On The Road, Day 3

DSCN0171My hope for this trip was to answer what has become my fundamental question as I gain backpacking experience:  “how the hell do people do that?”  The farther you want to go, the more you would seem to need, but that extra weight is the very thing that limits how far you can go.  When I’d ask Rob directly, it was like I was asking why is the sky blue.  I just don’t see how people do it.

How the hell we went from the top of the Continental Divide to breakfast in a tea room, still stinky and with backpacks dropped outside the front door, I will also not try to understand.  All I know is that we followed Ed’s trail through Silver Plume, which led us into the Silver Plume Tea Room despite the “Closed For Special Event” sign, where we found Ed organizing our breakfast reception in our private dining room.  A special note if you plan on breakfasting in Silver Plume:  you are allowed to order dessert after breakfast.  Growing up in the Schools household, I don’t recall my mother ever asking “you boys want some pie now that you’ve finished those waffles?,”  but now I know a world of possibilities exists outside my own references.colorado 027

I didn’t think I’d had much success learning from Rob and Ed as my focus shifted from observing what they were doing to simply trying to keep up.  Going up those first two 14,000 footers was relatively easy, at least compared to absolutely everything that followed.  As the trek progressed, I found myself with increasing frequency imitating Jon Krakauer ascending Everest in Into Thin Air:  take a couple of steps, stop until your pounding heart no longer feels like it will explode out of your chest, take a few more steps, repeat.  I felt ridiculous standing there under a blazingly clear sky, not leaning into gale force winds, not scraping ice off of an oxygen mask, not peering into a blinding snow storm.  Just walking and trying to breath.  But not once did Rob or Ed suggest I hurry up.  They would just pause and chat, appreciating the perfection of all that surrounded them.

It was at about this point, somewhere way up on Mt. Edwards, that I looked way, way down and saw a group of mountain goats standing pretty much on the side of a cliff.  I only mention this because I have always wanted to see mountain goats, but I’d imagined I would be looking up at them, not down.  I also mention this because a bit farther down, at the base of the mountain, I saw a solo hiker heading straight up slope, with no visible trail ahead or behind him.  Rob has done both the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail as a through-hike, and he’d tried to explain at one point the irrationality behind my “how do they do that?” question.  “Through-hikers don’t look ahead and decide some part of the trail will be too difficult.  It’s all just one big walk, and they walk until they get to the end of the trail.”  Something like that.IMG_4793

It has taken me a few weeks to understand this, but being outdoors, pushing your body, doesn’t have anything to do with following the Continental Divide or getting to the top of Mt. Everest.  Driving home from work yesterday, I suddenly realized that no where else in life do you consistently, inevitably, have epiphanies.  Whether it’s coming around the bend in a trail and having the bottom drop out of your perception of the world (https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2013/10/04/letting-the-bottom-drop-out/), or looking up from your pool workout one morning and realizing that you are surrounded by extraordinary people (https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2012/03/10/a-different-tribe/), something opens up inside you that makes your world much, much better.  Kerouac wrote about people who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”  You don’t meet many people like that.  But on the way down from the Divide, following a trail lined with bright yellow aspenscolorado 022, we crossed a moose, and a top-model on a dirt bike, and the world’s most helpful mountain biker.  I couldn’t get that lone hiker out of my mind.  Just plain people like me, doing something extraordinary.  Life burned a bit more brightly.

I tried to keep Rob and Ed in sight, but even at that lower altitude I never quite made it.  But I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones.IMG_4871

On The Road Day 2

DSCN0068I am a goal-oriented person, and now that I look back over pre-trip email exchanges I understand my mistake.  If I would have read Rob’s communication as the explicit, complete explanation of the plan I would have been better prepared psychologically:  “We have a tentative plan for three dudes to backpack the Front Range September 26-28.”  My brain added “details to follow,” but three dudes backpacking the Front Range was all Rob and Ed needed to know.

I pinpoint the beginning of my confusion with the girl with perfect teeth.  We came across a lot of really healthy looking people going up Gray’s and Torrey’s, and once we’d completed that one quite concrete goal we seemed to walk into a sort of undefined mist of “what to do next.”  At precisely this point, the girl with perfect teeth showed up.  I’m not going to say she flirted with Rob and especially Ed at 13,000 feet, because they’re both married, while I stood there and silently observed–because I am also married–and attempted to not pass out.  But when she finally turned to begin her descent while we three prepared to begin whatever the next phase of this trip was going to be, we suddenly became three dudes backpacking the Front Range.  She walked out of earshot, and all I could think to say was “she had really nice teeth,” to which Ed added “well, if she’s so great why isn’t she at her job today?”  Rob said something like “I believe she and Ed are meeting for pizza later,” followed by “I think we should follow the cairns that way.”  I had understood that we were going to hike a section of the Continental Divide Trail, which sounds like a well-defined trace following the exact line on the map where water flows toward the Pacific rather than east, so a from-the-hip decision to follow some cairns in a general direction surprised me.  “Don’t you have a map?,” which is a pretty straightforward question that I never got an answer to, which in three dudes out backpacking code means “no.”

Turns out we didn’t need a map, because following the Continental Divide Trail was not nearly as important to Rob and Ed as following a trail on the Continental Divide.  They just wanted to be out, and once I understood it was easy for me to re-set my “goal” to “just keep walking, and as long as you make your flight home on Sunday it’s all good.”

You don’t meet a lot of people out on the trail, but the ones you do are usually pretty interesting.  About half-way up Mt. Edwards on Day 2, we were overtaken by a 72-year old out doing part of the loop we were attempting, but as a day trip with a much lighter load.  We met coming the other way a young guy who had just made it across a tricky looking knife edge we were getting ready to cross, after he had already ascended another difficult peak just beyond Gray’s.  We all nodded afterward when Rob noted that “any time you think you’re out doing something pretty badass, there’s always somebody out there doing something even more badass.”  I think that was the real wisdom of the trail that I got from Rob and Ed, that difficulty is relative and depends mostly on your attitude any given day, and that what matters is just being out in a beautiful place.  When you accept and believe those two things, you shed all the baggage you went outdoors to escape in the first place, and open yourself up to what is incredible around you.  But I still had to make it out of there alive.


On The Road with Rob and Ed



dll656colorado 004“We may need to moderate some of Ed’s impulses.”  An unexpected comment from Rob, who in all the years I have known him has never expressed a desire to alter anyone’s behavior.  But Ed is out in front of us, “dancing down the street like a dingledodie” on an early Sunday morning in Silver Plume, Colorado, and I realize that I am finally a character in a Jack Kerouac novel.

To get to Silver Plume, you first need to ascend both Torrey’s and Gray’s Peaks, each of which surpasses 14,000 feet in altitude.  My thinking before starting this trip was that if we began by reaching the two highest points on the Continental Divide, everything afterward would logically be downhill, and we did indeed descend Gray’s via several thousand feet of rough scree into a pleasant valley.   The view from the bottom is magnificent, until you realize that on the opposite side of the valley is a narrow trail ascending another 13,800 foot mountain that appears to be the only way out.  If you really want to visit Silver Plume, you can also just take the highway.DSCN0138

Ed is in Silver Plume looking for a good cup of coffee.  We had camped the night before at the top of the Pavilion Trail, several additional mountains and valleys beyond our beginning at Torrey’s and Gray’s, just at the spot where you are certain that now, finally, all that is possibly left of this place is downhill (this assumption would also prove, alas, incorrect).  Ed had mentioned that night that we really needed to find a good cup of coffee in the morning, and he seemed even more enthusiastic than usual.  But I was still getting to know Ed, didn’t realize yet that he was, like Rob, one of “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing . . . .”  I just figured he really liked coffee.

Silver Plume on that Sunday morning seemed just like me:  dead.   You don’t get to be dead just like that; you acquire it gradually, step-by-step, up and down the Continental Divide.  After years of saying I was going to do it, and years of Rob asking me to do it, I finally decided–as I do frequently these days–that it was time to either do what I said I wanted to do or just shut up.  So I had flown into Denver Thursday afternoon, where Ed graciously picked me up for the drive 2 1/2 hours or so out west where we’d meet Rob at the trail head.  Thinking “trail head” was probably my mistake, because my mind was imagining a starting point, and maps, and an itinerary.  I was wrong.DSCN0099