It’s a simple sign, and all I had to do on my last hike in Colorado. “Go right!”
It’s hard to mess up something so simple. It’s not like there are twenty different trails up there, just the CDT and the CT. My friend Rob shuttled me to the Cunningham Gulch trailhead after leaving my car at my Little Molas Lake endpoint, then hiked with me as far as the section of the Colorado Trail that follows the Continental Divide Trail. I’d planned on three days out, he thought it could be done it two, and all I had to do was hike to this sign and turn right. I didn’t even take a map because . . . well, there aren’t twenty trails up there. Turn right, hike down the Elk Creek drainage, up over 10,899 ft Molas Pass, and find your car.
I did not hike down off the CDT along the CT Elk Creek Trail, and I did not climb over Molas Pass to my car at the Little Molas Lake trailhead. This trip was not that, but I know exactly what this trip was, because I know exactly what it was not.
I remember clearly now, looking back and seeing the trail I was supposed to be on, zigzagging down from the Divide, but it didn’t register at the time. I’d camped the night before at Hunchback Pass, but of course I didn’t know that because I didn’t have a map. I was just up high, at a pass. I found an old mine way up there, which you can see clearly on the map, but you need a map to see things clearly on a map. I was pretty excited, because I was hauling ass, moving fast, doing something extraordinary. Way up high. From my little tent, next to the abandoned mine, I heard dozens of unseen foxes howling their hunger right at sunset. And the next morning, right at sunrise, every little pika and marmot within earshot sat there chirping, grateful to see another day. Extraordinary.
Somehow, after I’d turned right that morning, I found a trail and followed it down the drainage. As the trail descended, it became less and less a trail, more a game path, but I’d occasionally spot a cairn and say “this must be it.” Eventually I had to admit that this little shit of a trace couldn’t be the CT–I might have been able to fight my way down it, but no way could anyone make their way up. So down I went, scrambling my way to an alpine lake I could have dove down through and stayed forever.
When I realized I was not where I thought I was, I was angry with myself but not worried. I had shelter, water, and food enough. I felt strong, I was not afraid, and I’ve learned to take care of myself because no one will ever uphold me with their righteous right hand. My only concern was that the Weminuche is very big, and whatever trail I was on could be taking me even deeper into it. But I figured that if I followed the drainage I was on far enough, I’d end up at the Animas River (this assumption turned out to be incorrect), and from there find my way back. I was also worried that after four days out, Rob would alert Search and Rescue and I’d get served a $60,000 bill for the operation even though I didn’t feel I needed to be rescued (this assumption also turned out to be false, as Rob was blissfully unconcerned with my welfare once he’d left me at the CDT).
I eventually stumbled upon a real trail, and I could see someone had been down it recently on horseback. Following it for several miles, I came to a post that read “Valecito Creek” on one side, and “Johnson Creek” on the other, neither of which were part of my knowledge of where I was supposed to be. “We’ll, you’re fucked now” was all I could say, so I walked.
“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” That’s the story of the Tower of Babel. I’d always thought the story of Babel was about Man attempting to raise himself to God’s level, but after reading the actual Bible I realize they were just trying to do something memorable. They could have done nothing, and just lived out their lives down where they were, but they wanted to make themselves a name, a life worth remembering. But “the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.” Trying to live a life worth remembering is often met with frustration, and although they didn’t complete their tower, the attempt endures. It’s in the Bible.
My problem now was the opposite: I did not want to be remembered as the idiot who got lost in the Weminuche. Luckily, the next day, hiking further down the same trail, I met an old-timer camped in a grove, who told me he knew exactly the pass I was looking for, and all I needed to do was go back the way I came and take that Johnson Creek trail up over the pass. “I ain’t never been up over the pass myself, but it’ll take you where you’re going. Plus, there’s a river you’d have to wade down this here trail, and it’s a big river.”
So back I went, angry but hopeful, and found the Johnson Creek Trail. It made sense to me now, that I’d have to go up a drainage instead of down to get to where I needed to go, and up I went. And up. When I thought I was high enough that I should see a pass any minute now, up further went the trail. There was a brief moment of desperation as I rounded a bend and saw the top, and saw the trail continue on down my side of the crest without finding a pass, but a bit further along, there was the pass. Looking at those last switchbacks, I thought “I can do that” and reached down deep. And then the freezing rain started. And then the sleet. Pausing to put on my rain gear, I had time to laugh at God’s righteous right hand. And then it began to hail.
As I got nearer to cresting the pass, I told myself “don’t be upset if you get to the top and don’t see what you expect to see,” meaning the Animas or a highway or some sign that I was not just getting deeper into the Weminuche, but when I came over the top and saw even deeper canyons and darker forests, all I could say, again, was “now you’re really fucked.” I thought I should take a picture, but told myself “this is really not pretty.”
But I couldn’t go back down the way I came, so over the pass and down the other side I went. Incredibly, after a mile or so I came across a tuft of mountain goat hair on a bush. There is only one place I know of in the world with mountain goat hair littering the ground, and it is the place I hiked last year in Colorado. “Fucking mountain goats” was all I could say. A little further down, I recognized another abandoned mine–which is a pretty cool thing to be able to say, now that I think about it–and knew exactly where I was, and also where I was not.
I had come over the backside of 13,094 ft. Columbine Pass, about 20 miles from where I’d planned to be. The year before, I’d crested the Chicago Basin side of Columbine, and looking down the other side said “that looks really hard.”It was.
Once I knew where I was, and also now where I was not, a veil was lifted. I could situate myself on the face of the Earth–and my entire life, all 58 years of it, felt suddenly re-centered as well. All that was left was to haul ass three hours down to the Needleton whistle-stop and catch the train to Silverton, and then hitchhike back to my car.
I did not hike down off the CDT along the CT Elk Creek Trail, and I did not climb over Molas Pass to my car at the Little Molas Lake trailhead. Instead, I walked hard down, up, and over a lot of other ground, for the pure pleasure of being subsumed by the mountains. I did not know where I was, but I knew where I was not, and now that makes all the difference.
I can’t stop thinking about this, how a thing or an idea can be defined both by what it is, and by what it is not.
These are each the exact same thing, but one is the thing and the other is what it is not.