Everything Tries To Kill You

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.

Campsite Day 1

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.”

Some of the mountain goats I crossed in 2016

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.

With my favorite backpacking mug, on another trip somewhere down south but up high

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 parksthe 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.

D, Your Sunrise

CDT June 2018 089Yesterday I will meet Cracker on a frozen slope.  I will find magic in my hat.  I will take my first ever nap on the trail.  But this is the morning of Day 4, when everything becomes new.

Mornings on the trail all begin the same:  I wake up spontaneously just before sunrise, lie there in my sleeping bag thinking “it’s cold,” and then I roll out of the tent, start the coffee, and pack up.  I make it a habit to get up at least once at night, ostensibly to pee, although I know I could hold it.  I just want to make sure I look at our shared night sky at least once–all those stars, just once.  I’ll spend the day seeing and thanking the day sky, and it seems crazy to sleep through the deeper experience of all those stars and planets.

Dawn in the mountains is an embrace, part mother’s, part lover’s.  There is no neat horizon for the sun to rise above, but the light comes, almost imperceptibly–it is dark, and then everything is a shade of dark blue-grey, and then the stars are gone save one or two of the brightest, and then there are the mountains standing around you in every direction.  It is a dim light that envelopes you, and holds you gently.  Mornings in the mountains you are busy, heating water for coffee, breaking down your tent and packing up, anticipating.  And so I was not prepared for this dawn to explode on the mountains before me.  I could not see the sun, only it’s golden light striking the mountains before me.  It took my face in two hands and drew me in to it.  It held me there.

Aparigraha means letting go.  It means recognizing that impermanence is the only constant, and you can’t hold on to things.  But I will never let go of your sunrise.  It was there so briefly, and then it was gone and became something else.  It didn’t need me or want me; it just was.  Aparigraha also means learning to be let go of.CDT June 2018 093

Honey Badger, Asteya, And Why It Always Comes Down To Satya at the End of the Day.

CDT June 2018 060My trail name is Honey Badger.  The thru-hikers would always ask “what’s your name?,” and “George” did not register with them.  But when I answered “Honey Badger,” they’d almost always smile and respond “Honey Badger doesn’t give a shit!”

The day I left the trailhead, I’d caught an almost forgotten feeling:  fear.  Not an everyday fear, but this specific deep fear I’d felt once trapped in an underwater cave in Italy when I was sure I’d never see my newborn son again because of a tiny, stupid mistake.  Or when I had to swim a quarter-mile through open ocean to recover a drifting boat if I wanted to live, through water I knew very well was full of very large sharks.  But then I asked myself what exactly I was afraid of, and I realized that I was only worried about missing my connection back to my car at the end of the trail.  Anything else unfortunate that could possibly happen (I ran down a short mental list) didn’t really matter to me, and that took a load off.  I was embarrassed that Honey Badger’s priorities had gotten confused.

Day 2:  Asteya and Satya:  Asteya means appreciating all that you genuinely have.  And hopefully, when you truly appreciate your wealth–whether it is a richness of time, or space, or incredible friends, or a whole bunch of really cool stuff–you’ll want to share all that with others and help them.

Once you start walking like this though, you don’t feel rich.  You feel tired, and you feel like your pack could be ten pounds lighter.  But you have to walk, because just yesterday you had affirmed that you would see this thing through.  Luckily, I kept meeting thru-hikers.  Early on Day 2 I saw one striding down the trail behind me, and reflected that this big walk certainly gave women incredible legs, something I had noticed yesterday:  muscled, tanned like dark caramel, entirely smooth and perfectly proportioned.  When this hiker came up to me I had the pleasure of meeting Tomahawk, and gentleman from Osaka, Japan.  Score one for gender and ethnic bias awareness training.

CDT June 2018 055 I kept trying to be grateful for all I had at that moment, but I kept coming back to thinking “I’ve got at least ten pounds of stuff in this pack that I don’t need.”  I was trying to keep in mind yesterday’s swadhyaya and tapas, but that too heavy pack, and the trail that just got irritating going downhill because I knew that meant I would just have to go back up, and eventually all I could think about was making each step I took a perfect step.  I imagined the most efficient, relaxed, powerful, beautiful step I could possibly take.  I forgot the step I had just taken, didn’t worry about the one coming next.  I just thought about taking one beautiful step.

Satya is a commitment to the truth in the present moment, as it reveals itself.  It is a decision to see and communicate things as the actually are, not as we wish them to be.  And in the middle of one of these perfect steps I realized again that my choice of these two yamas was not random.  I was immensely pleased with each individual step I took.  Everything else was just not there.  And I looked out before my little tent at the end of that day to recall a key concept of asteya, to take a moment each day to dwell on at least one gift in your life.  And all I could think was “isn’t this incredibly beautiful?”CDT June 2018 111

Tomorrow:  non-violence and compassion, letting go, and the most incredible sunrise I’ve ever seen.

Swadhyaya, Tapas, and One Damn Mountain After Another

CDT June 2018 063The plan for this trip was to leave my car at the Wolf Creek Pass trailhead, hike six days up the CDT (Continental Divide Trail) past Hunchback Pass and hook west up the CT (Colorado Trail) to follow the Elk Creek drainage toward Molas Pass where I would meet me friend Rob Graham, who would take me back to my car.  But I have accepted now that things never turn out as planned, and that in itself becomes part of the plan.  Things went exactly as expected.

To keep myself honest, I decided before leaving to set an intention for each day’s hike, something I’ve learned through yoga.  It didn’t really matter what, because there is always a lot to think about, but if you don’t focus you are just out walking around in a bunch of mountains.  I decided that each day I would focus on two yamas or niyamas, ethical do’s and don’ts, a moral code of conduct given expression through the vocabulary of yoga.  All stuff I knew or felt already, but the actual words give focus.  And intention.

Day 1:  Swadhyaha and Tapas.  “Swadhyaha” means simply self-study; whatever you are drawn to with the intention to know yourself through it, and most importantly in this case, to see the process through.

You will understand quite early when hiking the CDT that it is just one damn mountain after another.CDT June 2018 093 You go up one, and it is hard, but you think “when I get to the top, I will have accomplished something important, and I will see more clearly.”  But then you get there, and you see the damn trail just goes right back down the other side, and back up another very similar mountain.  You have accomplished nothing.

Tapas” is a burning enthusiasm for what you are doing, the fervor of striving to be the best you can, simply by going against the grain of habit, of complacency, of doing what is easiest.  Tapas is important when you look at that damn trail going down again and then back up after you’ve arrived at the top of a hard climb.  I spend a great deal of my time amazed out how things work out–I know some people who will say the word “dumbfounded” is more appropriate–but I was happy when I understood that it was not pure chance that led me to pick these two niyamas for my first day on the trail.  There were many easier choices I could have made for how to spend this time, but I needed to see this through if it was going to mean anything.CDT June 2018 052The only other people I saw during my hike were CDT thru-hikers, people walking from the southern border with Mexico up to Canada during the 3-4 month window when lack of snow up high makes the trip possible.  These were amazing people.  So positive, so full of joy and gratitude for being exactly where they were at each moment.  And walking so much faster than me!  Cardboard, Hercules, Ketzyl, Cracker, Nugget, Kodachrome, and Yellow Mustard:  trail names, the only ones that mattered to anyone up there.  We’d chat a bit, and then they needed to move on, cover more distance before sunset.  And when they were gone I’d say “there’s no way I could do that.  What am I trying to prove out here?”

I ended Day 1 camped at a small alpine lake, alone except for a group of mule deer.  Getting there was a first for me, my first glissage, sliding on my ass down a frozen slope when the trail was blocked.  CDT June 2018 045The great thing about a day like this is that you are so tired that you don’t have the energy to still wonder what you are trying to prove.  You just want to eat, get warm, and sleep.  I was forcing dinner down when something spooked this deer, and she actually hissed at me.  Twice, like a really big, angry snake.CDT June 2018 049And I was at that moment so grateful to be right there, grateful to have set those two intentions for the day and not done what was easiest.  To have seen the day through, and gone to sleep on a mountain surrounded by hissing deer.

Tomorrow:  Honey Badger, Asteya, and why it all comes down to Satya at the end of the day.


Is/Is Not

WheelerHumboltCO 064

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 in 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.

Isaiah 41:10

“Do not fear, for I am with you. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”

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, WheelerHumboltCO 071but 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.WheelerHumboltCO 073  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. WheelerHumboltCO 081

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.

Genesis 11:4

“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.”Colorado June 2016 105

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.Colorado June 2016 050

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.”Colorado June 2016 069It 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.  0906171146a

These are each the exact same thing, but one is the thing and the other is what it is not.

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