I don’t remember the first time I met Coby. The third time he took me flying.
I had moved to Colorado two months prior and was working remotely while I looked for a local job. He was a bartender working on his pilot’s license, so when he texted one Tuesday afternoon to ask if I wanted to tag along on a flight, I said yes.
That winter I learned my way around Denver from the breweries and dive bars where we regularly grabbed drinks. The first time I went over to his apartment I met his new kitten, and when I told him I loved maps, he spread his old aeronautical charts out on the hardwood floor.
In early summer I landed a new job, and he picked up a part-time gig as a jump pilot at a small skydiving camp based out of an even smaller airport northeast of Telluride. By the end of the summer, he quit his bartender job to fly full-time in the mountains.
I spent a lot of time waiting that year, waiting to hear back about jobs, waiting for him to text me when he got off work.
So I waited to see what would happen to our relationship and promised to visit. The next weekend I left my family weekend a day early to drive the extra three hours to camp with him for a night before I’d have to drive back to Denver for work.
I had to pick him up at the airport since his motorcycle was in the shop after he’d crashed it the week before. He was telling the story to the rest of the crew when I walked into the hangar. He told them a fox had run out in front of him, and he’d swerved to miss it. But really he’d gone to the gas station for coffee in the early morning and tried to ride his motorcycle with a hot cup in one hand. He almost pulled it off.
He rubbed my knee as we drove south, and we stopped at the grocery store to get hot dogs, buns and mustard. We made it to the campground just before dusk.
I never understood why you’d want to camp alone. What’s the point of a campfire if there’s no one to talk to? I hadn’t yet learned how incredibly freeing it can be to go somewhere or do something just because you want to.
After we set up, we walked down to the river, cutting through a campsite occupied by a girl camping alone. I looked down at Coby’s hand in mine and felt sorry for her. I never understood why you’d want to camp alone. What’s the point of a campfire if there’s no one to talk to? I hadn’t yet learned how incredibly freeing it can be to go somewhere or do something just because you want to.
I stood next to Coby on the river bank and looked up. The sun had already fallen behind the canyon walls, so everything in sight had a pale blue sheen.
“This reminds me of Alaska,” he said.
He started telling me about the time he took the shuttle bus into Denali National Park to go backpacking only to hike out four hours later because he couldn’t find water. He had already told me this story before, but I didn’t say anything. He talked a lot about places he’d been and places he wanted to go back.
I had a long list of places on my list too: Chile, the Himalayas, Wyoming, Paris. He and I talked about future trips often but neither of us ever said “we”. We were two people talking together about our singular travel dreams.
Back at our campsite I made a fire, and Coby sat in the camp chair next to me, our arms overlapping.
“What kind of shampoo do you use?” he asked. “Your hair smells good.”
I told him I was positive that my hair only smelled like campfire.
“No, in general,” he paused. “I was walking down the street this week and passed someone whose hair smelled just like yours.”
I thought this was a sign, as if recognizing a scent meant he’d stick around. I ran my hands through my hair, flipping my loose waves over to the other side of my head, “It’s just Dove.”
The next morning we were up early to make it back to the hangar in time for the first load of skydivers at 8am. I’d mastered the art of killing time in the hangar earlier that summer. I dragged a bench from an old van into the sunshine and read as Coby came in every 45 minutes between loads to grab a bottle of water and a kiss before heading back out.
Four days later, he’d text me to say that though it wasn’t the end of the world, we needed to talk. I immediately pictured him leaving. I’d imagined it so many times before, him leaving for Alaska or New Mexico or New Hampshire. When he called, he didn’t say he was leaving. He simply didn’t know when he’d be back in Denver. I saw it coming, and knew that it truly wasn’t the end of the world as he said, but it still hurt.
I spoke deliberately, as if slowing down and focusing on one word at a time would let me get through the call without crying. Ten days later, he reappeared in Denver and moved into a new house with a girl and her dog. I wondered if she used Dove shampoo, too.
In mid October, I drove past where we camped en route to a new part of Colorado I’d yet to explore.
I wanted to see the last of the yellowing aspens before snow closed the pass for winter. But mostly, for the first time, I wanted to camp alone.
When I made the decision to squeeze in one last fall camping trip, I didn’t correct anyone who assumed I was going with friends. I wanted to see the last of the yellowing aspens before snow closed the pass for winter. But mostly, for the first time, I wanted to camp alone.
An hour after I’d passed the river, I took a sharp left onto a county road and drove for a mile before the road turned to dirt. The road followed a creek past ranches before the switchbacks started. Around a bend, the trees thinned, and I could see miles of aspens spreading out in the valley below. I pulled my car over and grabbed my camera.
I started to say something, and it took me one second too long to remember that I was alone. I’d lost service an hour before, so I couldn’t even text anyone. I could feel loneliness catching up with me. I took a few pictures, then got back in my car.
At the top of the pass, I pulled onto a spur road and grabbed a spot by the creek to set up camp. I dropped a can of beer in the creek to cool down and started a fire.
In the six weeks since I’d last spoken to Coby, I felt like the fog over our relationship had finally lifted. For the first time I realized I’d spent months in a passive state, afraid to say anything that would give him an excuse to leave.
So instead I did nothing and traded my values for affection that had an expiration date. “Why did I do that?” I asked myself over the campfire. I didn’t know the answer.
I went only because I wanted to. And I didn’t have to wait for anyone to come with.
It rained overnight, and I woke at 7am to a break in the moisture. I laid in my sleeping bag for a few minutes before a very loud clap of thunder sounded overhead. I wondered how quickly I could pack up my tent. Twenty-one minutes later I was driving down the dirt road towards home.
I stopped once on the way out, almost the same spot I had stopped the day before, and I watched the fast-moving clouds part over the mountains above and the aspens below. It started raining hard after that, and by the time I hit the main highway, it was snowing. Bad weather in the mountains always makes me anxious, but this time I felt quiet and calm.
I’d spent 10 hours in the car and driven 500 miles just to get to this one particular part of Colorado. I went only because I wanted to. And I didn’t have to wait for anyone to come with.
Courtney Allen is a writer and artist based in Denver, Colorado. When she isn’t camping, you can find her biking to her favorite coffee shop, perfecting her chocolate chip cookie recipe, or reading on the couch with her cat. See more of her work at courtleighallen.com and find her on Instagram @courtleighallen.