I followed an old road through the lowlands that surrounded Twin Lakes Reservoir. As I was staring at the grass in front of me, I noticed something peculiar. It was as if the grass was slightly shifting… almost imperceptibly, just below my focal point. I stopped to try and figure it out. At first, I thought something was in my eye, disrupting my vision. Nope. I stared at a small pebble, then adjusted my gaze slightly upward, the pebble disappeared! Egad! I had a blind-spot in my right eye – just a bit below my focal point. How did it get there? I was falling apart from the inside, it was horrible. As I continued up the trail, I could think of little else – everywhere I looked, there it was. The day before, I figured, it hadn’t been there, but now, it was… so, was it growing? would I go blind? what if it spread to the other eye? The rest of the day, I stared at things, I played with it – like a sore elbow that one can’t help but keep testing… I tried to determine if the spot was getting bigger or smaller… changing in any way. It didn’t appear so. I wondered, was that how it started? getting old? Was that what I had to look forward to? all of us?
The day was magnificent. The sky was a clear blue, aspens shimmered in the breeze. My tarp was still wet from a couple days back, I draped it over some high grass in a forest clearing. The wind caressed it dry. How long will it last, I wondered? The weather seemed to be in 5 day cycle – 3 days of nice & 2 days of yuk. I laid back and looked into the sky to clear my head, there was no blind spot in the sky, just blue. click to enlarge
I climbed above the trees again. Marmots sounded quick whistles of alarm. Their plump bodies rippled as they ran over the grass and into holes they’d dug under the rocks. They were primed for winter, just waiting. I reached Hope Pass, alone. I had rarely felt so “in the mountains” – they were everywhere, huge mountains… impossible to grasp in human terms. As I descended the other side, a strong breeze blew up the slope. The breeze carried with it thousands of aspen leaves… They filled the sky in front of me like as many spinning confetti butterflies, easily a thousand feet above the ground and as deep as I could perceive. All the sky was a flicker of yellow. It was a sight I’d never before seen, one that no photograph nor film could never capture, and one that I’d just stumbled upon in the course of my daily routine.click to enlarge click to enlarge
The trail descended to another forest road and past an old abandoned mining town, Winfield. Now, it was called Winfield historical area. A few restored buildings stood here and there, signs in front of them explained their lost purposes. What was I supposed to learn from it? Anything? Perhaps just that the place was one there, and that… well, there it was. I supposed there didn’t need to be any practical purpose served, it was just a curiosity, a destination, a catalyst for reflection.
I left the Colorado Trail, it seemed. I wasn’t exactly sure where the CT went, but according to my map, I wasn’t on it anymore. I continued past Winfield, back up toward another pass. I passed more huge meadows, populated with beaver dams. A retired couple had driven their RV to the end of the forest road. The man sat in a lawn chair, looking, passing the time, probably listening to the mountains, learning their grand language which imparted wisdom he couldn’t share. I waved to him as I passed.
I passed another trail register, it was for a side-trail that led up to Huron Peak – another 14’er. While I sat there, flipping through the pages and sneaking in a short break, a couple came down the trail, down from the mountain. “How was it?”, I asked. “Well”, he paused, slightly lackluster, “we didn’t actually quite make it all the way up… we ran out of time.” “Hey”, I told them, trying to encourage some joy, “you don’t need to reach the top in order to climb a mountain.” The conversation quickly shifted to more interesting topics. I seemed to have had more than my share of unique philosophical discussions with people I met along the CDT, and those usually happened after only a sentence or two. Maybe the mountains just made people think, maybe they imparted some kind of mystical energy, scrambled and re-organized our grey matter. The conversation started with him asking, “What occupies your mind all day?” What occupies anyone’s mind all day? Somehow we got on the topic of money and happiness. I continued, “…you know, if I had millions of dollars…”, I paused in realization, “I’d be doing this.”
I hiked a few more miles that evening, then camped near a small waterfall amongst tall trees – still seeing spots.
The trail quickly climbed back above the trees. The pikas were everywhere. “Meep” they said, “meep”. I had a vision of a new plush toy – a grey fuzzy pika with a small motor and speaker inside. They would live on televisions and counter-tops throughout suburbia, occasionally convulsing and saying, “meep”. People could collect whole families – they’d communicate with each other, ‘meeping’ in sequence around the house. They’d be bigger than Beanie Babies or Furbies – “Pika Pals”. That was it, that’s what I’d do when I got done hiking… I had it all figured out.
I reached another pass. I put down my pack and climbed a nearby knoll… because the view could never be “too good”. The views were often best in the morning, when the air was clear and the light came at a low angle, bringing extra depth to the contours of the land. I sat there, on a rock, on top, dumbly smiling at miles of smooth ridges and rolling plateaus, at Lake Ann, glowing just below, at the jagged walls of the Three Apostles and Ice Mountain, at the tremendous frosted bulk of Huron Peak. There was too much to do in a lifetime to live it properly, I could only try.
I headed back down to the pass, down a series of switchbacks, down to the forest again. The route followed something called the “Timberline Trail” for the next clump of miles – paralleling the divide, but remaining in the trees just below it. The trail was open to motorcycles. Where the trail was flat, the motorcycles tended to smooth the tread – making it into a sandy trough. In places where there was any rise or fall, the tread turned into an eroded pile of loose rocks, where no step could be trusted to remain in place. A couple motorbikers passed me as I walked down the trail – a man and a woman. They were covered from head to toe with bright red, yellow and white leather. Their helmets made them look completely alien. Their bodies were in constant tension, adjusting to every bump on the path. It looked like a lot of work. The bikes were exceptionally noisy. I wondered if the sputtering noise was part of the appeal for these people, “look at me! I’m a bad-ass!”, it said. Would they even have wanted to ride a quiet bike if one had been available?
A short while later, a group of four 18-20 year-old young men came my way. They were dirty. They had big packs, hiking poles, gaiters… it was obvious they’d been out hiking for a while. I asked them about it. “Well, we’re taking a course with the College of the Rockies… we’ve been out for 3 weeks, we’re hiking a big loop, doing some other stuff along the way… we’re just… you know… gaining awareness”, he said. The others nodded in unison, like it was a good summation. I didn’t realize why people needed to come up with euphemisms for “learning”, but if it worked for them, I couldn’t complain. They only had one more day left in their trip. I was happy to tell them about my trip when they asked. I could see them imagining what it would be like, drawing on their experiences of the past 3 weeks. It was always the case, just when you thought you were doing something crazy, along came someone else… doing something crazier. I felt like a sage, a spirit of the mountain passing on blessings and goodwill.
A half-hour later, I passed the rest of the College group. They were having a slightly harder time of things – they were more dirty, more tired. Two instructors passed by me, not even bothering to return my cheerful, “hello!”. Oh well. The rest of the group was behind them. I talked to a couple young women, all they could think of was one… more… day… They weren’t eager for the experience to end, just eager to accomplish something. None of them asked me where I was headed. I stuck to my “don’t ask don’t tell policy”, even though it was hard – I was sure that they would have been interested to know about it. In general, I found that younger people were less inclined to ask me what I was doing, and less inclined to think it odd or special. Maybe it was because they still viewed life as filled with infinite possibilities – they hadn’t yet been forced to make choices that whittled-away at those possibilities. They hadn’t yet realized that every day was fleeting, that time moved in only one direction and it was a ride with no pause and only one exit.
The trail continued through the forest. In places, the damage from the motorbikes was disheartening. I passed through an area that had been a wetland. The bikes had turned it into a mudland – at least for a 10-yard corridor to each side of “the trail”. But, it wasn’t the damage that bothered me. The damage wasn’t enough to destroy the surrounding habitat, it would grow back in time… As before, it was just a reminder of that other world out there, it was an intrusion. Why did people need to bring that stuff out there? Why did they need to conquer and dominate the land? I was happy to just sneak over it, to simply evade its more dangerous elements.
I passed a group of bow-hunters – 5 or 6 of them. They were resting on some logs just off the trail. I took a break and talked to them. They’d been out for a week, no luck. One of the younger boys had almost been run-over by an elk, but that was about as close as they’d come. They were getting ready for another push, up the side of the mountain on which we were standing. I had the feeling they hadn’t really mastered bow-hunting, that perhaps they were new to it… I didn’t think their strategy would work very well. They didn’t seem to have much faith in it either, but didn’t have any better ideas. A mile later I saw an elk at the edge of a small meadow. click to enlarge
As evening approached, I found myself once again climbing through the woods. The sky was perfectly primed for a lightshow – bulky clouds above, and none on the western horizon. I looked at the map. Ahead, the trail traversed an open ridgeline with a western exposure – perfect for a sunset. I raced up the hill, only two more miles, one more mile. I saw the sky through the trees, lit up in a crimson mosaic, darker, darker… I reached the open ridge just as it faded to a dull greyish purple. Oh well, I knew there would be other sunsets, that one wasn’t meant for me. I made camp beside some dwarfen trees and watched the stars and planets slowly come to light. There were so many.
The next morning, I quickly reached Tin Cup Pass, the divide again. While I was taking a break by a big rock, two men on motorbikes rode up. They parked about 30 feet away, chatting and pointing to gizmos on their motorcycles, “Ya see this thing here?”…. I stared at them for 5 solid minutes, yet despite the lonely circumstance, they never looked my way. I was invisible to them, prejudicially rejected. A couple more bikers came up and made instant friends with them. As I was leaving, one of them said, “you see”, pointing up the divide, “we used to ride right up there before they closed it off.” I felt like I was the reason why ‘they’d’ closed it off, people like me anyway, people who liked the fact that the alpine zones of Colorado weren’t covered with erosion scars and the farting madness of motorized traffic. I wanted to tell them, they could still go up there… if they could just walk… people had been walking for millions of years… since before they were considered people… our anatomy hadn’t changed that much in the last 200 years…
The trail headed back down a valley then up the other side. I could see the route, but it made no sense to me. I preferred to walk the divide, to go up then down. I walked into the bushes. Somebody had marked a route there with orange marking tape – a route that traversed around the base of the peak I was climbing. Was it to be the CDT someday? I wondered. I reached the top – Fitzpatrick Peak, 13,112 feet. There was a small jar under some rocks, it held loose scraps of paper – another summit register. I flipped through the list, it held tidbits of wisdom, descriptions of the weather, “black clouds – have to go”, I laughed. Somebody had proposed marriage on the peak just a few days prior. I looked around. It was a good place to make a choice about life. Invisible paths led down the mountain in every direction, which one to take…?
A man slowly approached, breathing heavily, but not excessively. Everyone breathed a little heavy after climbing a 13,000 foot mountain. He walked up a peak every weekend… had probably walked up most of the peaks in Colorado – those that could be walked in a day anyway. The 13,000 foot peaks of Colorado didn’t get much respect, they weren’t “14’ers”, and that thousand feet mattered to people. I was glad that someone was giving the 13’ers some attention and respect. I told him what I was doing and he was quick to grasp it. I felt different again, not like I was doing any unusual thing, just doing a thing that I felt needed doing.
I continued, down the steep flanks of Fitzpatrick. I talked to the air as if I was leading some dream-filled youth group, showing them my map, explaining to them the lay of the land and why I made the choices I made. Every day was filled with choices. Every step was. My reasoning was sometimes simple, sometimes not. I only knew I’d made the right choices because I was still walking, still going, never regretting. But, there were a thousand ways to get where I was. Maybe there were no correct choices, there were only choices that were mine. click to enlarge
The trail passed by an old railroad tunnel, last used in 1910. A small sign identified the tunnel. Another, larger sign was reported to be at the entrance on the other side. The tunnel was collapsed, so there really wasn’t much to see. But, there was history there, and people came to see it, to better understand it. There was history everywhere, every inch of the land had a history all its own, every rock told a long and complex story of transfiguration that was beyond simple comprehension. But people came to the tunnel, drawn to a history more easily recognized, a history of people and their machines.
I passed another trailhead, then headed up a forest road. Four men rambled past in an SUV, down the mountain slower than I walked up it. The metal monster jostled wildly with every turn of the tires, the men sat inside, solemnly swaying in synchronicity. They looked bored.
A few minutes later it was snowing. I wasn’t bothered, it didn’t look bad, it was just a version of afternoon thundershowers, cooled down by 12,000 feet elevation. The trail rose above a couple naked lakes then over another pass – Chalk Creek Pass. The weather cleared a bit on the other side. I scrambled over a field of crushed boulders – an old mountainside that had crumbled into a lake. After a couple miles, a thousand feet down or so, the trail gave way to a road. I was in a good mood, an insane mood, my mind had wandered out of bounds. As I picked my way down the rocky road, I sung louder than ever, moving my poles and feet to the rhythm of an impromptu tune, “when you’ve thought every thought, and dreamt every dream, you can walk, and talk, and dance and sing!…” I was starring in my own one-man musical, live on the CDT! Tonight only! Free admission! – the verse kept repeating over and over, the tune morphing to ever more unrecognizable and distant forms.
My song and dance routine was interrupted by the sight of a small run-down cabin. Two scrawny 20-something slackers were mulling around the outside. I sung hello. “Are you guys living here?”, I asked. “Well, ya, I guess.” they laughed through their words, sipping bottomless beers. “We just kind of, um, moved in a couple days ago… hu huhuhu”. The cabin had been abandoned and they were squatting in it, waiting for the snow to come and bring the ski season to life. They had only one appointment to remember, “October 22nd, that’s the job fair for the ski resort, hu hu huhu.” They had a month of waiting ahead of them. They were already pretty far gone, I wondered what levels of insanity they’d reach by October 22nd. One of them made me an offer, “Hey, I’m cookin’ up a big pot of beans, if you want some…”. I was thereby invited to dinner. When I told them I was headed for Salida, they offered advice on the fastest way to get there, the cheapest places to stay… then suggested I go to the ‘rainbow festival’ that was being held… somewhere, sometime… I tried to explain to them, “Well, I’m hiking this trail, you see, it goes, uhhh…”. But it was pointless. They had no conception of goals, only of momentary happiness. They saw life only in their terms, terms defined by rules which they invented and then changed as they went along. I couldn’t have stayed for beans, it would have been too scary.
The road merged with another, then intersected another, none of the roads were marked. I came upon a large CDT sign which directed me up a road. I hiked on, into the dusk, hoping to make it to Boss Lake Reservoir, not too far. The road led to a clear-cut hillside, I looked around, I was not where the trail was supposed to be, what the hell, I’d followed the sign there. Damn sign. Who put that thing there! Idiots! I envisioned some forest service lackey erecting the big CDT sign without even bothering to get it right. I knew where I was though, and I knew where I had to go. I started cross country, traversing a steep wooded hillside where my feet slipped in the loose forest duff. No matter how hard I dug in, gravity took over. The slope was too steep, I had no choice but to turn around and head back to the sign, a mile back down the hill.
On the way down I mumbled nasty thoughts under my breath. I was going to destroy that sign, write nasty graffiti on the signpost about how the forest service was incompetent. “CDT this way!!!!–>”. It was dark by the time I reached the sign again. I looked around. There it was, the trail. It ducked into the woods behind the sign, I just hadn’t looked. It was actually a good sign. I’d been defeated. I camped behind the sign, next to a foot-bridge that crossed a raging stream. The static fuzz of the water soothed my ears and mind all night.
I could feel the energy in the air the next morning. The sky was clear, but I knew it wouldn’t last, I’d seen that sky before. I climbed the trail past Boss Lake Reservoir, it was completely drained – a dead mud-flat surrounded by a wall of broken boulders. It had been a man-made reservoir, made for a mining operation. When the mine inevitably closed, the reservoir was left behind like useless trash. Somebody was trying to clean it up, but it was going to take a long time.
I stopped for water at a clear stream that poured out of a mountainside far above the reservoir. The water cut a silken path through the short grass and rocks. I noticed one of the rocks slowly moving. It wasn’t a rock at all, but a ptarmigan, a small grouse-like bird that was a master of camouflage. The ptarmigan was just starting a seasonal change in plumage – from a speckled pattern of grey and brown, to a solid winter white. Then I noticed another, and another. I sat in the grass, bewildered. The birds walked slowly by, 10 feet away, oblivious to me, confident they were unseen. I counted 8 in all, how had I not seen them earlier? Then I heard them call to each other, an ever-so-soft twittering coo. How had I not heard them? I wondered how many other ptarmigan I’d passed along the way but never seen. And, what other unknown treasures had I missed? I watched the birds go about their business – pecking at the ground and at each other, hopping from rock to rock. I could have sat there all day, but I had a storm to beat. click to enlarge
By 10am, the sky was mostly filled with gigantic white cotton clouds that billowed forever upwards and out of control. There was still some space between the individual clouds… but once that space was gone, the clouds would have nowhere to go but down. I raced up the mountain. The trail was cut across a rocky slope, just below the divide, high above the trees. I picked-up my pace. The trail met the divide as it slowly lowered in elevation, becoming a high plateau of grass. The space between the clouds was nearly gone, they were turning dark, turning black. As I neared the cover of trees, the sky let loose on a mountain a mile away. The clouds exploded with electric energy and emptied their load of cold water. A few minutes later, the sky was a tattered grey mess, bearing no resemblance its early morning character.
I passed by a young couple. They were from Kansas, on a weekend vacation to the mountains. They were planning to do some 4-wheelin’ later in the day, but for now, they were just walking around, enjoying the fresh air, the wildness of it all. The woman readily admitted she spent too much of her time in a stale office job, “This place is like a giant cubicle…”, she joked, describing the mountains in terms to which she could relate. When I told her I had simply quit my job, she turned to her husband, “See? I knew it could be done!” They had a long trip ahead of them, one that wouldn’t end with the drive back to Kansas.
I dropped down to the highway that ran through Monarch Pass. I ran over to a rest area / tourist store just as it began to snow. I waited inside for a while and examined an elaborate forest-service display about the continental divide… nothing about the trail. I was in a hurry to get to Salida, I figured if I could make an efficient stop, I could get back to the trail by dusk.
A series of behemoth RVs were parked outside. I said hello to the drivers of the RVs in the most gracious and friendly tone I could muster, they nodded their heads but avoided my glance. I walked to the end of the parking lot, where it merged with the highway – plenty of room to stop. I held my sign, “Salida”, and smiled my most pathetic grin, squinting through the blowing snow. Surely they’d stop… They drove past one by one, completely ignoring me, each of them. Their life wasn’t about taking risks on guys like me. They felt they had too much to loose, nothing to gain. I saw it as the opposite, they had everything to gain, nothing left to loose. They lived their lives in portable cages that shielded them from the craziness of the world, the true world. I wanted to yell, no to implore! “Interact!”. I never got a ride from a retired couple in an RV, never.
A few minutes later I did get a ride, from a young guy in a van. A few years back, he’d driven another van all the way to the southern end of South America. He was still driving a van, I had a feeling he’d own a van the rest of his life, that he wouldn’t be complete without one. I was sure his story was one that had a hundred tiny interconnecting subplots, one that couldn’t be reduced into a simple phrase like “it was great”. So, he didn’t even try to tell it, he knew that I knew there was too much to know.
We passed a Walmart just outside of Salida. “This will do…”, I said somewhat reluctantly. Walmart. The mega-store I loved to hate and hated to love… one that represented both the best and worst of our society. It had everything I needed, and it was cheap, so I put my reservations aside and plunged in. I bought a new camera and a new supply of food, then hit the road again. I had no desire to spend any extra time Salida… I didn’t even know exactly where the city was.
I was in a good mood. I had a new camera. It was like a little man, my new buddy. Every time I slid open the housing, the lens popped out and the flash-bulb extended, as if to say, “Hey, what’s going on?” On top of that, whatever had been wrong with my eye somehow had gotten better… I wasn’t even sure when.
I walked a couple miles on the road, smiling at cars and waving my sign “Monarch Pass”. A car with two college girls drove past, giggling and pointing. They stopped up ahead, and I walked toward them, waving “thank you!”. The car took off though. I could imagine the debate that had occurred inside, “Are you crazy? He could be a lunatic!” Maybe I was a lunatic, but I was a completely harmless one… those poor girls. An hour later, a hundred cars later, a pickup stopped. I ran forward, hoping to reach the truck before the people inside changed their mind too.