The smell of freshly-brewed coffee pulls me out of deep sleep and slowly, I make my way into the kitchen, murky thoughts now coming into focus. Through the darkness outside of the window, I spy my truck and trailer with my kayak all pointed to the road and ready to go.
To be out in the waters before the crowds awake… that is the prize. To have it all to yourself, to watch the Moon set while the Sun rises.
With my thermos full, my spirits begin to lift as I make my way down the road to the little bridge connecting the end of the peninsula where I live to the unspoiled barrier islands along the coast. Within a few minutes, I travel along the winding road to the end of the Gulf Islands National Seashore to a little turnout where I find my secret spot.
Lightning continues to put on a spectacular show miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, the sun just now striking the tops of the towering clouds as I get out of the truck to untie my kayak. With hundreds of sorties under my old belt, the ritual is now simple and almost mindless. Familiarity now takes the guesswork out of things. This anticipation of being out on these glassy waters revives my worn spirits. This is why I get out so often.
I have found that as the world becomes ever more connected, the bad news streams ever more shrill and uncivilized, it is necessary to break free and escape the noise as much as possible. When in the mountains, I hike endlessly up until I am all alone and here in Florida, I simply push off from shore and paddle away often simply gliding to connect to my current surroundings, all thoughts of worry now vanished.
That morning, as I make my way along the still undeveloped shores along this prized National Seashore, I spy in the shallow waters a school of Stingray going about their morning business. Not long after a group of fish come out of the water and fly across my bow when in the distance, glistening in the early morning rays, are a small group of Dolphin feeding on some unfortunates.
Instinctively, I point to their general direction and approach as quietly as I might. Something tells me that perhaps it is unwise to be atop a feeding frenzy, but I do it anyway when all of a sudden, up comes one of the Dolphin within just a few feet of my kayak, out and back down, exhaling through its blowhole!
It is one thing to see this from the stern of a powerboat, but to be among these wonderful creatures early in the morning on glassy waters is quite another thing indeed! On such a calm early morning, I feel the power of their lungs as they exhale, seeing the details of their wet, grey skin and of the blowhole opening and closing. This is truly a rare sight…
After a few minutes, I think it best to retreat and to be satisfied that I have seen this spectacle at all. And so, I make a 180 and head back closer to shore when suddenly, I feel a bump from below! With my heart rate now spiking, my thoughts begin to race! Had I angered this pod? Should I now brace for another impact? What had I done….?
Then, as I begin to hustle my way back to the shore, I spy the culprit; a little guy who probably just wants to know what this large mass on the surface is. Relieved, I smile and realize that we are no different than these lovely creatures that surround us.
Simple pleasures are the best, no background worries to detract. To wander out on foot or by paddling… Sometimes, as if to encourage us to repeat this, we are treated to the occasional wildlife sighting.
Like a train now speeding out of the terminal, the lampposts of time seem to be passing by at an ever increasing speed… And, I suppose, one could whine about that or, draft-up a Bucket List and stay busy! Life’s been great, despite my best efforts at tripping myself up. A team of skilled guardian angels still have more time on the clock, إن شاء الله, (God Willing).
2019 was another incredible year in early retirement, having climbed another 10 of the 53 fourteen thousand foot peaks here in Colorado without injury or death. And while it may seem more prudent to give it all up, I feel strangely as if the years have (mercifully) been pealed back to when I was 30 or so. I feel as good as I have ever felt, having shed about 25+ pounds since retirement.
It is a bit unsettling, with all of our “smart” devices, to be targeted now for a myriad of pills, AARP, and Medicare plans. If only they knew; neither my wife nor I take any medications at all! Rather, we medicate ourselves by living a healthier lifestyle of hiking in the mountains in Colorado and walking endlessly on the beaches when in Florida.
Last 4th of July, I found myself in town for the annual parade in the frontier town of Westcliffe (population; 600), pulled up my camping chair and basked in the high alpine sun to a wonderful celebration of the town’s many people on display. Time… it’s having the time to calm down enough to enjoy these precious moments in life. How many years had I spent glued to my iPhone wondering if my next client was going to give me some more business? Always distracted, always stressed… I wondered if that little cowboy realized just how luck he was.
No doubt, getting older kinda sucks in a way. I’m starting to feel some joint pain in my right shoulder and my hands hurt a little after a hard day’s work. But, all else is good shape and I have no intention of slowing down! Ok, well maybe a little. I’ve decided to give up competitive racketball and tennis and even downhill skiing, so that I may continue to hike, climb, kayak, and workout. It seems like a fair trade. No complaints.
Yes, the clock is surely ticking and it’s not likely to stop. So what are our options? Bemoan the slipping away of youth or snap to and shore up our mindset? I’ve learned to choose the latter. There’s so much left to do.
There shall be no settling down for these old dudes. For once you suck the sweet high-alpine nectar, the idea of “acting our age” is really not an option at all! So, we press on and up and quickly forget the suffering that climbing brings as we seek new terrain here in the Colorado Rockies. Well, sometimes we forget.
Last time that I had attempted to climb to the summit of Mount Lindsey (14,048′) last year, I was met by an astonished young climber who said to me…
“Sir, when I am as old as you are, I sure hope that I’m also still climbing!”
Ok, I suspect that was a compliment, and I was too tired to read too much into it! Besides, the profile of the peak past the saddle at 13,000′ looked downright scary to me at the time. Truth be told, I had blown past the trailhead that led to California Peak, a far more modest peak I had meant to climb, and had impulsively decided to go ahead and climb this one located farther up the road.
From what I’ve learned from reading a couple of hundred accounts of mountaineering accidents, it is the accumulation of small errors in judgment that frequently account for tragedy in the mountains. In my case, it would have gone something like this:
Failed to research and study the routes to the summit,
Started late in the day (risking lightning strikes),
The hike up to the saddle was mostly steep, involving a couple of nuisance stream crossings at the beginning, but nothing risky. At the saddle to the peak, the last 1,100′ of climbing to the top looked much more “interesting”. Since I had not researched this peak prior to climbing, I found myself relying on the few climbers coming off of the mountain for information. Not a particular fan of exposed, Class three scrambling, I chose the NW Gully (as depicted in the main photo), but was driven back when dark clouds engulfed the mountain and hail began to drop.
My instincts instructed me to haul my old butt off of this mountain … NOW with my cowardly self quickly complying as I returned safely to my cozy home last year.
But… I simply had to return to step on the top of this glorious peak. Having sipped from the chalice the year before, I was determined to revisit this, as I had come tantalizingly close to her pretty summit.
And this time, I had done the research and had found a great climbing partner in my new friend, Ed, a retired National Park Service Ranger with 35 years of experience in some of our country’s wildest places. I had joined our county’s mountain Search and Rescue group a few months back, and had come to enjoy Ed’s company and trusted his judgment; the kind of climbing partner that infuses confidence with every step up the trail.
So off we went to find our start in the early morning in August. Passing the large boulder field, we made our way up to ever more glorious views of this pristine wilderness. And up we went, slowly… surely, possibly even elegantly, but that would be for others to judge. Ok, likely not elegantly.
At the saddle (main photo), we stopped to reassess our route options and chose the same one as I had come to know the year before. Now, mind you, at 58 and 68, our options were not quite what they may have been 40 years ago…, but young spirits prevailed and after a good break, we made our way up the final 1,100′.
Class three climbing in this setting required helmets and three points of contact as we carefully wound our way up.
“Ed, I’m seeing leftover snow, ice, and probably mud on our route. Your thoughts?”
In his typical manner, Ed quickly quipped,
“Hey, it’s your climb. You make the call.”
So I did and slowly, we traversed along the rocky and ever faint path to the bottom of the gully, carefully placing our feet and hands and testing our holds. Frequently, we stopped and rotated lead positions always mindful of rockfall, snow, mud, and ice.
Three years into my early retirement and now I find myself on this insane (by my standards) route up one of Colorado’s 53 14ers with a much more experienced mountaineer and I begin to ask myself how wise it is to proceed. But quickly, I mute the voice of doubt.
And up we go, carefully maneuvering past the crux of the route, a deep V-shaped line where we calmly find our way along the side of the gully for sound purchase of footholds along thinner and thinner ledges, I notice the quickly moving and darkening clouds and my heart sinks.
“Crap, Ed! Looks like ugly weather making its way behind the mountain again this year!”
“Yup. And we don’t want to have to call our Search and Rescue friends! I would rather die here before I ever make that call!”
“Agreed. Let’s break here and have lunch, enjoy the view, and wait this out for a few minutes.”
So, it was that we sat on this gnarly slope, goofing off, trying to keep warm as the first of the grapple begins to hit our helmets.
I look at my Garmin GPS and note that we are at 13,812’… about 200′ from the summit.
Without much conversation, we decide we’d prefer to live and so we grab our packs and ever so carefully retreat off of this glorious mountain to give it another shot next year.
200′ from the top; the Tortures of Tantalus.
But it was a wise call as we turned around once more to see the entire peak being hit hard with hail.
Back at the trailhead, I reach in for a couple of tasty IPAs, pop them open and hand one to my climbing partner.
“Well Ed, I think we made a good call. What do you think?”
“Hell yeah, we did. AND… we didn’t have to call Search and Rescue to get our sorry asses off of this mountain!”
Respond to a person’s kindness to oneself by being kind to someone else.
“I will take the support I have had and try to pay it forward whenever I can”
It’s a wonderful way to live and, quite frankly, one of the few paths towards achieving a modicum of enlightenment in our respective paths in life.
After driving two days to our modest Florida bungalow near the pristine white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast, we learned of a young family whose home had been devastated by the recent hurricane that hit around the Panama City area. We were tired from the drive and from a few days spent on a full kitchen renovation project, but when we learned of this family’s plight, we naturally volunteered to help them retrieve what belongings were not destroyed by this powerful storm.
… why, it could easily have hit us!
And as we approached the area, we began to see what winds topping out at 155mph can do… In my 58 years on this planet, with all of the traveling we have done here in the US and abroad, we had never seen anything quite like this.
A week after the storm made landfall, entire forests of pines were snapped, all leaning in the direction of the wind, some structures were blown apart, and power lines were down where they fell. Simply incredible.
Then, as we pulled into the family’s neighborhood and parked, we noticed the eerie sounds of an army of chain saws, helicopters buzzing overhead, and non-stop sirens.
The poor family’s home, while still standing, had sustained terrible damage on their roof causing rain to compromise ceilings in many of their rooms, filling the main living area full of blown insulation. Then, we noticed the unmistakeable smell of mold…
Much of the family’s belongings were salvageable, but some were not. And toward the end of the day, while trying to be discrete and respect this family’s privacy, I looked into the wife’s eyes and the stress of this event were clear, despite her strength through the ordeal.
In the end, of course, these calamities typically bring forth the best and (sadly) the worst of people. The group of us, however, made the most of this difficult situation and found ways to laugh as we struggled to fill up U-Hauls and trailers of belongs in the stifling heat of the day.
Funny what we take for granted. Perhaps the silver lining of such disruption to our lives is to remind ourselves how fortunate we are in 99% of our days.
Pay it forward, as the saying goes. Each day presents little ways to do it… preparing us for the thankfully rare time when we rally to help our fellow man in much bigger ways.
As I caught sight of the young family at the end of the long, cool rock-blasted tunnel, my mind drifted back about 90 or so years to a time when there must have been a narrow-gage train bringing miners and supplies to and from the area’s mines back in the day.
I imagined a weathered old soul, on the back-end of the tiny caboose, strumming some Mississippi delta blues as they chugged their way slowly up and down this fantastic gorge.
“I’m a leavin’ dis mohnin’…,
You’d bettah come ‘n leave wid me”
I could see in my mind’s eye this old chap playing with his scratched-up guitar, laying it flat on his knee, like a Dobro. Could hear and see it as clear as day as I began my quiet walk along the pretty trail leading deeper and deeper into the impressive gorge beyond. Feet tappin’ out the steady beat in shoes that had surely seen some miles in their day, the sounds echoing clearly along the tunnel’s walls.
No Starbucks along this path: zero modern amenities here! Just an occasional river runner or adventure-seekers in rafts and the occasional vulture circling above.
And as the sun dialed up its intensity along this peaceful scene, I wondered what this place was like in the 1920s. Coal-fired locomotives running up and down, interrupting the sound of the Arkansas River… What a tough life this must have been. The scrappy, hardscrabble souls all in search of the precious ore, the promise of a golden ticket out of their daily labor.
Lord, please let me strike it rich today.
After walking two miles along the trail, I encountered a locked gate with a sign indicating that this was the end of the line; stepping past it meant trespassing on railway-owned property. Just as well, I thought. It was oppressively hot and I was certain that there would be no breeze coming along anytime soon in this deep canyon.
I dropped my backpack, grabbed some water as I surveyed my surroundings. Spying a route up to a sweet overlook, my spirits lifted at the promise of some elevation gain and up I went, taking great care not to step on any Rattlers! Boy, they sure do blend into their environment. The route up was agonizing given the density of cacti, the loose rocks, the increasingly oppressive sun, and the threat of a lethal and sudden bite on my calf!
By the time I was up on my perch over the Arkansas, I spied a gnarly old Pinion tree under which I sat digging into my pack for my modest lunch. At this point, I felt quite satisfied that I’d encounter no other people. I mean, who the hell in their right mind would detour up this insane terrain in the high heat of the day?
And, after all, are not some of life’s sweet gifts best savored after a period of sustained suffering?
My old doggies soon weighed heavy on my mind and I knew I had to make my way back home, so I packed things up and headed carefully back down the steep incline to the trail by the pretty river. A slip, an injury… not a good idea here!
As I found myself back on friendly ground, I stopped to gaze at the folded and tortured looking rock, by some estimates, 1.7 billion years old. I laughed quietly at how insignificant we humans are in the grand timeline.
Passing through the last of the tunnels, I swore I could hear some melodious blues being strummed as the little imaginary caboose made its way back into town… a harmonica coming to life as well.
The voice inside your head asks… “Are you a Man or a Mouse?” And it continues to dog you, shaming you to step up and answer truthfully until you can bear it no longer.
“Psst, buddy. Hey, you goin’ to your grave without ‘adventuring’? Gonna play it safe here on out, are you?”
The sorry truth be told, like millions around me, I’d followed the predictable script laid in front of me by family and my immediate social circle: education, professional job, marriage, 2.4 kids, an oppressive mortgage…
How on earth do we ever train our minds to accept a 1.5 hour commute in eight lanes of traffic? Starched, white shirts, expensive ties, a stuffy suit, a pretentious European car. Why, yes, I sure looked the part and I was “unique”, all right, just like the thousands of other poor souls with blank looks all around me crawling at five m.p.h. towards our respective offices… robots mindlessly obeying society’s commands.
It was one summer day in 1996, with my sunroof open, that I spotted an ultralight craft flying about 400′ or so feet above me, while stopped in traffic. The smart-ass was flying above us, following the contour of the road.
And perhaps that’s when it hit me hard… “How can I do this for another 20 years?”
Fast-forward to 20 July 2018: 1,800 miles West, 9,820′ higher up, 1.6 (dirt) lanes as I approach the North Cottonwood Trailhead and the parking lot is filled with US Forest Service and Colorado Fouteener Initiative vehicles. Yup, a crew of eager men and women in their early 20s have arrived to do incredibly challenging work repairing, redirecting, and building trails up to about 13,800′. God bless ’em. I had spent nine days building trails here in Colorado over the past three years, but the work they were gearing up to do above tree line was far more difficult.
Having awoken at 0300, downed coffee and a hearty breakfast, I’d made my way north to the town of Buena Vista, hung a left on CR350 as the sun was just making it’s way above the mountain ridges in my rear view.
Anticipation grew as I began to visualize my day’s adventure. The Collegiate Peaks, named after some of our nation’s more famous universities, rose in front of me like slowly waking giants looking down on my truck.
“Come on old guy, let’s see if you can muster the energy to stand on one of our heads…”
Transitioning from paved to dirt roads signals that the trailhead is nearing quickly and that, regardless of how far up I find myself today, this new day granted me by God shall not be squandered; grateful I was that I’d have another chance to walk up high into another mountain paradise.
With numerous peaks climbed over the past three years, the drill is now committed to muscle/mental memory. Parked at 0612 and over the first bridge by 0625; no wasted motion, no second guessing. Today’s challenge was going to require almost 4,700′ of elevation gain and 14 miles of hiking (roundtrip). By now, I knew what I was in for and settled in to a sustainable (slow) pace. Go too fast, hit the wall and falter. No race, enjoy your surroundings. The young and restless will pass you, driven by “best times”. Not my game. Saunter, behold, relish the beauty all around. Why ever rush? Did that for years in the corporate world.
Driven on by the promise of a spectacular valley, one that I had not yet discovered, propelled me on to hike up, leaving the remaining trees behind me, the large swollen creek down by the parking lot now but a small trickle as the sun lights up the craggy wall to my left.
I’m all alone for the moment, save for the sound of a gentle breeze and the awakening birds in the high alpine.
Stopping for a break at around 12,600′, hydrating and eating my energy bar, I pulled out my small spotting scope and saw only two other climbers ahead of me on trail, higher up. Looking down, I saw no others! This is what brings good energy into this old mountaineer’s bones… solitude in a spectacular and almost untouched alpine setting early in the morning!
As I neared the high ridge before the summit, I dropped my pack and took another decent break as I surveyed the last few hundred feet to the summit. Being a very conservative climber, I calmly scanned the remaining terrain for a reasonable route through the exposed boulders.
“Ok. There it is. That’s how I’ll get up.”
Experience has taught me never to rely on climbers higher up to show one the way. Sometimes it is the proper way for me, but other times, it is not. Had I followed the younger climber directly up from me, I would have found myself upon a very exposed, Class3 route on the spine when another, less taxing route lay to the right.
Yet, the smooth boulders with the narrow ledge leading up to the last 60′ was anything but calming!
Finally, after five hours of climbing, I was on the summit of Mount Harvard, deep inside the Colorado Rockies, with another glorious view of the world below! The two young chaps at the summit were pleasant company as we discussed our day’s experience.
… in the back of my tired brain was the thought of negotiating the down-climb from the summit to the safer saddle below. But, best not to let unsettling thoughts creep in too much, eh?
After savoring the hard-won views for a few precious moments, I headed down a couple of hundred feet, past the upper crux, onto safer ground, unpacked my lunch and simply enjoyed the warmth of the large rock on which I sat, as I beheld the infinite views of the world below!
How does life get any better than this?
And just who was that smart-ass in the ultralight airplane so many years ago, taunting all of us who were involuntarily stuck in that hellish traffic? A messenger of sorts, perhaps?
How do you stay awake, after the alarm comes to life at 0300 hours? After a couple of cups of coffee, an omelette prepared by my loving wife at 0330… why it’s all about some loud (inspirational) music blaring in the truck as I motor on out to climb another of Colorado’s famous “14ers”, 54 defined peaks in the state that rise above 14,000′.
With four bars present on my iPhone, I dial up some fiery Louisiana Blues and on comes Clarence Frogman Henry wailin’ on some tune called, “I Ain’t Got No Home”: perfect.
So while a lonely pair of headlights makes it way along remote dirt roads to a trailhead some two hours away, I’m mentally preparing for a very long, long day. The plan unfolds:
0300: Wake up your sorry 58 year old butt,
0400: Drive off for a two hour’s drive through the Colorado Rockies
0600: Arrive at the Missouri Gulch Trailhead
1430: Return to the Trailhead, open up cooler, savor one tasty IPA
1500: Drive back home
1700: Arrive back home and stumble on in to regale wife with heroic tales of mountaineering…
Yeah, plans. At least it’s a nod to some serious and responsible planning, but things always slip. And so, as the sun began to rise, painting the the tips of the pretty mountains surrounding me on all sides, so my mood and anticipate rose as well. It was going to be another fully-charged, great day to be alive!
Pulling into the parking area on time, I had expected to see a good number of cars. Most serious hikers and climbers arrive well before sunrise so that they can summit and come down before the expected early afternoon thunderstorm unleash their fury (lightning, hail, rain…) . Missouri Mountain was my sixteenth attempt, having summited on the prior 14 of 15, the latter unsuccessful due to a nasty hail storm near the summit! (Mt. Lindsey).
Over the pretty bridge over the creek I went, hoping not to encounter any enterprising, toll-taking Trolls, a gateway to the upper basin on a perfect day! From the research, I knew I’d be in for a good 10 miles (16 km) of hiking (roundtrip) with a total elevation gain of 4,712′ (~ 1,420 meters). Barring any ugly weather or surprisingly challenging terrain, this could be reasonably done at my slow pace.
And up I went; over the wobbly, skinny logs over the upper creek, up the steep trail, past the remnants of an old log cabin and them up onto an amazingly beautiful basin with a clear and robust creek flowing down in the middle. Frogman Henry’s catchy, little blues tunes were still ringin’ in my old ears when I came upon another hiker, a guy originally from Louisiana stopped at a fork in the trail at around 12,600′: Dave.
“Hey! Fantastic morning to be alive, ain’t it?”, I said to him enthusiastically
“Heck yeah! But, I’m totally gassed. Not sure I want to continue. Climbed a 14er yesterday…”
“Oh man! Two in two days?”
I’ve found that there are typically two types deep in the wilderness; those who really want to be left alone… and then… people like Dave and I who enjoy the surprise of finding like-minded people with stories to share along the trail. And so, having planned to drop my pack at this point for a decent break before heading up the steep wall to the saddle above, another good 1,300′ or so on slippery scree and rock trail, I spent time to chat with Dave.
After about 10 minutes, I politely broke and told Dave that if I did not keep on truckin’, I’d be doomed… a mental thing. He laughed and waved me on, wishing me well as I did him.
After about 10 minutes of pure “Hell on Steep Scree”, something told me to look back; and there slogging up the mountain was my new buddy for the day, Dave! I did not want to get into his personal space so I kept on my pace up the mountain and planned for another decent break at the saddle. Only a couple of minutes behind, Dave crested the ridge and once, again, we picked up our effortless conversation from our point about 1,300′ below in the valley! Next stop: the Summit of Missouri Mountain!
“Hey… why don’t we hang together on this last 0.7 miles (1 km) to the summit. Looks a little sketchy.”, I suggested
And for the balance of the climb and the descent back down to the trailhead, we teamed up for an epic day on top of the world! Dave told me that he was an EMS Tech and I tried to impress him with my having recently joined my county’s mountain Search and Rescue! All good along the ridge.
On the way down was a dude in his late 50s or so, with a smile that seemed to stretch from one end of the horizon to the other. Mental note that would serve me well later that day…
The photos included pretty much speak for themselves. It was a fantastic day and we were mildly delirious to return to our respective vehicles in the parking lot after a long day, particularly for Dave who had bagged two 14ers in as many days!
After crossing the bridge, I had the pleasure to meet Dave’s wife and friendly Lab, both who had climbed with him the day before. Then, perhaps the funniest part of the day unfolded.
Sitting behind my pickup truck in the parking lot, flip-flops on instead of boots (!), one IPA going down the old gullet, a lady’s voice calls out from across the lot…
“How was your climb?”
“Uh… great! Thanks!”
“Mind if I ask what mountain your were on?”
“Did you happen to see a guy with a bushy, red beard (not her words exactly)?”
“Yeah! I saw him! He looked very happy to have summited!”
So we began to chat and realized that he should have been down before us. We had not seen him along the one trail heading down and I got a little concerned… as I realize, in retrospect, so was she.
Something dogged me as I bade her farewell and drove off; a feeling that I should not have left before her husband returned. Darn… bad call. Lesson learned.
Then, about six miles farther down the dirt, forest road I see him under a tree! Without looking in my rearview mirror, I instinctively (and rather dramatically) slam on my brakes effecting a massive dust storm behind me…
“Hey there! Your wife is waiting for you at the parking lot!”
Ha, ha, ha… life is funny, eh? “PJ” jumps into my truck for the ride back to the trailhead. Turns out, we both fled Maryland for Colorado and are both now hooked on climbing! PJ, looking very relieved, kinda looks like a more fit and outdoorsy version the bearded fella of the Grateful Dead.
I laugh all the way home, reflecting on this hilarious and satisfying day, set in a dramatic terrain filled with like-minded explorers all drawn to the beauty of this magnificent landscape.
… another day not wasted. Check.
“I’m a lover not a fighter…”, the Louisiana Blues lyrics carry me all the way home to my loving wife.