Sleeping in the back of my truck, next to my spare tire and the camping gear piled upon it here up high in the Colorado Rockies with the Milky Way in full view out my windows, a random thought whirled into my tired mind; my companion, my old Airedale Percy.
Funny how in life, we come into people and animals and, in those precious and rare times, a true bond forms immediately. And this was the case with my companion, a true loyal friend who never betrayed me, who never judged, who always greeted me after school hoping that I’d take him for long, long walks through the still-battle scarred streets of Warsaw so many years ago.
I saw him again two years ago, though it really wasn’t him but someone else’s Airedale, the two having recently come back off trail… Perfect timing for a chance to say “hi” to these two.
“I used to have one”
“Yes…”, and my hasty exit onto the trail must have seemed odd to these two.
The heartbreak of seeing him being given to a new family back in the Spring of 1973 was still too painful to bear and it hits me every time I see an Airedale. Odd how the memories of these wonderful animals still seem so fresh decades later.
Walking home from school a few days prior, I could see that my mom had some tough news to deliver. She’d see me grab the leash in the early afternoons and wouldn’t expect me and Percy to be back until dinner. Those long walks were like a sweet therapy to the end of school days in a place I never felt I belonged anyway. Never gave it a second thought. Always preferred the reliable tranquility that came with quiet time with Percy in the Northern Virginia woods.
We’d been uprooted every couple of years and finally, it seemed, my furry friend could be a constant in a very confusing though fascinating upbringing…
“Alec, we can’t bring Percy to Turkey with us. The Turks don’t like dogs and will likely kill him if he were ever to escape”, my mother did not seem like herself as she broke the heartbreaking news.
The day that the new family came to pick him up, I remember standing by the front door numb. If I work a little, I can still see the excitement in the younger children in the back of the large station wagon and the mother with a very sad and compassionate expression as I said goodbye.
“Mom. How come come some of my friends here have dogs? I thought you said…”
And as I reflected on this a couple of days ago, listening to the soothing sounds of the rushing creek under the billions of stars so high up in the mountains, I realized it was my dad who would’ve given the tough job to my mother to deliver.
She loved him as much as I had. I know this. Dad, well, what to say there. I can still remember coming home to see him beating my dog, when I pulled him away to go for a long, long walk away from his inner turmoil.
Now, as I go deep into the mountain wilderness here in the Rocky Mountains, I sometimes feel as though my old friend is still by my side.
The iPhone vibrated against my ribcage at an uncivilized 0500 hours on “Day 2” of our mountain adventure. Somehow, it was a TedTalk from a couple of years ago on the subject of activation energy that infused a bolt of temporary vigor and willpower to get me to leave my cozy and almost warm sleeping bag to start our day’s adventure.
My good friend, Paul and I had driven over five hours two nights ago to arrive at a remote campsite in another high alpine valley, in fact just a kind of flat spot next to a pull-off by a gnarly forest road at around 11,400′ to begin our weekend of “fun” with the goal of climbing two mountains.
We’d climbed a mountain in the same range the day before and now hoping our aging bodies would recover mercifully to allow for today’s hike up Uncompahgre Peak at 14,309′ (4,365m) the tallest mountain in this region and the 6th highest of the Colorado 14ers (regional parlance to describe mountains that rise in excess of 14,000′). Having carefully examined the route on Google Earth before our departure, it seemed quite benign; almost a casual stroll in the Highlands, if you will.
But the very nature of the word, adventure, reminds us to keep a wary eye for the unexpected. Would it come in the way of a flat tire on a steep, unpaved and deeply rutted and rocky US Forest Service road leading up to the trailhead, personal injury, or in the need to assist in helping a fellow hiker return safely down? Never can predict.
And, once again, the cruel cycle repeats…
Recover from last hike and forget the pain, close call(s), discomfort,
Feel a growing agitation,
Locate source of agitation (or not),
Leave impulsively for the mountains to climb again… repeat (i.e., lesson not learned and no hope of ever learning it!)
Oh, the human mind… you unpredictable thing!
Signing in to the kiosk that early morning and seeing hundreds of names in the register from earlier in the year, anticipation grew as we once again set foot on brand-new trail. The weather was just right as we ascended into the higher plateaus and… soon, there she was, in full splendor; Uncompahgre Peak beckoning us, rising a good 2,500′ from where we stood.
No need for scheduled breaks for it seemed that every few minutes, we’d see another angle, a changed light, and another chance to capture this wonderful spot on Earth.
Up we went to find climbers returning from sun-rise ascents, Marmots eyeing us quizzically like natives in the Peruvian Andes, tents grouped upon magnificent perches with dizzyingly stunning views of the peaks beyond, and fellow hikers way up on the mountain making their way to the summit.
And up we went with anticipation of expanding views to the valleys below.
Stopping for a much-needed break at around 13,500′, we spied the approaching group of three climbing up at a brisk pace,
“Looks like the trail runners we saw yesterday, eh Paul?”, I remarked. The young ladies had literally been running up and down valleys that day.
“Oh to be young again…”
… except as the three passed us, the husband trailing behind stopped to chat. They were in their mid-seventies with bodies of 20 year olds! His wife and her girlfriend were in the process of bagging their 41st 14er and for her 70th birthday, he had surprised her with a planned through-hike of the entire length of the Colorado Trail (486 miles with about 88,000′ of elevation gain and loss). What a “gift”.
The old chap knew very well the effect this comment would have on us…
Mindset, reasonably healthy respect for our bodies, and a will to push through imaginary barriers largely created by society’s relentless efforts to numb us down… (nice try) and the world’s adventures await you as well.
Why, maybe in 15 years, I’ll be the 72 year old with some funny stories to share with fellow hikers… or with some luck in 30 or, hell, why set timid goals …in 45. Why not?
Why, if you are not careful, Life will seem like you have stepped in between two large mirrors where your days past and future all seem the same. Never let that happen.
Stepping into Custer County’s Search and Rescue Barn that afternoon to be interviewed for the unpaid position of mountain rescue, I had to laugh for a split second inside my head as I approached the two leaders of this fascinating organization. One had served in Vietnam while the other of similar age had rushed back from his golf game wearing an elegant polo shirt with “Alfa Romeo” stitched in an equally elegant font: Ying/Yang! Nothing in this remote mountain valley is what it appears on the surface.
“Alec. These are standard questions we ask our prospective members. Are you ok with that?”, asked the military veteran.
“Yes Sir. Happy to answer any questions you may have.”, I replied, working to maintain a crisp demeanor in front of these two who I’m certain have seen quite a lot in their lives. Alfa Romeo? My mind drifts to Lake Como in the Northern Italian Alps…
“Have you ever seen a dead person up close?”, question one.
I knew this one was coming.
“I sure have. Saw a motorcycle under a semi and the rider under the truck. Just happened. I was ten. Seen three others, one by their own hand. Gruesome. I’m ok with being close to death. I guess you guys see this in the mountains every so often.”, came my impulsive reply.
And more questions followed and, oddly, I felt right at home in this setting; much more so than many of the interviews I could recall in the stultifying, corporate offices years ago. Somehow, this felt natural, as though Fate had finally brought me to where I was supposed to be. Home.
“Looking over your application, I think we’ll be assigning you to the team that goes high.”
A good feeling came over me just then as I realized not only that I’d have the privilege of joining this good group but that I’d actually find myself up higher where direct/initial contact is made with the climbers in need.
Sitting in my tomb-like office at the headquarters of Lockheed Martin back in the 1990s, why I would never have imagined doing something like this in my late fifties. Never. Sipping espressos in a cafe on the island of Capri, yes. Hauling gear up high in the middle of the night here in the Colorado Rockies, never.
And why wrestle with Fate? Fate wins. Always. And so, as I now begin to look back on my odd and disjointed life, I have finally begun to surrender to the greater forces and that, my friends, is actually quite liberating.
I’ve held a heavy vulture in Mongolia, worked alongside rough laborers on an 8″ pipeline in South Georgia, sailed in an elegant wooden racing sailboat with an elderly Austrian count on a pretty lake in Austria, smoked a $30 Cuban cigar on the balcony of the Hôtel de la Cigogne in Geneva, and recently followed my crazy wife up a class four smooth granite rock chute to the top of a mountain we own in the Colorado Rockies.
What the future holds is anyone’s guess…
And when this old dog returns to this wonderful valley next May, I’ll be issued some Search and Rescue stickers for my truck, some rather bright jackets, shirts, and reflective cap… and likely, the call will come in the middle of the night and within 30 minutes, I’ll be dragging myself into the SAR Barn to be briefed about a mission to go up high into the mountains to either recover or rescue a climber in need; hopefully rescue…
The road detours in the most interesting ways if only we relax our minds, surround ourselves with those with equally crazy tales to tell, and begin to see, really see…
And in the timeless words of Marcus Aurelius, we are encouraged to:
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”
Sipping wine late into the evening, I watch the sun set behind the wonderful Sangre de Cristo mountains across the valley on this still night and wonder what my mother, a true Austrian alpinist would have thought of what my wife and I have pulled off. My gaze drifts over to the Austrian Pine that we had planted in her honor and know that in a hundred years, others will sit here and have their own thoughts … when the young tree then towers majestically in their presence.
We don’t have forever to get in our groove in life, do we. Best if we find a way to forgive ourselves and others and quietly move in the direction of that soulful piano player in the distance calling us to smile, dance a little, and savor our existence on this planet of ours.
Looking at these ancient photos of mom and her friends roped up high in the Alps, I’ve got to believe that these were some of her best moments; precious and uninhibited moments disconnected from the travails of humanity and its fabricated problems… a place where the views grow to farther horizons with each step up.
These shots were taken about 65 years ago, but nothing much changes on the looks of those who find themselves high up in the mountains. The grins are all the same, the elegant and stylish clothes a little different, ok.
So, intuitively, we understand that we stand at a crossroads in life and the choice is ours, really; do we squander our gift of time with distraction, or… do we say “screw that” and find what makes us come alive! The choice is ours.
When my mother died in my arms in our home that summer of 2006, she passed on to us her torch to live life to it’s extreme potential, without harm to self, to others, or to our planet. The people she touched along the way… all felt a piece of that energy as well. She had inspired many, many who would call me over the coming weeks to tell me how she touched their lives.
Yes, indeed. I hear the distant music playing its soulful tune and the call is clear; waste not a minute of the time you have left. Find and reconnect with old friends, make new ones, and go out and spread some inspiration of your own.
Tomorrow, my wife and I will take a short drive across this wonderful valley to hike at our leisure, the Rainbow Trail; what a delightful name for a trail, yes? Later, this weekend, I pick up my good friend Paul for what promises to be another epic hike up to a remote mountaintop in the San Juan Mountains (Uncompahgre Peak) smiling on the way up, giddy at the top, and possibly skipping with delight on the way down.
It’s a great life… Why not be an inspiration to others along life’s Grand Journey?
Like the recent Solar Eclipse, sometimes life lines up nicely and you realize that it’s ok to be content. Lord knows there is enough out there trying to bring us down.
“Deflector shields up, Scotty!” … keep it all out, I say. Let only the good in.
Scrolling through the thousands of iPhoto shots taken within a three hour’s radius of our house, I sometimes shake my head in disbelief. Are we really living in this mountain paradise or will the alarm soon ring and we be brutally returned to the grindstone?
No. This is where we are now.
Hiking up above tree line, to mountain lakes surrounded by imposing mountain walls, not a soul here to disrupt your moment, save for the occasional Marmot! And don’t you turn your back on these furry thieves for a moment… for they WILL steal your well-earned snacks!
Sitting on the grassy slopes above the lakes on a lazy summer day, looking down hundreds of feet to the pristine mountain lakes, the sun and puffy clouds dancing, casting their playful shadows all around, and you know that life doesn’t get much sweeter than this.
Way below, a hiker and his trusty hiking doggie are making their way up… and soon they will be passing by on their way farther up the trail.
And I sometimes wonder, is this what Heaven will look like?
The Snows have mostly melted above 12,000′ here in the Colorado Rockies and I find that some of the most pleasing days up in the mountains come in late May/early June when the upper trails are clear, but the remaining snowfields are still present, creating a stunning contrast of dark blues, stark whites, against a texture of rock.
This is my third summer in Colorado, having spent the first two gaining skills, losing weight, and going higher and longer, mostly solo. In the summer of 2015, I climbed for a total of 32,300′, last year for 102,000′ and this year I’m hoping to break 200,000′. At 57, things don’t get any easier, but maybe… just maybe, an aging body’s reach can be helped with a stronger mindset and, of course, a durable sense of humor.
I had spied Mount Herard over the Great Sand Dunes back in September of 2007 when I raced through Colorado stopping off at interesting spots along a wide loop, thinking quietly as I sat on High Dune about 700′ over the trailhead… just how cool it would be to climb that magnificent mountain in the distance someday, someday.
Years later, while volunteering to build trails on the Western slope of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, I once again marveled at the awe-inspiring grandeur of this setting while touring the Baca Wildlife Refuge and saw that magnificent peak once again.
And it was during a random Internet search of things to do at the Dunes that I had stumbled by chance upon a YouTube video of a really interesting hike to the top of this mountain and so, the wheels were set in motion to get up this peak soon! And the “Die was Cast”!
Finally, yesterday, pushing off at around 0500 hours, I drove down our wide valley in search of the Medano Pass, a rough forest service road that traverses the range through a Bison Ranch. And as I made my turn onto the pass just as the sun was grazing the tall prairie grasses with the first rays of the day, there they were… three large herd of Elk making their way into the higher plains.
Passing them as I made my way higher to the pass, the alpenglow upon the peaks of the high mountains were like Sirens taunting me ever closer into their embrace, and willingly I went… naturally.
The drive up the pass is half the adventure and when I found my spot to park, the gentle early morning breezes picked up heralding what was to be another epic day in the high alpine regions of this incredible mountain range.
Having registered at the trailhead’s sign-in sheet at around 0718, I found myself up at the high alpine lake at around 0930 and up at the saddle at around 1015. The view down to the lake and out to the valley below was simply breathtaking. And then it was over the crux of the hike to the summit, the upper ridge to the keyhole offering passage to the final segment.
At this point, I had been hiking up approximately 3,550 feet and staring at a somewhat daunting last 850 feet and it is at this point best to rest, drink water, and survey one’s surroundings and assess one’s energy levels. Feeling oddly strong and confident, I chose to press on to the top; something always a little riskier when going solo.
“Slow and steady”, came my inner voice reminding me that safety in the mountains always wins over a human-manufactured need to summit… always slow and steady. And this time the voice added “and just see what happens, step-by-step”.
There’s a mysterious, involuntary and almost indescribable feeling that wells up in one’s soul when alone so high on a mountain’s exposed ridge, peering down to the headwalls that only moments before appeared so daunting looking up from below! And each slow step steadily heightens this view and you realize… just how small and insignificant you really are in time and place.
Great relief to make it onto to easier terrain! Now, up at over 13,000 feet, the mind shifts to auto pilot at seeing the faint and easy path to the summit.
… and there they are, the magnificent Great Sand Dunes so far below, with a number of other peaks in the distance, many over 14,000 feet high farther South. Like a grand mirage, this rare view I had all to myself yesterday. And I simply sat down on the grassy slope and held this view for a time thinking just how beautiful our planet is… and though I am not religious, I certainly felt humbled by it all. Looking down at the Dunes, I recalled the day back in 2007 that I had stared up at this point wondering what it would be like to climb it … and now here I was.
Of course, those of us who’ve read mountaineering literature in our comfortable, worn leather chairs during winter months are reminded that the going down is typically the most dangerous part of the day’s journey… Easy to fall into a mindless daze and not focus.
And as I descended down through the valley to the lake below and then through the dense forests that led to the trailhead… I turned back a few times to bid farewell to my temporary place high up… a wonderful terrain so far removed from the hectic pace of our modern world.
Ah, and of course, the prize, one cold beer waiting for me at my truck! Sitting in my camping chair, reflecting on the day, tension largely dissipated, a smile came over me; I’m doing things now that I’d never imagined I’d ever do when I was far younger… and life is great, each day precious!
Sitting on our back porch here in the high mountains of Colorado, a gentle breeze kicked up bringing closer the sweet tunes of an old favorite Zac Brown Band melody…
“I got my toes in the water, ass in the sand Not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand Life is good today Life is good today”
And as we rocked and forth gazing out to the endless horizon, minds sweetly drifting far away and reflecting on the good moment, it occurred to me that life really ain’t gotta be complicated at-tall (that’s “at all” in Southern…). Goodness, why would you ever want to complicate it?
Yup, there’s great wisdom to be learned from those who live this simple lesson. We can choose to be crazy-busy bees and never see just how quickly the sand drains down the hourglass … or, look for easy ways to slow things down a spell.
Whether it’s a slow hike up into the mountains or an easy walk along a pretty beach, the people you find there are likely thinking along the same lines as you.
Oh, is that Alan Jackson with another great song winding its way to us…
“Two old people, without a thing
Children gone but still they sing
Side by side on that front porch swing
Living on love“
Soon, though not soon enough, we’d be sitting on our favorite front porch with old friends who’d learned this lesson long before we ever did. Better late than never… and life is good … no, make that: life is great.