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Home on the Range

Colorado Trail hike

After attending a family reunion in the southwestern suburbs of Denver, Sue’s parents drove us to the trail head.  They probably thought we were crazy for walking into the mountains, but they were used to us doing crazy things by then and didn’t say anything.  We were going to hike the Colorado Trail to Breckenridge, a distance of about 118 miles, and then visit friends in nearby Vail.  We thought it would be a good way to get away from it all for a few days.  We were only partly right.

The first part of the hike was uphill as we climbed the front range.  Along the way we were passed by many mountain bikers, not exactly a lonely trail.  But after three days we pretty much left civilization behind. Or so we thought.

The trail climbed to a 12,000 foot pass that after about noon became very dangerous.  Clouds start to build in the afternoon sun and electrical storms are frequent.  We didn’t want to be up in the pass when that happened.  We found a level spot for our tent about a thousand feet below the pass late in the afternoon so we could make it up there in the morning.

We broke camp early and started up.  By 11:00 we could tell we were nearing the top and we were feeling a sense of accomplishment as we hiked through patches of snow.  Then from behind us we heard the rattle of a mountain bike.  He passed us and stopped at the top, just a few feet above us.  There at the top of the pass he briefly looked around and, with a satisfied look turned around and started back down.  He deflated us, but the worst was just ahead. 

One of the reasons for going into the mountains for days at a time, at least for us, is to completely disengage from the hustle and demands of daily life.  On one trip into Yosemite, I was stopped by a college student who was conducting a survey that was constructed to gauge how peoples’ feelings about themselves and the world changed while away.  He was waiting at the trailhead to administer the same survey on the way out, and later sent me a copy of his paper.  His respondents were more relaxed and positive when they returned from the high country, a feeling that lasted for a few weeks until they acclimated back into civilization.  As we slogged to the top of the pass, we reached an open, deforested area, that had been crisscrossed by gravel roads that ascended from the other side of the mountain, and there, a group of mountain bikers were accepting the delivery of a pizza from a small delivery truck.  Cellphones were a new thing at the time, but here they were phoning in their order at the continental divide.  So much for getting away.

A couple of days later we were hiking through a narrow valley with cliffs high above us on both sides.  Thunderstorms gathered and lightning began striking the rocks above us.  Standing under a rock overhang or under a tree could be deadly, and so could walking across an open pasture.  With nowhere else to go, we just kept walking.  The valley was a pasture for cattle, and we reached a gate at its far end   where several cows were huddled together trying to get out of the rain.  We let ourselves through and Sue turned around and, drawing on her theater background, began singing Home on the Range.

The cows stood there in the rain, huddled together quietly, and seemed to listen intently.  When Sue was almost finished, they mooed their applause.  Another satisfied audience.

Dressed in her blue poncho that must have made her look like a Martian to the cows, Sue decided to perform an encore for the appreciative audience.  Once again, the cattle huddled by the fence and listened intently, and again mooed their approval.  The best audience she ever had.

That night we used our water purifier to filter drinking water from a small stream that had probably been contaminated by the cattle.  In the morning we continued walking down the trail that had now become a dirt road that followed a mountain stream.  The rain would not stop and just got colder.  We passed many abandoned gold mines and tailings from placer mines, dredges, and hydraulics.  It was a barren industrial landscape along the racing mountain stream that was framed by towering, snow capped peaks.  Human ambition and nature’s beauty stood side by side in stark contrast.

A car passed by, and its driver stopped and asked us if we wanted a ride.  Tired of the industrial landscape and of being wet, we said yes.  It wasn’t far to a trailside motel and a hot shower, and the next day we caught a bus to Vail to visit old friends. 

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