Oregon: Instilling Respect for Grand Spaces

I can still remember the day that I took my son Anthony and his cousin, Sean, climbing up on Mount Hood.  It was a glorious day, the sun shining, the skies a dark blue against the bright snow and ice above.   Strange as it is, I can almost look left in my mind’s eye and see the two of them grinning ear to ear as we went higher and higher up above the clouds that morning in Oregon.

Disguised as “vacations”, we would organize our family trips to look for potential places to retire and Oregon held a certain allure to my wife who had lived there years ago.   There was so much to explore in such a short period of time, and as usual, she had us superbly organized.    Leave things to me, and I’d likely have us camping on the beach out of a 1967 VW Hippy Bus…

Seems to me that it was our turn now to show the kids the wonders of our beautiful planet and to instill in them a profound respect for our wild spaces.  We’d been camping with them for years, but Oregon was truly grand!  The approach to this was fairly simple, just bring them there, let it all soak in at an early age, and they’d never, ever be satisfied to live an ordinary life again.   A curse, perhaps, but a spell worth casting.

I’ve come to understand that the best remedy to our man-made ills is to simply drive far away to grand, natural spaces.   To stoke up that wonderful and magical feeling of awe as we stand before treasures such as Crater Lake, the Grand Canyon, and the Impact Crater is to imbue within us an undeniable feeling that we are small and fleeting in the grand scheme of things and this, I have found, is a great relief.  None of us is really important at all.   Trade the BigFootprint McMansion, ditch your rarely used yacht, and live in the footsteps of John Muir!   Simple is good, and hey, pretty affordable to boot!

So many of our worries and ills are unnecessary if we would simply remember to leave the man-made chatter in our rear view mirrors.   There’s a James Bond type red button in your Austin Healy labeled, “Screw the drama”.   Press it now!  And as in his movies, your vexing villain will soon be ejected out of the sunroof never to be seen again.

The other day I dropped off my old hiking boots to get resoled.  It was almost as agonizing as dropping of my little ones at day care years ago.

“Three weeks or so?”, I asked.

Smiling, the healthy and fit woman in her late sixties with the long, grey pony tail, smiled a bit and answered with her eyes.  It was clear, she’d kick my ass up any mountain around here.

Two weeks to go while my right foot heals from surgery and my old hiking boots get a second life.  Can’t wait.   My son will be home on leave and maybe the four of us can take a slow, long walk into the wild.

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High Alpine Lakes & Glorious Summits

Alas, the sand that has accumulated in the lower chamber now exceeds that of the upper, but that has only motivated me to squeeze the most of my remaining days.   And maybe, if we “adventure” more, we may in fact find ourselves scooping some of the sand back to the top!   It’s a nice thought, yes?

I returned to mountaineering ten years ago.   My mother had died recently and she reminded me of her technical climbing days in the Austrian Alps back in the late 40s and early 50s.   Carefully, we turned the pages of that treasured photo album of her youthful adventures.   I often think of her when I climb.

These day hikes to high peaks are a bit insane at this age, but so worth it in the end.   For something like this, I awake at four in the morning, grab my prepared gear, a cup of coffee, and go.   The billions of stars overhead, where I live at almost 8,000′ (2,438m) are so brilliant given the lack of light pollution, that I might almost drive without my lights.   Sometimes, I simply gaze at this in silence and wonder how gravity keeps me from drifting up into space.  Have you ever had this sensation?

Grand spaces make us feel small and temporary and restore a childlike awe and respect for our surroundings.  The big, light-filled cities have so many sensory distractions that we forget.

Here, the Sangre de Cristo mountain range rises about 6,000′ (1,828m) up from our valley floor to 14,000′ (4,267m), in a few areas.   Extreme forest roads allow us to gain access, but they require 4WD, high-clearance vehicles to properly navigate.  In some portions, the grade is 20° and driving up is assuredly not for the faint of heart.

And as the pirates exclaim… “Without fear there is no courage!”, of course, I’ve not quite learned where courage ends and stupidity begins.   Perhaps, the answer is found in the risk-reward formula?  I never pause long enough to think, because when we overthink we often don’t “do”.

So the first phase of this type of adventure is a drive up one of these roads in the dark.  Best to have a cover to the thermos.   And you turn off from the open valley and onto increasingly bumpy and rocky roads and the silhouette of the peaks is now barely visible with the early rays of the sun.  You finally meet the end and park, exit and now you are in the  thick forests and you begin to wonder who is watching your every move.  Mountain Lions are quite crafty.

Over the rushing creek, you are cold, a little tired, but you press on, knowing that soon the warm sun will light up a fabulous high alpine setting, one that will provide a surprising surge in your spirits and energy.   And you follow your headlamp faithfully until that happens.

Soon, you find ourselves above tree line, the glorious cirque (a circular formation of mountains) now suddenly alight with the early alpenglow and an unbelievable feeling washes over you, reminding you that this is all worth doing.

And up you go, now climbing the magnificent path before you and you look up and simply cannot believe your good fortune; to be alive, feeling alive, and no one else is here to disturb the moment.

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Now the mountain lakes are to your left, their waters perfectly still in the early morning, and over there… is a lone sentry on a rock outcropping; a Bighorn sheep looking down at you.   Quietly and gently, you continue your journey upwards, periodically looking down to see that the peaks that had previously towered above you are now below.  This is incredible.  Where are you getting your will to continue?

The early breezes begin, rippling the waters at the lower lake as you approach the upper one, creating moving patterns.   A waterfall connects the two and you look at the snows still remaining from the winter before.   Suddenly, more of the magnificent creatures appear out of the willows and you look up to see eight of them, all stopping to gaze at the human in their alpine valley.

Not a sound to be heard… save for a gentle breeze.

Up higher now, as the sun begins to bring light to the entire cirque, now looking down on the upper lake as you find the trail to the ridge line and you see the final 45° segment to the summit.   Up high now, you have a view over to the valleys below;  the San Luis Valley to the west, the Wet Mountain Valley to the east.

Looking up, the final push to the top comes into view and the worn trail now disappears into the large, steep boulder field, marked occasionally by a rock cairn, but you continue.   Up a few hundred feet with the sheer, north facing slope dropping off thousands of feet to your left, you do not allow yourself bad thoughts.  You know what happens if you do.

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You look up to find an older climber heading down.   Incredibly, you find that he is in his mid-70s, yet seems quite natural in this setting.  You exchange brief comments, he turns to point out the way up and you pass wishing him well; he descending and you finding the last few hundred feet to the top.   Something in the old man reassures you that you have a few more years in the high mountains.

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Finally, you find the upper rock-strewn plateau and you are so close.   There!   There it is; the high point.   Happy to drop your pack, you find a flat rock on which to sit and you take in the precious and hard-won view.   Now the upper alpine lakes are so far down below.   Not a cloud in the sky.

For a few minutes, you have this entire summit to yourself.  The two women who have tailed you up for the past three hours arrive and more pleasantries are exchanged, and you give each the quiet space; the code of the mountaineer.

The day has been a long one; 4,464′ feet of climbing (1,361m) to 14,070′ (4,289m) and 14 miles roundtrip (22.5km), but no gain without a little pain.

Way in the distance, I’m sure that I can see my wife sitting on our front porch, our old Newfies by her feet…

 

Building Trails in Colorado

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.

img_0500Finally, 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.

img_0553My 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!

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-9-37-48-amWell, 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!