My 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.
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.
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 aspens, 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.