Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Heading Home on the High Plains Highway

Nothing very romantic about being a road warrior. 8 days on the road, living out of a suitcase might sound like an adventure, but the thrill is soon gone. The reality is unpacking in a different hotel every night, trying to turn a sterile (you hope) cubicle into something you can call home for about 7 hours before you pack it all away again. It’s a 12-hour shift sandwiched between a 100-mile drive and a late-night taco before stripping off the you-don’t-want-to-think-about-it bedspread from the sagging mattress that was someone else’s home last night. It all makes a man want to get home. In a hurry. Luckily the work is fun and rewarding and, sometimes, the scenery in between is more than worth the drive.

The work is done and I’m heading home on Highway 81 south out of western Nebraska. It’s a long lonesome highway that morphs into Highway 23 that will take me west into Colorful Colorado. Two lanes of blacktop that lead across the border into Holyoke, Colorado where the speed limit is 60mph but the actual minimum speed is 75 for any vehicle not built to drive between rows of corn.

The road out of North Platte (home of the world’s largest railyard) climbs imperceptibly but steadily towards the high plains of eastern Colorado. Once in the Centennial State, I begin to feel an urgency, like a horse on a long ride that smells water, and I have to fight to keep my right foot from turning into a lead anvil. The air is noticeably thinner, drier and clearer as my eyes are drawn to the sights along the road of my home state. I could go straight west from here and catch I-76 into Denver, but I decide to take the road less traveled and turn south onto 385 – the “High Plains Highway.” Here’s what I saw.

After passing “Blisties” – a curiously-named and as-yet-unexplored roadhouse on the edge of Holyoke, with a flashing neon martini glass that is still lit up in the early morning – it’s a wide open road. 385 is a straight ribbon of macadam where the only traffic is tractors, Ford F-350’s, a few overloaded 18-wheelers sneaking around the weigh stations and me. It’s a road that invites you to break the speed limit if not the sound barrier. A lone buzzard dips his wings in a salute – circling the road ahead as if he’s anticipating my role in an upcoming road-kill incident, but I don’t prep lunch for him today and he soon passes behind me.

Eastern Colorado – the corn is shorter here. So short it droops in shame, perhaps sensing I am judging its growth against the Iowa and Nebraska standards where it’s already above your knees and will be “thigh high by the 4th of July.” Although it’s good to be back in Colorado, the only mountains in sight are on the license plates of passing cars. The High Plains Highway heads straight south, not west, so there won’t be any snow-capped peaks in view for hours. The only hint that you’re not in Kansas anymore is the drier air and a subtle change in the flora. The hills are covered with the familiar tall grass, sage brush and yuccas of home. In mid-June, the yuccas are in full bloom; their banana-like stems of pale yellow-green flowers are the tallest plants on the plains.

Crossing into Yuma County is like bursting onto a moonscape. Small, but bumpity hills of desert brush hint of a different local government as the road turns uneven and is not so well-maintained. The rough road is now noticeably climbing, slowly but inexorably, and finally crests onto the high plains. Prairie grasses that no plow has ever turned over dominate the scenery for miles and miles. The occasional farm struggles to tame the grass, cactus and scrub. Irrigation ditches hand-dug by some long-dead homesteader divert water from a distant river to grow the trees that are so foreign to this biosphere; deep wells feed circular sprinklers so big it takes tractors to move them, creating an oasis that is dependent on ever-contested water rights to survive.

Going south, the air gets hotter and the crops become more varied and grow taller. Although the high plains are almost treeless, it’s very green here. There’s more rain here. It’s far enough from the mountains that the clouds that disperse over the Continental Divide have had time to regroup & coalesce into towering thunderclouds. The storms come almost daily in the summer, dropping the life-giving moisture that passed over the semi-arid Front Range along the Denver metro corridor. It’s a land that’s well-acquainted with hail and tornados (though there’s not a trailer park in sight!)

The road bends East and my stomach flip-flops as I worry about getting home on time. I’ve been away for a week, working my way along the Platte River through Nebraska and though I’m enjoying the drive, I don’t want it to be any longer than it’s already going to be. As we say when hiking a trail, you hate to give up the higher ground, or in this case, the western ground. I yearn to get home – see my baby; breathe the cool, clean, thin air and sit in the shade of trees I’ve planted myself.

A ring of cottonwoods on the side of hill makes me wonder about the ranch they must at one time have sheltered but have now outlived and outlasted. There is no evidence of that civilized past – not even a crumbling foundation, yet there is no way they would grow on this dry hillside without human help. What happened to the people? What happened to the house? Another mile and Prickly Poppies dominate a field supervised by a racing windmill, endlessly pumping water for a dozen angus heifers just chillin’ in the mud.

The road drops precipitously off a ridge into a valley that begat Wray, elevation 3516. I’ve climbed half way from the lowlands of Nebraska to the Mile High City. I take the bypass around Wray and then regret my hurry on the other side when my bladder inquires if there are any rest stops on this lonesome road. There isn’t. But, an uncomfortable 20 miles farther along there’s a turnout with a couple half-dead trees that offer enough privacy for a deserted road like this, and soon I’m lighter and on my way. The road bends west and I strain my eyes looking for the mountains, though I know they are still an hour or more away. A dry stream bed turns into an unexpected canyon with a herd of future steaks lying in the shade of the only trees for miles around. It’s an alien garden of Eden for a half mile – a paradise that these cows deserve given their inevitable fate; then the open plains exert themselves again. The trees are gone and grasshopper oil pumps are the only things that rise above waste level into the sky around here.

An elaborate windbreak hints of high winds and snowdrifts across the road in another season. A full mile of three parallel rows of pines accentuates the otherwise flat countryside. At 60 mph, there are only venetian-blind glimpses of the sprawling complex behind the trees and my mind takes a brief flight of fancy to imagine some horrible Jonestown cult, a serial killer’s hideout, or an evil doctor’s lair. But, when the gleaming white farmhouse pops into view, the horror fantasies melt into the Petticoat Junction reality.

Full road replacement work in the middle of nowhere brings a mild curse to my lips. But I’ve got luck on my side as the one-way escort vehicle starts the 3-car parade going my direction right when I pull up to the sun-burned, Camel-smoking flag girl, who cautiously turns the STOP sign she’s holding to show me the side that warns SLOW. The pilot car leads us through 5 miles of brand new, but one lane and painfully slow highway. Past the construction the blacktop is pot-holed and wash-boarded and a big sign proudly proclaims its ultimate repair thanks to the debt-inducing, but jobs-creating, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Yay big government!?

The next stop sign I hit is Highway 36, a direct route to northern Denver. I decide to keep going south, thinking I’ll head west when I hit I-70 in 30 miles. But I see another flag girl with a stop sign almost immediately. I’m not so lucky at this new stretch of construction, and I’m stopped for way too long. Frustrated, I finally turn around and head back north to jump on 36 towards the mountains. I love the sight-seeing and the freedom of the road less-traveled, but I’ve been driving for 4 hours now with only my thoughts and XM-Radio comedians to keep me company (and awake) and I’m ready to get home. Highway 36 is smooth. Easy to go fast and I catch myself going 80 before I set the cruise control, knowing that a main road brings an easier ride, but also an easier ticket.

There’s a wide spot in the road called “Joe’s.” Judging by the huge Baptist church and cemetery, the Bible store and the marquee advertising nightly prayer meetings, this must indeed be a born-again, God-fearing town. Even the wrecker service is named “Church Towing.” Yet, the only other visible business in town is “Joe’s Liquor Store.” Not sure if that’s a hypocrisy or a necessity.

Yellow Honey-clover stretches along the road for miles. I roll down my window and hang my head out the window, inhaling the scent, my nostrils flaring like a dog. I can hear the bees above the whine of the tires and the growl of the wind. The smell of honey and summer weeds makes my mouth water and my eyes mist over. An entire hillside of yellow stretches to the horizon. It’s everywhere! It’s a weed of course, but it smells like heaven.

An abandoned clapboard farmhouse on a hill makes me wish there was a pull-out so I could take a picture. With all its windows missing, I can see straight through it, the peeling-paint frames highlight the sunlit fields beyond. And then it’s gone. I crest a hill and look in all directions – only one tree as far as I can see, but the green grasses and yellow clover create an amazing lushness to the landscape.

At Bennett, the 2-lane turns to 4-lane and the outline of the mountains come into view. The sight of the Front Range always gives me a thrill. Almost there! The rest of the trip is a combination of interstates and rush-hour traffic and a couple of wind-up-business cell phone calls now that I have reliable service, and the last 50 miles go by quickly.

As I exit off I-25, I sing the words to an old favorite Simon & Garfunkle song. “Home – with my thoughts escaping. Home – where my music’s playing. Home – where my love lies waiting silently for me.” The drive is over. The work week’s done. My beautiful wife pulls into the garage right in front of me. Perfect timing.

I’m home. That’s all that matters.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

We Should’ve Turned Back - The Devil's Thumb Debacle

One of the things that make living in Denver so special is looking west every day and seeing the backbone of the continent rising into the air. The “purple mountain’s majesty above the fruited plains” was written specifically about the snow-capped peaks I get to look at every day. From my house, I can see all the way from Longs Peak on the north end to Pikes Peak on the southern end of a chain of high mountains called the Front Range. 100 miles of eye-popping, jaw-dropping, testicle-flipping peaks of 13,000 feet or more that on a clear, windy day seem to be just out of arm’s reach.

In winter, the sight of that snow-covered line sandwiched between the indigo foothills below and the sapphire skies above can stop you dead in your tracks to just gaze in wonder and pleasure. “Surely, ‘tis a privilege to live in Colorado,” we often say, and not lightly but because we really mean it. The people who live along the populous eastern “downslope” side of the Front Range are reminded of the blessing every day and most of us count that blessing multiple times over 300 times a year – every day the sun shines!

Between Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park runs a string of the craggiest mountains on the Front Range called the Indian Peaks. For about 30 miles, the Continental Divide runs along the tops of the Indian Peaks. All the snow that falls on the West side of these mountains ends up in the Colorado River and eventually ends up in the Pacific Ocean (although that is only after Los Angeles sucks it completely dry and then pees it out and the sewers empty it into the ocean. The river itself, mighty as it is through the Grand Canyon, never makes it to the ocean, but disappears into the California Baja desert.) All the snow on the Eastern side ends up in the Gulf of Mexico where it just might wash away the oil spill – although it will probably take a couple millennia.

My brother-in-law, John, and I were looking at that Divide one day from his porch on Twin Sisters and decided we had to cross it on foot – because it is there. And thus, a dream was born; and soon a plan was hatched to go Over-the-Top and stand on the Indian Peaks with one foot in each continental watershed. So, in the summer of 2004, we made our first assault on the Divide, hiking up Glacier Basin to Thunder Lake in the shadow of the high pass where there was (supposedly) a trail Over-the-Top. Alas, there was no trail; just 40 stories of broken scree going up from the lake. We studied the scree field through our binoculars, trying to suss out the path that would accommodate our old knees and 50 lb. packs. After a few half-hearted forays, we decided that discretion was the better part of valor and turned back to hike the 9 miles to civilization – disappointed, but comfortable knowing that the journey was as rewarding as the destination, especially when you’re in God’s country.

Two years later, we decided to try it again. We left REI with lighter equipment and better maps. We decided on a different trail and felt confident that we would, on this sortie, stand on the Divide and shake our fists at the heavens. (After which, we’d drop to our knees and thank Heavens.) The route we chose was the Devil’s Thumb trail. We would camp overnight at Devil’s Thumb Lake and then hike Over-the-Top the second day and loop back around to return. Easy peas-y, lemon squeeze-y. Only it wasn’t. The Devil wasn’t going to show us his thumb; he had in mind a different digit to show us…

John and I rendezvoused in the hippie mountain town of Nederland – home of the Frozen Dead Guy and most of the people east of the Continental Divide who still drop acid on a semi-regular basis. We had a fabulous breakfast at a dirty little hippie cafĂ© and then car-pooled to the trail head where it began to rain. Again. I should mention that after a completely dry June that year, this first weekend in July had brought rain to the Front Range. It had rained all night but we weren’t afraid. We’d been to REI. We had all the right equipment. Right? Right!


We should’ve turned back when we found we had to park 2 miles away from the trailhead because the road to the trailhead was under water. Multiple FEET of water. But, it was barely drizzling; just a fine mist and we are men, not wussies. Stupid men, to be sure – because we believed we were NOT going to be denied our goal because of a little H-2-0. You’d think a couple of born-and-raised mountain boys would know that if it is drizzling at the 9,000 foot trailhead, it could easily be snowing at our 11,000 foot camp site, even on the 4th of July. But, hyped-up testosterone combined with an over-stimulated Pollyanna complex ruled our pre-frontal cortexes that day, ruling out any chance of making a responsible decision, so we shouldered our packs and headed up the trail. At least we wouldn’t be sweating much that day. Figuratively maybe, but not literally.

The rain kept getting worse so about a mile in we stopped and I threw my Bronco’s rain poncho over my head and draped it over my pack. John had worn his rain gear, so he didn’t worry about covering his back pack. This would turn out to be extraordinarily poor judgment. The temperature was about 50 degrees. Yet, we didn’t even think about turning back.

It was a beautiful trail, lush with the kind of water-drenched foliage you don’t often see on the drier Eastern slope of the Rockies. The trail was in full bloom with vistas of green to drink in and wild raspberries to eat up. (Our post-climb research would reveal that the Devil’s Thumb trail is a natural moisture alley, funneling the clouds down this valley that get broken up by the high peaks elsewhere on the Front Range.) So, while we marveled at the flora and marched happily forward, the rain started to find the nooks and crannies of our clothes and packs and equipment. The trail was so overgrown with amazing greenery that a machete would have come in handy and we were constantly pushing our way through the soaked underbrush. Our shirtsleeves and pants legs started to soak up the water. The rocky path alternated between being a trail spotted with puddles to being a rushing stream disguised as a trail. Water-proofed boots and jackets and ponchos were no match for this five-sided deluge.

We should have turned back about two hours later when I noticed my socks were squishing and realized that my pants were wet to my hip and my shirt sleeves were wet to my shoulders. But I was wearing a poncho! How could this be? The answer soaked in… It was so wet all around that our clothes were acting like a $20 Sham-Wow, sponging up water from the boot-tops up.

It was getting fairly uncomfortable when we stopped for lunch. With no dry place to sit, we were standing under a giant Douglas Fir munching on trail mix and dried fruit when a group of high school girls and their chaperone came slogging down the trail. They stopped long enough to tell us of their cold night in the snow and marvel at how tough & brave we were to be heading into the jaws of the Devil. When they told us about the snow, I remember thinking briefly that our plan had gone awry. But, then they had to compliment our toughness, and we were doomed again by testosterone and hubris, and were soon repacked and headed up the trail. The rain continued. The temperature was now in the 40’s. We should’ve turned back

We got to Devil’s Thumb Lake about 3:00 amid driving rain and a wind angry enough to rip the ropes out of our frozen hands as we tried to string a tarp in the trees to create some kind of livable space under which to pitch our tents. 30 minutes later, we were pitched and crawling into our tents to get out of the rain and dry out for the first time in 6 hours. Backpack tents are small, so it’s a yogic challenge to unpack, undress, and re-fit while trying to not let your soaked stuff touch your dry stuff to prevent further Sham-wow effects. I had just gotten un-pretzled and was relaxing for a minute – somewhat dry, finally – when I heard John yelling from his tent through the drumming of the rain & corn snow on the tarp above us, “G-&)^($* it!!! $onuva%^#*$##@!!!!! M---$%*F($&#^.”

John doesn’t cuss much, so I worriedly shouted back, “What’s wrong?”

Through the blue haze of the f- & s-bombs and the noise of the wind & rain, John got out an occasional coherent and printable word that made me understand that his rain gear (better than mine at keeping HIM dry) did nothing to keep his pack dry (as my poncho had) and his sleeping bag was soaked. Not a good deal when we were expecting the temps to dip near the freezing mark within a few hours. Luckily, I had a brought a small fleece blanket and had a foil space blanket in my emergency kit, and I talked him back in off the ledge by convincing him they would probably get him through the night if he wore all his clothes.

We should’ve turned back and left right then, but instead we decided to brew a cup of coffee and then start the process of making dinner. During a lull in the downpour, John grabbed a jug and headed to the lake for water. I busied myself getting my pack stove fired up and finally got a little tired of waiting for John to return with water. I mean, the lake was RIGHT THERE! So I grabbed my stove pot and headed off to get my own water.

I met John halfway down the trail. Somehow, he looked even more bedraggled and – could it be? – wetter than he had before. I didn’t get a chance to ask him why it took so long as the mystery was revealed when he blurted it, “I fell in the %@#$-ing lake!” The soft dirt around the lake, soaked as it was, had crumbled on his approach, sending him slip-sliding into the icy snow melt of Devil’s Thumb Lake and drenching his only dry clothes. Now we knew that we really should’ve turned back a long time ago.

I looked at John, shivering and dripping as we walked back to camp. “The way I see it,” I said, “you’ll never be warm enough all night without dry clothes. So, we only have one choice since I’m not willing to go all Brokeback Mountain to keep you warm. We have to break camp and head home.” (I should explain here that building a fire was not an option. Even without the wilderness fire ban, there wasn’t a stick of dry wood between here and the Wyoming border.)

John laughed a little and said, “At least the exertion of hiking down will keep us warmer than sitting here in the cold.”

“Let’s get crackin’ then,” I said, “it’s 4:00 and it’ll be dark in 4 hours. If we bust it, we MIGHT get down in four-and-a-half. You got a flashlight?”

We both did, but we were both hoping not to have to use them – at least not for too long. We broke camp as fast as our shivering, stiff-with-the-cold hands could unknot the ropes and stakes. Rolling up wet tents and tarps and stuffing our wet things into our carefully measured and weighed backpacks, we realized that we’d be carrying quite a bit of extra water weight all the way back down. But, up against the impending sunset, there was no time to waste on niceties, so the water got stuffed into the backpacks too.

A half hour later we were on the trail, moving as fast as our water-logged packs and tired feet would allow us. Half jogging when the trail was smooth and relatively level; picking our way carefully along slick rocks when it wasn’t; slogging through trail torrents above our ankles, we hustled down the mountain. There was no time, or energy, for chit-chat. We were solely focused on the goal of making it to the truck by dark. The only sounds were the rain, the click of our walking sticks on the rocky path, and an occasional grunt or moan or yelp as we struggled to remain upright in our panicky haste.

The last mile was navigated more slowly as it was negotiated by flashlight. We found the truck about an hour past sunset and tossed our packs in the trunk. We climbed in, turned the heater on to the nuclear blast setting and sat for a minute in the dark with the rain thudding on the roof and our hearts beating loud in our ears. Soaked and sore, tired and borderline hypothermic, we sat in silence while we waited for the heater to clear the foggy windows.

When we could finally see out the windows, I slipped the truck into gear and started off down the muddy road to Nederland. “Let’s go home,” I said.

“Yep, we should’ve turned back,” said John. “A long time ago.”

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Happy Trails!

“Happy Trails!” That’s my standard salutation to fellow hikers on the Colorado trails that I call my back yard. Like “Aloha,” it can mean hello, or goodbye, or even be an easy answer to questions like, “How ya doin’?” or “How’s it goin’?” Though hokey, it seems to be universally understood by the brotherhood of strangers you meet on a high mountain trail. And, since the lack of oxygen above, say 12,000 feet, strips away the need, if not the ability, for verbosity, “Happy Trails,” is the perfect greeting.

There is no place on earth that can stir my soul like the tundra high above tree line in the Rockies. The vistas inspire and humble me. The wildflowers, so delicate, yet so strong to withstand the harsh environment, are beautiful. The crisp, thin air can bite and invigorate. The sun at this altitude can burn before it warms. You can feel both mighty and insignificant, and if you pay attention, you can feel god’s presence.

There are fifty-four 14,000 feet-or-higher peaks in Colorado. I’ve made it – sometimes barely and always breathlessly – to the top of 17 of these goddesses. I’ve only aborted two climbs out of the 19 I’ve attempted. But that’s not because I’m good; it’s because I’ve been lucky. Lately, I’ve been thinking about those treks and what I’ve seen on those happy trails.

I met a woman recently who had just climbed her first 14’er. As we talked about her conquest, she asked me which 14’er is my favorite and that got me to thinking. It’s easy to say that the Colorado Rockies is my favorite place on earth, but I’m hard pressed to name a favorite peak. My first 14’er was Longs Peak. By far the hardest peak I’ve partnered with. (I’m not sure you can really say you’ve conquered a high mountain.) If you respect her and treat her right, she might allow you to spread your arms when you’ve reached the top and shout, “I’m king of the world!” She just as likely might NOT let you feel like the king of the world. She might turn your ankle, or shut you down with a bout of altitude sickness, or call her friend, Thor, to chase you off her slopes or even kill you because you were too foolish to obey The Rule: summit by noon or risk the ubiquitous afternoon storm clouds and the lightning that is way too close for comfort.

Longs Peak (no, there is no apostrophe – that is the crux of this biscuit*) is the most noticeable and most dramatic of the 14’ers on the Front Range. 25 miles straight west of my hometown, It is also the hardest and most dangerous to climb – a infamous boulder field that breaks legs; a scree slide where your only warning of potential melon-mashers are the cries of “Rock” from the climbers above you; and finally, the Home Stretch – a hundred foot slab of rock on a 60 degree pitch that is fitted with fixed cables for safety because a slip on this slab would send you sliding a thousand feet to the rocks below. Seven grueling miles and over a mile in elevation gain, it is the jewel of Rocky Mountain National Park and the most popular 14’er. But my favorite part of this trek isn’t the football-field sized summit; it’s the Goblin Forest. If you start hiking at 4:00 AM, (typical start time to be able to watch Thor’s show from a safe distance as you descend,) you’ll reach the Goblin Forest at about sunrise. The forest is a stand of Bristlecone Pines just below tree line. These amazing trees are some of the oldest living things on earth. As bent and gnarled as Yoda, they have survived the thin air and deep snows of thousands of winters. I could easily spend the day hanging out with the Goblins and Krummholtz, but the summit beckons.

Two of my most memorable climbs were actually aborted attempts at reaching 2 summits in one day. Grays and Torreys are twin peaks that are often bagged in one day by the ambitious trekker. In the early years of my love affair with the high peaks, Stan, Roger, Lisa and I thought we would bag all 54 peaks, so bagging two in one day was our preferred method to reaching the final goal. Our Grays & Torreys attempt started out as a family affair, with something like 15 people – kids and cousins and brothers and sisters and grandpa and grandma – the youngest was 7; the oldest was 70. Needless to say, not everyone made it to the top. Dropping off in twos and threes, the crowd thinned out like the pines at tree line. Roger and Stan, (aka the mountain goat,) and a few others forged on ahead to bag Grays quickly so that the bridge to Torreys could be attacked before it got too late. My Dad – 68 at the time – and I kept plodding on, determined to get at least one peak that day.

The going gets slow when you get past 12,000 feet. For many people, there is about as much time spent resting your thighs and filling your depleted lungs as there is climbing. Dad and I were “enjoying” such a rest when our lack of large party size was rewarded with the appearance of the local (though non-native) wildlife – Rocky Mountain Goats begging for handouts and coming so close we could pet their shaggy hair. I'll never forget the sound of the snuffling beasts as they crowded around us, nibbling at tundra and licking the lichen off the surrounding boulders – tolerating our invasion of their space. We let them think we might feed them something so we could enjoy their company for a while. Once they figured out we weren’t carrying treats, they leapt off, rock to rock, on hooves so soft they were not only sure-footed, but almost silent. After the circus left town, Dad & I trudged on to the top where we watched the others summit Torrey’s through binoculars. We signed the ledger at the top, slapped each other on the back and headed down to join the rest of the family who were waiting for us by the cars four miles away.

My other most memorable climb was with John Roehl. John is my brother-in-law who lives in a cabin his grandfather built in 1913 on Twin Sister’s Mountain across the valley from Longs Peak. He’s older than me, but we’re like twin sons of different mothers. He was with me on my first climb (Longs) and was with me on my last climb (to date). John & I have a habit of biting off more than we can chew. Twice we’ve been thwarted in overnight attempts to hike across the continental divide over the Indian Peaks – but those are stories for another time.

We decided to climb the twin peaks of Belford and Oxford a few years back. Our plan was to carry full packs up the first 2 miles of the trail to tree-line. There, we would camp out and then bag the two peaks the next day, come back to our tents, break camp and head down. That way we’d be free of our 48 lb. packs (yes, we weighed them and believe me, every ounce counts) for the toughest part of the climb. The weather was perfect, the trail was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever trekked, but we were doomed from the start. I had not properly broken in my new boots and John was fighting pinched nerves in both feet. We stumbled into a perfect meadow at 11,500 and happily pitched our tents.

Nothing satisfies like campfire coffee – even if a real fire isn’t allowed and the only heat you have is a white-gas stove that will heat up about 2 cups of water at a time. We drank a lukewarm cup of coffee, (water boils at like 180 degrees at this altitude, so it doesn't stay hot long) munched on dried fruit and jerky and squirmed into our sleeping bags pretty much as soon as the sun went down, planning to hit the trail before sunrise for the meat of the climb. Tired as we were and with no alarm clocks (too much weight) we didn’t wake until daylight. In that high mountain valley, even in summer, sunrise doesn’t come until well past 7:00 and we knew we were behind schedule. So, after a hurried breakfast, we hit the trail up Mt. Belford.

Some 4 hours later, right about noon, we made the summit, tired and footsore and looked out over the saddle to Oxford. Only we couldn’t see Oxford. It was hidden by the massive thundercloud hanging halfway down its flanks. John looked at me. I looked at John. “Do we go for it?” I asked. “That was the plan,” said John. We watched the clouds roil another minute – or five. (Remember that I once dreamed of hiking all 54 14’ers and you’ll understand why John’s next question changed my hiking life forever.) That dream was several years and thousands of vertical feet ago and the blisters on my feet and the ache in my knees brought a clarity to my mind that is rare in the rarified air of the mountaintop. “Let me ask you this,” said John, “do you plan on climbing all 54 peaks in your lifetime?”

I had to really think hard about that. One part of me wanted to – still wants to. Another, more rational, more mature, more realistic part of me understands that while the mind is often willing, the body is too often weak. I looked at John. I looked at the clouds hanging around Oxford’s summit. I looked at my new boots. I looked back at the clouds. I looked at John again. “No,” I said, “I guess I probably won’t bag them all.”

“Then, do we need to risk the lightning for this one?” John asked.

I looked over at Oxford one more time. “Let’s go break camp and go home,” I said.

It was late afternoon when our battered feet brought us back to the truck. Tired, sore, and disappointed, but somehow closer through our shared failure and pain. Still, it was a good trip. We love the mountain and the trail and the camaraderie that comes from trekking the Happy Trails. Barefoot, I started the truck for the long drive home. We drove in exhausted silence for a few miles before John said what we both were thinking that day (and every day since,) “’tis a privilege to live in Colorado.”

“Happy Trails,” I replied.

*apologies to Frank Zappa