Category Archives: hiking

Pittsburgh- a City That Feels Everywhere at Once

For people who love putting things into categories, Pittsburgh has to represent an absolute nightmare! Known as the “Steel City”, no regional map would not place it firmly in the rust belt. Like other rust belt cities, it fell on some hard times when many key industries collapsed in the final 30 years of the 20th century.

However, Pittsburgh is also known for having made a comeback. It’s considered a blueprint for other cities looking for a revival after suffering from the decline of their primary industries.

Pittsburgh’s revival is commonly attributed to versatility in embracing new industries like health care and technology. The education infrastructure and leadership with a more long-term focus is credited with creating the conditions needed for the city to once again thrive.

The story is reminiscent of countless personal stories of people who suffer major setbacks in life and later make a comeback. These stories often involve people who become complacent and stagnant. Typically their livelihoods get disrupted by external events they are unprepared for. Their personal revival stories typically revolve around a combination of adapting a new way of looking at things and tapping into core strengths they possessed all along.

For a long time, Pittsburgh was a place that valued science and education. It is home to several major universities.

Benefiting from it’s hilly terrain, it is also home to the Allegheny Observatory, an observatory over 150 years old where countless star distance calculations have been made.

The hilly terrain makes Pittsburgh unique in other ways.

One of the city’s top attractions in the Duqeuesne Incline, a reasonably priced and dog friendly tram one can ride to overlook the city.

It’s also a historic commuter train as walking up the side of a bluff is often treacherous.

In fact, the entire layout of the city is forced by these geographical features. The city’s downtown is situated where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers converge into the Ohio River.

Both the football and baseball stadiums are right downtown.

Along with your typical big office buildings and a square which surprisingly seems to attract a lot of loud cars and motorcycles.

To the east of downtown, sandwiched between the Allegheny River and a densely forested bluff is the strip district, which seems like a standard tourist destination.

Pittsburgh’s most unique quality has to be legitimate hiking within the city limits. Riverview Park, on the north end, is one of several places with a system of trails that have significant terrain and fairly dense forests.

It is also a place with plenty of other parks.

When many think of Pittsburgh, they may still think of it as a rust belt city with a rough exterior.

That, of course is only part of the truth, one aspect of the city’s culture. Many of the things Pittsburgh was about before the decline and subsequent revival are still there. There is still all the ketchup.

Pittsburgh’s history also involves a lot of food and traditions based on Eastern European culture.

However, the city has managed to incorporate the amenities demanded by talented urban professionals in the 2020s.

We all are, in a way, every chapter of our lives. A tour through Pittsburgh shows the city before the steel industry declined, during its dark days and in the current era. It’s a reminder of all of our personal stories and how even during the more prosperous times in our lives, the bumps we experienced along the road, as well as who we were before experiencing these setbacks are still a significant part of who we are. Battle scars don’t go away, they are just put into context.

Despite my sincere desire to avoid categorization or labelling, I could not help but want some kind of quick description of what Pittsburgh is. Do people think of it as on the up-and-up or in decline? Do people know how Pittsburgh is viewed by others? What region do they consider themselves to be in?

Pennsylvania has recently emerged as quite possibly the most important state in presidential politics. Walking around town, I could not help but wonder if people here were already starting to dread the inevitable onslaught of political ads that will be absolutely impossible to avoid in the run up to an election that is still over three years away.

When people try to make sense of this state, they will often say the state has a genuine east coast city in Philadelphia, aspects of rust belt and Appalachia and a midwestern city in Pittsburgh. But, some aspects of Pittsburgh felt downright eastern to me. There are the tunnels.

The bridges.

Some neighborhood have really tight roads, reminiscent of the Northeast.

As it is on the East Coast, the roads are often not in straight lines and the intersections are often not 90 degree angles.

In just over 24 hours, my long dormant east coast instincts regarding driving, walking pace, how to act and how to time things kicked back in.

What does the future hold for Pittsburgh? Based on what I have read and seen, it seems like the ability to adjust, long-term focus and unique spirit has not gone anywhere. So, most likely it will be a good one.

As long as people don’t get sick of cloudy days.

A Very Special Day for a Friend in Akron, Ohio

What we seek out, what we invest in, and what we are willing to spend our time and money on has undergone an uneven and somewhat nebulous transformation thus far this century. Perhaps this is because I grew up in the suburbs, but at the turn of the century, life seemed to revolve around shopping malls and the pursuit of material possessions. Since then, my focus has undergone two major shifts, one at the start of the century and one quite recently.

I now have nearly a decade’s worth of entries in this blog, primarily about travel and experiences. The transition from focusing on the material to focusing on the experiences, society-wide, can be seen on Instagram. The Instagram era, and what many people see in their feeds, is the embodiment of people switching from seeking out bigger homes and more stuff to put into them to seeking out experiences in general, many of which have been shared on Instagram over the past decade.

As I pointed out in two earlier blogs [1][2], this year, after all that recently happened, I suddenly found myself most interested in connecting with people. There are a lot of people who have and/or continue to play an important role in my life. At this point in time, this feels like the most important use of my time and energy.

We’re also seeing this shift society-wide. More people are talking about the importance of connecting with locals and local culture while traveling. People are now sharing tips and even building apps to facilitate this pursuit.

To end the Summer of 2021, I went to Akron, Ohio.

To go to a Minor League Baseball Game.

Traveling 1300 miles (2100 km) to go to Minor League Baseball game is not something that is going to appear on anyone’s bucket list. As was the case with my earlier trips this summer, the purpose of this trip was connection.

That being said due to its location in the “rust belt”, Akron often gets a bad rap. However, there is more to the place than industrial decline. It’s probably not the most desirable place to live but it is certainly underrated.

It has a fairly lively downtown.

There are other interesting neighborhoods with some interesting places to go.

And, there a lot of outdoor places to explore.

The Summit Metro Parks are right next to the city.

In this park there a series of trails with dense deciduous forests and a little bit of terrain!

The Buckeye Trail runs right through the park.

There are also some other hidden gems.

This particular railroad crossing reminded me of another time and place where people would commonly run or dismount a horse and jump into the open car of a moving freight train.

The other gem close to Akron is Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Hiking in Cuyahoga Valley National Park is fairly similar the Metro Parks hikes. There are the trees and rolling hills.

Cuyahoga Valley is one of the free National Parks. It also does not appear to be as crowded as some other National Parks can be.

Akron is also right in the middle of an 87 mile trail that connects it with Cleveland, as well as Canton and New Philadelphia. Following the Cuyahoga River, runners and cyclists encounter some scenic spots.

As society shifts it focus from the material to experiences and connection, as we shift our priorities, expectations, habits, and how we perceive work, value and power, our patterns of travel will shift. The conciseness on the post pandemic world where we use virtual meetings more, is that there will be less travel for work and more travel for pleasure. It also feels like more combination trips are in our future. This is because, it is possible to meet people and coordinate work virtually, without having to spend time, money and energy traveling. However, to CONNECT, whether it be with other people, with places, cultures or ourselves, will still require significant amounts of travel. What will likely shift is where we go, when we go there and how we get there.

Columbine Lake- Grand County, Colorado

Many of Colorado’s outdoor activities involve putting the body through some kind of major challenge. There are no 14er climbs with less than 2,000 feet in vertical gain. Most 14er routes exceed 4,00 feet! Rock climbing, whitewater rafting and pretty much all of the State’s most talked about bike rides are quite physically challenging. There is a reason Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the country.

While these experiences improve physical health, there are spiritual benefits to being in nature and taking it at a slower pace. At a slower pace, one can fully observe, reflect, immerse and use that space to reduce stress and process thoughts. It’s a different kind of experience. After the extreme physical challenge that was Ride the Rockies, it was the kind of experience I was craving.

It may be challenging to develop the patience to just sit or walk slowly, especially after such a personal accomplishment. So, I found something in between the two extremes. I found a hike that would most certainly still be considered exercise, but not intense enough to distract from the experience of being in nature. That is Grand County’s Columbine Lake (there are two lakes in the state with this name so the distinction is necessary) via the Junco Lake Trail.

In addition to being a truly moderate trail, this particular hike is also both quiet and scenic. The catch is, getting there can be a little tough.

After driving through Winter Park along highway 40…

Getting there involves following an unpaved county road for about 12 miles, the final three of which can be quite rough.

The trail also starts out rocky, in a manner that almost felt indistinguishable from the final few miles of driving to get to the trailhead.

This part was also pretty intense. At least it was intense enough to feel a lot more like a challenging hike than some kind of a walk in nature.

After this initial section, it felt exactly like the balance between active exercise and the spiritual experience I was looking for.

The trail also kind of switches back and forth between sections of dense pine forests and open meadows .

Finally, it follows a narrow creek with periodic mini waterfalls.

As it approaches the lake.

With open meadows and few other people, taken slowly enough, much of this hike could be the ideal setting for a spiritual experience. However, it requires some effort. It is almost reminiscent of Yoga, where the clearing of the mind comes only after pushing the body a little bit.

People are often searching for balance in life. This is frequently interpreted as finding some middle ground between two extremes. Could true balance also require a balance between moderation and that which is radical, extreme or intense? Likely, we all need some aspect of both in our lives. It ebbs and flows with different experiences taking a more prominent role in different seasons. In the end, it becomes all about getting the experiences we need to be complete human beings.

Do We Have Too Many Updates?

Elk Falls, in Stauton State Park, is a fairly lengthy hike. The round trip from the main parking lot (called the Meadow Parking Lot) is about 11 miles, depending on where you park. It begins with a mostly flat, 3.1 mile section called the Staunton Ranch Trail.

The trail passes by areas of interesting rocks where people climb.

And even crosses a county line.

As is the case with most State Parks, this trail is part of a network of trails that connect several important features. Elk Falls just happens to be the most commonly discussed feature, as it is the tallest waterfall within an hour drive of Denver.

Staunton State Park is one of the easiest trail networks to navigate. At each trail junction, there is a sign that not only identifies the trails, but also serves as a mile marker.

At this point, I had hiked 2.6 miles and had 1.6 miles to the Elk Falls Pond.

With an additional 1.2 miles from the pond to the waterfall, this sign was quite close to the halfway point of the hike.

The hike from the parking lot to the falls would take just over two hours (the return trip would be about the same length). Over the course of the trip, the signage would provide me with a total of about five mileage updates. I actually found this to be quite close to the frequency I desired.

However, I wondered, how many updates we really need and what impact it is having on our experience. I thought about the explorers of centuries past, who would travel great distances using maps that, while state of the art for the time, would be considered woefully insufficient today. Lewis and Clark, for example, famously underestimated the length of their journey by many months. Yet, today we demand mapping software that estimates our time of arrival to the minute. These software packages, available to anyone who has a smart phone, even adjusts expectations for the one aspect of travel that still lead to uncertainty at the turn of the century- traffic. Now, at any moment in time, we can say exactly how much distance and how much time we have left.

Has this detracted from the experience? Are we bombarding ourselves with too many updates? Does checking the map on our phone for updates too frequently cause us to focus too much on the destination, preventing us from enjoying the journey? Could it even be causing anxiety? Elk Falls is the destination and the highlight of the trip, but while still over an hour away from the Falls, it is certainly better to enjoy what is in front of me than to spend the entire time anxiously awaiting the Falls. The same can be said for the trip back to the parking lot.

It makes me think of everything else in life we excessively look for updates on. How much is too much? How often do we check…

  • The number of likes our photo received?
  • The current status of our investments?
  • Whatever device is tracking our fitness goals?
  • The news?

And, what impact does it have on…

  • The experience we have in the places where we took those photos
  • How we think about the investments we chose to make
  • Our feelings about our bodies
  • How we feel about the state of the world

It feels like we’ve reached a point where we are updating ourselves too frequently on too many things. Maybe it’s time to back off all of it and try to be more present in the moment. Maybe this will require some degree of acceptance, of things how they are as opposed to how we wish them to be.

At the End

It is perhaps one of the most pleasant feelings in existence. The crowds and the activity of summer have passed. The air is quite comfortable. A gentle breeze blows light yellow and orange tree leaves across the horizon, sprinkling the ground. Without the breeze, hiking would be a bit uncomfortable, with temperatures around 72°F (23°C). Yet, subtly embedded into this harmless wind is hint at what is to come. Perhaps it is only in the mind, but it feels like the breeze is making a statement. It is as if the minor fluctuations in the wind speed are simultaneously saying that this is the nicest, most colorful experience of the year and that the time for these summertime activities will soon come to an end.

October in Central Colorado is magical. It combines the natural beauty that is always around.

With periodic yellow and orange colors dotting the landscape in what would appear like randomly selected spots.

Over the years, people have said that the fall colors in Colorado’s mountains are not nearly as spectacular as they are in the East. In a way, they are both right and wrong. It’s impossible to find a more colorful landscape than the mountains of New England in early October. But, it would be an exaggeration to say, as some Colorado transplants do, “it’s just one color”. Look closely enough and those vivid shades of Orange appear.

That must be an interesting place to live!

Like all of life’s transitions, it is a bit uneven, with a different experiences in different places. On the Ruedi Trail, there were sections of trees that appeared to all be having the same, kind of group experience, all seemingly undergoing the transition together.

There were others where this transition seemed to be much further along. This section felt almost as if winter had already descended upon the area.

And, in some places, multiple experiences appeared before the eye at once. Those that have already moved on standing in front of those still in the process and alongside those that simply don’t care about the seasonal cycles of life, or, at least don’t show it.

Some hikes are about achieving, others about covering a lot of distance or getting exercise. Some are more about experiencing nature. With a short amount of time, this Reudi Trail, situated along the Frying Pan River somewhere in the middle of nowhere between Basalt and Leadville is the perfect nature experience.

A moderate two mile hike to the Frying Pan overlook is all it takes to get to a splendid panoramic.

Life is full of cycles and transitions. Transitions are naturally going to be associated with some endings. Often times, for the new to be created, what currently is must come to an end. Whenever anything like this happens, there will naturally a wide range of responses, and a variety of experiences. Our world, currently in a state of upheaval, seems to be following the same pattern as the trees in this forest, with groups and individuals responding differently. If only humanity’s response to this period of transition could find a way to be as beautiful as the natural response to autumn. Maybe, in a way many just don’t understand, it is.

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