Backpacking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

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Lately it feels like nearly every article I read about personal growth mentions something about getting out of your comfort zone.  It makes sense, as getting out of our comfort zones forces us to learn new skills, see things in a different light, and keeps us in the habit of expanding our horizons.  One thing I had realized, though, is that many of us often equate leaving our comfort zone with trying something new.  While they often go hand and hand, they are not completely equivalent.  I would argue that, for someone who parties every weekend, trying out a different bar, while a new experience, is not really stepping outside their comfort zone.  Likewise, it takes significant courage, and takes one a significant distance outside their comfort zone, to stand up to a boss or an office bully, despite the fact that they are sitting in the same desk they have sat in every day for multiple years.

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My first backpacking trip would be my first time in the wilderness, completely away from any buildings or vehicles, with no amenities, and no access to supplies other than what has been packed.  Anything forgotten cannot be retrieved.  There is no going back to the car to escape inclement weather, and no town to purchase replacements for any camping gear that may malfunction.  We are completely on our own!

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Because this is my first time backpacking, we kept it simple, doing a loop of only 13-14 total miles up the Comanche Trail, over the ridge, and then back down the Venable trail.  I wish to try new things, expand my horizons, and step outside my comfort zone, but I want to do it in a manner that is smart.  I am accustomed to carrying little more than an extra layer or two, water, and some snacks when I hike.  Carrying a backpack, which probably weighed at least 30 pounds, is significantly more intense.  Not leaving some wiggle room in case something goes wrong, could be potentially dangerous.

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And, well, something did go wrong.  After an exhausting 2600 foot climb from the trailhead to Comanche Lake, where we set up camp for the night, the stove malfunctioned halfway through cooking dinner.

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We watched the sun gradually descend below the mountains, shinning only upon the higher terrain toward the end of the evening wondering what we were to do next.  Could we subsist the next couple of days, along our planned route, without any more cooked food, using only the cold food we had packed?  Would we have to cut any aspect of our trip short?  Was my first backpacking trip turning into a disaster?

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After reasoning out in our heads that we technically could make it on the remaining cold food we had brought, we luckily found this rusty old pot just sitting there by the lake.  This pot saved the day, as we had no qualms putting it directly into a campfire.

Trips like this definitely help us see our lives from a different point of view, and force us to re-evlauate what a “necessity” really is.  Case in point, Saturday morning (second day of the trip), we had Zatarains’ Red Beans and Rice, and very much appreciated it.   This is a dish I will periodically make at home when cooking something “simple”.  When I cook red beans and rice at home, I, by default, add some kind of meat to it, usually sausage.  I behave very much as if it were a necessity to “complete the dish”.  But, in many parts of the world, where people are poorer and life is simpler, rice and beans is a common dish.  Going on trips like this serves to me, as a periodic reminder that many of the things we consider “necessary” for life are not really necessary for life, they are only necessary for the lifestyle we have chosen.

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After a late start, we climbed, once again, from our campsite, at an elevation of roughly 11,600′, to the top of Comanche Pass, at roughly 12,800′.  Near the top, I suddenly realized that I was in an altered state of mind.  It felt almost surreal, and almost as if I had indeed taken some sort of mind-altering drug.  But, I hadn’t.  Some kind of combination of exhaustion, high altitude, and being outside my comfort zone had put my mind in a place where everything was both clear and blurry at the same time.  It’s hard to describe, but I am guessing that is why many yoga classes involve both an exhausting workout, and altered air conditions (heat, humidity), alongside its’ spiritual aspects.

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All this made the view at the top, of nearby Comanche Peak, looking Eastward toward the Wet Mountain Valley we hiked in from, and over the mountains toward the Upper San Louis Valley, even more spectacular!

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And, after a mile or so with little elevation change, we climbed back up onto the ridge at a place called Venable Pass, where we would complete our loop.  Here, we stopped to eat lunch before beginning our descent through an area known as Phantom Terrace.

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This descent was tricky enough that my exhaustion, and the altered state of mind associated with it, continued.  All sorts of crazy shit was on my mind as we descended towards the Venable Lakes.

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Of course, it was on this descent where I saw the highest concentration of my least favorite plant ever.  I really do not know what they are called, but they look vicious.  They remind me both of the flesh eating plant in the movie Little Shop of Horrors, as well as the plans that try to bite in Mario Brothers.  In fact, in my altered state of mind, I actually felt as if these plants were trying to bite me as I walked by.  It was freaky.  Maybe, despite the Red Beans and Rice, I still did not eat enough, or drink enough, I don’t know.

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We camped the second night just below Venable Lakes, as we had to get back down to the tree line for access to firewood.  We had become pretty well versed in the process of starting a fire and using it to cook our food using that rusty old pot we found (and kept after the trip).

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The next morning, we woke up early to view the sun rise.  We also saw some cool wildlife, deer, grouse, and marmots, which we had been viewing on and off for the duration of the trip.  However, particularly with deer, first thing in the morning is often the best time for wildlife viewing.  We also gazed upon the muddy puddle I had stupidly jumped into the prior afternoon, having wanted to cool off as it got quite warm for elevations in excess of 11,500′.

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Before leaving the last campsite of my first ever backpacking excursion, I paid homage to one of my favorite songs out right now Cool for the Summer, as, well, this summer has been awesome, and, is now coming to an end.  On the car ride back to Denver, we had a conversation about whether or not songs like this, geared towards high school and college students, apply to people who have graduated, joined the adult world, and no longer have summer break.  However, despite the fact that nothing about my job, or my role in life, automatically shifts for summer (to an internship or summer job), I do feel something magical about this season.  There are so many things one can do in summer that they cannot in other seasons.

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The final descent, back to the trailhead along the Venable Pass Trail, is highlighted by a series of waterfalls, as well as a large number of Aspen trees.  At the biggest water fall, Venable Falls, I actually dunked my head into the water to cool off.  The lower part of this trail would be an amazing day hike sometime around a month from now, when the leaves on the Aspen trees are changing colors.

In the end, my first backpacking experience was quite the trip, and a memory that will last a lifetime!  I came away from this trip confused.  Backpacking is a strange activity.  It is both simple and complex.  It is both exhausting and relaxing.  Never had I been farther away from civilization, having interacted with a total of three people prior to the final day of the trip.  Having experienced additional complications, I am glad to have chosen something modest, in both size and scope, for my first trip.  And, I am glad to have gone with a group large enough to make the experience both efficient and enjoyable, but not too large, as to add additional unnecessary complications.

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