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Mary Colter: A Woman Pursuing Her Passion

Mary Colter was an architect, designer and decorator for the Fred Harvey Company from 1902-1948. She designed many hotels and restaurants for them as the Santa Fe Railroad expanded its lines across the Southwest, including many structures at the Grand Canyon when the railroad built a line to the South Rim. She was a woman ahead of her time who found her passion at a young age and pursued it with all she had.

I discovered Mary and her work at the Bright Angel Lodge Museum when visiting the Grand Canyon this week. Mary designed the lodge in 1935 and the fireplace located in the museum caught my eye. She replicated all of the layers of the Grand Canyon in great detail in the rows of stone laid for the fireplace. Her work is known for the care she took to have the structures she designed blend into their natural surroundings and reflect the place and culture. She celebrated the Native American history of these places and helped establish a new aesthetic of Southwestern architecture and design through her work. She truly lived her passion.

At the Grand Canyon alone, in addition to the Bright Angel Lodge, she designed Lookout Studio, the Watchtower, Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest and Phantom Ranch (cabins that you get to by hiking 9 miles into the canyon, descending a mile down in elevation, along the Bright Angel Trail. You can also get there by mule.). Since reading more about her, I have gained such admiration for her ability to pursue her passion and her attention to detail.

When I was young I used to go out into the woods behind my house in the suburbs of New Jersey and explore. I remember most being there in the snow. I would lie down on my back as the snowflakes fell into my mouth in complete wonder in the trees. I felt at peace and at home there, surrounded by love. Nature has been a place of solace for me my whole life, but I didn’t fully reconnect with it as an adult until I went to Yosemite National Park, the first National Park I ever visited, in 1995.

I remember the first time I laid eyes on Yosemite Valley. It was like entering heaven on earth, truly a magical experience, lush with waterfalls spilling in every direction in April, peak waterfall season. I couldn’t believe my eyes!

Since then, I have had a love affair with our National Parks. There is something really special about these places, from the park ranger hats and uniforms, the welcome signs at each entrance, the majesty and beauty of the land that has been protected for all of us and our ability to get inside of these places for healing of mind, body and spirit. I just love these parks! Entering a National Park is like taking a step back in time to a simpler way of life.

I’m an empty nester now and am reflecting on what I want my life to be during my journey through the parks. I have wondered, when our kids are grown, do we really have to become empty nesters or can we build a new nest that pieces together who we are today, while honoring our unrealized dreams and passions? Being empty implies that you have nothing left inside. What if we are just in transition to the next chapter in our lives? What if we can evolve and grow into a new stage celebrating life and being true to ourselves? Now is a good time to take stock.

Have you ever had a passion in your life that you didn’t pursue? Something that nags at you and calls to you, but you just never had the time to see it through? Perhaps now is the time to start dreaming about a new future. What do you want it to look like? Spend some time in nature and try to reconnect with those goals and dreams you had as a child or before you became a parent or even if you aren’t a parent, before life took you on a path and you just kept going. When meandering mindfully in nature, I often find solutions that I hadn’t thought of before and gain clarity. Creative ideas come to me readily. Maybe you can find this too.

I hope to connect with Mary Colter’s trailblazing spirit and unrelenting pursuit of her passion as a guide for my own passion project. Perhaps you will find Mary Colter’s work an inspiration too. If you are interested in learning more about Mary, I recommend the biography, “Mary Colter: Builder Upon the Red Earth” by Virginia L. Grattan. I will be taking a side trip to Winslow, AZ next week to visit one of the hotels Mary designed that still stands today, La Posada. Sarah, who works at the Geology Museum on the South Rim told me about the hotel when I purchased this book to learn more about Mary’s life. Thank you Sarah!


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