38°19’26.31″ N 106°16’23.61″ W – Elevation: 9,936′
They say that “Beaten paths are for beaten men”… sounds true enough; however, there’s nothing quite as pleasing to this older hiker as a well-designed and maintained trail through the wilderness.
So, naturally (ok, impulsively), I signed up for a five day expedition to help other volunteers work on trails and bridges on the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in south-central Colorado. The description of this work sounded great; we’d assemble in a campsite near the little hippy town of Crestone, then hike up to an alpine lake at around 12,000′. Once basecamp was established, we’d survey the area and prioritize the work to be done.
Heck yeah! Why not? The US Forest Service would supply a mule train to transport the cooking station, supplies, and tools. A cook would be provided as well. Sounded like great fun… and I eagerly clicked “register”, having long ago learned to ignore those nasty, little voices of doubt
But, darn, I was too late and the email said I’d be wait listed. Well, gee, at least there’s great volunteer support in Colorado and that was a good thing, I suppose.
Ah, but an email came a few weeks later to inform me that cancellations had been received and that I was in! Oh, now, it’s adventure time once again!
I wondered what the group would be like. Would I be the oldest at 57? Would I fit in? … or, would my “Easterness” bleed through? A couple of glasses of cheap wine out of my Bota Box quickly put these worries to bed.
The drive up and over the mountain pass to Crestone was just plain fun. With each passing mile, my smile grew wider as I thanked my lucky stars that my wife and I had planned so many years ago, allowing for a clean break from the busy work world to retire at 55; Learn to need less stuff and the big life awaits.
It was still early in the morning as I made my way down the straight road south with the mountains now to my left, rising a glorious 6,000′ over the high plateau. So entranced in the moment, I almost missed the sign. There, the tilted roadsign read, “Crestone 8.5 miles” Cattle grazing on light brown grasses and the early light raking its magical rays. The day is fresh with possibilities.
Had to stop for a rooster on Main Street, but that was ok. I had plenty of time to make it. Laughed. Thought just how different this was to downtown DC. Looked around at the funky architecture, much of it curving and colorful. Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the courtyard of a cafe. Empty. Just the rooster staring at me over the hood of my Jeep.
How would any of my old friends understand any of this?
Finally, allowed to pass and off I drive, now up dirt roads and there they are; A nice mix of old, young, private, extroverted; but all with a commitment to the outdoors.
1.22 billion mosquitos buzzing around, literally sucking us dry and now we decide on a Plan-B and nine vehicles caravan back across the open plains, through the outpost town of Saguache along Route 114 an into even more remote, arid valleys and up to the surrounding mountains (mental note to return to that place with the Willies Jeeps for sale). Turning off and now onto dirt roads, dust kicked up as we made our way.
Finally, we all re-assembled in the parking lot by the remote trailhead and I began to appreciate that I’d probably never be here if it were not for these people and this chance. New experiences widen the mind, eh?
Time to wait for the USFS people to arrive with their trucks and horse trailers. So we all pulled out our camping chairs and sat a spell, getting to know each other. Had my ears deceived me, the older gentleman to my right was 81?
Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) has thousands of dedicated people who make sure that our trails are attended to. And there are many other fine organizations as well; the Sierra Club comes to mind.
My pack weighed about 40 pounds. Not too bad. And one by one, we began the trek into the wilderness along the existing trail to our intended site about 4.5 miles away. Encountering a quick-response fire crew heading our way, we asked if all was ok. It was, they assured us, as they hustled on back; yellow shirts, scratched helmets, axes and all.
Past wonderful aspen groves we hiked, stopping to remove fallen trees we’d encounter along the way. Spied the impressive gnaw-marks of some industrious beaver. How was that big tree still standing, we all wondered? It’s four foot base only had about three inches left!
Well, I could probably write an easy 10 more pages on this wonderful experience. Probably the toughest thing I had to do, but well worth it. The 81 year old chap never slowed down! Humbling… The visits by the moose as well as the evening fire drill when a bear came through our site; well, that was not mentioned in the brochure. Bonus!
Two young girls and their grandfather had approached us as we were putting the finishing touches to the three-log bridge.
“May we cross?”, one sweet one asked
“Of course you may! You are the first!”, and she beamed and danced to the other side. Priceless.
Turns out that the 13 volunteers came from very different backgrounds but all with a common love for our trails and public lands.
Life would be so bland if we only did familiar things.
There’s a remaining lifetime of work for me to help with on our side of the mountains; lord knows I’ve had some close calls on some stream crossings last year!