Miles High and
by Mike Bailey
Copyright (C) 1994, 2010 by Michael T. Bailey Sr., Marietta, Georgia.
All rights reserved. Reproduction, adaptation, or translation without prior
written permission is prohibited, except as allowed under copyright laws.
|The eagle looked down and saw the men climbing and said,|
"Welcome to my world -- walk softly and enjoy."
For Michael -- my son, my best friend, and my hiking buddy
Memories are what make us whole -- they give meaning and purpose to our lives. Almost
seven years ago, my son and I shared an adventure of a lifetime. Not a single day goes by
without me recalling at least one memory from that trip.
I keep a picture on my desk at home that shows the two us standing proudly on one on the
many ridge tops we crossed on when we hiked above the tree line. In the blink of an eye, I
am back with him -- soaring with the eagles and eagerly awaiting the next scenic vista to
unfold before our eyes.
Recalling our adventure on the following pages allows me to relive the adventure over and
over. I often wonder what followed in the lives of those who hiked with us that wonderful
week in the summer of 1994. I hope that they, too, have good memories of all the time we
It was almost like a scene out of "another" story. Nine strangers came together from all
walks of life to live, struggle, and laugh together for a week. Then, in the blink of an eye,
all of us returned to our own stories, our own adventures of life itself.
February 18, 2001
Sunday -- July 24th, 1994 _________________________
Sangre de Cristo Mountains -- the thoughts of that exotic sounding place in Colorado
floated in my mind as I drifted off to sleep late last night.
It is 6 a.m. now and I am lying here not believing that our day, Michael's and mine, has
finally arrived. I have dreamed of this day -- Trip Day -- ever since Deanna surprised
Michael and me at Christmas with a gift that would take us on a guided, week-long
wilderness hike with packstock through the mountains.
Michael and I both stayed up late last night packing our bags, going over and over the
detailed packing list we had received from American Wilderness Experience, Inc.
(A.W.E.). This is the company Deanna had used surreptitiously to book our wilderness hike.
She had done all of the booking, paying, etc., on the sly. She even had everything mailed to
a friend's house so that Michael and I would never suspect a thing. From the looks on our
faces in the photos from Christmas morning, I would say she succeeded. Did I ever tell
you she used to work for the CIA? True, but that is another story.
Anyway, back to the list. We did not want get all the way out to Colorado and then find out
we were missing something. Let's see now -- two pair of long pants, one pair short pants,
one warm parka, one rain suit, one wool hat for warmth, three pairs of long underwear
bottoms, one--, wait a minute, wait a MINUTE! Long johns, wool hats, long pants? These
must be typos, this is the middle of July! Yeah, that's it, typos. Everybody knows it is hot
in July. Still, the list does say to bring all this stuff.
"Michael, are you sure, are you absolutely certain we have the correct list?"
"Yes, I'm sure, you even called them yourself," he calmly assures me as he gives me one
of those looks that children develop when they are certain their parents have finally gone
over the edge and are now only moments away from senility and wheelchairs.
Over the past several months, Michael or I had called A.W.E. for one reason or another,
you know, asking questions about things that were clearly outlined and answered in all of
the literature they sent us about the hike we were soon to embark on. You see, that's
what 1-800 numbers are for -- people like me to use and call nice people and ask them
stupid questions like "Is the Preparation List that you sent us accurate?"
"No, we just made it up out of thin air to drive greenhorns like you crazy," is what they
probably wanted to say.
Instead, it was a positive yes. In fact, the gentleman I talked too had been on this very
trip, and he assured me that it was accurate.
The company that I work for is really focused on customers, service, and the elimination
of what we call phone-call-induced frenzy (the caller gets numb with frustration because
whoever answers the call has no earthly idea how to help him). I readily appreciated the
prompt, courteous, and accurate information we received every single time we called
A.W.E.. Thanks Rick, wherever you are.
Three complete changes of long underwear bottoms! I still cannot get this piece of
logistical requirement off my mind. I will pack two pairs -- somebody has to be pulling my
Anyway, we are up, packed, and begging Deanna to hurry and get us out to the airport. We
finally get the Blazer loaded and stand proudly by the tailgate while Deanna takes the
first of many photographs that will eventually capture, on film, precious moments of time
scattered throughout our long journey.
We make it to the airport in plenty of time. Anyone who knows me knows that I am always
early. The thought of missing a plane or a boat (big-time trouble when I was in the Navy)
has always scared the wits out of me.
We pull up at the curb near the outside ticketing stands. While we are unloading our gear,
I notice that Deanna is kind of quiet. Even though she is smiling a lot and whipping out the
usual instructions that all mothers just seem to be born with, such as "Now you two be
careful, call when you get there, brush your teeth, do NOT forget to change your
underwear, --," she is still kind of quiet.
After 32 years of marriage, you really do pick up on a few things. I would learn later that
she was a ball of knots inside. She wanted this trip to be so perfect for us and was
worrying about everything. She even watched the Weather Channel on the cable all week
long making sure it did or did not rain on us. I'm not quite sure how her watching the T.V.
could affect our weather out in Colorado, but what do I know? It must be another one of
those "mother" things.
With final hugs and kisses, she is back in the Blazer and soon fading into the morning
traffic rush leaving the airport parking lot. As we watch her leave, Michael and I start to
realize that her dream for us is finally in motion -- we are only moments away from
embarking on what all three of us hope will be the experience of a lifetime. I wish so
desperately right now that she could come with us.
Right after Christmas, Michael and I joined a local health club. I hiked a lot and was in
fairly good shape and so was Michael. Besides, he is young, he is supposed to be in shape.
Anyway, knowing that the hike in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains would be physically
taxing and would also require endurance, we wanted to be in good shape. I think common
sense alone would alert most people to the fact that to hike above 7,000 feet, going up to
13,000, you have to be in shape.
We trained for seven months. Four times a week, we hit the health club, stair-mastering,
treadmilling, lifecyling, weight-lifting our tired, aching bodies to death. On weekends, we
took a break. We hiked the local trails.
To really test our mettle, we pounded out two very long and challenging hikes. The Cohutta
Wilderness area in the north Georgia mountains provided the stage for our efforts. Both
hikes were over 16 miles in length and had good elevation changes as the trails ranged
from points as low as 1,500 feet and as high as 4,100 feet. They were not the Rockies, but
we made progress and we got stronger. Each hike was easier than the one before.
The blast of a taxi's horn returns me to reality. Daydreaming while standing in the
passenger drop-off zone at any airport can be hazardous to one's health and doing it in
Atlanta is no exception. We quickly dart around a few moving cars and reach the safety of
the sidewalk in front of the curb-side ticketing booth. Then I get run over -- some woman
pulls one of those 500-pound suitcases with wheels on the bottom right over my right foot.
I was safer in the street!
With our bags checked and our tickets in hand, we are ready. Yes, we are ready! We slip
one arm through the straps of our day packs and enter the coolness of the airport
Heading through the security check stations inside, we both get nervous. We are
convinced that there is probably something in our day packs that is going to set off that
stupid alarm. We are praying now that we put our pocket knives (Michael's looks like a
sword) in our duffel bags, which we had already checked.
Not only are the pocket knives a possible "show stopper," all the other stuff we have in
our day packs might set the alarm off -- radios, earphones, wires, compasses, batteries,
mirrors, whistles, pins, and a myriad of other doo-dads. As we walk through the metal
detectors, we try to peek at our bags as they are X-rayed. I cannot imagine what all this
stuff looks like all jumbled up inside our packs. I pray that it does NOT look like the
makings of a bomb or something equally sinister.
Whew! No alarms go off, thank goodness.
"Good seats, huh?" I ask Michael as we board the plane. Our plane tickets were free.
Well, almost. I earned them. I cashed in on the frequent flyer miles I had earned over the
past several years. They may be "freebies," but the hours away from home to earn them
are lost forever.
Our flight starts to pull away from the gate right on time (10 a.m.). I am impressed. We
both start settling in. Michael has already commandeered a pair of those "air" headsets
that plug into your armrest, and he's laughing at a comedy routine. You ever watch
something like this? Funny and weird. You can't see anything, you can't hear anything, but
there they are, smiling and usually laughing aloud. I have got one of Clive Cussler's latest
paperbacks with me, and I am already helping Dirk Pitt search for sunken boats in the Nile
Uh oh, we have quit moving. Planes are backed up all over the place, waiting to take off. I
will never understand why they schedule 20 airplanes to all take off at the same time. The
last time I figured this out, only ONE plane can take off at a time! Anyway, we sit for 30
We have a connecting flight in Dallas to make for our final journey to Colorado Springs,
Colorado, and I am beginning to worry about our "connect time."
"Wagons Ho," I think, as the plane finally races down the runway and rises into the air like
a gigantic bird of prey, its flaps fully extended, its engines screaming with power as it
Racing now westward, I think of the time it took, and the hardships endured, when our
pioneers went west. In the same amount of time that it took for them to pack a wagon for
the long trip across the prairie, we will travel halfway across our nation to the same
mountain range that slowed their westward movement.
So far, our flight is fairly smooth, except for some slight turbulence we encounter around
Monroe, Louisiana. The flight attendants are now pushing carts up and down the aisles,
passing out food and drinks. We eat the cold snacks they call lunch and then sit back and
relax. We stare out the window as we whip along, as one of my wife's old friends from
Wyoming would say.
The crackle of the flight attendants' voice over the speakers announces that we are
"cleared for landing" in Dallas. I wonder what happens if you are not cleared to land?
Anyway, the pilot must have poured it on because we have made up for the time we lost
Banking hard to the left, we can see the Dallas-Fort Worth airport below us. Big. Real big.
On the horizon, we can see the downtown skylines of both cities as our wheels touch the
runway and the pilot throws the lever that makes the engines act like huge, screaming
brakes. Rolling to a stop after we taxi over a bridge that crosses a road full of speeding
cars, I get the feeling that things are congested here too.
Yes, the ground traffic at Dallas is bad today and here we go again. We are just sitting
here waiting to move about the taxi-ways so we can eventually dock the plane. We now
have only about 40 minutes to switch planes.
Finally, the plane starts moving again and quickly makes it to our gate. As soon as Michael
and I can get moving, we make a dash for our connecting flight. Fortunately for us, our
flight to Colorado Springs leaves from a gate only five gates away, and we make the
switch with no problems.
Within minutes, we are checked in and boarding our new plane. We had arrived in Dallas on
an L1011 (very big) and are now leaving Dallas on a MD-80 (not so big). What the heck --
we are almost there.
We pull away from the gate on time and head back out onto the vast network of taxi-ways
surrounding the terminal buildings. Within minutes, we are poised on our take-off runway
and are awaiting clearance from the tower. Soon, we are again racing down a ribbon of
concrete with engines screaming at full throttle. With a final burst of power, our small
metal bird lifts her wings toward the skies and climbs higher and higher until finally, we
bank toward the northwest and head for Colorado Springs.
It still blows my mind that these things can fly. I can understand the old biplanes. Wood
and canvas, and light as a feather -- well, almost. Jets? Big, steel, aluminum, stubby little
wings, heavy. Logic tells me they can not fly. Must be done with mirrors or something.
Yeah, that sounds right, mirrors!
The farther northwest we fly, the more the visibility opens up. I am always amazed at how
beautiful the ground looks from so high up. All the colors, shapes, and geometric patterns
that become visible are ever changing and provide an endless stream of excitement to the
eyes. We are now seeing the drier parts of the panhandle section of Texas (up past
Amarillo) and after a while, the southeastern plains section of Colorado. Many dry river
beds scar the surface far below, broken at times by huge green circles of irrigated crop
lands. So desolate, yet so beautiful.
Michael and I are again reading our paperbacks. I am still running around Africa trying to
help poor old Dirk Pitt out, and Michael is deeply involved with getting back to earth from
the moon. Well, it is not really the moon, anyway, he is having a heck of a time trying to get
It's funny how it seems like every time you get to the good parts in a book, you have to
leave, quit, or something! The weather is getting worse and the plane is bouncing around
quite a bit, making book reading a difficult task. The closer we get to the Rockies, the
stormier the weather and the bouncer the ride.
Almost as if on cue, the flight attendant announces we are cleared to land at Colorado
Springs. Looking out the window as we gently turn and begin our descent, we can see the
airport off in the distance.
Oh, God -- an ex-Navy carrier pilot is at the stick -- we are now banking hard to the left
and diving like crazy. As the plane sinks rapidly at a steep angle, the flight attendant
struggles by, desperately holding on to seats to keep moving and mumbles under her
breath "crazy Navy dive bomber --" I was right!
One short bounce and we are here. Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak, the gateway to our
adventure -- it looks wonderful. As I leave the plane, I nod to the Captain and say
"ex-Navy, huh?" He just looks at me and smiles.
We scramble off the plane and go in search of our luggage. I have visions of "lost
baggage" dancing in my head. I say a little luggage prayer under my breath -- "please be
All is well. All of our luggage, two huge green duffel bags and our old army duffel bag
filled with our sleeping bags and sleeping pads are circling the baggage track, waiting on
us to reclaim them.
Michael calls the Le Baron hotel where we are going to stay (our tour leaves from their
lobby in the morning) and requests one of their shuttles to come pick us up. As we wait on
our shuttle, I reflect on the two airports we have seen today.
Kids. Lots of Kids. Thousands and THOUSANDS of kids are at the airport here in
Colorado Springs. There were millions of them back in Dallas. Lord, I hope they are not all
going where we are going! The only thing I can figure is that the airlines have a special
going, say 100 kids for a buck, and every city west of the Mississippi is unloading their
kids for the summer!
Our shuttle arrives just as the rains taper off. Rain. I have this funny feeling inside that
the word rain is going to pop up more than once before this week is over.
After a quick trip into town, we check into our hotel and make for the room. We call
several tour companies trying to get hooked up with anybody going anywhere but alas, it is
the same old story. "I am sorry, sir, the last tour just left two minutes ago." The next
time, Michael and I will arrive a day or two earlier. Did I say "next time?" You bet -- we
have barely started and we are having a ball!
Not to be left out of exciting, fun-filled things to do in Colorado Springs without a car, we
leave the hotel and head for downtown Colorado Springs. Heading east on Bijou Street, we
cross a bridge a block away from the hotel. This bridge spans Interstate 25, a river bed,
and, finally, a part of the railroad switch yard that services Colorado Springs.
What can I say? Downtown is downtown now almost everywhere when you go there on a
Sunday. Nobody is home. The area is clean, very pretty in an "old town" fashion, but
deserted except for a handful of people here and there, including several homeless
people. They appear to be wandering aimlessly. When we get close to them, they eye us
The homeless. What is happening, America? There were none when I was a child. I really
wish I knew the answer. Seeing nothing else to keep us here in town, we make our way
back across the bridge and head back to the hotel.
Back at the hotel, we have a few beers in the lounge and then decide to eat (probably our
last decent meal). After a entire rack each of wonderful spare ribs, we hit the room and
make our final preparations for the adventure ahead. Again, we wonder why we have
brought so many pairs of long johns. It must be some kind of Colorado joke to play on
unsuspecting greenhorns, we finally surmise. Yeah, that's it. Got to be. We are here and it
is 85 degrees outside!
"What is all the commotion out in the parking lot?" I ask myself as I open our balcony door
and step outside to see what is going on. Oh Lord, we've been invaded. Motorcycles, lots
of motorcycles. Wait a minute, they are "Gold Wing" motorcycles, about 500 of them.
These are BIG motorcycles and every one of them is driven by someone over 50-years
old. The drivers are all crazy. Nice, but crazy.
They are having some sort of rally with booths set up all over the parking lot. Everyone
looks like he's having a great time, talking, buying, selling bike stuff , and playing games.
Seeing all these motorcycles, I think of a very special "motorcycle" person back home
whom I care an awful lot about. The motorcycles are pretty, Pat, especially the red one
with the trailer parked right below my balcony.
We examine our packs one final time and are satisfied we are set for tomorrow. We both
read for a while and then it is lights out.
"Michael. You snore -- you do know that, don't you?"
Monday -- July 25th, 1994 _________________________
We are all ready to go, it's 7:30 a.m., and there is no one here from the Bear Basin Ranch
to pick us up. As the minutes tick by, we begin to worry that maybe something happened to
Earlier at breakfast, Michael and I had met one of our hiking companions. When I saw her
walking toward me, I knew it. Hiking boots on, smartly attired for the outdoors, air of
confidence about her -- yeah, she's a hiker. As she went by, I told Michael, "She is going
"How do you know that?" he said. Then, thinking about it, he quietly said, "hope you are
right!" I got up, went to her booth, introduced myself, and asked straight away if she was
going on an A.W.E.-sponsored trip.
Seeing her return to our booth to join us for breakfast was answer enough for Michael.
"Still don't see how you knew," is his only comment to me. Our new breakfast companion
and future hiking partner is April, a doctor from Kansas City. She is upbeat, excited, and
raring to go. We like her immediately. Lots of spunk and ready to kick butt and take
names, but a lady all the way. Great combination -- reminds me of someone else I know.
Milling about the hotel lobby, we wait on our shuttle van and meet the folks who will share
our trail over the next five days. There are several other folks here waiting on the same
shuttle for different "adventures." We will separate after we get to the ranch out near
Westcliffe, Colorado, about an hour and a half ride from the hotel.
Our group. Michael and me, April, Malcolm and Sue from Somerset, Kentucky, and Bill and
Karen from Washington, D.C. and Colorado Springs, respectively. Instinct tells me that
this is a good group of people -- we are going to have fun together.
By 8:40, we are standing outside and getting more anxious as each minute ticks by. All of a
sudden, here come two vans into the hotel lobby entrance. A man and a woman jump out
and start running around throwing our gear up on top of the vans. No friendly greetings
from our newly arrived hosts, nothing. We are on time, they are late and the male driver is
still running around barking orders for us to "git here", "git there", and "git in."
Michael, Malcolm, and I all exchange looks that probably could hurt someone if they
tripped over them. We say nothing. We are not going to let this incident ruin our day. I
promised Deanna before I left that I would relax and not try to run the whole world while
I was on vacation in Colorado.
For the next five minutes, the driver tries to make a dog get off a couple of the seats.
"Git down." "Git off." I guess the dog did not like to "git" any better than we did because
he just laid there and ignored him. Finally, the driver pulled the dog off the seat so the
rest of us could "git" in the van. Finally, we are off and running after "gitting" in and
claiming our seats.
Zooming out of the parking lot, we hit the street on the run. As the van swerves around
the corner to head south, our driver pushes in a tape cassette of Hank Williams songs,
cranks the volume up all the way, and starts driving hell-bent-for-leather for the ranch
near Westcliffe. Ole Hank has got some good songs, don't get me wrong. It is our driver
trying to out-sing Hank that's starting to wear a little thin.
Special note I must include here. This incident (late arrival, rude greeting, etc.) was not
tolerated by the Bear Basin Ranch and the person involved was let go by the owner before
the week was over.
Bouncing around on the back seat of the van, Michael starts to get his first real view of
Colorado. Soon, we pass around the Front Range Mountains right in front of Colorado
Springs and start heading southwest toward the Wet Mountains. The countryside is a
mixture of vast brown harvested hay fields, mixed with light green and smaller, lush
deep-green pasture lands. So different from Georgia, especially when we go up and over
the Wet Mountains past Florence, Colorado. High, beautiful, but essentially all shapes,
sizes, and shades of brown stratified rock with long evidence of water and wind erosion.
We pass Florence, Colorado, and can see the new federal prison that has been dropped on
the landscape. I say dropped because you can see for 50 miles in almost any direction and
there is nothing else nearby except a motel (for prison visitors, I guess) down the road.
The prison building complex is modern in design and colors with two identical groupings of
Well, almost identical. One looks like a regular high school. No fences, people outside in
groups just talking, some are playing basketball, and some are running around a track. The
other one -- twin 15-foot-high steel fences, electrified and 20 feet apart from each
other, no guard towers, and no one moving about outside. Looks like my old high school.
Well, it felt like a prison at the time.
The country side is still changing the farther southwest we go. More rural, more cowboy,
more wide open. We see several ranch houses that sit way back from the road. We pass
one, though, that sits only about 50 feet off the road. Out front, there is a huge wooden
sign that reads "Little Ranch House Beside The Road." I swear, I am not making this up.
"You saw that didn't you, Michael?" "Michael! Wake up, Michael." Since the day he was
born, Michael sleeps in a car. I don't care if we just backed out of the driveway -- he
would be asleep before our tires hit the street
As we crest a hill, we can see a huge valley spread out before us. It looks to be about 20
or 25 miles wide. Beyond that, the Sangre de Cristo mountains loom beautifully as a
backdrop that only God could create. We are getting so close. The valley we are in now is
the lower of three huge, high-plateau valleys that separate the two main mountain chains
that make up the Rockies as they divide the State of Colorado right down the middle.
After barely slowing down, our driver takes a sharp right turn off the highway and we
start bouncing along on a long, bumpy dirt road. Bear Basin Ranch. Six-point-nine feet from
the center of nowhere! This is a big ranch -- 5,000 acres worth of big! Back home,
"bragging rights" start with anything larger than one-quarter acre!
We are here at the headquarters of our outfitter, Adventure Specialists. Even the name
sounds exciting. Specialists -- I like that word. The last thing we need right now is for
someone to take us on a hike that just learned how to spell "dude ranch." One look around
quickly convinces me that this is no "tourist trap." I do not know that much about ranching,
but this place has that unmistakable appearance of hard work and longevity. Yeah, we'll be
We offload our other adventure passengers (and our curt driver) and pick up our new
(very friendly, I might add) driver -- Jayme.
Not only will she drive us to the trailhead today where we will pick up our horses (about
another 20 miles from here), she will also come with us on our trip. This really gets
Michael's attention. I did mention that Jayme had a slim figure with long hair, floating
about a beautiful face, didn't I? Michael looked at me and said with a grin "Can I take her
home with me?"
Anyway, among her various duties (other than van driver for right now), she will be putting
her skills as an experienced horseback rider and pack-horse guide to good use as she
helps lead us on our five-day odyssey through the wilderness.
Jayme also cooks. We would soon discover her unbelievable magic with a camp stove, old
coffee pot, a pan or pot here or there, and some choice food items like steak, corn on the
cob, shrimp, steamed broccoli, fried eggs and cheese over Canadian bacon on top of an
English muffin -- the list was endless and all out of this world! Restaurant chefs could
take lessons from this lady.
Lady -- interesting word. We would also see as the week went by that even when the going
was tough and demanding, or when it was cold and rainy and we were all kidding around the
campsite, Jayme was always a lady -- first and last -- a character trait we all recognized
After receiving instructions on how to start our van, we are off for the trailhead in the
foothills just west of Westcliffe. Notice I said "instructions" on how to start the van. I
started to tell you earlier about all of this but at the time, we were to busy "gitting."
Let's see now. First, you have to have the ignition on. Then, you get out and raise the hood.
Now here comes the tricky part. You take a pair of pliers and "short out" the right two
wires and boom, the van cranks. Then you slam the hood down, run back and jump in and
give it gas before it quits on you. Seems like a good anti-theft device to me!
All loaded up and "cranked," we hit the dirt road leaving the ranch, and head for the
highway again. Quickly reaching it, we turn right and head for the hills far away. The
atmosphere in the van is amazingly different than it was earlier today. Jayme is smiling,
talking with us and answering our questions. With ole "Hank" finally silent, we banter with
each other about our new adventure that looms directly before us as we keep getting
closer and closer to our destination. Yeah, there is peace in the valley now, peace in the
Up ahead we can see a small town in the middle of the valley. Actually, there are two
towns, Silver Cliff and Westcliffe. Together, they provide a combined oasis of warmth
and service to the vast valley surroundings. We stop in Westcliffe and go into a local
supermarket. Jayme is buying last-minute food items and the rest of us line up in the back
of the store to use the one available restroom. The looks we get from the store clerks!
We must have all looked crazy making a beeline for the toilet. I don't think anyone had
ever asked them if the bathroom in the back could be used by a customer.
Back outside, I look to the west. Framed between the buildings that line the street, are
our mountains. The sun is out, the mountains are splendidly showing off their colors, and
the brown grasslands are stretched out from the foothills all the way back to the edge of
town just two blocks away. Simple, beautiful, breathtaking. I hope the good folks around
town stop and look at this as I am doing right now. It is like getting a recharge, know what
Leaving town, we notice that one wall of a large building has a drawing of the Sangre de
Cristo Mountain Range on it with names next to all the interesting peaks, valleys, etc.. I
wish we could have looked at it longer. Next to it is a list of all the ranchers in the valley.
Next to each name is a drawing of their cattle brand. The implication here, I was told, is
that cattle rustling is still considered a "hanging" offense!
Soon, we leave the paved road and head up another long, bouncy dirt road. After a couple
of miles we arrive at a parking area filled with trucks and a few horse trailers. Our horse
trailers are not here yet, nor is there room left for any more trailers. Turning around, we
backtrack about a quarter of a mile to a side road. As we approach the side road, we spot
our horse trailers coming in to the area.
Like kids deserting a school bus on a Friday afternoon, we pile out of our van and start
looking around at the folks unloading all the pack horses, and the scenery itself --
everything is great, beautiful, exciting. The views back across the valley toward
Westcliffe (about 10 miles away, I guess) are breathtaking. We can actually see cars
moving in town -- talk about clear!
Standing next to one of the trailers is a man we will soon get to know. Gary -- our trip
leader and owner of Bear Basin Ranch -- is standing there looking at another group of
wide-eyed greenhorns raring to go stomping through the wilderness. I would give anything
to know what is running through his mind as he watches us with that sly, gentle smile on his
We learn in quick order as the days magically unfold before us, that beneath his warm and
caring smile is a man of great gentleness, wisdom, and strength. Strength of body and
character to shoulder his love and caring for the wilderness that surrounds us. We would
thank our good fortune each day to have such a man lead us, guide us, teach us, and yes,
Michael and I wore long pants when we left the hotel early this morning. It is now very
warm and in quick order, we duck into the van and switch into our short hiking pants. We
both had received them as gifts at Christmas and now, standing here on this dusty road
raring to go hike something, we look like "twins."
We place all of our gear, except for our day packs, near the horses. Gary, Jayme, and Bill
(the ranch foreman) are now going about the task of sorting out all the gear into similar
weight piles. The puzzle of all the packed pieces has to be solved so that the packs are
balanced and secure on the horses. As Gary told me later in the week, the name of the
game is to pack the horses only once. If you ever have to touch a pack after setting out,
you probably did something wrong. Of course, events can take place that require
repacking, as I would learn later.
"Move 'em out!" or "Yoaa," as John Wayne would say. After two hours of packing we are
off! I could not believe it. So much time in both of Michael's and my life was spent in
preparing to be right here, right now, stepping off on the actual trail we dreamed about
for over seven months.
A quarter of a mile up the trail, we connect with the Rainbow Trail. Running along the
eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, this trail travels for about 70 miles in a
basic north/south route among the foothills just above the valley floor. Taking a right turn
after a few quick photographs with the obligatory trail sign in the background, we head
north on the trail. After only about five minutes, Gary makes a sharp turn off the trail and
leads the horses uphill into a beautiful, wide meadow.
Lunch. We had been so busy and excited about everything, we had not realized what time
it was. After tying off the horses, Jayme reappears with a well-worn red saddle bag full
of all the fixings for one great picnic! Cold-cuts for sandwiches, apples, cookies -- we ate
like we had been working hard since daybreak.
The views from the meadow toward the east and the valley where Westcliffe quietly
rests are fantastic. I guess that the mileage to town is 10 miles and Gary says I am right
on. He points to a pyramid shaped mountain that stands out all by itself farther east of
town and says the ranch is just beyond that. Here we are looking at something almost 20
miles away that is so clear, and yet looked so close. Back home, we would be lucky to see a
half-mile away, let alone 20 miles.
Michael and I agree that the stop is good. It gives all of us the opportunity to start
getting to know each other better. Laughter, giggles, dozens of questions amongst
ourselves soon gives evidence that we are bonding closer and closer together -- a bond
that will serve us well as we spend the next five days living very close to each other.
After lunch, we are off again. Gary says that he has to get another pack horse, so he
sends us off on our own. We are to hike for one and a half hours and then wait on him and
Jayme. Since the trail is well marked and not that difficult to hike on, we readily agree
and take off like school children just let out on "unsupervised" recess. We are out of sight
in two minutes.
The trail is mostly level with easy ups and downs. We cross over a few creeks and marvel
at the bubbling waters, not realizing that in a day or two, we will be at the very source of
some of these creeks. Now and then, the trail goes out toward the valley, and we are
presented with magnificent views of the valley below. The cameras click. What we do not
realize at first is that there are more views like this ahead -- dozens and dozens more
than the rolls of film we are carrying could ever capture.
We find a quiet place to stop after about an hour and a half and settle in to wait on Gary
and Jayme. Malcolm and I both like to hike with hiking sticks and we go about securing
some old dead limbs that could be used as such. Sue says she wants one also so we get her
one. Using rocks to knock off the knots and side limbs, we have three hiking sticks ready
to go in short order. Jumping at the chance to use our pocket knives, we whip them out and
set about finishing the smoothing process that will allow our hands to grasp the sticks
There is something about pocket knives and men. I do not know what it is, but put one in
their hands and immediately, they want to "carve" something, cut something, or stick
something. I guess there is a little bit of Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer in all of us.
No sooner have we finished than Gary and Jayme appear. After they rest just a few
minutes, we are off again. We pass a trail on our left that leads up into the mountains. If
the sign at the beginning of our trip is correct, we have already come 4.5 miles. Piece of
Rain. Our first brush with it and not the last, as we will learn as the days roll by. Out come
the rain suits and we just keep on trucking. I don't think we lose three minutes of hiking
time. As the week wears on, we will reach the point where we lose no time. Everyone will
get very adept at hiking, taking their day packs off, putting rain gear on or removing it,
putting day packs back on, and never missing a beat. We are good, and getting better with
The rain lasts for about an hour. I am not sure how they would describe the type of rain.
Back home, we would most likely call it "piddling" -- just enough to be a nuisance. Soon, we
are back to normal and the rain gear is packed away.
We are cruising right along again when Michael grabs my arm and exclaims "Look over
there!" What he does not realize is that at the moment, I am deep in thought and his touch
and voice just about scared the fool out of me. We are dead! I think maybe a bear is
charging straight for us, and we are his lunch! My mind races with possibilities. I return to
earth when I hear him say something about how big the DEER is and for me to take his
This guy is over five feet tall. He stands there quietly, letting us take his picture. When
we finished with the snapshots, he lowers his head and wanders off. Looks like a setup to
me. First day on the trail, beautiful scenery, and a deer close by, posing perfectly still.
Seriously, what we just saw is the first of many encounters with the abundant wildlife that
surrounds us. We are lucky.
A little while later, we pass by some posted land that borders the San Isabel National
Forest where we are hiking. We can see just past the border, a fallen barbed-wire fence,
a sign tacked to a tree that proclaims all sorts of warnings about the land being "posted."
Well, Michael and I, in keeping with our history of "calm, serious decorum," jump the fallen
barbed-wire fence and play around with the cameras taking pictures of each other "just
over the line." What can I say?
As we pass by another trail that leads off to the left and up to the high country, we know
we are getting close to our campsite for the night. Gary is ahead of us. He told us about
the trail and that our camp would be about a mile away once we pass the side trail.
Rounding a curve, our trail leads into a downward sloping meadow that opens up to about a
half-mile deep and a quarter of a mile wide. Beautiful. We can see off in the distance the
valley floor again. We are now about 800 to a 1,000 feet above it. Behind us, the upper
reaches of the mountains appear above the tree tops. So high, so beautiful. Tomorrow we
Bill and Karen are already at the campsite helping Gary with his horses. We leave the trail
and head over to them. After hiking for about eight miles on a well-worn trail, it felt funny
to walk across this beautiful meadow -- like we are trespassing through somebody else's
With everyone now at the campsite, we help Gary and Jayme as best we can. In an area
just past a small stream and under a small stand of lush, green Aspens, we help set up the
kitchen area. I say help, because we really do not know what to do. Gary tells us that he
and Jayme will teach us what to do as the week goes on and after they show us what to do,
we can help as much or as little what we desire -- it is our vacation and we can do
whatever we feel like doing. I knew right then that we would get along well!
"Bar is opened!" With that simple phrase, Gary announces that camp is officially open.
From out of nowhere, he and Jayme have produced a small covered table, replete with
nine cups, water, two bottles of wine, and a bottle of Jim Beam. Now I really knew that
we would get along just fine.
After setting the horses out to graze, Gary wanders over to the meadow area to show a
couple of us how to set our tents up. This is the one thing on the trip that we are
responsible for. Considering all that he and Jayme will do for us, this was a welcomed task.
Lets see now. Pole A inserts into sprocket S1 and S2 holds Pole B. Crossing point G, but
under point M, insert Poles C and D into sprocket S3 and S4, making sure to keep tension
on Pole F as you insert it through points Q and R--..God, I hope it does not get dark before
Actually, it is going rather smoothly. Michael and I have our tent up in no time at all. I then
start to help April put her tent up. Unknown to me right now is that Michael is taking
pictures of me doing this and just snapped off several pictures saying smirky things like
"Yep, couple more like these and the car will be mine."
Nature call. Seeking out the best cover, I head for the trees that run along the far side
of our meadow. Looking at the number of "good" trees to hide behind and comparing that
to the number of people who just might have to find one, I quickly come to the conclusion
that this could become a comedy. I have all sorts of visions in my head right now, of people
scurrying around the meadow, pawing the ground while they anxiously wait for a tree to
From across the meadow, I look back at our campsite. It looks familiar somehow -- all the
green tents lined up in a row. Then it hits me.
Boot camp! The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Today's hike on almost
level ground was like a shakedown cruise or forced hike with "full packs and ammo." What
would fall out, who would fall out? Do these greenhorns have what it takes to go into the
high country? Can they carry their own weight? I doubt very seriously if today's gentle
but long hike was designed with those crazy thoughts in mind. Wait a minute, didn't I hear
Gary humming cadence one time as he whizzed pass us--..?
After supper, Gary warns us about food in our tents. From here on out we will be in or
very near bear territory and it is absolutely essential that we have zero quantities of food
near us. You can't believe how fast we clean out our hidden supplies of candies, trail
snacks, and the like. Funny how the value of some things can change so quickly. One minute
we are hoarding our "sweets" and the next, we are chucking them like they are covered in
After a meal of steaks, corn on the cob, steamed broccoli, apple pie, and coffee, we talk
for a while and just relax around the coffee pot. There is a state-wide ban on outdoor
fires, and, therefore, we can't have a campfire. As the week wears on, we will sadly miss
this one simple pleasure the most. April and I are sitting on the same horse blanket,
talking, laughing, and having a good time. Just when she leans back against me laughing
hard at something that Bill and Karen are describing, there is a blinding flash of bright
"A couple more like this and the house will be mine too," exclaims my son, camera in hand
and grinning from ear to ear. We are only talking Deanna, I swear. It is the angle of the
photograph, yeah, that is it, that is why it looks like I have my arms around her.
Finally calling it quits, we all head for our tents. Michael and I are laughing, well almost
laughing. We are so tired, we are really not sure what you would call it. The ground tilts
downward under out tent at about a 15-degree angle. This coupled with our sleeping bags,
nylon covered of course, slipping on top of our nylon covered sleeping mat is driving us
crazy. We are afraid that if we do not hold on to something, we are going to slip right out
the front of the tent and go skipping across the meadow! The Three Stooges would have
loved this tent site.
We both toss and turn for what seems like hours. Around 12:30, I sneak out of the tent
and go over to the edge of the woods for a pit stop. On the way back to the tent, I look up
at the clear sky above and marvel at all the stars trying to be seen against the light of a
waxing moon. I find the Big Dipper and sight out to the North Star -- all is well now -- I
feel at home. Sometimes I feel like I came from the stars. When I look out into the
vastness of our solar system, I sometimes get deep, longing feelings, like I am looking for
home. Maybe one day.
Back in the tent, I sleep on and off until 5 a.m. Around 6 a.m., I hear stirrings in the camp
and wake up Michael. I hate to wake him
because he probably did not get much sleep with me tossing and turning so much during
Our first day has passed and a new day is dawning all around us. I peek outside the tent
and see clear cobalt-blue skies above us. I feel good inside. I can see the excitement in
Michael's eyes also -- he feels good too!
|Snow on the mountain
Tuesday -- July 26th, 1994 __________________________
The entire camp is buzzing with activity. Gary has already been tending to the horses and
Jayme is well into making our first breakfast -- one we will not forget. French toast. I am
talking real stuff here -- a huge whole loaf of French bread cut into slices almost 2-inches
thick. What can I say? Not a single crumb of toast made it into our trash bag.
We have already learned that whatever we bring into the mountains, we will take back
with us. Gary takes pride in making a low or almost invisible impact on our surroundings.
Simple things like moving the horses around to reduce grazing effects on the lush grass
around us, or throwing peanut shells into the garbage bags. As the days wear on, we see
the results of Gary's dedication to the wilderness we are enjoying so enthusiastically --
every site we come to looks like we are the first to ever be there. Thanks, Gary, for this
simple but beautiful gift.
It is 10:30 a.m. and Michael and I both are starting to get kind of antsy, you know, raring
to go. We both assumed that we would be hiking all day long. As we are to find out later,
10:30 or so is about the normal starting time each morning. Even before this day ends, we
would learn and be glad, REALLY glad, that we hiked only when we did!
It takes almost until 11 a.m. to get the camp broken completely and the horses almost
packed up. Gary turns us loose again and tells us to double back to the South Brush Creek
trail (about a mile back), and take it up into the mountains. Just like yesterday -- boom! --
we are gone.
Michael and I take our obligatory "pictures by the trail sign" when we reach the mountain
approach trail. Then we head up, up toward the high peaks. Finally, we thought, we are
going to see some action -- high places, far-off vistas, the "sound of music" -- the whole
The trail winds through beautiful forests of Aspens and various evergreens such as pine
and fir. The air is so clear that the vistas before us play tricks on our eyes. Everything is
in focus. The tree three feet in front us, the one 50 feet away, and the one a half-mile
away -- they are all in focus! Back home, they would have all been progressively out of
focus because of air quality (or lack thereof).
Here, it looks like we are inside one of those 3D pictures you can buy or like looking
through something called a View Master when I was a kid. It had a circle of pictures on a
round piece of cardboard and when you plopped it into the viewer, you saw things in stereo
mode (3D). These scenes before us now look just like the ones I remember seeing 45
years ago when I saw pictures of the "National Parks in America."
We cross over several beautiful creeks and we are beginning to really climb now. Up to
now, we have gone up and down a few times (something that really bugs me). When I gain
ground, I hate to give it right back up, especially when around the next bend, you start
climbing right back up again. However, these small and minor nuisances along the trail do
provide for a few breathtaking views -- views back toward the valley we started from
Monday and views toward the mountains peaks high above us.
One view really catches our attention. Far ahead and high above through the trees is a
view of a huge snow pack on the side of a mountain. Being above the tree line, it looks cold,
even from here. We are probably at 9,000 feet elevation now and the snow pack is up
around 11,000 feet. Little did we know that the snow pack was right beside the campsite
we are headed for.
Rain -- so what else is new? Must be about mid-day. The trail is getting steadily tough
and/or we are getting very tired. We learn later that we are hiking wrong -- too fast and
constantly breaking our rhythm.
Anyway, out of the mist ahead, we spot two men on horseback heading our way. Since the
trail is narrow and they look huge, we step on the hillside beside the trail to give them
room to pass. As they approach us, the leader pulls on his reins and stops his horse and the
pack horse he is leading. He looks like he rode straight out of some western movie I am
sure I have seen before. Big, very tall, rugged looking, and has one of those deep
authoritative sounding voices that when you hear it, you just shut up and listen.
First thing out of his mouth is "do either of you men have a side-arm with you?" Not "hey,"
"howdy," or anything that resembled calm, casual conversation! No, this guy wants to know
if we have a gun on us. Right then, Michael and I believe we are in trouble!
"Bears came into our camp last night -- took a bunch of food stuff!" Hearing the word
"bear" instantly relaxed Michael and me.
Realizing that the query about the gun is not leading to some form of western duel or
something we are going to have to participate in, we answered, "No, we do not have one
with us at the moment," still hedging our bets. He then goes on to explain that the gun
would only be used to create a loud noise to scare the bears away. He also tells us that
since bear hunting has been stopped in the mountains, the bears have become increasingly
brave and annoying and think nothing about barging right into a campsite.
We tell him who we are and that Gary has his rifle with him. Satisfied that we are really
not two tourists lost in the woods, he gives us a final warning about not having any food
whatsoever in our tents. Assuring him we will not, he tips his hat, bids us a good day and
within minutes, he and his companion are out of sight.
Michael and I look at each other and both say something smirky like "See, I told you we
should have brought our 45s, AK47s, and grenade launchers!" Laughing, we hit the trail
The rain is trying to stop, and, as Michael and I stop to take off our rain pants (they get
real hot), several of our fellow hiking companions catch up with us. We agree that we will
push on a little further to see if we can find a more suitable lunch site.
No sooner have we set out than we come upon a beautiful clearing -- about two acres in
size -- full of wildflowers. Still trying to avoid the rain, Sue, April, Michael, Malcolm, and I
sit uphill (the meadow slopes at about a 20-degree angle) under the limbs of a huge fir
tree. We quietly talk about today's climb so far and try to guess the degree of difficulty
that lies ahead of us.
It is so peaceful, so quite, so beautiful sitting here all snuggled up together under the
spreading limbs of this large and beautiful tree. The image of it reminds me of a old
mother hen with her brood of chicks all tucked in nice and safe under her warm and
The rain ends and the sun breaks out just as Gary comes into the clearing with his two
pack horses trailing obediently behind him. Things were looking up. We move out from
under the tree and immediately begin removing the rest of our rain gear and start soaking
up the sun.
Soon, Jayme, Bill, and Karen join us in the meadow. We had wondered why they had lagged
so far behind us because Karen usually likes to hike vary fast. As it turns out, seems like
Karen had "slipped" on a rock earlier on the trail when we had crossed a decent size creek
and had taken a plunge into one of Colorado's crystal clear, freezing cold mountain creeks!
What the heck, we are having fun.
Sandwiches never tasted better. Jayme laid out a picnic fit for a king. Sliced meat,
home-grown tomatoes, cheese, cookies, peanuts, onions, and fruit. Jayme cuts the onion up
with her knife. I have seen all sorts of Swiss Army knives in my life, but the one in
Jayme's hand right now defies description. Lets just say that she could probably produce
any tool, device, or contraption known to mankind if it were requested. This thing is an
Sitting here on a rock warmed by the mid-day sun, I relax, and look all around, and smile
inside. This little meadow really is so beautiful and peaceful. I can hear sounds of birds
and my fellow companions laughing and talking excitedly about things they have seen. I can
see Michael, standing tall and proud and having a good day.
On the trail again. Gary gives us instructions on about how far up we should go -- just
inside the tree line. We can see our snow pack on the side of the mountain and Gary again
confirms that we will be camped right beside it. Lord, it looks miles away and thousands of
feet higher than we are!
The trail is getting steeper, and steeper, and steeper. My breathing is really getting hard.
I am so thankful that Michael and I spent all those months training for this trip. I could
tell right now that without those months, I could not have made it this far, or worse yet,
could not make it the rest of the week. Gary has already briefly talked about climbing at
this height and says we need to walk much slower. He also says to step, breathe, step,
breathe, and keep the rhythm going.
This new way of hiking is different for Michael and me. We usually cruise along at about 4
miles per hour on the flats and do around 2.5 to 3.5 miles per hour when we climb. We
have come up the mountain this morning, about four miles, the old way -- hell bent for
Slowing down as Gary suggests starts to pay off. After about 10 minutes, the breathing
slows down, the heart rate falls, the rhythm sets in and Michael and I begin to cruise
almost effortlessly up the mountain.
Gary, where were you three months ago when we hiked up Hickory Ridge Trail in the
Cohuttas back home? Torture -- 2,600 foot climb in eight miles -- we died on the vine.
Huffing, puffing, crawling, yes crawling at times when we hurt so bad on the really steep
grades -- we "man-handled" that trail. Today, thanks to you, we are doing almost the
exact same thing except we are having fun, taking pictures, smiling, and just breezing
"Beep beep." Here comes Gary with three pack horses trailing behind him. Not even
slowing down, he tells us he will meet us at the camp and to watch for his mark on the trail
that will point to where our campsite will be for the night. In two minutes, he is out of sight
and gone. I am still in awe of how effortlessly he hikes and how fast he moves.
Magnificent views are again starting to fill our vision as we climb higher and higher. The
trail is threading its way through forests that are virgin in stand, and thinner than the
forests below. We see more and more wildflowers now, some of them three and four feet
tall, especially near creek beds. We also see a few more deer -- so beautiful, so graceful
as they bound through the woods. We even run up on a mother grouse and her "little ones"
trailing obediently behind her.
Even with Gary's hiking instructions, I am getting tired, very, very tired. It must be the
altitude I keep telling myself. Yea, that is it. I think somebody said something about chest
pains, or was it head pains? You picked a fine time to get confused, I exclaim to myself.
Dear Lord, if I am going to have a heart attack, please let it wait until next week -- I have
just got to stand on top of this mountain with my son, even if it is only for one second.
I suspect that Michael is getting very tired also but I cannot muster up enough strength
to ask him. I just keep going -- breathe, step, breathe, step!
Through the trees now and then, we get glimpses of our elusive snow bank. Soon however,
we see more of them. The air is nippy and I already have my wool hat on to protect my
ears. The last thing I need on this trip is an earache! The clouds are swirling about the
peak of the mountain up to our left as we climb. It looks so weird -- one minute they are
going this way, and the next minute, they are headed in the other direction.
Up ahead, we see a pile of neatly stacked tree limbs blocking our path and we know we
are getting close to our campsite. Looking over to our left and across a ravine, we see
Gary and the horses over on a ridge that will become our home for about the next 18
hours. We leave our trail and angle off down into a ravine that contains a small creek. The
creek bed is filled with flowers, some four and five feet high -- thousands and thousands
of them -- gardeners back home would kill for this display of natural beauty.
Hopping across the stream, Michael and I scramble up the trail that leads to the campsite.
Within minutes, we see the rest of our buddies coming out of the woods, crossing down
and over the stream and climbing that last little 50-foot hill. Fifty feet. Does not sound
like much, does it? But, let me tell you right now that after eight miles and 2,600 feet of
steady climbing, 50 feet looks like the side of the Empire State Building!
With everyone here now, the camp really starts to take on an atmosphere of activity.
People are all over the place, doing something, including seeking out new "trees." Michael
and I immediately start looking for the flattest piece of ground we can find. We are
determined not to repeat last night's "Three Stooges in a Tent" episode -- slipping and
sliding right out the door of the tent because the ground was not level!
Within minutes, we find our site and the tent is up. I again help April put her tent up. Wait
a minute! It just dawned on me. I put her tent up last night, I just did it again tonight, and
I will probably end up putting it up tomorrow night. April! You owe me a "long neck!"
The fog is here. Michael and I are out playing below our campsite over by the snow pack
we had seen all day long. There is something about standing in the middle of a snow pack,
with snowballs firmly in hand, that tends to bend the mind a bit. Especially if you are from
the Carolina's or Georgia and the date is the middle of JULY! When you tell the folks back
home about this, they tend to think that "ye a bit daft." Daft or not, Michael and I spend a
few wonderful moments pounding each other with snowballs!
We have just passed THE tree and are now standing on a pile of rocks as we look all about
us, trying to fathom all of this, trying to comprehend so much beauty. Oh, THE tree? Five
feet tall, straggly and bent by the wind and the LAST tree in Colorado -- we are standing
on the virtual border of trees/no trees -- the tree line as it is called.
One minute, we can see blue sky above and the entire bare mountain sitting quietly beside
us. Within seconds, the clouds return and the scene looks all gray again and we can see the
fog bank rushing back up the valley. Sometimes, it stops a couple hundred yards from us,
then rushes back down the mountain valley. Other times, it completely overtakes us. The
rhythm of the fog reminded me of the tides at the beach -- neat!
The photos we take around camp now will probably be very confusing later (they were).
With the fog rolling in and out, blue sky one moment, gray sky the next, snow packs here,
green pastures there, it will look like we were in four or five different places.
It is getting late and really nippy now, so Michael and I dress out in long pants, coats, and
hats. Walking over to the kitchen area, we notice that everyone else had the same idea.
Gary said it might get down to the mid 30s or low 40s tonight. At my age, anything below
70 is cold!
Chicken. Jayme out did herself again -- wonderful evening meal. It still amazes me how
Jayme managed so much with the limited stove and fuel supplies we have. Since wood fires
are banned for our entire trip, she has to judge the "fires" she keeps going using the
propane fuel tanks we brought. She has to know when to turn then up or off. Once the fuel
tanks are empty, there will be no more "cooking."
Talk is bubbling all around the campsite. Gary relates more about his background in a
sneaky sort of way. He loves to tell stories and through them, clues and facts about him
and his life just seem to "pop" out. His experiences are fascinating. He interweaves them
into and around all of our conversations. When you sit back and think about everything that
has been said, a clear picture forms of him. He does not paint the picture directly -- we
do, by "connecting" all the dots.
April tells us about all the trails she is trying to hike in Colorado. Her favorite trail so far
has been Long's Peak, up north in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Her goal is to hike all
of the trails in park. As I sit here now listening to this, my head hurting from the altitude
and my feet hurting, I quietly say to myself, good luck girl, I hope you hit all of them.
Jayme's coffee pot is almost empty and I can see lots of tired faces all around me.
Everyone is getting kind of sleepy and it is only about 9 p.m. We all agree it has been a
long day for all of us. Sue and I agree that if we have to go another foot uphill anywhere
today, it will only happen if someone gets behind us and "pushes."
After a visit to a local tree, I head for the tent. Actually, the tree is uphill from our tent
and I almost die walking up there. This altitude stuff is really getting to me, I tell myself.
Maybe by tomorrow I will be better acclimated.
Still feeling cold, I jump into my sleeping bag wearing my long johns, socks, and
sweatshirt. I got more laughs at supper time with that sweatshirt. My sister gave it to me
especially for this trip. On the front, it shows three cowboys sitting around a campfire, all
looking dejected and staring at their supper plates. The captions simply says "Beans
Again?" Right now, it feels wonderful.
It is around 3 a.m. and I just woke up (Michael also). We are not sure what just woke us
up. Probably a bear wanting some of Deanna's trail mix, we joke. Whoa! "We did take that
out of our day packs and put it down with the other stuff in the kitchen area, didn't we?,"
we anxiously ask each other. "Yea." "Whew!"
Oh. I forgot to mention the "trail snacks" Michael and I brought. We estimate about 20 to
40 pounds worth, all bundled up into neat day bags. We have enough snacks for everyone
in our group, plus all the people down in the valley, and everybody back at the ranch. We
eat trail snacks, we have fed the chipmunks, we have given them to squirrels, we have even
tried to get the blue jays to take some -- we have even thought about leaving all of them
out in front of a bear den in hopes he would eat the whole lot of them!
Deanna, they are great, but I think you overestimated our eating requirements. Gary even
suggests we set up a trail-side business down in the valley. He estimates we have enough
to last through the end of September.
Getting back to 3 a.m.. It is cold, very cold. I put my wool hat on and both of us look
outside. It is beautiful. The moon is out and it is clear as a bell. We can see the horses still
grazing (could be sleeping, I do not know) down in the meadow below our tent.
I look at Michael and say, "good day, huh?" "The best," is his short but wonderful answer.
Within seconds, we are both fast asleep.
|The longest day
Wednesday -- July 27th, 1994 ____________________________
I must say that sleep last night was much easier than the night before. I am not sure which
has the most impact on us right now, the level ground we are on or the fact that we were
two bone-weary hikers when we hit the sleeping bags last night! In either case, the sleep
After waking up, we lay there a few minutes talking about things like we are so thankful
we only hiked as far as we did yesterday. We are both starting to feel the effects of the
high altitude -- headache, easily exhausted, and now and then, a panicky feeling that you
cannot get quite enough air to breathe. The good thing, though, is we are seeing how fast
we are recovering when we feel tired, and how drinking lots of water really cuts the
headaches down to size. All in all, we are surviving and starting to acclimate to our new
Around 7:30 a.m., we zip open our tent fly and look out. Neither of us is prepared for the
beauty that lays before us. The fog and cloudy skies that surrounded us yesterday have
been replaced with crystal clear skies and bright sunshine. The change is almost
overwhelming. Stepping outside, we can see the smallest detail, no matter how far away it
We can see large elk grazing a thousand feet above us on the rich grasslands high above
the tree line. The horses down in the meadow below are lazily grazing as birds fly all
about us, chirping their own good mornings to each other and maybe even one or two
thrown in for us. We learn later that morning that deer stood just a few feet in front of
our tent and grazed (the tent fly being unzipped startled them).
After we both find our "tree," I head back to the tent to finish dressing and Michael goes
on down to the kitchen area and pours hot water into his water bottle. I guess Jayme
thinks this a bit strange, pouring out perfectly good drinking water and replacing it with
hot water, but what the heck, they were tourists she probably thought, they are supposed
to do things like that!. Returning to the tent, he asks me to help him wash his hair. A hazard
of being young -- having hair to wash! I should be so lucky. Anyway, standing there in the
bright morning sunshine in the middle of a beautiful meadow, I pour hot water on Michael's
hair while he uses some of the biodegradable soap we brought, furiously trying to rub it in
and work up a lather.
No soap (excuse the pun). Either this stuff does not lather up, or the water is too hard or
something, because all the rubbing he is doing is only producing a token bubble or two.
Thinking maybe the trouble might be not enough soap, he adds more. Nothing. Then
trouble. When I start pouring the water again to rinse -- you guessed it -- bubbles out the
wazoo!. The more water I pour, the more bubbles. After a while, Michael looks like a mad
dog with all the foam dripping off his head and face.
I will remember those few precious moments the rest of my life -- standing there out in
the middle of that meadow, washing my son's hair.
After another wonderful breakfast prepared by Jayme, the breakdown of this great
campsite starts in earnest. April loves the horses and is already out helping Gary move
them from the meadow to a place closer to the kitchen area so the daily ordeal of
repacking can begin.
Michael and I go our separate ways as we usually do each morning for about an hour. He
goes off somewhere quiet to think or read his book. I find a comfortable spot to write in
my journal. I like a place close enough to hear and see the campsite, but far enough away
so as not to be in anyone's way.
It is almost 10:30 and Gary is giving us our "marching" orders for the day. Today will be
the first time we go above the tree line. He talks briefly about the dangers of lightning if
we get caught out in a rain storm accompanied by lightning. We all can see the handwriting
on the wall and realize instinctively that the thing to do is to lie down right where we are
and be no higher than the rocks or grass around us. The name of the game is to do this as
quickly as possible and to stay this way until the threat of lightning passes. Getting wet by
the rain is not part of the equation or solution -- one can always dry off if the only thing
that happens is getting wet from a few drops of rain.
Gary again talks about the rhythm of our hiking and again, stresses the importance of just
one step at a time -- step, breath, step. To help with dehydration and the effects of high
altitudes, he and Jayme both encourage us to fill up -- drink as much water as we can hold
before we set out.
Turning and looking toward the upper reaches of our valley, he points to a point high in the
back of the valley and says to head for that point. After reaching that point, a trail
division, we are to take the right trail. If we stand at a pile of rocks marking the trail
division and look back over our right shoulder, we will see a stick high up on the far ridge.
Head for that stick -- it marks the point where one of his secret trails goes over the pass
and down into the next valley.
As before, we hit the trail before he or Jayme do and in a flash, we are out of camp, back
across the stream bed running beside our campsite and climbing toward the tree line. The
stream bed looks so different this morning. Today, with the sun out in full brilliance, the
three-foot tall wildflowers that grow in the middle of the stream bed are absolutely
Back on the trail we were on yesterday, we hit the tree line in about 10 minutes. Tired.
Very tired. Michael and I both are going too fast. We are also breathing too hard. I am
thinking that there is no way I will be able to make it this day. As the trail passes out of
the tree line, it levels off for a while. We use this reprieve from climbing to slow down and
to start hiking like Gary told us. Within minutes, we are back to normal.
Do not get me wrong, it is still tough, but we feel comfortable now with the effort it takes
to climb, especially since the trail has now resumed its steady climb toward the rim of the
valley we are trying to leave. Step, breath, step, we slowly make our way up into the
vastness of the valley above the tree line.
The higher and farther we go, the more magnificent the views become. A comment Michael
had made a year ago about wanting to hike in a place with views like he had seen in movies,
you know, far off vistas of beautiful mountain peaks, etc., had planted the seed in
Deanna's mind about a gift to both Michael and me.
I had brought home a catalog from work that one of my coworkers had let me borrow for
a few days. Later that night after hearing Michael and me talk about "one day, we would
go somewhere like that and hike," she found the write-up in the catalog for the very trip
we were on at this very moment. Our Christmas present.
Michael and I both break Gary's guideline about stopping too long on an up-hill climb. We
just have to -- a lifetime of waiting is over -- the views before us and behind us
completely overwhelm us. We stand there looking back toward the valley floor, thousands
of feet below us, and cry.
The tears feel wonderful -- they seem to be carrying away some unknown burden or
longing -- we are free, we are happy, we are at ease with ourselves. Thank you Deanna,
thank you for the gift that gives Michael and me this one small moment of time when we
are soaring with the eagles.
The trail now is just a thin line amongst the grass and rocks. We see many wildflowers all
around us. Each step takes us higher and higher and the views just keep getting larger and
larger. Out in the open like this, the trail is lightly marked by piles of rocks every one or
two hundred yards. With even just a half an inch of snow on the ground, the trail would
disappear in seconds. The piles of rocks are like little lighthouses -- continuously pointing
We reach the fork in the trail that Gary has told us about. The right fork we are suppose
to take goes about three feet and then just disappeared amongst the grass and rocks. I
look up and back to the right and can see a white-looking stick over a mile away, high up on
a ridge. Seeing a few "lighthouses" near us and leading out toward the stick, we set off in
Remember that we are in the middle of a vast sea of grass and a few piles of rocks here
and there. We can easily track toward the wrong pile of rocks because sometimes, even
all of them look like markers. We can actually see for miles in any direction. The air is so
clear. Back home, I probably could not see a car a mile way, let alone a white stick that
Gary has stuck up in some rocks years ago. But here now, the thin pointer on the ridge line
keeps us headed in the right direction.
We see Gary and Jayme far below us now on the trail up toward the fork in the trail. They
look so far away but at the same time, they look so close to us. It is only when you measure
the time it takes you to walk from were you are to something you see far up the trail, that
you really begin to appreciate the vastness of the distances around you.
Summit! Michael and I reach the stick marking the pass we will take later on our trip down
the far side of the mountain we have just climbed. Dropping our packs and breaking out
our cameras, we immediately begin to explore the top of this ridge. Bill and Karen have
joined us, and Bill immediately bounds off to go climb a nearby peak. Scrambling to the
top, he waves to us and to Karen.
Everyone has reached the pass now and we are all milling about taking pictures and
marvelling at the views that words cannot really describe. We can see the entire valley we
hiked up today and the day before. Looking over toward the next valley, we can see Banjo
Lake, thousands of feet below us. Rising up thousands of feet behind it is a monolith of
bare rock -- Electric Peak -- absolutely beautiful.
We can see the main valley (where Westcliffe is) far below on both sides of the ridge we
are standing on. With the Sangre de Cristo Mountains running in a basic north/south
direction, there are side mountains running at almost 90-degree angles to the Sangre de
Cristo mountains. Each of these side mountains start high at the ridge line of the main chain
and then start their own downward descent to the main valley below. Spaced about two
miles apart, these side mountains create one high alpine valley (like the one we just hiked
out of) after another, each separated by mountain peaks and ridges that hover around
The two valley types we can see, the main one far below and the high alpine near us, are so
different. The main valley runs north and south, basically following along the base of the
Sangre de Cristo mountains. The valley floor averages around 7,000 feet in altitude, and
is primarily used for cattle ranges and hay production. Right now, its grasslands are
golden to our eyes, dotted at times with a speck of green here or there.
The high alpine valleys run in a general east/west direction, starting at the edges of the
main valley and climbing upward to us at almost 13,000 feet above the main valley.
This 6,000 foot change in elevation lays out in front of us now as valleys approaching us
first covered by light green forest, then followed by a much darker green forest (runs
from around 8,000 feet up to around 10,000 feet), and finally, wide open vastness. The
vastness represents the true high alpine meadows and are generally lush green, filled with
wildflowers, low growing bear shrubs, and finally, bare rock.
Michael and I climb a peak on the ridge we are now on and stand at the top with our hands
and arms raised high in triumph -- we conquered the mountain, we made it -- one step at a
Gary is now showing us where we are headed next. The trail down through the rock field
below us looks so steep, so dangerous. We cannot even see a trail except for the little
one-foot wide trace directly before us. All we can see is almost two thousand feet of
steep, rock-covered mountain dropping below our feet. I am telling you right now, my mind
has all sorts of warning bells going off.
"It is dangerous, I will not kid you. But we can make it."
Gary with absolute calmness and authority, tells us the facts about our pending descent.
The trail, he describes, is a continuous set of very sharp, steep switch-backs, treading
themselves through the rocks that cover the mountain side as far as the eye can see.
With final instructions to us, he lets Sue, April, Karen, and Malcolm head on down. Because
of the dangers of rocks being kicked loose and tumbling down, we are going to let them
get a long way ahead of us before we even start out.
Normally, Gary leads two pack horses and Jayme brings up the rear with three horses
tied together. Since the switch-backs were so sharp, Gary decides it would be best to
break up Jayme's train of horses and give one to Bill to bring down. After giving Bill some
instructions about how to best control and lead the horse, we start down.
Michael goes first to help clear rocks and boulders from the trail. Following him is Gary
with two horses, then Bill with his horse, then me, and finally, Jayme with her two horses.
The trail is literally only one foot wide and varies in depth from a few inches to a foot,
depending on how high the rocks are piled beside the trail. We have to watch every step
we take -- not much time for "sightseeing."
Trouble. Dangerous trouble. The pack on Gary's lead horse breaks loose and the saddle
and pack are now sliding dangerously forward on the horse. Everyone freezes -- the
consequences are obvious. The horse is dangerously close to going over. If this happens,
there will be no reprieve from his downward fall.
I rush straight down the mountain side, cutting across the trails to get to Gary as quickly
as possible. Since I am taller than Gary, I think I can be more helpful if I go around to the
downhill side of the horse. Standing there now, balanced on a bunch of loose rocks, I try
to help him keep the pack from slipping even farther forward on the horse. He tries to
develop a plan that can get the situation quickly under control.
"Mike, we have got a problem, a very dangerous problem on our hands," Gary quietly says.
Without even saying a word, I nod agreement. All three of us, the horse, Gary, and I are
dangerously close to going down and tumbling downwards through the rocks, particularly if
the horse goes over while we are handling the packs and get caught in any of the tackle or
Moving gently to the lead horse, Gary gently holds him by the bridle with his left hand and
whispers something to the horse. As he talks, he gently pats the horse with his right hand.
The horse instantly responds -- he stands very, very still and seems to relax. Gary then
slowly moves back and repeats the procedure with the horse tied to the lead horse. Again,
the same response -- relaxed stillness.
Slowly and with some difficulty, we get the pack free off the saddle and start working
our way toward the rear of the horse. I am straining with all my might to hold the pack
high enough so it can clear the saddle horn and move backward. Being on the downhill side
of the horse, I am standing about three feet lower than Gary is and have to hold the pack
high over my head. I am approaching the end of my strength by the time we reach the back
of the horse where I can then pass my side of the pack between the two horses over to
We have been told not to stand directly behind the horses. They will not intentionally kick
us, but things can happen. So here I am now, standing on the side of a mountain sloping at
about a 55-degree angle, holding a bulky pack weighing over 80 pounds over my head, and
I am leaning against the rump of a very nervous horse. Talk about being nervous!
As I pass my end of the pack between the rump of the lead horse and the nose of the
horse behind him, Gary looks at me and says very quietly, "it's times like this when it pays
to have good pack horses."
The calmness of his voice instantly relieves me. It does not take a rocket scientist to
figure out that Gary and I are in a tight spot right now. He goes on to describe in detail
what will happen if the horse goes over and falls. The words have the ring of a memory of
that having happened before somewhere up here high in the mountains. I have no desire to
see that event for myself, ever.
Gary also tells me what to do if the horses start to go down because I am standing in the
most vulnerable spot -- directly in their downhill path.
"Let go, drop anything you're holding onto and drop as fast as you can, flat on the rocks,
face down, your hands over your head," he said sternly.
Far below us, Malcolm and the girls are looking up at us. I am not sure they can really
comprehended the drama unfolding before their eyes. From that distance, we must just
look like small figures hung on the side of a very steep mountain, fiddling around with the
Once the pack is off, I help Gary pull the saddle back into its proper position on the
horse's back. He then goes about redoing all the straps that hold the saddle on, paying
particular attention to the one strap around the horse's belly. He pulls on the strap, waits
a moment or two and then pulls again. After a few extra pulls, he says he has gotten
almost three extra inches out. Once the saddle is again securely in place, we go about
putting the pack saddles back on
As I again stand behind the lead horse, waiting on Gary to pass my end of the pack to me,
I cannot help but think about what Gary said earlier about having good pack horses. We
have been at this whole ordeal now for about 20 minutes and the two horses have not
moved an inch, shifted their weight, moved one foot, not a twitch. Gary finally hands me my
end of the pack. Carrying my side of the pack over my head, we inch forward and slide the
pack back over the saddle and saddle horn.
Gary sets about building from scratch, a new harness that goes around the rump of the
lead horse. He does this by using pieces of rope and other pieces of tackle reconfigured
to be used in different ways. This new harness will help prevent the pack and saddle from
again shifting forward on the horse's back.
After about 30 minutes, the situation is over. I cannot say enough about Gary in these past
few moments. His calm, his professional experience, and his quiet courage made a
potentially life threatening situation manageable. We all, the horses included, move onward
unhurt. Thanks, Gary.
We have only gone about 100 feet when we have to stop again. Michael and Gary have to
shove a huge boulder out of the way. Getting their feet behind it, they send it tumbling
downwards. Only problem is, it goes about 30 feet and plops right back down in the middle
of the trail on the switch-back below us. Michael goes on down to keep clearing smaller
obstacles out of the way, while Gary starts working on the trail where the huge rock
originally rested. With the removal of the boulder, he has to literally build a new trail on
the downward side with layers of rocks, kind of like building a wall.
I head on down to where the boulder has come to rest again to see what I can do with it. I
must look kind of funny by now, like an old mountain man. Here I am coming down the side
of a mountain with a pack on, a gnarly old walking stick in one hand and a 30-30 rifle in my
other hand. After Gary and I repacked the lead pack horse, he asked me to take the rifle
down the mountain for him. His thinking was that if the horse went over, he didn't want to
loose the rifle.
Michael goes back up to help Gary rebuild the trail and after another 30 minutes, we are
able to move again. Dropping on down the trail to help me with the boulder, Michael and I
sit down on the ground uphill from the boulder and place our feet against it.
"One, two, three," we grunt together and with our feet pushing, we send the boulder
hurtling downhill. This time success -- the boulder falls free of the trail below. I did
worry for just a second or two though. I had these visions of us pushing this stupid
boulder from one switch-back to another, all the way to the bottom!
Looking far below, we can see Malcolm and the girls down on the grassy meadows
surrounding Banjo Lake. Slowly and surely, we make our way down the mountain side
toward them. The wind is up a little bit now, and it is starting to get a bit nippy as we
approach the lake.
This is Jayme's first trip down this particular mountain-side trail and I must say,
considering what we are going through, she is doing well. You, too, Bill. Jayme leading two
horses down is tricky enough but so is just leading one. Way to go, gang!
The switch-backs are so sharp, the horses are actually going in two different directions at
the point of the switch-back. It takes skill and guidance to make the rear horse follow the
trail, and not try to cut the corners, so to speak. To do so, will most likely bring on
disaster. The footings will be so shaky that both horses will probably get tangled up in
each other and take each other down and over the side of the trail.
When we reach the bottom, I look back up the thousand or so feet of millions and millions
of rocks we just passed through and I just shake my head. Even standing here right now, I
cannot believe we just came down through all of that. No trace of a trail can be seen
anywhere. Only one small pile of rocks at the very end marks its presence. If you do not
know the trail is here, you will not even pay any attention to these rocks -- they are just
four or five more in the middle of millions.
Banjo Lake is so beautiful all nestled in here high in the valley. It does seem strange
though, to see such a beautiful lake with no fish. The water freezes solid all the way to the
bottom during winter. We originally planned to eat lunch here on the lush grassland
surrounding the lake but the cold wind is too much -- cold winds and picnics do not seem to
go together. Gary suggests that we keep on going down this valley to one of his campsites,
in fact, one that most likely we will use for tonight's camp.
Walking up on a ridge below the lake, we can see far below into the valley spread out
before us. Gary indicates to a point about two miles away just inside the tree line and tells
us to head for it. Once we get there, we are to leave the trail and angle off down toward a
creek and look for an old campsite.
Without hesitation, we veteran wilderness hikers hit the trail. Veterans, yeah, you bet!
After completing one of the most beautiful and daring hikes any of us has probably ever
been on, we are ready, we have "slain the dragon" and now are marching off to conquer
the rest of the world!
The hike down to the tree line is beautiful, even though it starts out windy and cold. We go
only about a quarter of a mile before the rains pay us one of their daily visits. By now, we
have grown accustomed to it about this time each day. Without missing a beat, Michael and
I continue walking, removing our packs, pulling out our rain suits (tops only this time),
putting them on, and strapping our packs back on.
Thank goodness there are a few ups and downs with tiny gullies out here in the vastness of
the open grasslands above the tree lines. Remember earlier when I mentioned that we
had "loaded up" on water before we left? Well that and the drinking along the way has
finally caught up with Michael and me. What I do not realize until later is that every time I
stop for a nature call, he records it on film. Blackmailer!
Anyway, back to the hiking. All of a sudden as I am walking along and minding my own
business, I can feel things hitting my rain hood. I have it up and over my head and pulled in
kind of close because it is cold and nasty outside. Michael is also feeling the same thing,
that is, things bouncing off his head. At first, we both think the other is throwing pebbles.
As it turns out, we are both wrong.
The pebbles are white and getting larger -- much larger. In fact, they are starting to
sting just a wee bit.
Hail! We are being pounded by hail. Gary mentioned that we could experience almost
anything up here at this altitude. One minute the ground is covered with the little white
balls of ice and the next, they are all gone. We hike out of them within minutes.
Standing there before us is the strangest looking rock. Almost six feet tall, it stands here
alone in a sea of grass. Close inspection shows that it is some kind of conglomerate rock --
looks like a huge piece of reddish cookie batter with all sorts of different rocks just
stuck in it and on it. You can actually knock some of them off. Seems hard to imagine that
this type of rock, usually indicative of sedimentary layering under water, can be up so high
in the mountains.
I freeze in my tracks. We are now very close to the tree line and are winding our way
through some bear bushes (very low-growing shrubs), and some medium height shrubs,
and a few dwarf sized, wind blown trees. Lying there in the middle of the trail, like some
kind of ominous warning or dare, is an 18-inch-long leg bone from some animal. Not only is
it big, but it is fresh -- it still shows evidence of blood.
Remember the old story about the hapless cowboy who picked up a red-hot horseshoe and
to save face, immediately flung it to the ground as he proudly stated "don't take me long
to inspect horseshoes"?
Well, it does not take Michael and me long to inspect this bone. Putting two and two
together fast, you know, like bone plus rocks, bushes, and hiding places probably equals
bears -- we are through those bushes and gone before the bone even hits the ground!
All of us are gathered now near the point where Gary said we can leave the trail and head
downward to an old camp. Heading downhill, we pass an area that looks very "bear like,"
that is, lots of rocks, including one area with a huge cave entrance.
With the few tracks we see in the area, plus the bone on the trail a few moments ago, we
give this area wide berth.
The wind is picking up and it is getting nippy again. We had shed our rain gear moments
after the brief hail storm and had been hiking in our usual shorts and tee shirts for about
the last half hour. It now looks like we might get rain again.
Not really knowing where we are going, Michael and I start out on our own to see if we can
find the campsite. Since no one really wants to hike downhill, especially if it goes to the
wrong place and you have to hike back up, the rest of the group just kind of hangs back.
Working our way downhill another 200 feet in elevation, we finally see Jayme with the
horses down by a creek. She and Gary have turned off the trail before we did and have
headed straight for the old campsite. Michael and I join her and call back up hill to the
rest of the group to come on down.
One of my favorite movies is called "Little Shop Of Horrors." In the movie is a weird plant
that, well, let's just say, goes nuts and causes all sorts of pain and anguish (even though he
was funny as the devil).
We have just met his cousin. Standing about three feet tall, it has long pretty green
serrated-edge leaves branching off a tall stem, covering the stem from the ground up to
a beautiful, fuzzy, white-flowered top. This fuzzy top is also covered with bright yellow
Michael and I dub this piece of nature the "flower from hell!" The serrated-edge leaves
are a clue to its demeanor. Brushing by this plant, while walking in short pants, is courting
bloody legs as the leaves cut the dickens out of you. I still have scabs on the sides of my
legs from walking past this innocent-looking but diabolical plant!
We all gather around the abandoned hunting camp. There are some ruins of a walled
building here, made from timbers felled by hunters many years ago. It looks almost out of
place, considering we are in a wilderness area. There are even some old benches
scattered around the site. These are not natural ones, you know, made from a stump or
piece of a old log. No, these benches are made with boards, cut by saws and nailed
Gary is still out looking for water. He soon returns and states that there is no water close
by -- we will have to pack it over by one of the horses from about a quarter mile away. As
the rain clouds get heavier and it actually starts sprinkling, we all agree that we do not
want to make this our campsite for the night. It just does not seem right -- no view, no
water -- we want to leave.
As we eat lunch, we discuss our options. Gary tells us we can hike back out of the valley we
are in, up and around the large mountain looming behind us and hike down into the next
valley near a lake. This is the same campsite we would normally hike to tomorrow.
However, as a warning, he tells us we have to turn back if we break the tree line and it is
still raining and there is a threat of lightning. He also estimates that the distance to the
new campsite is about nine miles away -- about three miles farther than we have already
Michael and I look at each other and our eyes immediately say yes to each other -- we
want to push on even though the thoughts of another climb is already beginning to haunt us.
Sue and Malcolm look at each other and say yes, as well as Bill and Karen. We feel like we
can make it and we are eager to get going.
We quickly finish lunch and get set for the next leg of our journey. We have only marched
about 30 feet and I am already wishing I had kept my mouth shut -- my legs are already
tired. About a quarter of a mile later, the trail takes an immediate up turn as it heads up
the side of the mountain at about a 55-degree angle through the fir trees and spruce
For over a mile, we climb almost a thousand feet straight up. Step, breath, step, breath,
the effort to keep moving is getting so hard now. God, I hurt. Not so much in my legs, but
in my breathing. I totally focus on the trail in front on me. I shut out almost everything
around me as I try to concentrate on step, breathe, step. Each step is torture. I cannot
believe I agreed to tackle this mountain after just climbing up almost 3,000 feet from our
last base camp to the ridge at the end of the last valley, and then descending almost that
far back down into this valley where we stopped for lunch.
Altitude. Yeah, that is it. The altitude is affecting my senses. No sane person would agree
to this torture.
Finally, we break free of the trees and come out on the back of the ridge that we will
climb for about another 2,000 feet. There, we will look for another of Gary's secret
trails that will allow us to hike along the side of the mountain looming in front of us until we
reach a special point (marked by Gary with one of his rock piles) where we can safely hike
back down again into the next valley.
Even before we look back at the magnificent views of the valley behind us, we have
already decided, lightning or no lightning, there is no way in the world we will go back down
the grade we just struggled to climb and then come back up it again later. I will camp
right here if I have too, I thought -- just lay down right over there by that soft looking
rock and sleep a while.
Fortunately for us, the rains are gone and the weather to the west looks good. Gary gives
us the go-ahead to keep on going.
The views are overwhelming. Being three miles farther back down toward the main valley
and on the bald part of the ridge just before it dropped back down into the tree line, we
have a panoramic view that just cannot be explained. Words are so powerful sometimes --
wars have been launched because of them. Then there are times like these when they fail
-- they just never seem to bring into focus all that the eye and mind can see all at once.
Thank God our brains understand. At least the beholder is forever awed and satisfied
with the results.
Gary points uphill saying "up there" and for us to head for a point about two miles from
here. Within minutes, he passes us like we are chained to the ground. In no time at all, he is
just a speck on the hillside, steadily pulling away from us. Bionics, yeah, that must be it.
How can he just keep going? I think he could climb all the way to moon without stopping!
No trail, just beautiful scenery and a long steady climb through wildflowers and grass.
Step, breathe, step. Seems like I have heard this drill before. The plateau we are heading
for on the side of the mountain seems like it never changes position as we walk. What I
mean is, every time I looked up, it looks like I have not moved one inch closer to my
objective. I look down at my aching legs and whisper "do not fail me now guys, it is still a
long way camp!"
Michael and I both snap off a few more pictures of the views afforded us. I get to
thinking as we steadily climb, that I hope we have brought enough film along -- we are
really snapping off the shots.
Finally we catch up with Gary and the lead horses. He has his binoculars out and is standing
at the beginning of a very faint trail that threads its way down a very long slope -- about
two miles worth -- to the back of a new valley almost 3,000 feet below. This trail is one of
Gary's secret trails -- you have to be right where we are to even see it. As I approach
him, I ask "What's up?" seeing that he is obviously upset.
"Look there," he says, handing me the glasses and pointing to an area next to a lake in the
valley beyond the one we're directly above.
"Look just below the lake and you will see them," he quietly says. Focusing the view, I can
see several tents along the edge of the lake. No one is supposed to be there, explains
Gary. He is the only outfitter authorized to come into these particular valleys. Maybe they
will be gone before we get there, I thought.
With all the group at hand, Gary points out where we will be going. We will first go all the
way to the back of the new valley we were high above, angling downward all the way to the
back. Then, we will go down through the rock pile we can clearly see even from this
distance. Gary assures us it is tame compared to the one we did earlier today. Once down,
we will then come back down the far side of valley to a point about half-way back to where
we were now. The ridge line on that side ends there and folds back sharply to start the
wall of the next valley, the one that will be our home for the next day and a half.
We estimate we have about six more miles to go. After walking on the plateau for about
15 minutes, we finally start downhill. The views around us are still staggering -- we can
see for miles in any direction, including almost straight down the mountain side we are
quietly tip-toeing across, so as not to awaken a sleeping giant.
Michael spots our thin line of a trail clearly visible at the head of the valley, almost two
miles ahead. It still blows my mind how you can spot recognizable objects at such great
distances -- it's almost like looking at a giant map of the entire area and everything is all
filled in and labeled.
The trail is steadily dropping toward the back of the valley. As I walk along and think, I
think about our day and how full it has been so far and how much more there is still left to
do -- so many more miles to go. For some strange reason, our endeavors today make me
think about another one of my favorite movies, "The Longest Day," which chronicled the
day-long invasion of Normandy during World War II. Without a doubt, before our hike
ends today, this will be our longest day.
When I turn around and look back, it looks like we are walking along the sides of a huge
blimp. The mountain is perfectly rounded from the plateau area over to where its steep
descent into the valley below begins. Even as I walk along, I keep wondering how we are
doing this -- it looks like we ought to be falling off this crazy mountain.
As we descend even farther down the bare trail through the grass, the grass itself
starts to wear us out. The clumps are so rich, they form an uneven walking surface. We
are also starting to see more holes in the ground -- some large enough to step into and
cause one to stumble and/or get hurt.
After about another mile, we come to the other "rocky slope" we have to go down through.
Even though Gary has already said this one will easy, my mind is saying, oh no, not again! But
all is well. This one is a smooth, downward trail that all of us easily navigate. It has all the
characteristics of the previous one, such as a foot-wide trail through millions and millions
of rocks using switch-backs to make the descent possible, but this one is gradually sloping
and the switch-backs are far fewer and not as sharp. Piece of cake compared to the last
One thousand feet down through all of this and we are finally walking on the grasslands at
the back of our new valley. With the snow packs up against the high rear ridges of the
valley, it looks almost like the last one we were in.
I ask Sue if she wants to hike back where we have just come from and go back to our last
camp. Before she can even respond, Malcolm smiles and quietly says, "She does not want
to go," knowing that if she says yes, he has to go back also. They could do it, I am sure.
Both he and Sue are in great shape. Especially Malcolm. 61 going on 62 years old and
cruising right along this trip like it was a walk in the park. Oh, he huffs and puffs on the
climbs -- we all do -- you would have to be a machine if you did not.
Malcolm has an Appalachian Trail (AT) patch on his hiking hat. That patch means 300 miles
of trail to him at this point, from the starting point at Springer Mountain in Georgia up to a
point near Damascus Virginia (just over the border from Tennessee and only about 12
miles west of where North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia all touch at one common
point). 300 hundred miles on the AT is no small accomplishment, I can assure you. Very
few can claim those miles.
Malcolm told me earlier that he is going to hit the trail again sometime in September,
getting back on the trail near Damascus and going as far as he can in two weeks. I wish him
well. I would love to hike with him, especially since I found out he was hiking alone.
Standing here now watching Jayme make her way toward us, the horses gently following
her every footstep, I look back up at the huge, bare mountain we have just traversed. No
way I keep telling myself, no way did we just walk across that mountain. You will fall off,
any idiot can tell you that. No wonder no one has ever found Gary's secret trail -- no one in
their right mind would even look where we just came from and expect to find a trail in the
With Gary again leading the way, we head back down the left side of this new valley. With
the snow packs behind us feeding streams that bubble pass us as we walk, we cross the
two miles of open meadow and grasslands and head for the tree line far below. Just as
with the last valley we entered, this one is also magnificent -- the views of the valley walls
and forest below and even farther in the distance, the main valley floor at the base of the
Sangre de Cristo Mountains, all teased our eyes and senses with an endless array of
We finally end our downward trek and angle off to the left and head into the tree line.
Travelling only a short distance, we find another one of Gary's secret trails and we turn
left again and head back uphill into another new valley.
The forest looks so primeval here -- the soil is jet black and nutrient rich, while the trees
are huge and vibrant with rich colors of healthy green painted on all the needles and
leaves. We pass several bog-looking areas and the profusion of wildflowers here -- so
many and so tall -- is staggering. Pure natural beauty.
The hike is beginning to climb more and none of us are too keen on that subject. Just as we
think we might poop out, the trail levels way off and we start cruising through a maze of
pine and fir trees. Twist, turn, duck, turn, twist, we forged on. It also gets real tight in
places. Not so much for us, but for the pack horses. We can hear tree limbs snap on trees
as the packs on the horses rub tightly against them.
Who designed this trail anyway? Wait a minute. I cannot believe I even asked myself that.
Who else but Gary. I already know that Gary uses what is known as "false starts" to
throw "other" users off the track, so to speak. What you do, is to make a big amount of
effort to create a trail, say as much as a 100-yards worth, and have it go off in a direction
that really leads nowhere and then you just kind of let the trail gradually thin out.
People will tear out on one of these trails, and, before they realize it, they are knee deep
in lost, know what I mean? What they do not realize is that back almost 100 yards, is a
very small trail branching off the "super highway" they are on. This little, faint trail is
quietly heading out in a totally different direction. Smooth, huh? Works every single time.
Somewhere along here in this man-made maze, we lose Bill and Karen. One minute they are
behind us and the next, poof, they are gone. They must have missed a turn or something,
and most likely will just head for the lake.
The sky is starting to darken as we finally arrive at our alternate campsite. This one is
about a mile upstream from the large lake where we were originally going to camp. As it
turns out, I am glad we are here. The mosquitoes are out in force this week, and I figure
if they are bad here, they must be murder along the edge of the lake.
Almost on cue, the rain starts to fall lightly. So what else is new? Somebody is really
testing us today. But, we will not buckle. We are veterans, I keep telling myself as I put
my rain gear back up for the third or fourth time today. Actually, it kind of feels good, the
rain suit, I mean. Warm. Michael follows suit as does everyone else.
Well look who is here. Bill and Karen arrive. They had missed our trail and had just
followed the sounds coming from the lake.
Unfortunately, the sounds were not coming from us but from the "other" campers, the
ones we had seen earlier this afternoon with the binoculars from high above and miles
After Michael and I stake out our choice for a level tent site, we set about helping Gary
and Jayme unpack the horses. The first order of business is to get the tents up and to get
the huge orange kitchen fly up. Michael and I get our tent set up rather quickly, as do Sue
and Malcolm. I cannot see where Bill and Karen have chosen to put up their tent but I am
sure they are just as quick as the rest of us in getting it set up
Somehow or another (I think I mentioned this earlier), I end up helping April put her tent
up again. I think she had this planned all along and I just did not know it. Knowing my son,
he probably said something to her like "play your cards right and act helpless and Dad will
put your tent up for you every night!"
Anyway, the rain is really starting to come down now and April and I finish putting up her
tent in about two and a half minutes -- got to be some sort of record!
Over at the kitchen area, Gary is wrestling with the kitchen tarp. The rain is very heavy
now and freezing rain at that. I cannot believe how cold the water is. At one point, I hold
the edge of the tarp up while Michael ties a line to it so he can stretch it out to a nearby
tree. My fingers are freezing by the time he finishes securing the line.
Hail. Lots of hail. A whole lot of hail. In a matter of seconds, the ground is covered in white
balls of ice. The kitchen tarp begins to sag under the weight of all the ice accumulating on
top of it. We keep pushing up on the tarp in the low areas, constantly dumping the ice off.
After a while, the hail ends as quickly as it started. Within 15 minutes, we can see blue
skies to the west above the next mountain range that forms the wall for the other side of
our new valley.
Ten minutes later, the sun is out. What a finish to a day that is almost indescribable. We
have seen brilliant morning sunshine with clear, cobalt-blue skies, followed by periods of
rain, clouds, clear skies, hail, clear skies, rain, and hail once more and finally, a sky painted
with pastel pink, red, lavender, and rose-colored clouds as the sun sinks slowly behind our
western valley wall.
Can the big guy put on a show or what! I am standing here now with tears in my eyes as I
watch the sun dip behind the far ridge line. I feel so humbled and so privileged to be able
to witness the majesty of all of this.
It is getting on toward suppertime and we have all drifted into the kitchen area. Even
though the sun has come back out, it is still very damp around camp and everybody shows
up wearing long pants and sporting coats or sweaters. Here in the middle of July we look
like we are getting ready to go out and cut Christmas trees or something.
Ever notice how the kitchen always seems to pull everyone in the house to it, especially if
there is a large group of people in the house. Big house, little house; rich house, poor house;
it does not matter.
The pull of the hearth always works. It must be in our blood or something. Kitchens on
camping trips are no different -- everyone always ends up there.
When I say everyone, I include our other two hiking companions, Sherman and Gretchen.
Dogs. Good dogs. Sherman -- Gary's dog -- is a big, solid black Great Dane. He is the
veteran of the two dogs with this being his eight trip. He stays close to Gary, even sleeps
in his tent. Sherman minds his manners, hardly ever barks, but does keep a keen eye and
ear focused on all that is going on around him. Gretchen, on the other hand, is a first-timer.
She belongs to Jayme and is a mixed-breed dog, of medium size with black and white hair.
While Sherman just plods along right beside Gary when we are on the trail, Gretchen
constantly stays on the move. First, she starts off the hike by marching right alongside
Jayme. Then, being young and noisy, I guess, she trots all the way from the back of the
line, up to the head of the line to visit a spell with whoever is leading at the moment. Back
and forth, stopping slightly to visit with everybody in between, she constantly makes her
rounds. We get tired just watching her hike at least ten times farther than we do. We
used to have a poodle who did the exact same thing -- hike two miles for every one we
It is fun watching Gretchen trying to find a dry spot to lay on when we encounter rain or
just wetness around the campsite. She will try to put her 20 pound body on a spot no
bigger than a postcard, kind of like a cat that will curl up in an open box ten sizes too small
for its body. Gretchen turns, twists, curls, and curls until finally, she thinks she has done
it. All she has actually accomplished is to wind herself up tight as a ball and balance on top
of a little, small flat rock. She is happy; that is all that counts.
Everybody is swapping stories about today's adventure. The bar is open and Bill, Malcolm,
and Michael are already experimenting with some kind of new drink combination. They try
something different every night, even if it just turns out to be cold water mixed up
something. I try my usual cold water, lemonade powder, and Jim Beam mixture that
Michael got me to try the other day. Still not quite right though, needs something. Maybe
Michael will keep working on it and find out what it needs.
Tonight, Jayme is whipping up another meal fit for a king. Shrimp tortellini, yes, you heard
me right, shrimp tortellini in the middle of the wilderness! I tell you right now, you could
not be eating better than we are, even if you were down the mountain somewhere in a
fancy hotel restaurant. Clean pots again tonight -- not a crumb of food left. Our "throw
away" bag, the garbage bag, is still very thin for a group our size that has been on the trail
for as long as we have. I think we might all be putting on some weight here and there.
After supper, Gary climbs up on what we affectionately dubbed the rock pile -- a mile
long, quarter of a mile wide, one hundred foot high pile of rocks next to our campsite.
Millions of rocks pulled into place by glacier action building what I think is called, a
moraine. After 35 years, I finally find a use for something I learned in my high school
geology class! Just kidding Miss Purdy, where ever you are -- I remember lots of things
you taught us so long ago.
Anyway, Gary uses his cellular phone (used only in emergencies and in situations like this)
to call the ranch to tell them about the campers down below us. He went down to check
them out, and it is worse than he expected. They all have fires going and there are also too
many campers -- too many "heartbeats" they call it here. Every single heartbeat counts
toward the allowed maximum, including those of the horses and even dogs, if present.
The extra number of heartbeats is bad enough, but the fires -- all outdoor fires are
banned in Colorado now because of the high threat of forest fires. Even though we have
been getting rained on each day, they are actually piddly rains in the great scheme of
things. The forest is still very dry. We can easily kick up dust on the trails after a
After Gary comes back down off of the moraine, he tells us that the ranch relayed the
message to the U.S. Forest Rangers, who will immediately put a plan into place to deal with
the situation. We will see the results of that plan either late tomorrow or Friday morning.
Well, it is getting to be about that time -- nighty-night time. It has been a long, long day
and, quite frankly, we are all pooped. Without to much fanfare, we drift toward our tents.
After excursions out to the bushes to take care of business, Michael and I hit the
sleeping bags around 9 p.m.
Ingenuity, I call it. Stupid looking is Michael's expert assessment of the light I have
rigged up so I can read a few more pages in my paperback. Propped on my pillow, I have
my wool hat on and have stuck my small flashlight up under the band. It only has a very
narrow beam so I adjust it so that it points a beam of light directly out in front of me.
Next, I hold my book in the path of the beam and by moving my head from side to side, I
am able to read. Neat, huh? Only problem is, that after about 10 minutes of all this head
weaving and bobbing, I am getting dizzy. Maybe Michael is right after all!
Remembering the night before when we both went to bed without filling up our water
bottles, we made sure they are filled tonight. Every night, we have awakened feeling dry
as a bone. Tonight I take three of my pain pills, the kind that has a sleep-aid added. We
have hiked almost 16 miles today and my body is tired, really tired. I want to sleep tonight.
Sixteen miles. I have been on many hikes in all my years, many of them 16 miles or longer
but none of them -- I repeat, none of them -- could compare to these long but magnificent
I hiked way, way above the tree line today for the first time in my life. I also shared a
brief but special moment with my son, when we first looked back and gazed at the view
below us from our vantage point high above the tree line.
High above the valley floor and soaring like an eagle, I drifted off to sleep.
|Eagles flying high
Thursday -- July 28th, 1994 ___________________________
It is 6 a.m., windy and cold, and I have to go to the bathroom -- big time! Snuggling down
deeper in my sleeping bag, I try to tell myself that I really do not have to go. It is just a
dream, yeah, that is it, a dream. Reality though, has a way sometimes of just flat getting
your attention. Finally getting out of my sleeping bag (who invented these crazy mummy
bags with hidden zippers anyway?), I slip on some long pants. Bending forward to put my
shoes on, I feel the pain in my shoulder that bothered me all night long. Even with all the
pills I took last night, it still bothers me.
As soon as I slip out of the tent, I know that this morning's trip to the "woods" will be a
little bit different -- the wind feels like it is gusting upward to about 20 knots at times.
In situations like this, one has to be a master at certain skills or the results can be
undesirable. For example, one has to consider such variables as wind direction and
velocity, amount of "cover", degree of wind break, temperature of outside air, direction
to face, angle of body bends -- all sorts of technical stuff. And people think it is easy to
just "go" in the woods -- what do they know?
One thing is for sure. On a morning like this, one does not hang around and "read!" Know
what I mean?
Back in the sleeping bag, I quickly scrunch down inside to get warm again. Next thing I
know it is 9 a.m., and Michael is asking me if I plan on sleeping through our entire day off.
Day off. After yesterday, these two words sound wonderful.
Today belongs to us -- we can do with it as we please. Sleep, hike, fish, read, nothing.
Michael and I said the night before we might try to hike up to the back of the valley we
are in and then climb up until we reach the actual ridge line on the Sangre de Cristo
Mountain Range. My body is telling me right now that the very idea of a hike of that
magnitude sounds stupid. Maybe later -- just not now.
By now, the entire camp is stirring. Michael and I finally stumble outside and into the
brilliant, morning sunshine. Over at the kitchen site, the coffee drinkers are anxiously
awaiting Jayme's first pot of real coffee to come to a boil. Normally, you let the pot
simmer a bit after coming to a boil because this type of coffee making requires you to just
drop the grinds right into the water -- no filters or any of that "modern stuff." The
simmer period allows most of the grinds to settle on down in the pot. We usually just pour
and let them settle in our own cups. We are tough, remember? We are veterans.
English muffins, topped with shredded cheese, then covered with a piece of Canadian
bacon and finally topped out with a fried egg -- are we talking good or what? What can I
say? I am not sure how many of these delightful morsels of camp cooking everyone else
has eaten, but I think Michael and I have had four apiece. Or was it five? This little simple
recipe for breakfast immediately went on my campfire cook list.
I had all intentions of shaving on this trip. I had intentionally brought along all sorts of
stuff for this daily ordeal. Things like a nice little mirror that has a cute little stand,
travel size can of shaving cream, and three or four throw-away razor blades. One touch of
the ice-cold water up here in the mountains made me seek out my son's battery-powered
Best 15 bucks he ever spent. We have used it all week long and today is no exception.
There is a beautiful acre-sized meadow next to our campsite, and we now take turns
walking out there in the warming sunshine while blissfully shaving away. As I walk, I think
about something I heard or read about lately -- something like "civilization as we know it
will end when all the batteries are dead." Probably true, probably true.
With breakfast under our belts, we each seek our morning's quiet time. I keep looking at
this gigantic boulder out in the middle of the acre-sized meadow beside us. The top is
fairly flat and one side angles up from the ground for easy access. My problems are
solved. Lying here on top of the rock, with the sun warming my old bones, I write in my
journal for a while and then read some more of my paperback. "Wonder what old Dirk is
up to now?" I ponder as the story line once again unfolds before my eyes.
My rock, my peace, my time -- it is wonderful this morning.
Drifting back into camp after an hour of rejuvenation, I spot Number 1 -- Michael --
roaming around the camp just looking for something to get into. He has that mischievous
look about him only a father or mother can recognize (years of practice, I guess). I never
call him Jr., even though he is. Besides, he is a whole lot bigger than I am and Jr. just does
not seem quite right. I like to call him either Number 1 (for first born, my First Mate, my
number one friend) or just simply, Michael. Just looking at each other now, we know the
decision has already been made without any words being spoken.
Michael and I decide to go for it -- hike to the rim at the back of our valley.
"Lets do it," we say as we just look at each other and smile. Even as I say I will go I
cannot believe I just agreed to go. It looks so far away and strenuous as we stand by the
stream next to our campsite and Gary points to where we need to go. From our campsite,
we can look up and see the rim almost three miles away.
Not only can we see the rim, we can clearly see the post Gary is pointing to. The post is
placed on the rim at the pass that allows trail traffic from our valley to crossover into the
valley beyond the rim.
We "tank up" with water again and refill our water bottles. We also place some of the
infamous trail snacks in our day packs. Here it is Thursday and we still have enough of this
stuff to outfit an expedition to the South Pole and back! My guess is that some of today's
trail mix will not make it back to camp.
"Oops! Did I spill those -- I am sorry, what a shame. Better cover them up Number 1, we
cannot leave any trace of the spill," I would say miles ahead.
We ask around if anyone else wants to go. Everyone else has plans at the moment. Sue and
Malcolm already have books in their hands and are headed for the "rock pile" next to our
campsite. Sue says that after the splendor of yesterday, they just want some quiet time
and a chance to soak up some warm sunshine. That sounds so good, I thought. I almost
drop my pack, get my book and join them. I make a note to myself that if the weather is
still good when we get back, I am going to do the exact same thing.
Suited up, we leave camp and start up the trail that will lead us up and beyond the tree
line. After about 300 yards, we are breathing hard. We turn and look at each other and
say almost in unison, "We are nuts -- I hurt like the devil already!"
"Come on," I urged, "This will be our day -- we will enjoy it." It is so easy to lie, I thought,
as the burning in my legs get worse. Soon, we break through the tree line and we are out in
There is something about being out beyond the tree line. The vastness, the beauty of all
the vistas and wildflowers, something. Within five minutes, we are cruising along. Breathe,
step, breathe, we make our way up the valley floor through wildflowers, bear bushes, and
finally out onto the grasslands that go all the way up to the top of the ridge we have to
Gary has given us some basic directions -- just make your way up the valley and continue
up until you intersect a trail. This trail goes from the pass you are headed for, back across
the top of the valley and onto a pass on a ridge to your right. Bill and Karen said earlier
that they might head up toward that pass to get a look at the lakes in the next valley.
Just like during the hike yesterday, we begin to be overwhelmed by all of the beauty that
surrounds us. The wildflowers are much more prevalent in this valley. I even stop several
times to get down low so I can try to capture a few of them on film. Even if the pictures
turn out, believe me, they will not even begin to compare to the pictures my eyes are
taking right now.
Michael starts to drag a bit, even talking about do we really want to climb the ridge we
are now facing. He had injured his right knee a few months ago, and I begin to think that
maybe the steepness of the climb up and back down we are considering, coupled with
yesterday's trek, might be too much for his knee.
Trying to come up with a solution, I quickly look at the obstacles before us. "Look, we can
go up here, cut along a wide switch-back to over there, then back to where we think the
trail should be." I am saying all of this while pointing to various points on the back of the
valley wall. The route pointed out seems like it will allow us to gain altitude easy enough,
even though it will be a bit longer than necessary. It even convinces me -- I am also
hurting more than I was admitting.
"Agree," is his only answer and we start up -- breathe, step, breathe, we head up the
first leg of our imaginary trail that will get us up to the trial that leads to the pass at the
The sun is playing hide and seek with us now and some dark looking clouds are beginning to
show up above the rim. Even with the dim light, the masses of wildflowers we are passing
through give comfort to our journey. As the rhythm of our climbing falls into place, we find
ourselves steadily heading higher and higher, until finally, we arrive at the point where we
switch back and angle upward toward the trail that leads to the top.
In no time at all, we find the trail -- a thin, bare line crossing a vast sea of grass, rocks,
and a million wildflowers. The flowers are now almost completely covering the ground. As
we climb higher on our new trail, the landscape takes on a faint, red hue in areas covered
by thousands of Paint Brushes -- a beautiful, delicate, wispy sort of flower that looks like
a paint brush tinted in numerous shades or red.
I wish with all my heart you could be here right now, Deanna. The simple beauty of our
surroundings is so overwhelming. One of God's own special paint brushes touches this
With one final step, breathe, step, Michael and I lift our hands in triumph as we break out
onto the top of the ridge. We are at the top -- straddling the very backbone of the
Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The post we had so clearly seen from our campsite stands
before us, marking the division between two great National Forests.
Ahead of us and to the west is the Rio Grande Forest. Behind us and to the east, is the San
Isabel Forest -- our home for the past four days. Looking to the west and southwest, we
can see all the way to and beyond the San Juan Mountains -- onto toward Four Corners,
the extreme southwest corner of the state of Colorado. Farther around to the south, we
can see clear down into New Mexico.
Looking back toward our valley, we can see all of it -- clear to its end where it merges
thousands of feet below us with the great valley between the Wet Mountains and the
Sangre de Cristo Mountains. We can look even beyond the Wet Mountains and see the
Front Range, backdrop to Colorado Springs and Denver. Farther around to the north we
are looking into the mountain ranges that made up the central core of Colorado.
Michael and I soared a few moments yesterday with the eagles, but today, today we are
eagles, Deanna -- do you understand? -- we are flying with God and can see all that is
beautiful below us.
We spend another 15 minutes on the top just looking at all the world below us and not
saying too much. Each of us, in our own quiet way, is soaring and dreaming.
The weather to the west is starting to look threatening, so we decide it is time to head
down. Putting on our rain gear tops to ward off the chilly winds, we spot out our trip back
down. We pick out several new landmarks that will give us a different return path once we
leave the ridge trail that runs between the two passes.
With one final look toward our valley and our campsite below, we hit the trail and within
minutes, are far below the ridge line. As we drop farther and farther, we seem to be
passing more and more wild flowers. Maybe we just did not see all of them on the way up.
Anyway, just past the point where we had joined the trail earlier, we come up on about an
acre of Blue Larkspur, about two-feet tall and growing in a circle. Needless to say, we get
a picture of this beauty spot. In fact, Michael wanders out into the middle of it, replete
with about a million bumble bees buzzing around, and squats down.
He is anxiously waiting for me to snap his picture as he squats there with this obvious,
forced grin on his face. I am messing around with the camera like I can not get it to work
(I have already taken his picture) while he is saying things to his Daddy under his breath
that I just cannot repeat here!
A little while later, we spot Bill and Karen about two miles away on the next pass (at the
end of our trail). They are on the top of the next ridge over and are probably just as
awed as we were as they look around from their vantage point.
Leaving our threadbare trail, Michael and I head down toward one of our "spots" about a
mile and a half away -- an open spot just inside the tree line. Soon, we leave the lush
grasslands of the upper valley and drop into the thin vegetation that precedes the tree
line. It is the same in all the valleys -- low growing bear bushes, intermixed next with
dwarf-sized, wind-blown evergreen trees and other hardy mid-sized shrubs.
We are close enough to Bill now that we can call up to him, still high above us in the open
grasslands. He and Karen are making their way down from their pass much the same way
as Michael and I did -- pick a route from the top and head down. Bill wants to know how to
get to the pass we have just came from and Michael points out to him how to find the
actual trail that runs between the two passes. He also warns them of the storm clouds we
saw growing behind our pass. With a final wave, we are both on our separate ways.
Bones. A complete skeleton. From the size of it, it must have been an Elk. These bones,
just like the single one I found yesterday, are fresh -- bloody and still supporting skin and
stuff around the lower legs. And just like yesterday, we did not take long to "inspect"
these bones. One quick snapshot and we are history!
We pick up our pace just a bit as we now make our way down through the trees and small
boulder fields. We are making our own trail, dead reckoning our way back toward camp.
This type of hiking, dead reckoning, has always appealed to Michael and me. We love to get
somewhere in the mountains and with our seven-minute topo maps, plot out a course that
should take us to some landform identified on the map. Usually it is something like a double
rise in the land, shown on the map by very closely drawn contour lines.
After taking a bearing with our compass, or just using our "built-in" compass, we strike
out for our target, making our own trail as we go. In all the years we have done this, we
have never missed our target.
Just as the rain starts, yes, it is that time of day again, we break out of the trees dead on
target -- right in front of our tent. Are we good or what?
After letting Gary know we were back, we hit the tent to dress down. We quickly change
back into light-weight camp shoes, dry socks, and a warm sweat shirt. We both agree
almost at the same time that this "sure looks like sleeping weather to me," and with that,
we snuggle into comfortable positions against our gear and sleeping bags and are napping
before the words even hit the floor.
An hour later, the rain has stopped and the sun is already back out, drying out everything.
Feeling refreshed, I grab my paperback and head out to the rock pile beside our
campsite. Quickly climbing to the top, I selected a comfortable looking couple of rocks
and settle in for some quiet reading. Michael joins me after a while. We sit here in the
warm afternoon sun and read our stories of adventure and intrigue.
About an hour later, the wind picks up a bit and it turns just a little chilly, especially up
here high on the rock pile. We call it quits on reading and head down. Gee, I do not
remember climbing this high, I am thinking to myself as I have to watch for and carefully
choose which rocks to step on to come down safely.
This basic phenomenon, going up is easier than coming down, traps more would-be mountain
climbers, especially rock climbers. It kind of lures you in and them boom, you are caught
high up and panic sets in. It is easy to see upward and to pull yourself up. It is very
difficult to see below you and find safe footings, especially when you are "glued" to the
face of a cliff.
Stepping back onto the narrow meadow at the base of the rock pile, I run into Gary, Bill,
and Karen standing beside a small stream meandering through the middle of the meadow.
I should say only Gary and Karen are beside the stream because Bill is in the stream. Yes,
standing smack dab in the middle with his boots on. He swishes them around a bit saying
that he is washing them off. He does this every day -- stands in freezing water and
washes his boots! Maybe it is some sort of secret airline pilot requirement thing, I do not
know. Anyway, he seems to enjoy it and that is all that counts.
Gary has his binoculars out and is looking for April. She had changed her mind about hiking
up to the rim that Michael and I had gone to and now wanted to go. The rule is two or more
on an extended hike, and everyone was done for the day. She finally talks Gary into letting
her go. To compromise, he walks with her up to the tree line and points out the exact path
she should take to the top.
Standing here now with the binoculars, he is waiting for her to appear above one small rise
that blocks our view of the lower portion of the head of the valley. Within minutes, she
comes into view and is watched on and off by both Gary and ourselves.
All the way to the top in one long, continuous climb. What a trooper. April stands by the
same post we had been at earlier and raises her hand in a wave to us. I can almost see the
pleasure on her face from this distance. No one can stand there and not be dazzled.
Gary brings out his signaling mirror and "flashed" April the high sign. She sees it
immediately and frantically waves back. I saw for the first time how important it is to
keep a mirror with you when hiking. From her vantage point, half of the world was laid out
before her, including us as just specks on a very crowded landscape. The instant Gary
turned the mirror toward her, the flash of brilliant sun light was seen and recognized by
her in a microsecond.
The mirror in my day pack became a permanent part of that day pack in the same
The mosquitoes are back out in force -- must be getting close to suppertime. I go back to
the tent and stow my book and binoculars. Picking up my coat, wool hat, and bug spray, I
head back to the kitchen area.
The bar is open while Jayme and Gary start preparing the evening meal. Tonight it would
be couscous -- a delicious North African dish of crushed grain (like grits), steamed and
served with various vegetables and meats, such as Kielbasa like we are having tonight.
Now I ask you. How many campers or hikers do you know that could pull that meal out of
their backpack? Anyway, while all the cooking is going on, everybody is sitting all huddled
up to ward off the chill and actively batting around all the things that have happened
today, including April's solo trip up to the rim and back.
She and I are sharing memories about the view from the top when Michael comes over and
gets me to try some kind of drink he and Malcolm have devised out of sheer desperation.
First, they heat up a pot of water. Next, they take a cup and pour powdered lemonade into
it (about a quarter of an inch deep), and then pour the hot water into the cup. To this
brew, they pour a healthy portion of Jim Beam.
Folks, I just found another recipe to add to the campfire book. Good, very soothing and
good. Against the nip in the air, it hits the spot.
Talk about hitting the spot, I fall backward off the log I am sitting on. This particular
kitchen area is defined by two huge logs, lying parallel to each other and about 15 feet
apart. We place the saddle blankets along the tops of the logs and these make for very
comfortable sitting around the kitchen area.
There is a dead tree on the ground lying directly behind the one log several of us are
sitting on. Unfortunately for me, this particular dead tree still has short, broken limbs
attached to it, each one being broken off at sharp angle about a foot away from the main
trunk. Instinctively holding out one arm behind me to break my fall, I fall against the dead
tree behind me. One limb punctures my left hand and two others, thankfully blunt on the
ends, try their best to gore me in the left rump and back.
Immediate pain in my hand. However, it is nothing compared to my rump and back. At first,
I am scared -- I think I have actually punctured my back, it hurts so intensely. I am afraid
to move. Jayme and Michael are on me in one second, first determining how bad I am hurt,
then gently helping me back to the safety of the top of the log. April is also right there,
and between her (the doctor) and Jayme (the nurse), they ask all the questions, etc., to
make sure I am OK. Other than feeling stupid, I am all right, I assure them. What I do not
tell them is that the pain is so intense in my lower back that I feel like I am going to pass
Now do not jump to conclusions -- I only had one of Michael's "lemonades" before the big
fall. I did however, have several after the fall.
Finishing off another great meal, we sit around for a while longer and shoot the breeze. It
amazes me how well we all seem to get along. This entire week has made us feel as if we
have know each other for years. Except for a few introductory remarks about who we
were, where we came from, what we did for a living, etc., we do not dwell on our past as
much as we do on the present -- we are having a great time and it shows constantly.
Sure, some of our past creeps into our conversations -- our past determines who we are
-- we cannot escape it. However, we do not go on about things like how tough it is at work,
or how bad things are at times, and all the other things we seem to dwell on back home
that generally sends us into a tailspin, to use one of Bill's terms. We talk about the good
things, the good memories, the funny memories, the scary memories, but not the bad
Malcolm and Sue head for their tent as darkness starts to settle in around us. Saying my
good nights to the remaining group still bubbling with stories untold, I, too head for the
barn, so to speak. It has been a long day and the hiking, log falling, and lemonades are
starting to take their toll. My body is saying "get me in the sleeping bag, now!"
As I lie here all zipped up in my sleeping bag, I think about what a great day this has been.
The moments that I shared with my son today, both quietly and when we spoke, will last
me a lifetime. We flew high today Number 1, we flew high.
The last thing I hear before I drift off to sleep is the sound of Michael's voice coming
from the kitchen area. His high spirit and laughter lulls me to sleep.
|Downhill all the way
Friday -- July 29th, 1994 _________________________
It is about half past six in the morning, and I am again out in the woods, facing into a cold
wind and trying to take care of business. Porcelain toilets -- tonight the real thing -- my
mind races with visions of running water, warm bathrooms, and an entire roll of toilet
paper. Life can be good at times!
Everyone must be having "go home" feelings because by 7 a.m., the entire camp is alive
with warm bodies. Jayme is banging pots around, trying to get her coffee pot going. Gary
has already gone down to the meadow below to tend to the horses and April soon joins him.
The campsite is already starting to take on the appearance of departure. Duffel bags are
piled up here and there, and Jayme's saddle packs are all lined up. She's starting to solve
the daily puzzle of weight balancing of all the pack gear.
Soon, breakfast is well underway. Gary is playing master chef this morning, cooking up one
of his special trail breakfasts of peppers, mushrooms, onions, bacon, eggs, plus a few
other things he just kind of throws into the pot, so to speak. I do not think he realizes it,
but Jayme watches every move he makes, like, this is her kitchen and she is not quite sure
that he is doing everything "right."
I am informed during breakfast that I snore, in fact, snore very loudly. So loud in fact,
they say it can be heard throughout the entire camp. Mind you, some tents are as much as
a 100 yards from my tent! Malcolm and Sue say they thought about coming over to my tent
and giving it a few whacks with their hiking sticks. April swore she could hear me -- said I
sounded like a wounded bear. Bill and Karen nod agreement.
Even Gary, my friend and leader of this bunch of horse thieves, says it woke him up twice
and that each time, he thought a bear had charged into camp looking for food. Both times,
he said, he slipped his pants on, grabbed his rifle and jumped out of his tent looking for
some "crazy bear on the loose!"
I keep looking for the smirks -- there are none -- these people are serious. Must be the
altitude, yeah, that is it. Michael, Number 1, my compadre, says he did not hear a thing. You
know what that means, do you not? He that does not hear the snore is probably the snorer!
I rest my case.
Bill and Gary talk a long time about flying as we keep putting away another great morning
meal. Both of their flight experiences are fascinating and colorful. The stories swap back
and forth between Bill's commercial aviation background and Gary's various rides in all
sorts of aircraft when he was a U.S. Army Special Forces Captain in Vietnam. We all just
watch and listen as two special people let a few old memories bubble up to the top.
Listening to Gary speak about Nam is different from most stories I have listened to about
this long-ago period in our nation's history. Oh, I do not mean the politics of the era, that
never comes up. It is the calm and almost unassuming voice that Gary uses when narrating
his exploits. Never boastful, never vindictive, never hoarding the glory. Just by the very
nature of his rank and unit, Special Forces, he saw and experienced things most never saw
during their entire tour. With a quiet voice, he speaks of harrowing times and death. He
gives dignity to his words and to his fellow comrades, especially to those that he left
After breakfast, Michael, April, and I hike down to the lake below us where we originally
were going to camp. The lake is crystal clear and beautiful. Being about 15 acres in size, it
probably supports some rather large trout. As we walk around the edge, I note that the
mosquito colony here appears large. We are already seeing them here, whereas up at our
camp, they will not show up until late afternoon. Considering the number of the little black
things buzzing about us right now, I am glad we are camped one mile away from the lake.
Through the trees, we get another glimpse on the high mountain we traversed two days
earlier, hiking along the side of its rounded edge from one end of the valley wall to the
other. Again, we look at it and are amazed -- it just does not look possible to walk across
the face of that mountain.
Back in camp, things are really winding down. It is around 10 a.m. now, and Gary and Jayme
are ahead of schedule. All of the horses have been brought up into the campsite and are
standing patiently, waiting to be fitted with their packs.
For some reason, today's gathering of all the gear in the middle of the campsite looks
voluminous -- like we were a 40-party expedition gearing up for a two-month assault on
Mt. Everest. Maybe it is just the first time everything has been all spread out instead of
bunched or packed up tight together. Whatever it is, it sure is a lot of "stuff." Jayme is
having a time today, sorting out where everything goes as far as weight is concerned.
We all at various times, help when we can. Lifting a pack here, tying this or that down,
moving the horses around, doing whatever Jayme or Gary ask us to do. Off to one side,
writing in my journal, I can hear the sounds of excitement, pleasure, and peace. The
horses are baying, the group laughs and talks a mile a minute, Karen's and April's voices
fill the air with laughter and giggles as the camp is struck and the horses loaded.
Good sounds -- good times.
"It is downhill all the way," exclaims Gary. With these words after a final look around the
campsite for any evidence of paper, anything that will portray our ever being here, we set
out on the trail that will lead us back home. This is another one of Gary's secret trails
down and out of the valley. Most people only know how to hike back up and over the pass
where Karen and Bill had visited yesterday.
We hit the trail all lined up like the von Trapp family skipping off through the Alps. The
coldness of the morning has worn off by the time we depart and everyone has traded long
pants and sweaters for comfortable hiking shorts and colorful teeshirts.
Everybody that is, except Jayme -- pink, yes, long, pink hiking pants. That is OK Jayme --
you look wonderful!
Bogs -- very rich, fertile, wet grounds. We bypass a few large ones and tramp right
through several narrow ones. With so many streams up here, it is almost like a maze trying
to get through. The wildflowers growing in the middle of them are almost five feet high --
lush, thick green stalks and leaves, topped with a profusion of either multiple blooming
blue or white flowers, or singular yellow, daisy-like flowers.
Sometimes, they are so thick that when we get to the middle of the bog, we can hear a
stream bubbling beneath our feet but we cannot see it for all the flowers. We can also
hear the drone of thousands of bees around us as we quietly walk through their garden.
In several places, the horses have a bit of a time getting through. The ground is so soft
and gives way with their tremendous weight. More than once, Gary has to stop and throw
rocks into a soft area, trying to strengthen the footpath.
Zipping through these gardens of flowers, Gary shows another one of his many talents. As
we ask questions about this flower or that one, he is rattling off names like "Aquilegia
Caerulea" (Blue Columbine, Colorado's state flower), "Aconitum Columbianum" (Blue
Monkshood), and "Delphinium Nuttallianum" (Western Larkspar).
We just nod and smile and whisper "Did he say daisy?" "Yeah, that sounds close -- must be
a blue daisy." We are amazed as he just keeps spinning off the names like they are the
names of his horses or something.
We are dropping rapidly now, the forest becoming thicker and thicker with old-growth
trees. Our thin trail delicately threads its way through the trees and sometimes, around
and even under all the deadfall. So many downed trees. In one way, it is beautiful to see.
No real evidence of man -- just the natural progression of a forest from seedlings, to
young saplings, to tall majestic adults, then dying and diseased trees, and finally, those
who have fallen back to earth to decay and give nourishment to the life cycle they support.
The actual deadfall itself is almost frightening. It is all around us, thousands of trees in
every stage of returning to dust and soil. Our path at times is blocked and Gary has to cut
a limb or even a tree away to allow us to pass. Sometimes, they are so numerous or heavy,
several of us help. The spurs, broken limbs on the deadfall, are the most dangerous. Some
are like spears or knife points, waiting for careless or unsuspecting invaders.
Somewhere along in here, I punctured my upper right arm while helping Gary remove a
large dead tree. Michael places a temporary bandage on it to stop the bleeding. It helps,
but by lunch time, it is a mess.
We are still dropping in altitude. I already miss the vastness of the high, alpine meadows.
The sky above us gets really dark, and I suspect we will be getting our usual "rinse" soon.
We can also hear rumbling to our left toward the west. None of us are too excited about
that. We continue, stepping over fallen logs and skirting around trees.
Rain. Out comes the rain gear. This time, pants are broken out also. The water is cold.
Michael and I put on our wool gloves. Both Michael's and my rain gear is a bright, cobalt
blue affair with a separate bottom and top. The tops can be zipped up and with the hood
pulled up and over our heads, we are pretty well protected from the elements. However,
there are two problems. One, it gets hot inside. In fact, the sweat makes you "feel" wet.
And the other problem? We look like we are walking around in radioactive decontamination
suits -- we could probably scare a bear away with all this bright blue flapping in the wind!
Flashes of lightning are accompanied by loud claps of thunder. Unfortunately, the time
between flashes and booms is getting short. We are hiking now under a solid umbrella of
trees, giving us, I guess, the best protection we can get under the circumstances. At least
we are not out in the open.
The freezing rain makes everyone feel a bit uncomfortable. Sue and Karen are snuggled
down deep in their rain gear and warm sweaters. Gary has his rain gear on -- the "Clint
Eastwood" outfit we call it. It is a well oiled and worn, flat-brim leather hat and
western-styled leather rain slicker, the kind that looks like a flowing cape. April's hands
are starting to freeze from the cold rain and she turns and just looks at me with that "I
am cold" look. I give her my gloves. Without hesitation, Number 1 gives me his.
What is this? We are in the middle of a weird looking environment. Some kind of moss,
similar to grey Spanish moss back home, is draped on everything from the ground up to
the top of the trees. To start with, this stuff is slime green in color and as thin as hair. It
looks like we are standing in the middle of about one acre's worth. We take a poll and
agree. Martians. Yeah, they landed right here.
We are beginning to move along now much faster and easier. The rains have really
lightened up and things are looking good. We have probably dropped about 3,000 feet
already -- about 2,000 to go I figure. The forest is changing all around us as we continue
downward, changing from a high alpine forest to a forest more like what most people are
accustomed to -- mixed trees, lots of bushes, shrubs, and moss covered rocks in and
around rushing creeks.
Crossing a huge creek, we scramble up the bank on the other side and pop out into a
campsite right beside the main trail going up to the valley that was west of us when we
were at the top. Gary's secret trail, his short-cut out of the mountains, has ended.
No sooner have we arrived in camp than the rain quits and the sun breaks free of all the
clouds. Within a few minutes, the skies above us are bright blue and clear. Somebody has
watched over us all week long. Every single time we break for lunch, the rains quits and
the sun comes out. Thanks.
We all shed our rain gear and hang them out to dry. While Jayme starts spreading out a
picnic lunch, April "doctors" up my arm. Removing the bandage Michael had put on earlier,
she looks at the open cut and determines that all is well. Then, with some stuff from
Michael's first-aid kit, she cleans the wound, adds an antibiotic, and finally, creates and
applies a bandage large enough to cover all of this "doctoring." In case I forgot --
I might also mention that since we left the top, over two hours ago, we have been
travelling non-stop in a tightly knit group with almost no "out of sight" spaces between us.
As soon as the rain gear was shed and a few other basic chores done, it was a mad rush to
"find a tree," if you know what I mean!
As usual, lunch is great. Jayme has broken out some kind of bread that looks like a
deflated basketball -- a big, round, flat circle of bread that when cut in half, reveals a
hollow cavity inside. I am sure it has a proper name and all that, but I like my description
better. Anyway, it makes great "pockets" for holding all the other goodies she has placed
on the picnic cloth such as, cold cuts, cream cheese, tomatoes, and onions. Squirt a little
mayonnaise here, stuff a little meat there -- wonderful sandwiches, wonderful!
Day packs back on, we head down the main trail. We are on our final leg now, our
destination only about four miles away. The trail is wide and well travelled. At first, it
seems like a blessing. Easy to navigate, wide berth for the horses, no obstacles to duck
under, jump over, or veer around. Almost boring. Within minutes, we are spread out on this
"expressway" through the forest.
I immediately longed for Gary's secret trail. It was a ribbon of black and brown that
delicately threaded it is way through the forest, barely visible even from a few feet away.
It kept us close together, almost as if to protect us. Each step was measured, in sync with
the forest so that we became a part of the forest and not just an intrusion passing
through. I will take Gary's trail anytime.
Up ahead, we see Gary talking to a man and a woman. They are U.S. Forest Rangers and
they are loaded down with heavy backpacks. The strain is visible even from this distance.
As we approach, we hear them talking about the group of people who had been illegally
camped below us. The rangers have been sent here to specifically deal with the report
Gary had called in late Wednesday afternoon.
They had originally planned to come Thursday by horseback, coming from over the
mountain behind us -- from the Rio Grande National Forest side of the mountain ridge that
Michael and I had stood on yesterday. Other problems delayed their approach, so they
drove around the entire mountain range to the San Isabel National Forest side. They
parked below at the trailhead where we are now headed.
Extra heartbeats, invalid wilderness camping permits, and illegal camp fires -- all citations
issued to the group they had been sent to investigate. The rangers met the campers
earlier as they were leaving the forest and gave them their "tickets" as they departed.
The man is carrying about a 70-pound backpack and the woman is carrying a 45-pound
backpack. They both admit they are carrying too much and should have come in by
horseback. They are the only two rangers for this entire mountain range. As a old ranger
myself (years ago in the South Carolina State Park system), I tipped my hat to them -- I
knew their position well. A love for the job that transcends both burdens and long hours,
carries them through each day with pride in themselves and the job they serve.
Leaving the rangers, we strike out for the finish line. Karen has already whizzed by again
-- she does that you know. She is the fastest lady hiker I have ever seen. Many times
since Monday, she would pass Michael and me and just keep on trucking with Bill close
behind trying to keep up. She says it helps her to unwind, to release the tensions.
Even though she now lives in Colorado Springs and Bill is still back in D.C., they have
constantly been together on outings -- skiing, hiking, camping -- you name it. I only kid Bill
about keeping up with Karen. He can hold his own. Anyway, anybody that stands in the
middle of an ice-cold mountain stream and washes his hiking boots off while still wearing
them is OK in my book.
There is something special about hiking in the outdoors. It does things to people. Karen is
right -- it can magically pull the stress right out of your body. Sometimes I think that
stress is really just a fuel and if you do the right exercise, like hiking, you will simply burn
it up. Everyone I know, including every single person on this expedition (that is what we
call it now, sounds kind of important, doesn't it?) who hikes for fun and pleasure is
healthy. Healthy not only in body, but healthy in spirit.
Back to Karen whizzing by. Like I said, she has done this all week. Then she will slow down,
and maybe fall all the way back to walk with Jayme and the rear horses. No matter where
she is, she carries her smile and free spirit with her, a combination that is a pleasure to be
A sign at a trail fork says something about an old mine "that-a-way" and we head for it.
Soon, we break out of the forest cover and start climbing back up again.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute. Gary, you said, you promised, that it was downhill ALL the
way," we all shouted in near perfect unison as our calf muscles started to cry.
"Turn around," was all he answered.
"Turn around," he said while pointing over our shoulders. Behind us is our entire world for
the past three days. From the clearing on the small rise we are standing on, we can see
the mountains, the valleys, the peaks and ridges that have shouldered our footsteps for
the past week.
It is beautiful. I am at a loss for words. We all stand here for one final look and a
snapshot or two and then, we just quietly turn and continue with the climb. Veterans do
that you know -- move on when the heart wants to stay.
The climb quickly ends and we are pulled into a completely new type of forest. It is almost
entirely Aspens and the ground is covered in a low growing plant that is about three inches
high and green, green for as far as the eye can see. It looks like someone has carpeted
the entire forest with a fuzzy, green carpet. Neat.
Our trail now is wide and rocky, very rocky. In fact, we call it a "rocky road," and make all
sorts of smart comments using play on word phrases such as, "life is just a rocky road," or
"I've been working on the rockroad, all the live long day-- ."
Tired, yeah, that is it, that is what is happening. No, wait a minute. I know. It is too much
oxygen, we are coming down the mountain too fast!
The trail, the road, is getting very steep. We have to really watch where we step. All
kidding aside, the ground is very uneven because of erosion plus all the loose rocks. It is
times like this that I love my hiking stick because it gives me the advantage of a "third"
leg to balance on. Michael tells me "It is just a prelude to a wheelchair Dad, a sure sign of
"We will probably have to put a name tag on you next," he smirks.
A truck, three trucks. We have made it -- the end of the trail. Gary had told us that a
truck would meet us at the trailhead and carry us and the pack gear down to where the
horse trailers will be waiting. While we ride, he and Jayme will ride two of the horses
down and pull the other along.
Standing by the old red, king cab four-wheel truck, is Bill Brown, the ranch foreman. He
had brought one of the horse trailers up to where we started from on Monday and had
helped us get started. Nice guy. Tall and thin with a salt and pepper beard, he looks at
home standing there with his well-worn black cowboy hat set straight on his head. His hat
looks just like mine back home -- I wear mine everywhere except to work. IBM has come
a long way with its dress code, but not that far! With a firm handshake, he welcomes us
back to civilization.
Bill is playing in the water again. You guessed it. He is standing in the middle of a stream
washing his boots off while he is still in them. Karen, you have to talk to Bill about this! The
water in the stream is coming out of the entrance of an old, caved-in abandoned mine
shaft running back into the mountain side. Michael and I immediately start looking in the
stream for gold nuggets but soon realize that they are probably "all gone."
Standing there looking at the flooded mine, with its collapsed entranced and ore-car rails
all twisted and rusted, I cannot help but wonder at all the dreams and hopes that once
were here. Now, only the rusty rails give evidence that anyone was ever here in this lonely
Back at the truck, everyone is gathering in a big semicircle, with the horses, so Bill can
take our "group picture." We run out to him with our cameras, each one freezing in time, a
small frame of life with the push of a button. In time, I will be able to look at mine and see
the entire week in the blink of an eye.
We help unload the pack horses and start loading all the gear into the truck. This truck
has the trailer hitch mounted up in the truck bed (5th wheel, they call it), so we have to
pack all around it. It is that time of day again -- rain. Quickly we finish loading the truck,
and Gary and Jayme head on down with the horses.
Michael and Bill ride on the back of the truck as we head down. The girls, Sue, April, and
Karen, ride in the "back seat" while Malcolm and I ride up front with Bill. Back seat --
about as big as a large shoe box. I do not know how the girls can stand it.
The ride down the mountain on the old forest service road is slow and bumpy. The views
are great, except when Bill comes close to the edge of the road in a curve and everything
is a very long way down when I look out the window. He seems unconcerned, so I quit
worrying. As we continue to bounce along, Bill keeps us in stitches talking about himself or
about some of the folks he has escorted through the wilderness on horseback trips.
Someone from the back seat asks if he likes towns. He said sure, he likes them -- went to
one now and then. Only problem was, after about two days, he has to leave, feels closed
up, has to get back to the ranch to breathe. He's just an old cowboy, he says, nothing
fancy, just a cowboy.
He told this one story about taking a bunch of women up in the mountains on horseback and
how the next morning, they all came out of their tents all made up, false eyelashes applied,
and their hair all made up after using propane gas fueled hair dryers. His humor in telling
this story, dragging out all the things the women did, or used, was hilarious.
The rain has stopped and it is getting warmer and warmer as we drop in elevation and get
closer to the main valley below. The road now is passing through forest and meadows that
look just like the ones we passed through on Monday when we were on the Rainbow Trail.
Lots of pine trees now, with wildflowers popping up all over the open places beneath the
trees, especially in one area that had been burned several years ago. Even after all this
time, the damage caused by the fire is still so clearly visible. At least the wildflowers
signal a rebirth of the land. One day, the forest will stand tall again with trees reaching
for the sun.
Up ahead, we see the horse trailers, Gary, and Jayme. We pull in alongside the trailers
and also see our van, the same one we came out on from Colorado Springs. Several of the
folks from the ranch are here to help and in quick order, our gear from Bill's truck is
sorted out and reloaded back on top of the van.
Calling Jayme over, I handed her our tip. We had originally handed it to Gary, thinking that
he would divide it between himself and Jayme. Refusing the tip, he said to give it all to
Jayme. With his arms and hands spreading out as to suggest the world around him, he
smiled and said "This is my tip, just being here with you."
Gary stood 10-feet tall in my eyes when he said that. Quiet, western class. I am proud I
Jayme is leaving out the following week on vacation herself -- going to Alaska with a
friend. We wish her well and tell her we hope our tip adds some fun to her trip. With a
few final hugs and good-byes, we leave to her duties with her horses. As I turn and walk
away, I begin to hurt inside knowing she is leaving us. I will miss her.
We pile back into the old van, same seats as before, and head for the barn. The mountains
quickly grow behind us as we speed away on the long dirt road heading toward town. After
a while, Gary stops the van and points out the ridges and peaks we just spent an entire
week hiking across. From here, it seems impossible that we did all that -- the mountains
look so high, so far away. After a few moments, we start back up and are on our way.
After a while, our dirt road ends and we hit the pavement once again. Turning south, and
head for Westcliffe.
Sitting here on the back watching the mountains fade away, I feel so strange inside. Even
though I can still see the mountains, I already have a deep longing for them in my heart --
a longing to go back, to be free, to climb high and soar with the eagles.
Passing through Westcliffe, we turn east and head to the next town, Silver Cliff. What is
sort of funny here is that Silver Cliff is only two blocks east of Westcliffe. Seems like
back in the late 1800s, there was a rivalry going on to get the railroad to come to this part
of the state. Both towns were built to entice the railroad and each wanted it desperately.
Silver Cliff lost.
Silver Cliff might have lost the railroad but it got Clever's Tavern. Rustic, authentically
western (with a few modern touches), and has the best ice-cold, "long neck" Miller Lite
beers in the world. At least they tasted like it when we all piled into the tavern and bellied
up to the bar. Half of us got long necks and the other half got Diet Cokes, each trying to
push away the withdrawal pains we had suffered through all week long.
There is a God, life is good!
There are so many cultures, lifestyles all around us in this small tavern in the middle of a
huge valley. There are two pool tables beside the bar. At one table are three young men,
all in their early 20s and dressed 100 percent cowboy. Stetson hats, tight blue jeans, and
cowboy boots. At the other table is a young couple, same age but completely opposite in
attire. Long hair, earrings, (the girls' are larger), baggy pants, and sandals. Here we are
at the bar in hiking boots, short pants and tee shirts and probably smelling to high heaven.
All of us are just looking at each other, not saying anything, just looking. Only in America.
Back on the road, we head for the ranch about 20 miles away. The countryside starts to
look familiar about the time Gary tells us all the land on the left is his ranch. In a few more
minutes, we turn left off the highway and go bouncing back along the dirt road over to the
ranch. We have Jayme's dog, Gretchen, with us and a "friend" of Gretchen out in the
middle of a huge open area, sees our van and races us to the ranch. I guess dogs miss
their friends just like we do.
"Bear Basin Ranch" reads the gate sign as we pass under it and come to a stop in front of
the office. The office is one of the original buildings built before the turn of the century.
Next to it is the bunkhouse. Both are old, log-walled structures and show their age, but
with dignity. These buildings have been a part of this ranch for over a 100 years.
The office is used also to sell tee-shirts and Michael and I buy one with the ranch logo on
the front of it. Without hesitation, I proudly wear mine every chance I get. It is like a
badge of honor, I earned the right to wear it. The bunkhouse is neat -- my kind of place.
It sleeps about 21 people, in bunks, in two huge rooms.
"Got to like people to sleep here," the ranch manager tell me as she shows us around. No
arguing there. There is no "room' to not like people.
The rest of the house is really just one huge room that serves as both the kitchen and
dining room. A huge wood-burning stove is in one corner, the kitchen cabinets, counter
tops, and sink take up the wall and adjacent corner and a table that sits about 21 people
at a time takes up the remainder of the room. I love big eating tables. Lots of people, lots
of fun, lots of good times.
Outside is a huge deck, overlooking the rest of the ranch. The "men's and women's"
houses are down a ways from the bunkhouse, as are the shower and sauna. Farther down
are the stables and barns. All in all, a neat place, and home to some.
After a while, we load up the van and head for Colorado Springs. As the ranch fades
behind us, as does the beautiful valley beyond, and the majestic mountain range beyond
that, my heart again feels so heavy. As I look at the mountain peaks far in the distance, I
remember the moments that Michael and I stood there, on those very same high peaks.
With tears in our eyes, we stood there and hugged each other and both said "I love you"
as we looked out over the grandeur below us and felt so alive, so free, and so satisfied.
Gary keeps us entertained all the way back to Colorado Springs. With his knowledge of
this part of Colorado, he keeps up a steady stream of facts, figures, and stories about
almost everything around us. It is so refreshing to hear someone talk with authority and
pride about his surroundings -- it's culture, it's history, it's place in time.
Back up and over the Wet Mountains, we draw closer to Colorado Springs. The Front
Range is coming into view. Soon, we are zooming along the main road through town. I keep
trying to look behind us, trying to capture just one more look before it is all gone. The
buzz of traffic and masses of people soon make me realize that my mountains are gone.
Gone from sight, but not from my mind. Even now, I can close my eyes and see the ridges
and valleys as clearly as if I were looking at them from the top of Electric Peak.
We pull back into the hotel parking lot about 8 p.m. We all pile out and I climb up on top of
the van to retrieve our gear. After removing the webbing that holds it in place, I started
handing down all the gear.
We gather around the van for a few moments just talking and then we start saying all of
our good-byes. Telling Gary good-bye is hardest of all for me. I will miss him -- he became
very special to me in such a short period of time.
Then, in the blink of an eye, eight people who have been so close together for five days,
disappear into the night -- each going his or her separate way. Maybe one day, some of us
can meet again -- I sure hope so. As I walk into the hotel, I feel so many strange things at
once. Elation, fatigue, hunger, excitement, but worst of all, an emptiness. I cherish some
things in life very much and I have a sinking feeling that I am losing something very close
to me. I just cannot figure out what it is. Maybe the fatigue is playing tricks on me and I
am just having a simple case of the blues. Yeah, that must be right.
Michael and I check back into the hotel and make a bee line for the room. Hot showers and
a honest-to-God toilet, complete with a entire roll of paper, and a bright light above for
reading. Is civilization great or what? The bed -- firm and pool table level. I must be in
We clean up, throw some dirty clothes into the washing machine on our floor and head out
to eat supper. By-passing the hotel restaurant, we head across the street to the local
Denny's restaurant. "I want the biggest, juiciest, cheeseburger you have got and an order
of French Fires," was the order of record. Some things just never change.
Afterward, we swing by the hotel bar for a "long neck" or two. A long, very long day is
slowly catching up with us, so we head back to the room. We swing by the washing machine
and throw our stuff into the dryer.
Back in the room, we go about sorting out our duffel bags. In addition to everything I am
supposed to have, I also end up with three sticks, seven rocks, one blue flower, nine
squares of toilet paper, one very sticky pine cone, two dead mosquitoes, and three ants --
still crawling around.
Talk about going on a trip -- wait until they get back and tell their buddies where they
went! I just wish that when they went back, they would take some more trail snacks with
them. Yes. It is Friday night and we still have enough of that darn stuff to sink a
There are nice people in the world. Michael goes down the hall to get our stuff out of the
dryer and comes back with all the clothes folded. Someone had removed our clothes and
very neatly folded them and placed them on top of the dryer. Thank you, kind person,
wherever you are.
Bed. Oh God, does it ever feel good. My aching, tired body thinks it has found heaven. I
think Michael and I are asleep within seconds. I close my eyes and clearly see the
mountain ridge that Michael and I climbed and stood on yesterday.
I can hear powerful wings beating the air as I drift off to sleep.
Saturday -- July 30th, 1994 ___________________________
We both are awake by 7 a.m. As I lay in my warm, firm, level bed, I suddenly realize that
I do not have to get up, put some warm clothes on, go outside and find a "tree." I smile.
Life is good.
Our flight back to Atlanta is not until 1:30, so Michael and I decide we will head over to
town after breakfast and look around again. It is Saturday, and all the shops will be open.
We also want to see if we can find some sort of cloth patch that at least says "Colorado"
so we can sew it on our backpacks to commemorate our adventure.
After a quick breakfast back over at Denny's, we strike out for town. Crossing over the
bridge again, we observe one of the longest trains I have ever seen. I am not sure how far
the empty gondola cars back up from the engines (they back out of sight), but there are
eight engines linked in tandem.
Power. Pure raw power. As we stand on the bridge above them, we can hear and feel the
diesel engines loafing -- the hum of power instantly recognizable. In the blink of an eye,
my mind pulls up memories from my past, memories of when I was in the Navy. I spent
three years on a World War II type diesel submarine, powered by four Fairbanks-Morse
diesel engines. Even now, I can hear them purring in my mind, purring in harmony with the
sound beneath my feet. For just a second or two, I am back in time, standing on the bridge
of my submarine cruising above the Arctic Circle in search of peace.
Returning back to the present, I also notice another odd thing about this train -- out of
the eight engines, five are from different railroads. Rio Grande, Sante Fe, MDI, Cotton
States, and one other I cannot make out. Railroad persons -- do you know where all your
Town is far different than it was last Sunday. The streets and shops are bustling with
cars and people. Up around Tejon street, it is like a mall, there are so many people. We
spend an hour going from shop to shop trying to find our patches. Everywhere we go, we
hear the same story. "Patches? No, we do not have them, but that sounds like a great idea."
After a while, we just give up and start shopping like everyone else. Michael finds a
tee-shirt in one store that sports a snapshot of where we just hiked. A little later, we go
into a wonderful store called Terra Verde, that presents it's wares so artistically -- kind
of a southwestern decor and an ancient Indian look. I buy Deanna a beautiful pair of ear
rings -- looks like ancient Indian ceremonial dance figures, silver, with a turquoise stone
imbedded in them.
Yes, we like downtown Colorado Springs. It is good to see so many people here in the
heart of the city instead of out somewhere filling up the parking lots of a mall or
Time is starting to run out, so we head back to the hotel. We finished checking out, gather
our gear, and catch the hotel shuttle van out to the airport. The weather today is
absolutely gorgeous. Crystal clear blue skies and warm. Pike's Peak looms up behind
Colorado Springs like a great protector. Every detail of it's majesty is clearly visible even
from this distance.
One day, I hope to return with Deanna and go to the top. I want to stand where Kathy
Baker stood and saw "amber waves of grain" as she composed "America the Beautiful."
After checking our baggage at the airline counter and getting our tickets all squared
away, Michael and I head for the gift shop. The first thing we see when we walk in the
door is a cloth patch that shows a mountain range and says "Colorado." Our search is over
-- we have found our patch.
Shortly, our flight will leave and we will be homeward bound -- our odyssey, our adventure
almost over. In a few hours, our trip will fade back into reality as we get on with our lives.
Deanna and her sister will be at the airport to greet us as we triumphantly return home,
marching off the plane with our packs on and proudly wearing our Bear Basin Ranch shirts.
We will spend countless hours in the days ahead retelling and reliving our week high in the
Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Our photographs will show those things that we struggle to
find words to describe, like the vastness of alpine meadows painted with a million
wildflowers, or the majesty of a unmolested mountain peak.
People will gather around and listen, look, and yes, even dream themselves. We will tell
them about our companions on our journey, how great they all were, how special they
became to us, and how much we will miss them.
Michael and I took about 300 photographs and now have them mounted in two albums --
one for him and one for me. Each time I look at the pictures, each time I see the faces of
Gary or Jayme, I am there again. Good memories have a magical way of lasting forever.
As our plane lifts off the runway, I can see our mountains in the distance. Staring at those
far-off peaks, I think about Thursday when just for a few moments in time, high on a
mountain ridge, Michael and I soared like eagles.
We were miles high and climbing.
. . .