The Weminuche Wildreness appeared to be particularly devastated by the recent Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic. While a portion of the second day was spent above the tree line and in storms for much of the journey, we wound our way in and out of the forest, alternating between hiking through the forest itself, and hiking across an open meadow where we could gaze upon the forest to both our left and our right.
Throughout the State of Colorado, and throughout the West, I observe areas where the Pine Beetles have decimated the forest, changing the ecosystem forever. Nowhere, though, have I seen a higher concentration of dead trees. I would estimate that, over the course of the trip, some 70-75% of all the pine trees I saw, were, in fact, dead.
But I did notice some signs of life, particularly at the campground Sunday (Day 3) morning. Tucked away amongst the densely pack forests of decimated trees, little signs of life seemed to appear. It reminded me of many American cities, circa 1982, decay being the overarching theme but, signs of life and pockets of hope beginning to appear here and there for those willing to observe. Maybe indeed, the worst has now passed for this particular forest. As was the case for many of our cities, it is possible that in a decade or so, we will revisit areas like this, and see once again a thriving forest, albeit, as was the case with our cities, with a different character?
As is typically the case on a three day excursion like this one, the last day was primarily a descent. As we descended, we quickly reached elevations where Aspens, rather than Pine trees made up a significant proportion of the forest.
Maybe it is different at this latitude, farther South than the Denver area, where I live and spend most of my time. But, it feels as if in this wilderness, Aspen trees are able to grow at some pretty high elevations.
We figured out the tree line here to be somewhere close to 12,000 feet in elevation. When looking upon sections of forest from afar like this, it is easy to picture some of these Aspen trees living at elevations close to 11,00 feet. Over the course of my four years in the Denver area, I had grown accustomed to them disappearing between 9,000 and 10,000 feet.
Sunday’s hike was a 7.3 mile trek along the Ute Creek trail (the East Ute Creek trail we had followed the previous day merged with the main Ute Creek trail). The trail alternated a bit, climbing up and out of the valley formed by the creek for some sections, and descending back toward the creek for others. Due to the previous night’s onslaught of rain, which likely impacted the entire valley, the trails on this, the final day, were at times even muddier than the were the prior two days. At the end of three days, our total distance came out around 25 miles. I speculated as to whether the extra distance we traveled stepping around puddles, and veering left and right to avoid some of the muddiest sections of trail, over the course of three days made this a mile or so longer than it would have been had the trails been completely dry.
I personally added some distance on top of that. I love side excursions, whether hiking/backpacking, cycling, or on a road trip. And, in addition to the side excursion to the feature known as “the window” the previous day, I took one completely on my own the final day. Roughly halfway through the hike, I saw a place where I could cut down to the creek, and see a mini-waterfall.
The final part of the day consisted of a small climb out of the Ute Creek valley, followed by a descent back towards the Rio Grande Reserviour.
It is inevitable that, on the last day of any trip, we all begin to ponder our return home, and a return to our “normal lives”, whatever they may be. This return, though, is somewhat unique, as a trip into the woods is not just a journey away from our jobs, or certain responsibilities, it feels more like a complete separation from the modern world, or as some people refer to it, the “real world”. All of us were separated, not just from work, but from TV, from the news, from Twitter, and even the manner in which society is structured in the 21st Century.
Since my return to Denver was a return to, after being completely separated from, the “real world”, I started to contemplate the “real world” as one big entity, which, even for a big-picture abstract curious minded thinker like me, turned out to be strange. I feel like we often compartmentalize the “real world” into buckets; the working world, the relationship world, the school world, etc. We will write blogs, have conversations, confide in others about our hardships, or celebrate our successes, with respect to one specific bucket of the “real world” at a time. Some people will even chose to accept or rebel against the modern world on a bucket-by-bucket basis. “I’m a freelancer, happily married with two kids and a picket fences house.” “I work 9-to-5 for a large corporation, but I only eat organically certified food.”
I’m not saying there is anything wrong with any of the partially-rebellious lifestyles I am describing here. We often try to oversimplify the actions and lifestyles of others as being either “conformist” or “rebellious”. When I thought about life in the woods, and the few people that actually do it, live off the grid, and off the land, I think of those people as “rebellious”. But, then I thought of human beings as part of the animal kingdom, and thought about what all non-domesticated animals do. They live in the woods. They hunt their food, many wandering around nomadically. When thought of in that manner, it is us human beings, and our domesticated cats and dogs, that are rebelling against the way the rest of the animal kingdom works by farming our food and setting up permanent shelters.
At the conclusion of our journey, we had to actually wade across the Rio Grand River to get to the car, as the trail ended abruptly at the river. This likely explained why we did not see any other people the entire time we were on the East Ute Creek and Ute Creek trails yesterday and today.
Shortly after leaving the trailhead, I saw what looked like baby mule deer living along the steepest part of the hill.
Like the journey to the Wilderness, the journey home took us by some of Colorado’s highest peaks and most stunning mountainous features. I thought of the “real world” I was gradually re-entering, the life I live and the journey I just took. It is not important whether we are “conforming” or “rebelling”, because, like life in the woods, it can be thought of as conformist or rebellious depending on perspective.
Those of us that are honest with ourselves, and with those around us, will undoubtedly find ourselves in both situations. We’ll find ourselves in a place where our choices are the same as those around us, and be suseptable to being labelled “conformists”. We’ll also, at some point, find ourselves in a place where our choices are not those of the majority, and be met with skepticism, hostility, and possibly even pressure to change. What matters most, is not fitting into an image we may have of ourselves, whether it be the upstanding citizen, rebel, outcast, or whatever, it is that we have the courage to be all things, depending on our setting, in order to be true to ourselves.