I wish there were another way to start this story, but there isn’t so I’ll just begin: I had just finished taking a dump on the mountainside when I saw the woman flying through the air. Moving so fast, spinning so high on her outward and downward trajectory, I knew without seeing her land that she’d be either dead or severely injured when I found her.
And now for some background:
“Leave a car on Hwy 550 at Coal Bank Pass, drive out of Silverton on Alpine Loop Road to Maggie Gulch Road and park. Hike gulch jeep road 3+ miles to CDT/CT.” That’s the beginning of my hiking buddy Rob’s email regarding our planned route. My drive from Austin was just under 1,000 miles, so I was tired but happy to hit the trail when we met up at Coal Bank, staged the cars, and pointed ourselves toward the Continental Divide (CDT/CT).
The part of his plan in red is what I love about Rob. I had dissected his words before, looking for the unspoken part–there is always something unspoken with Rob–but only recognized it in hindsight. I should have seen that “hike to CDT” gave Rob way too much latitude, because the Continental Divide is a very big place. Rob is a hiker, and all he needs is to see something that might be a trail heading generally uphill, and he’s good to go. So Day 1 involved quite a bit of serendipity, and I collapsed in my tent the instant it was up.
We would spend all of Day 2 above treeline on the Continental Divide. This is actually the easiest part of a mountain hike, because once you’re up on top, there’s really no more climbing to do. The terrain tends to roll, and the lack of trees and clear air means you can see a very, very long way. It is my favorite place to be. On top of the world.
But there is also very little between you and the sun, and so at the end of Day 2, after 11 hours of carrying a 35 pound pack with 11,000 feet less of our atmosphere’s oxygen than I am accustomed to breathing, and also 11,000 feet closer to the sun, I again collapsed in my tent, moderately delirious, and happy as a pup to be in that place.
This particular spot on the globe is special to me: it is where I took my wrong turn in 2017 and lost myself deep in the Weminuche, ultimately hiking 20 miles out of my way, meeting some wonderful people on the trail, and completing an incredible loop over Columbine Pass and out the Chicago Basin (https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2017/10/13/isis-not/). Standing in the exact spot where I’d made my mistake before, I could not imagine how I’d missed that turn. I could see the spot I’d camped that night three years ago, could see the faint trail that took me over the top of some other unnamed pass instead of the much easier and obvious correct route. What I couldn’t see was the idiot who had made that wrong turn, but I knew he was still around there somewhere.
Day 3 we’re taking that trail on the right and dropping way down into the Elk Creek Drainage. It is a long way down, and we were both happy to be hiking the canyon East to West and not vice versa. We met two young guys that morning who had just come up, and they had that excited exhaustion that comes from succeeding at something difficult. “Twenty-seven switchbacks!” the talker kept repeating (we counted 28 later), while his friend just sucked air and looked on, wide-eyed, as though he’d just won a fight he couldn’t believe he’d won. They had done something that gave them meaning, although I don’t think they would see that for several years.
Cool thing coming down into Elk Creek: mountain goat hair!
When I was lost in 2017 and saw mountain goat hair on some brush, I instantly knew where I was. Mountain goats were re-introduced to the Chicago Basin area in 1947, and they have thrived. I had been to the Chicago Basin area the year before my 2017 trip, and I had literally kicked mountain goats out of my campsite. Lost in a very big wilderness, you cannot imagine my joy to see their hair caught on bushes the following year and say “fucking mountain goats; I can only be in the Chicago Basin.”
But the Chicago Basin follows the Needle Creek drainage, so to see that they are now colonizing our adjacent Elk Creek drainage is pleasing. I suppose now the next time I’m lost and see mountain goat hair, I’ll have to say “I can only be in the Chicago Basin . . . or 20 miles away in Elk Creek.”
Before I talk about Day 4, I have to mention the tequila. I know it is sort of a thing for a lot of people to bring along some good booze to drink around the campfire at the end of the day, but I’m neither a campfire nor booze kind of backpacker. I walk, I look and listen, I think, I eat, I pass out. But Rob brought along some very good tequila on this trip, which I have never had and which is sort of unusual for Rob to do, so every evening we’d share his tequila, about 1/4″ in the bottom of my favorite coffee mug, and it was a wonderful way to make your body stop walking, to shift from the physical to the spiritual.
The coolest part of Elk Creek was the problem. You get spoiled hiking trails in our country. No where else in the world can you find these incredible systems of interconnected trails, taking you from easy access points near paved roads, and then as far into the wildest backcountry as you are able to take yourself. It is truly amazing, a corollary of “America’s Best Idea” (it was Wallace Stegner who called national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst”).
We were down in Elk Creek, which has a different kind of beauty than the truly high country, a beauty born of gravity and time, the basement to the mountains where everything up high flows down. And a great deal had flowed down, cataclysmically. A winter avalanche or snow-melt loosened mountainside had brought down tons of trees in the canyon floor, completely blocking the path through. It is a truly amazing sight. We were fortunate that the snow had already completely melted down low, and that the fallen trees had more-or-less settled in their jumble. But still, crossing them like acrobats on balance beams, we were each highly aware that the one we were standing on–or any random one anywhere in the pile–could suddenly move and set the entire pile in motion. You would be able to do nothing.
Which brings me back to the woman. We were now four nights into our trip, 35-40 miles from our starting point but now reasonably close to several trailheads off of Highway 550, although now back up around 12,000 feet. The altitude had knocked me down the first two days, but by now I felt quite good. That high, in the clear air and cloudless sky, the sun is strong. The trail bounced above and below treeline, so when we came to a small spot of shade we took a break.
I’m not sure why “taking a crap in the woods” has become some sort of touchstone for reconnecting with Nature or a measure of manliness, but after a few days out you just go when it is convenient–the alternative is to go when it is inevitable. The only rule is to do it far from water sources, bury it at least six inches deep, and pack out your paper. In this instance, because of the precariousness of the trail and limited cover, my only convenient and discreet option was to scuttle downslope beneath our little spot of shade and squat on the steep mountainside clinging to a small tree trunk. Finished and climbing up, Rob was asking me if I had enjoyed the view, and I’d explained that experience had taught me to face toward the mountain and not away, gravity and balance being what they are should I lose my grip.
Still a few feet of steep slope beneath the trail, I looked up just in time to see a small woman going very fast on a mountain bike. Things like this happen so fast that they pretty much all occur simultaneously: the bike roars over a rise in the trail before us, Rob and I both turn our heads toward the explosion of energy coming toward us, she hits a rough spot just below, and then the sublime instant when time slows and events follow inevitably, one behind the other: the front wheel plants, immovable, beneath the suddenly focused weight of the rider thrown forward to her hands; the back wheel rises up behind her, carried skyward with her now weightless lower body; and then the entire assembly begins its beautiful, terrifying, inevitable pirouette into space, momentarily free of any earthly tether.
I saw her do at least one flip, spinning in tandem with the graceful arc of her bike. Her trajectory carried her and her machine several yards downslope, directly into two fallen trees, although I could no longer see her. I got up to the trail, saw Rob’s stunned expression, and we both hesitantly moved in her direction, knowing that we were going to find something horrendous.
And then she roared. Not pain, and not fear–rage. She was furious. “Arrrrrgh!“ She was a tightly wrapped steel cable of a woman. I noticed that she was composed of only muscle, and had no breasts of any consequence–I suppose I was trying to identify what I was dealing with. She saw me, and as she wrestled her bike up yelled “I have to get the adrenaline out of my system!” I was still trying to understand why she was not dead, confused by the lack of arterial bleeding; all I could say was “well, as long as it’s only adrenaline and not blood.”
From that point on, we were an inconvenience and an embarrassment to her. I have known other small, fierce women like her. They are amazing, a force of Nature with immense and humbling interiors, and in that instant of her fury I truly felt that I knew this person. She needed us to not have seen her fail herself, she needed us to have never existed to witness her weakness. Rob and I each tried variously to ask her if she needed help, and she picked up her bike and literally ran with it away from us and her shame. On our way out, we saw her later sitting with her bike, eating a snack, telling us only “have a nice day, goodbye” as she stared off into her own space. Rob whispered “do you think she’s in shock?,” but I was pretty sure she’d stab us both if we asked her one more time if she needed any help, and so we continued on.
The end was where I chose the end to be. I don’t even know if it was the last evening, or sometime sooner–a few days out from your beginnings, the sequence doesn’t really matter any more, and events do not follow inevitably, one behind the other. We were camped up high, well above treeline. We’d found a good flat spot, near water, and had the earth and the sky to ourselves alone. After dinner, I had stretched out on the bare ground, feeling the earth turn and sending my mind flying with the high clouds above. I told Rob “this is my favorite place,” and that night, in my sleeping bag, I watched hundreds of diamond sparkles fly as the static electricity of the pure, high air leapt with my every movement.