How trails and wilderness led Krysten Koehn back to the natural beauty of Colorado.
“As days became weeks, I kept questioning how I would ever be able to leave.”
After close to two decades living and working in northern Europe, artist and adventurer Krysten Koehn has recently returned to Colorado where weekends are now spent rediscovering a physical relationship with the landscape of her childhood. Lacing up her favourite pair of Quoc shoes, she explores the endless gravel roads that criss-cross the region—the tracks left by her bike tyres marking an emotional reconnection that has led to Krysten re-evaluating her sense of place and ultimately to her homecoming.
Sandwiched between a return to the Netherlands after working as an art teacher in Hamburg, I had a bike-packing trip through Slovenia to look forward to over the summer holidays. But an accident while out riding led to a badly broken hand and a change of plan.
Already having a plane ticket for a trip home to see my family in Colorado, it made sense to make my recovery where help and support were available. So I swapped the flat, grey Dutch landscape for the mountain ranges of my youth.
I hadn't seen my family in person for three years. We’d regularly talk online but our conversations were always framed by a screen and arranged around our disparate time zones. The plan was to stay for five weeks before returning to Europe to take up my new teaching job and with my hand still in a plaster cast and unable to ride, I went out hiking in the mountains.
Maybe it takes a stark contrast to unlock your understanding of a place because it soon dawned on me how I’d underestimated the incredible beauty of Colorado. I’d spent so long living in a wet and windy Amsterdam - which at the time I loved - that I’d forgotten what it was like to have the sun shine over 300 days a year and the mountains right on your doorstep.
As days became weeks, I kept questioning how I would ever be able to leave. Feelings exacerbated by a previous sense of being trapped in Europe with restrictions imposed due to the pandemic—the worry that I might possibly be unable to travel home if a family member got sick or if there was a similar emergency.
The contrast between these concerns and the sense of freedom I was enjoying on my return was seismic. Spending time surrounded by all this natural beauty - taken for granted when I was a teenager - led to a nagging feeling of wanting to stay.
Even so, it was having my family around me that ultimately pushed me to make a decision. It's so different being able to touch someone and interact face to face than it is to communicate over thousands of kilometres via the pixels on a screen. Being with my Mom - going out hiking and cooking together - was allowing us both to truly connect. That extra level of affection that comes from giving someone a hug or sitting down to dinner at the same table.
This crescendo of emotion eventually translated into a search for jobs. I found an opening surprisingly quickly and the decision was made. I was staying.
With this now settled, I turned right around and took my original flight back in order to sort out my affairs in the Netherlands. I was there for four days and one of those was spent in a storage unit getting rid of two-thirds of everything I own— not an easy task considering I had already trimmed it down to the bare essentials. The other days saw me running around taking care of all the bureaucratic demands of bank accounts and rental contracts before driving to Germany to a friend's house to pick up my bikes. Nobody was there so I slept in an empty house before returning to Amsterdam the next morning.
Crossing the Atlantic as a returning resident rather than a temporary visitor, my mind could now begin to assimilate the physicality of this place I was calling home. With my hand finally healed, I could once again use my bike to build this sense of belonging.
Exploring the mountain ranges and wooded valleys over the weekends, it feels like I’m drawing a line on the landscape—the bike an extension of my body and the primary tool of my artistic practice. With the trees ablaze with autumn colours and the sky a clear crystal blue, my routes are too extreme to travel by car and too remote to reach by foot. And journeying at such an intimate level offers a sense of joy that my heart can barely contain.
Riding to a certain point and setting up camp - making a little home out in the wilderness - has definitely been part of my process of assimilation. I've been away for so long that America still feels foreign to me and spending time in the mountains helps to buffer any sense of unfamiliarity. This might sound a little melodramatic but you have to work with nature in order to survive—these little negotiations in order to eat, sleep and stay safe after using your body to travel from point A to point B. And then, glancing back, you leave a place as if nobody has ever been there—as if you simply do not matter. A freeing thought when life is so exhaustingly self-centric.
Riding these trails, my mind free to wander, I feel like a puzzle piece that once fitted in neatly to a bigger picture. Now that I've returned with my edges a little roughened from the passage of time, rather than just slotting in easily with all the other pieces, I’m having to reconstruct the picture to make it whole. And in doing so - my bike and I journeying together across this beautiful landscape - I really feel that it will be the right fit.
Words by Krysten Koehn as told to by Chris Hargreaves