my experience. Before then, I had either been immersed in the greyness of the cities or the green of forests. When I was a child, my family had briefly lived in Adelaide, Australia, but that was too long ago for me to remember anything.

Now, when I see the grandeur of Utah and Colorado, it’s no longer through fresh eyes. I’ve hiked these hills and driven through the winding desert roads. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Now, the landscapes are painted with the wonderful memories I made here. The excitement of novelty will be replaced by the warmth of familiarity, like seeing an old friend again. And when one goes to visit a friend, it’s good to relive old times, but there’s still that nugget of anticipation for new adventures together.

On reflection, I think I now understand the first verse of ‘Rocky Mountain High’:

He was born in the summer of his 27th year
Coming home to a place he’d never been before
He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again
You might say he found a key for every door…”

Utah and Colorado, I’ll be back.

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