Category Archives: hiking

Backpacking the Holy Cross Wilderness: Day 3 Nature and Spirit

I became fascinated with weather as a fairly young child. While looking into weather, I would often find old books, written long before people could look up a weather forecast on the computer or even turn on The Weather Channel. These books would describe how sky and wind conditions indicate likely changes in weather. This knowledge seems generally obsolete. However, the combination of knowing how weather patterns typically shape up in late August in the Rocky Mountains and observing the morning sky lead us to expect to be able hike the final 6.2 miles back to the trailhead before encountering rain.

One thing that did get somewhat frustrating on this and other recent camping trips, is the equipment. It is common for people to buy equipment for activities such as camping or hiking and feel as if they are done making purchases. However, on this trip, it became apparent that this tent was going to soon need repair or replacement.

The same can be said for my hiking pants and spork.

It’s taken me a while to realize how warped most people’s view of money and finance is. It seems common to focus only on expenses we can psychically see and on the short-term. When it comes to outdoor and sporting equipment, the line between renting and owning feels quite blurry. The more one uses an item, the sooner it needs to be replaced. So, with certain variance for the quality of the item and how well we take care of our things, even when we buy our own equipment, we are still sort of paying per use. The first dozen or so times anyone uses something like a tent, they rarely think about the cost of eventually replacing it and how those trips are taking them closer to that inevitable expense.

Throughout the trip, we continued to encounter deer up close. We must have chosen to set up camp in their territory or something. Once, when I left the tent to go to the bathroom before going to sleep, I encountered a deer and got startled. By Sunday morning, with clear weather, it almost felt as if we were hanging out with them!

Looking at us, I was wondering if the deer were having their own “Low Key F2020” type of experience. I can imagine them thinking….

Ugh! First there is all this smoke, then this hailstorm comes through, and now these humans are in our way! Can we do like the bears, hibernate and skip to 2021?

Heading back across the valley, the sky continued to point to a more typical late August scenario and the expectation that rain and storms would come, as is more typical, in mid-afternoon.

Heading across the rocky area, we encountered some more furry creatures.

Then headed up fancy pass, a slightly higher pass than the one we had trekked in on Friday.

Heading up the pass, it got kind of windy. I wonder how the people who set up camp closer to the pass, in an exposed area, had fared that morning.

This was the challenging and exhausting part. First there was the nearly 1000 foot climb up Fancy Pass, where we could clearly see that Missouri Pass was lower.

Then, the other side was a steep, rocky downhill, which can be just as tiring as the uphill.

The Fancy Pass Trail experience was a bit more pleasant than the Missouri Lakes Trail experience two days prior. There was no crazy avalanche area where the trail was covered with downed trees and difficult to pass. Also, all of the trail’s features were quite exquisite in the morning sun.

First, Fancy Lake (okay, maybe the names of these things need more variety)

Then, just below the lake, the water funnels into an amazing tall, skinny waterfall.

The final three miles trail is pretty homogenous: a gentle downward slope through a pine forest.

It was in this section that I had a spiritual experience!

As I walked through the woods for what was the final hour and a half of this journey, I suddenly felt as if I was getting some deeply profound messages about my life. They were the kinds of messages that gave me clarity about what I am meant to be doing, confidence in who I am supposed to be and context around some of my more unpleasant past experiences. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before.

It felt like the result of a confluence of several circumstances.

  • I was tired enough to slow down my mind typically very active thought process. Yet, I was not so exhausted that it was all I could focus on.
  • There were not too many distractions in that section of the trail (i.e. fantastic panoramic views, wildlife, waterfalls, etc.)
  • My mind was somewhat de-cluttered from having done no-news August and having spent three days without access to Wi-Fi

While people believe different things, I genuinely believe that I received messages from either God or some kind of guiding spirit and came away from it with an unexpected boost.

It also gave me that answer to a question that had been looming on my mind for years. There is no question that our modern technology and conveniences have made our lives better. People live longer, are healthier and have more free time and other fun experiences than they did before we had all of our modern technologies. Yet, some chose to forgo conveniences like running water, electricity and computers for periods of time to take part in activities like this one. Regardless of whether or not one believes God speaks to us through nature, taking a break from the modern world gives us the opportunity to connect with something we don’t typically connect to.

Backpacking in the Holy Cross Wilderness: Day 2 The Storm

We woke up to a light rain tapping on the tent. The tiny amount of blue sky present in the morning quickly disappeared. While some days start off rainy only to quickly give way to sunshine, it was obvious this would not be one of those days. It would not be an optimal day for adventure.

Still, we tried to do our previously planned day hike to a couple of other alpine lakes. The rocks and lack of trees in the areas, combined with the cloudy skies, breeze and chilly rain made me think of the Scottish Highlands. I’ve never been there, but have seen photos which always make them appear something like this.I kind of always imagine cloudy weather as well.

The rain started to pick up as fog made previously visible mountains disappear in the background. We retreated to the tent.

As the rain picked up, the cold rain, along with a moderate, started to remind me of how it often felt walking down 5th Avenue (in New York City) during Christmastime. At higher elevations it snowed.

We would spend several hours inside the tent, trying to warm up and dry off. I kind of enjoyed having a chance to relax a bit and read (once I was able to dry off). There is something about having no other options, being stuck, that liberates us from this drive (or expectation) to make the most of every day we have. It feels like a modern day American obsession. I’m not sure if it is our work culture, competitive nature or something completely different that makes it hard for us to just relax. I’m probably even worse than most Americans. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to waste and entire day, not doing anything interesting or productive, and be okay with it. However, every time I try to do that, I get jittery sometime around 10 A.M.

The sun would eventually come out, sometime around 2:30 P.M.

I showed even more versatility by taking part in an activity I seldom do… fishing.

It even felt warm out for an hour or two.

We brought the fish back to our cooking area (which needs to be away from our campsite because of bears), filleted the fish and cooked our rice … just in time for another storm.

And I mean JUST IN TIME. As soon as everything was cooked, we rapidly and haphazardly put everything away in order to scurry back to the tent with our food to avoid lightning. While the cold wintry rain in the morning was just incredibly uncomfortable, the lightning in the evening was actually potentially dangerous. As summer was coming to an end in the mountains, we experienced nearly all seasons in one day.

It was the most intense thunderstorm I have ever experienced from inside a tent. It was the kind of thunderstorm where the sound of thunder follows the lightning nearly instantaneously making a startlingly loud noise! We could feel the vibration that only comes when the lightning strikes are incredibly close. It even hailed!

2020 is the gift that keeps on giving. It feels like a passive aggressive genie in a bottle, repeatedly giving me what I want but finding the most obnoxious possible way to grant the wish.

Me throughout the 2010s: Our jobs need to be more flexible. The rigid 9-to-5 schedule is outdated.

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): I shall create a global pandemic that will force everyone to work remotely out of fear of killing their loved ones with a really intense flu. That will lead to workplace flexibility.

Me in August 2020: There is drought, fires and smoke from California to Colorado. We need rain!

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): I’ll make it rain! But, I’ll make it rain on the middle day of your backpacking trip, while you are not in your home or even able to get back to your car. Oh, and I’ll give you both cold wintry rain and scary thunderstorm rain.

Maybe it’s not just me.

Countless people in the 2010s: The rent is too damn high!

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): An economic depression, violence and mass exodus from your city will lower your rent. You’re welcome.

Backpacking in the Holy Cross Wilderness: Day 1 Versatility

It started with an amazingly picturesque waterfall, only half an hour into the hike, before even reaching the border of the Wilderness itself.

There is no shortage of amazing natural features along the Missouri Lakes Trail in the Southern Part of the Holy Cross Wilderness about 20 miles South of Vail. In this part of the world it is hard to imagine anything different!

Many of the natural features along the first two miles of the trail were waterfalls!

This otherwise amazing experience along the Missouri Lakes trail was only interrupted by a section of trail that was quite challenging to pass and navigate due to a recent avalanche.

I was told this avalanche happened about a year and a half ago. I had never seen so many trees down in one place and could not help but imagine it being like one of those crazy scary avalanches in those nature videos. I wonder if anyone got trapped, if anyone died. Most people who travel places like this, especially in winter are smart, but there are the occasional stupid ones that end up in the news.

We spent most of the rest of the morning walking by the Missouri Lakes, the feature the trail is named after.

As is typical on the first day of a trip like this, I was trying to clear out my thoughts. Despite my decision to give up news for the month of August, I had some trouble clearing my mind. We can chose not to consciously look at the news, but unless we hide at home alone, there will be things we find out about. I heard about Hurricane Laura’s landfall in Louisiana. I also heard about something that hit closer to home for me, as I spent the first eleven years of my life living on Long Island and regularly going into New York City. Apparently, with the COVID-triggered adaptation of remote work, there is now an ongoing debate about whether New York is “dead” [1] [2].

I was in a place that could not be any more different from New York City.

Yet, my thoughts kept wandering to this debate. I wondered if the reports of people leaving New York City were overblown? Could the city really be facing an imminent decline? If so, will it be like it was in the 1970s? Could it be worse? What would the United States of America even be without places like New York City, where one can be in the middle of everything, the energy, constant movement, and economic activity?

The article claiming New York to be “Dead Forever” made a claim that sounded quite familiar… “This time is different”. I’ve heard this statement many times, in many different forms. Sure, “this time is different” events do happen, but not as often as they are proclaimed. A deep dive into history will actually reveal that in many cases, even ones of major change, a lot of things stay the same. A recent example is Google and Facebook. They changed the world in some ways, but their business model of giving away content for free and marketing to advertisers is not new at all. It started with radio and was the predominant business model of the television era. The main thing they changed was providing a platform for people to produce content for each other rather than paying actors to produce content.

I have a feeling that, although some adjustments will need to be made, there will still be people who crave the energy of living in places like New York.

Going over a mountain pass is quite a different experience than summiting a mountain. Looking ahead at the ridge, it is comforting, especially while carrying a heavy backpack, to know that it is only necessary to reach the “saddle” of this ridge, as opposed to the top of a mountain. There is no chance of a “false summit”. The challenge up ahead looks real, but it is also all laid out in front of us, with no surprises.

The top of the summit would reveal another challenge ahead. The clouds were already gathering.

As we descended the other side of the pass, toward Treasure Vault Lake at about half past noon, it was almost impossible to imagine an afternoon that would not feature rain.

It would take about an hour and a half for us to reach our destination, Blodgett Lake.

Due to a very rocky section of the trail, we had to descend into the valley and climb back to the lake.

For our final ascent to the lake, we went off trail. It’s probably a place few humans venture.

We ended up getting camp set up just in time for the storms to roll in.

The hours of 2:30 to 5:30 P.M. were mostly spent inside the tent, waiting out the storm. It was not ideal, as people often chose activities like this to spend time outdoors. However, we had been outdoors most of the day, and I welcomed the chance to take a nap and do a little bit of reading.

Between the place we set up camp and the lake there was a small lone tree. The image of this tiny tree with mountains and storm clouds in the backdrop made me think of the types of photographs often featured at art galleries, or at trendy cocktail parties.

That lone tree also came to symbolize something else… versatility.

It is common for people to wait for the ideal conditions for their activities. The chilly damp conditions, and promise of more time stuck inside the tent were far from ideal. However, that evening I witnessed a truly stunning natural phenomenon that I had only previously seen in videos. Watching the fog clouds pour over two mountain passes and into the valley below I knew for sure …. It pays to be versatile!

Mount of the Holy Cross

I did not understand why I heard so many cars going by at 3 A.M. We were camping in a really good spot, along Notch Mountain Road only five miles from the trailhead. Wasn’t the purpose of camping near the trailhead of a 14er (Mountain with a peak 14,000 ft. or higher in elevation, a popular activity in Colorado, particularly in late summer) to be able to sleep a little later? In our spot, we were able to wake up shortly after 5 A.M. and still arrive at the trailhead by sunrise.

The strange thing was, the trailhead was already so packed we had to park half a mile away!

Over the course of the day, we would find out the reason why. The most obvious reason is that The Mt. of the Holy Cross is not just a “14er”. It is a 14er with a warmup hike, a climb of roughly 1200 feet in elevation, followed by a descent into a river valley before the primary 3500 foot steep ascent.

Hiking several days after a full moon has two advantages. First, the moon does not rise in the night sky until an hour or two before midnight, making it possible to see the stars before going to sleep. Then, in the morning, the moon is still out past sunrise.

The opening ascent, which summits right around the tree line is a significant hike of its own. There are probably plenty of people who live more sedentary lives who would not even be able to make it to this summit, which was spectacular at this early hour.

Right after getting to the summit, the trail turned in another direction and suddenly, the mountain the we were going to climb appeared before us while the moon was still prevalent in the morning sky.

It was an image of power, challenge and intimidation in front of us. We had just completed what many would consider a satisfactory hike of its own, a climb of a little over 1000 feet to a scenic panoramic view. Here, it was just a warm up. The moon, still mostly full and bright highlighted the challenge that laid ahead. It may as well have been screaming LEVEL UP.

After seeing the mountain, there can be nothing more disconcerting than descending, giving back the elevation gain we had worked for at the beginning of the day. We descended from near tree line (11,600′) back down into a river valley with Aspen trees nearly 1000 feet lower.

Long distance cycling taught me how to manage situations like these, psychologically speaking. Terrain, on trips like these, are kind of like a metaphor for life. Parts of it are naturally going to be harder. Parts of it are going to be easier. Sometimes you can anticipate it. Sometimes, it is unexpected. When climbing, during the more challenging parts of life, all you can do is toughen up – grind it out. When on a descent, or during times when life takes it a bit easier on you, it is seriously best to just enjoy it, and not worry about paying the price later. We can’t change the terrain, the wind speed or the trail conditions. All we can do is get the full enjoyment out of the experiences that work in our favor.

Around the river valley, there were a serious of campsites, another reason that the trailhead parking lot was so full. Apparently, many people who hike this mountain pack into one of these campsites and then tackle the main ascent in the morning.

After the campgrounds, the climb got intense quite rapidly. It wouldn’t be long before we reached treeline and encountered typical conditions associated with 14ers; A rocky, steep trail with full exposure.

Instantly the full beauty of the heart of the Rocky Moutains was visible in all directions.

I knew I would soon reach the point where I felt exhausted and delirious.

The step scramble up the rocks seemed to go on and on forever. Every time I reached what appeared to be some kind of crest, the trail would just turn in a slightly different direction and the rocky climb would continue.

This very intense section of the mountain, at high elevation, also felt like a metaphor for life. Sometimes, we work really hard at something, complete a task and feel like we have “made it”, only to determine that another, equally challenging task lies ahead of us. It is like working hard to get an advanced degree, then working hard to land a job, then working hard to prove ourselves and get a promotion, or having to work our way into a different, more appropriate position. If anything, the downhill part of this hike was part of that metaphor. Many of us take part in endeavors that we later realize were counterproductive.

The final scramble to the top was so steep it proved ideal conditions for mountain goats.

There was one adverse condition, common to 14ers, that I did not experience that day. That was bad weather of any kind. In the mountains, it is common to encounter chilly winds, even in the middle of summer and afternoon thunderstorms. Consistent with the hot, dry summer of 2020, I relaxed on top of the mountain in a t-shirt, without having to crawl behind rocks to shield from the wind.

I was still almost too exhausted to enjoy being at the top of the mountain. It always feels amazing to be at the top, but I felt quite delirious. I was almost feeling too delirious to make sense of everything. I ceased thinking about every aspect of the experience being some kind of metaphor for life and just gazed around, with no energy for any thought beyond feeling on top of the world and gazing out at the rugged terrain in all directions.

The descent turned out to be almost as exhausting because I keep my dog on leash, she pulls, making a steep descent even scarier, and she spent most of the descent trying to capture small chipmunks.

Luckily, she finally succeeded, and once that adrenaline rush wore off, even an energetic 2-year-old Siberian Husky had to acknowledge that this hike was indeed exhausting.

With a round trip total of around 5500 feet of climbing, this was the most challenging hike I had ever undertaken. It was challenging enough to make me stop thinking of metaphors for life and start seeing just what is. When I reached the crest of the final climb on the return trip, I simply enjoyed one of my favorite foods and gazed back upon the mountain I had just finished climbing.

Suddenly my exhaustion made sense. I mean, come on, look at that thing!

Lessons Relearned on The West Elk Loop

It is quite easy to drive around the State of Colorado without even noticing the numerous scenic byways throughout the State. The signs are kind of easy to ignore. How certain roads get labelled scenic byways is somewhat of a mystery. There are plenty of extremely scenic places that are not designated a “scenic byway”, while there are some ares on the Plains, like highway 50 from Lamar to La Junta which are frankly not that scenic.

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I’ve never made a point to follow one of these routes. However, the weekend I camped in the Gunnison National Forest, I just happened to mostly follow the West Elk Loop.

The West Elk Loop is kind of a loop around the Gunnison National Forest, but there is also spur north along the Crystal River. This happens to be where my journey began.

We were not too far from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. I had never gone too deep into the park, nor have I visited the North Rim. I wanted to go and hike the North Vista Trail to overlook the canyon. Unfortunately, like most National Parks, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is not very dog friendly.

But that wasn’t enough to deter me. I thought it would be possible to hike up to an overlook of the canyon from outside the park. The drive was two hours, through an area that would eventually become a hot desert.

I figured there would be someone in the tiny town of Paonia that could help me figure out a way to overlook the canyon with a dog.

 

All I heard was a story about a dog that was left at the bottom of the canyon four years ago, who, luckily was able to eventually find a home.

The road I had identified to hopefully find an overlook of the canyon was hot and way too bumpy for my car.

We eventually got to a place where we could overlook part of the canyon.

But it hardly felt worth it. The round about drive took up nearly the entire day, and defeated one of the key purposes of this trip- to escape the heat.

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The next day, we’d visit a much less well known part of the West Elk Loop, along a county road that connects Paonia State Park to Crested Butte, that happens to be closed in the winter.

The drive was beautiful from the very beginning. It was quiet and the road was nowhere near as bumpy I had feared based on the previous day’s drive and that little dashed line on the map.

Instead, it lead us to one of the most beautiful hikes we had ever been on, in the Lost Lake area.

The first place we encountered along the hike was Lost Lake, a picture perfect lake with mountains in the backdrop.

When I see this place, it feels like where I would want to have a little cabin in the woods. Having just driven down into 100 degree heat on a wild goose chase the day before, I was suddenly thinking a lot about weather and climate. Although I was escaping the heat this particular mid-July weekend, I still wondered how often people get to really enjoy the lakes that are this high in elevation (closer to 10000 ft.). How often is it really warm enough? Maybe, if I were to get a lake house, I’d actually want to be a little bit lower, at an elevation more like 7000 ft., where there are more warm days to enjoy it.

We continued on to Beckwith Pass, which was actually not too much of a climb. However, even at this elevation, it felt hot! The scene got more amazing as we followed the trail.

We could see the West Elk Mountains.

The Maroon Bells.

And, Mount Crested Butte.

The least well known part of the West Elk Loop turned out to be the most magnificent!

I could not believe I had wasted an entire day looking for this elusive trail to overlook the Black Canyon. I could not believe that I had fallen for the trap that so many fall for, being relentless about going to the most high profile destination despite all the other obstacle, including the National Park’s dog policy, and the relatively low elevations in the middle of a heat wave!

The strange thing is that this is a lesson I had already learned. Despite living in Denver, I rarely go to Rocky Mountain National Park, instead opting for the less busy areas around it that are often just as scenic. This Beckwith Pass hike was probably even better than the North Vista Trail would have been.

The lessons I (re)learned, on this hot July weekend in the mountains are

  • Don’t get too hung up on the most obvious, high profile things in life
  • Be curious, open minded and keep exploring
  • Work with what is in front of me

Camping Memorial Day Weekend at 9600 feet (2600 m)

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The week leading up to Memorial Day Weekend life in Denver had already entered “summer mode”. Tuesday and Wednesday were the first official 90 degree days. People had begun to enter summer mode, moving their outdoor activities to either first thing in the morning or around sunset.

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Many went up to the mountains. On an unpaved road, three hours from Denver, a little outside the town of Redcliff in Eagle County Colorado, it felt like there was more traffic than there had been on some of Denver’s residential streets lately.

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To find a quality place to camp, that was not already occupied by someone who had arrived earlier, we ended up having to cary all of our supplies up a fairly steep cliff.

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Climbing that far up in elevation, we began to encounter some snow.

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It was the first time I ever set up camp anywhere near a pile of snow this big. Having been in summer mode, it felt odd to suddenly be around piles of snow that were multiple feet deep in some places. However, it was not without its advantages.

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The effort to lug all of our stuff uphill from the car also ended up proving advantageous. Despite being quite far from any town, campsites near the road/creek were not too quiet or secluded.

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We got the experience most people want out of dispersed camping by carrying all our stuff to the top of the hill. The tops of the nearby mountains could be seen much more easily up here. It was also slightly warmer, as colder air funneled into the valley.

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Overall, putting in a little extra effort lead to a better experience!

May can be a somewhat awkward time in the mountains. Above a certain elevation, there is still snow kind of everywhere. We took a day trip up to the Homestake Reservoir.

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However, with the ground kind of half snow covered and half bare, getting anywhere was kind of awkward.

It was here I had another first, a trek that blurred the lines between hiking and snowshoeing.

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With sections of trail bare and others still covered by feet of snow, we were constantly taking our snowshoes off and putting them back on again. The inconvenience and slippery sections of wet snow deterred others from completing this hike.

Once again, putting in the extra effort and overcoming a little inconvenience proved to be worthwhile. We ended up being able to eat a quiet lunch all by ourselves in front of a small but extremely picturesque alpine lake.

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The image in front of me, of a lone weather sensor, with the mid-May still mostly snow covered mountains of the Western Sawatch Range behind it ended up being one of the best ascetic natural experiences I have ever had!

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A lot of people will hike up here in July, August and September, after all the residual snow has gone, and stand in this very spot. However, they will not get this experience.

The following night, not having to set up camp, being able to goof off a little before a storm came in, was quite relaxing.

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When we first drove up the road, looking for dispersed camping, only to find that every site we saw for the first 8.5 miles was already claimed, it was tempting to give up and go home.

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On our partially snow packed hike to a lake barely even big enough to make it onto one of those detailed National Geographic pullout maps, we were advised to turn around less than a mile in. In both cases, persevering through unforeseen obstacles produced amazing experiences. Like the campground we stayed at and the pure beauty of eating lunch in front a quiet alpine lake, life will reward those who are not deterred by unforeseen obstacles in all forms. The key is to not give up!

The following morning, we’d wake up to even crazier weather; rain then even a few periods of significant snow!

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While Denver was entering Summer, the top of the Sawatch Mountains were barely leaving winter. It reminds me of when I encounter people who happened to be around the same age, with similar backgrounds, but are in different seasons of life.

It can be a challenge to wrap the mind around 90 degree Denver and nearby mountains where it is still snowing. In the same vein, it can be challenging to wrap the mind around a person with tons of responsibilities, a mature and realistic attitude and acceptance of life’s limitations being the same age as another who seems to have endless youthful energy and enthusiasm. Yet, like summer in Denver and Winter in Eagle County, they can both exist, both be beautiful, and give the world some much needed variety. The key is to not make assumptions about where anyone “should be” in their lives, and avoid the assumption that one path is inherently wrong.

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The Slow Return to Normal

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There I was, standing in the Cherry Creek reservoir, feet in the water, wearing a bicycle helmet and a mask. It was quite the interesting way to spend what was likely the first 80 degree day in parts of Denver (there are no observations downtown and the airport reached a high of 79), and the first day of Colorado’s slow return to normal.

That morning, Colorado’s statewide stay-at-home order transitioned to a safer-at-home order. For me, little had changed. The City of Denver still has a stay-at-home order which was extended nearly two weeks beyond the state’s. The businesses I frequent are all still closed, the guidelines still strongly suggest minimal travel. There is also evidence suggesting that the danger related to contracting and spreading the virus, in Colorado and in Denver, has yet to dissipate. Essentially, Monday’s slight change in policy, like a non-binding resolution or loose talk among friends about big things, felt mostly just symbolic.

Still, like many Americans, I am quite antsy to get back to doing a lot of the things that bring me joy; specifically travel and social activity. My mind is a bit all over the place as I try to reconcile the hopefulness of hearing news about states planning to reopen their economies with the very real threat that still exists. It feels like a classic heart vs. head issue, with many different dimensions and complications. My response is to start small.

Sunday, the last day of the full stay-at-home order, it was a short hike, at a place not too far away, called Steven’s Gulch, with only three other people.

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It’s not the kind of hike that leads to the most spectacular views.

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In fact, after a 500 foot ascent, there is a 1500 foot descent into the gulch, where the trail was quite muddy, and, in places, there was standing water to contend with.

The hike itself, wasn’t about reaching some summit. The largest climb was the 1000 foot climb back to the trailhead (which was surprisingly crowded for a not too well known trail on a day with clouds and rain chances).

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The hike was about being outside, being in nature, being in the woods.

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After weeks of spending far too much time at home, in front of screens, just being in a place that looks like this, putting one foot in front of the other for a few hours is an amazingly calming experience. Having lived without some modern luxuries for the past six weeks, it almost felt somewhat reminiscent of a backpacking trip.

Meanwhile back in Denver, the anxiety was still there and the tensions were still mounting.

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There are so many different factions of people feeling and saying different things about the virus and our response to it. There is so much fear, depression, loneliness and the post-traumatic stress. All data on the true extent and potency of COVID-19 is so unreliable. It has become nearly impossible to know who to believe.

One of the few bright spots of this whole pandemic is workplace flexibility in many sectors where working from home is an option. Without the commute, the need to get dressed up and be physically in an office for a certain time period, it becomes far easier to do things like go on an extended lunchtime bike ride.

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The ride to the Cherry Creek reservoir from anywhere near downtown Denver is about 13 miles, mostly on a trail. Throughout this pandemic, bike trails have been quite busy. Perhaps this is because the bars and restaurants are closed and more people are enjoying schedule flexibility related to their employment. The sun was bright that day, and there were many more people enjoying the day, on their sail boats or with their friends and family at the beach.

There is no way to tell how the history books will look back upon the Spring of 2020. Each and every person has their own unique way of coping with this major life event. Personally, I hold on to the hope that, in the long run, something good will come out of all of this. I’ve long held the belief that the expectation that people spend 40 to 50 daylight hours at their office is limiting, and something we are now capable of moving beyond due to new technology. With many people putting all this technology to use out of necessity, maybe our work culture will change for the better, opening up many daylight hours for experiences like this.

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A Mid-September Backpacking Trip to the Flat Tops Wilderness: Day 3 Sunrise on Devil’s Causeway

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“It’s gonna be so cold leaving the tent before sunrise.”

“The sunrise will look just as nice from the comfort of my tent.”

“We already saw the Devil’s Causeway on Friday.”

“Look at all the distance we’ve already covered.”

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These are all the things my inner dialogue told myself, to stop me from going the extra mile Sunday morning. And, it literally was an extra mile (two round trip).

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We all experience this from time to time. That voice in our heads is most often referred to as the inner dialogue or inner chatterbox. Its goal is to protect us from discomfort, failure, embarrassment and the like. It is the voice that once told an 11-year-old version of me that nobody wanted to talk to the new kid in town and subsequently told a 15-year-old version of me to avoid the embarrassment of asking anyone out. In both situations, that voice was dead wrong. Yet, it continues to plead its case in situations like these, pushing for its own version of comfortable stagnant mediocrity.

Perhaps the best decision I made on this trip was to ignore that voice, which actually took some mental energy given how exhausting Saturday was. That extra hour of rest in the morning was quite enticing.

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These photos don’t do justice to the gradual turning of the sky in anticipation of a new day, or the still lit full moon on the other horizon at dawn.

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Unlike in previous days where we were camping at lower elevations, when the sun kissed the sky, we were among the first to be struck by its golden rays.

It was a feeling that is hard to describe. I felt like I was receiving some kind of gift. I was recieving an infusion of energy, spirit and liveliness from some kind of abstract source. It felt almost spiritual. Regardless of what was actually behind this wonderful feeling, I was certainly glad to have ignored that inner dialogue.

The final day was the shortest of the three. We only had 6.2 miles to go to get back to the trailhead. It started out with a bit more traversing across open grassland.

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We got a couple more great overlooks before the main descent.

It was perhaps the fastest day of the three. The miles went by quickly for backpacking standards.

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We made only one significant stop, for a mid-morning snack.

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A little before 11 A.M., we saw the Summit Reservoir, the place where the journey had begun, indicating that we were already approaching the trailhead!

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There was an advantage to getting back to the car just before noon, as we all had to work in some capacity the next day. The amazing thing about this trip is that nobody involved had to take more than one day off of work.

However, to achieve this, we had to set up camp in the dark the Thursday night and felt somewhat hurried at times.  Before we even got back to Kremmling to have our first regular meal after the trip, we were all already checking our phones, checking back in with work and our day-to-day lives.

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We truly got the most out of the 74 hour period we were away. However, we didn’t really escape for too long. From the standpoint of making the most of our time it was ideal.

From another standpoint, it was less than ideal. It is not too uncommon for Americans to plan trips like this, possibly because we do not value time away as much as we should. Although there are many pointing out the follies of these too many people not taking time off, the prominent culture in this country still seems to value work over all else and expects others to as well.

Whenever I find myself shifting my priorities to match the ones of our current culture, my inner dialogue is behind it. That inner dialogue tells me to be concerned about how I will be perceived, and what negative consequences I might face if I were to act in accordance with what I value as opposed to what is expected of me.

Ignoring my inner dialogue’s demands that I stay in my sleeping bag an extra hour on a cold morning is good practice for what I know I must do in the coming years to create a life that is truly authentic and fulfilling. I need to ignore my inner dialogue’s demands that, in order to be safe, I sacrifice the individual autonomy that comes with adhering to my own set of values in favor of what is often referred to as “herd mentality“.

A Mid-September Backpacking Trip to the Flat Tops Wilderness: Day 2 Staying on Trail

Opening and closing a tent has a certain familiar look, smell and sound. Over time, our brains come to associate what our senses observe with types of experiences and often the emotions that go along with them.

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While my summer was active, it was active in a way that involved somewhat less outdoor activity than the past several year, and not much camping. It felt good to using the tent again, and having the experiences associated with it. The smell of the nylon tent and the sounds of the zipper going back and forth brought back associations with things that I love.

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East Lost Lake was perhaps even more beautiful the next morning, which was not as cold as the previous day, yet, still cold.

A lot of people fantasize about living in the mountains. I have even thought about it from time to time. Experiencing cold mornings in mid-September gave me a glimpse into one of the downsides of living at these higher elevations. Those of us that live at lower elevations come up to the mountains during the best and exciting times of year: ski season and summer. Skiing is, of course, fun and exciting. Summer days at these elevations are pleasant.

However, mornings, even in the middle of the summer are quite chilly. Morning temperatures at these elevations are 35°F to 45°F (2-7°C) in the middle of summer! At this point in time, while some towns were looking forwards towards fall festivals and the changing of the leaves, after that will be a period of time that is not so exciting, with mornings that would be cold enough to prevent me from biking to work.

We stopped at the last in the series of alpine lakes, West Lost Lake to fill up with water.

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Then we began to climb again.

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Like Friday, Saturday would feature a significant late morning climb. This one would take us up out of the woods and on top of one of a broad mesas.

We would spend most of the afternoon along the mesa, periodically gazing at the features below. At one point, we were actually able to see where we had just camped the night before.

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That afternoon, we would encounter a different issue. While in the woods, the trail was well marked the entire way. On the mesa, the trail all but completely vanished in places. We were just walking across a large grassy field hoping we were going the right way.

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That’s the advantage, as well as disadvantage of selecting a trail that isn’t widely used. We would actually go the entire day without encountering any other people. However, that also means that there isn’t regular foot traffic to maintain the trail.

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Sometimes the most frustrating experiences are also the most rewarding. We spent the afternoon looking for the trail, often getting excited to find the sections of it where the grass had not fully regrown. We also occasionally found ourselves in some tough places like this section of shrubbery near the edge of the mesa.

At one point, we actually did make a wrong turn and went out of our way. However, it ended up adding less than a mile to our overall trip, and gave us one of the best overlooks of the day!

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By the end of the day, we had covered another 10 miles (16 km). I was exhausted.

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We camped above treeline, which was an interesting experience. I’d never thought of that possibility as we’d typically want to find campsites where we’d be able to find firewood. However, with gas stoves, it is possible to cook dinner without a fire, and we were able to find an unexpected water source.

Camping above treeline reminded me that life is not about following rules and procedures. It is about taking care of needs and solving problems. Rules and procedures can serve as a good general guide, but there are always going to be situations that require different solutions.

At this point, we were too exhausted to want to continue on to get back down below treeline. Going off trail to get into the trees would have involved carrying our heavy packs down a fairly steep area. The solution ended up working out.

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However, without a fire, it did feel cold. Perhaps the coldest hour of the day was the hour after we got everything set up, when my body was exhausted and didn’t want to move or expend the energy needed to keep itself warm. This may be the coldest hour of the day as physical exhaustion can have an impact on the temperature regulation system in our bodies.

With clear skies and no fire, it was the perfect evening to watch the mid-september full moon, or “harvest moon”, come up from behind the mountains.

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With respect to both going the wrong direction for a short amount of time and being cold without a fire, both frustrating experiences lead to something magical in the end. It was an incredible day that reminded me of several important life lessons.

  1. We are often capable of far more than we give ourselves credit for.
  2. Some of the most frustrating experiences turn out to be the most rewarding ones.
  3. It’s not about rules and procedures, it’s about results.
  4. Some years we partake in some activities more than others. That is fine, just how it goes. It doesn’t make anything less enjoyable.

A Mid-September Backpacking Trip to the Flat Tops Wilderness: Day 1 Alpine Lakes

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It started with an evening of “car camping”. Sometimes I feel like Colorado has a vocabulary that is distinct from the rest of the country. For those who rarely venture too far away from the comforts of modern urban living, this activity is referred to simply as “camping”. In Colorado, car camping must be distinguished from backpacking, bike-packing, horse-packing and all other forms of camping that take us away from our vehicles.

As we rolled through the town of Kremmling, picking up some last minute supplies and having one last comfortable meal, my mind started to become daunted with the prospect of spending three days without heat, showers and a comfortable bed.

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The part of my brain that fears the unknown, protects the ego from failure and seeks comfort at all costs filled my head with images of hot meals, blankets and comfortable sleep. Very few people are exempt from this kind of mental resistance to change, discomfort and the unknown. The key is to understand how to deal with it, welcoming when we are seriously being warned about a potentially dangerous situation and when it is appropriate to silence that voice in our heads and go forth with our intentions.

The first evening was cold!

Cold mornings on intense trips provide a challenge of their own. After leaving the comfort of a sleeping bag, the best way to stay warm is to move around. However, I knew I had 26.2 miles (42 km) to cover in a three-day period and needed to conserve my energy. Despite my love for outdoor activities in the mountains, I don’t exactly love the cold.

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Desperately waiting for the sunshine to gradually slide down the mountainside and reach the campground reminded me that no matter how hot of a summer I had just experienced, I was not necessarily looking forward to the winter chill.

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The hike began at the Stillwater Reservoir about 15 miles (27 km) WSW of the town of Yampa, CO. Day one would start with a 1500 ft (450 m) climb. It was here we would get our first view of the Devil’s Causeway, the Unique Natural Feature that draws most visitors to this specific part of the wilderness.

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Climbing can be slow with heavy backpacks on, so it took us the entire morning to reach the summit. We would spend the next hour descending back to an elevation of roughly 10,500 feet (3.2 km).

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Here, the trail goes by a series of alpine lakes, of varying sizes, each one stunning in its own way.

We didn’t stop for long at these points of interest. Most of the afternoon we spent cranking out miles at a fairly rapid pace for backpacking standards. Still, at most we were moving at a rate of 2.5 miles per hour (4 km/hour). A lot of trips include periods like this, with little stopping, where the primary objective for a period of time is to cover a lot of distance.

I’ve experienced this on road trips, bike trips, and even paddling trips. The great thing about these outdoor adventures is that we are still moving at a slow enough speed to take in nature. Additionally, we can see the creatures moving around, smell the landscape and feel the air flow around us.

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There is a true connection to nature. Unlike in some of the heavily visited areas, where tourism businesses have crafted a specific experience for visitors, the wilderness here is truly wild. It is untamed. Walking through this wilderness area, I was in the presence of one of the few places in the world that has not been boxed in by any of the standards, assumptions and paradigms we had artificially created to regulate the world to our liking.

At 2.5 mph (4 km/hr) that can truly be appreciated. I feel it can still be appreciated from the seat of a bicycle at 20 mph (32 km/hr) on roads that are far away from towns and cities. It contrasts so much from many of our day-to-day lives, where we have schedules, codes of conduct, social norms and deadlines. The word I would use to describe what I was experiencing, at that moment in time, is refreshing.

By the end of the day, we had covered over ten miles. Having passed by all of those breathtaking alpine lakes, we set up camp near one called East Lost Lake and enjoyed an evening of solitude.

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An interesting thing happens on the first day of group trips like this. Sometimes we are talking. Sometimes we are not. Sometimes, despite being so far from civilization, my mind wanders back to whatever I am concerned with in my daily life. As we slowly exhaust ourselves physically and then have to take on tasks like starting a fire, pumping water from the lake and cooking food, our minds complete a transition away from what has been concerning us the last few weeks to a focus on what is right in front of us.

With the genuine desire to take in nature, I believe my mind slowly realizes that the mental energy it takes to stress out about whatever had occurred over the past week or month is mental energy I don’t have to spare. At this point, I had truly brought my entire psyche away from day-to-day life and into a position of being fully immersed in the experience I was having.