Professor Nature

Autumn officially arrives in eight days. I took the photo above pausing to rest and reflect, in the mountains of Colorado, while pursuing elk during archery season. The three weeks of the season thus far has proved incredible. I’ve seen or heard game every day except one, afield this season.

I’ve had to relearn to slow down, to be still, to listen, to observe, to be intentional but not predictable. I’ve bugled back and forth to bull elk and been in a staring contest. Each day the elk outsmarts me means an additional day observing an amazing world.

Sure, I could observe nature without hunting, but I would not stay afield until dark. It would mean missing out on the beauty of a bull elk’s white ivory tipped tine as I catch his face in my binoculars.

I arise at 4:00 am to walk back into the Aspen forest in the pre dawn light. I wait and listen for a bull to bugle first and give away his location. He remains silent, forcing me to walk noisily in the forest. So the game goes, me learning new lessons by living in his world for a short time.

So too, have I learned new lessons from bears, deer, turkeys, pine squirrels, grouse, bees, ants, crickets and grasshoppers. I’ve witnessed the Aspens morph from chartreuse green to brilliant orange to golden yellow.

In my 53rd year I am grateful for a worn but healthy body to continue to be taught by mother nature. Spending much time outdoors in different recreational activities every year offers a multitude of perspectives. In this I pray I function better in comunity with my own species, the human race. My wish is to learn and never know it all, for how mundane and boring would that be?

Day 2 – Rain, elk, Soldierstone, 🌺, and rattling chains

The rain falls gently throughout the night. The bull elk has moved to the north side of the huge meadow that I am camped in. The change in barometric pressure has caused him to become unusually vocal for this time of year; he lets out a weak squeal from time to time.

I’m concerned that my tent is sagging and damp with condensation on the inside. I like this tent because it is light and easy to erect with my trekking poles, however it does not like low, wet areas. The walls are damp enough on the inside that I’m alarmed that it may have lost its ability to shed water, being a few years old now.

Over the past four years I have spent up to 25 nights a year in the backcountry and it always amazes me, heading back out for a trip, it’s almost like I forgot how to do things. Not having the tent taut was a mistake and I mentally kick myself for the error. The alarm goes off at 5:00 and I contemplate my day. I linger a bit, but decide that it has stopped raining at least for now and I need to get moving. By the time I pack everything up, leaving the tent accessible to dry out later, it is 6:18, later than I would like.

I had not realized that I was so close to Sargent’s Mesa, a vast open area marking the end of the segment. Less than five minutes on trail, I see a cow elk grazing. I stealthily walk along and then see deer. Wait. I thought I saw an elk. The rain from the night silences my footsteps as I walk up the trail. Sure enough, three or four much smaller deer feed right along with the elk. This is interesting because while I have seen them in the same area, it is not often I see them literally feeding side by side. There are quite a few elk and I take photos and shoot some video trying to capture the vocalizations of the elk, who are communicative animals.

Two cow elk look behind for a second pair

Eventually, I need to get moving and the elk see me and eight of them move away from me. However, to the left of the trail are four more elk and they run off as well. In the distance I can see even more slipping in and out of the edges of the timber that abuts Sargent’s Mesa.

There is another diversion, one that I have planned on visiting. Soldierstone is an amazing memorial and tribute to those who served and served soldiers of the Vietnam war. It is a mere two tenths of a mile southeast of the trail. If you didn’t know to look for it, you would miss it. I walk through the shin deep, wet grasses to pay my respects to this monument. I recommend reading more about this memorial and the vision behind it. It’s a fascinating read.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After an hour of watching elk and visiting Soldierstone I make my way down the trail. I am met by a younger woman walking out of her camp and then a couple who are packing up their tent getting ready for the day. I amble down the trail on this cloudy morning working my way through segment 17. It is largely an up and down amble for most of the day, and while it is a forest walk, wet in nature and rather verdant, there is not a lot in the way of water access. I forego walking off trail to a lake, doing well enough with my water supply. I don’t make great time, though, because I have to stop twice trying to take advantage of a soft breeze to dry out my tent. I “leapfrog” with the woman I met earlier in the morning who has been trekking from Denver for a few weeks now.

Passing Razor Creek I encounter numerous motorcyclists that are touring the area on the trails. This section of the CT is open to motorized travel and while some parts are a bit chewed up due to the machines, the people riding them are courteous and I have some brief conversations with a few of them. They are all nice enough and enjoying the backcountry; they just enjoy it in a way that is different than mine.

The area is rich with wildflowers and one mountainside is full of raspberries, thicket after thicket of beautiful raspberries. I know that the bears will need this for winter fattening, especially after such a dry season, but I help myself to one, maybe two handfuls to verify that this food will be safe for the ursus. 😉

It’s been a day of off/on with the rain jacket and it is beginning to wear on me. My right knee is also still annoyingly uncomfortable and it affects my mood. On my way down the mountain toward where I will stop for dinner I run into a mountain biker. He has a son who is bikepacking with a friend and is on his way up to meet them. We chat for a few minutes, laugh and talk bikes. As I make my way further on, my spirits are lifted by the encounter.

At Lujan Creek I stop at 4:00 after 21 miles to have dinner, filter water and check my feet. I brew a cup of coffee as well, and drink a bottle mixed with a Nuun tablet for electrolyte replacement. I spend an hour here. It’s 2.2 miles out to Highway 114 and then I will begin segment 18. It’s amazing what an hour does as I have a lift in my gait moving down the road.

I run into the father of the bikepacker again and he asks if I’d like a Pepsi or anything. I feel so good that I decline because my body feels wonderful. He takes out some of my trash for which I am grateful and as I cross the creek into the next segment I “camel up” with extra water because tomorrow will have even less access. I fill my Platypus bladder that I have brought along with an extra 2.5 liters of water. It will be added weight but lessen my anxiety about water availability. It is an acceptable trade off.

20180803_105047

Clouds settle between ridges

The evening walk is blissful even though it is primarily an ascent. I finish at a saddle, my idea of a perfect campsite. I have to unlatch the chain to a cattle gate and immediately set my tent in a great spot at 7:00 in the evening. I’ve already eaten and there is no threat of bad weather. I love dry camping. It offers solitude, a dry tent in the morning and is generally warmer for sleeping.

I’m reading in my tent when I am surprised by a backpacker. I didn’t think anybody was close behind me as I’d only seen three other hikers all day. We exchange hellos, chat about wet tents and he tells me he is going another few miles. He will be setting up close to dark.

Darkness sets in and I fall asleep while reading. I hear the chain rattle a little after 9:00 and I’m awakened from my initial slumber. I look out the tent to see only a flashlight and someone walking, looking at a map. I can’t even really see a backpack. Somebody is making a long day of it. I drift back off to sleep.

Again, I’m awakened by a noise. Out in the dark on the other side of the fence I hear the crinkling of a foil wrapper. I can’t make out a person but somebody is trying to eat something. Other hikers have been talking about the Colorado Trail Mountain Bike Race that started the previous Saturday. Roughly 100 riders have begun an informal, “unofficial” race that goes the length of the CT. They ride all day and sleep little. Some even ride through the night. Apparently the winner had already finished but many remain on their way to Durango. It seems that perhaps one of them is eating not far from my tent. It reminds me of my father elbowing me in the ribs when I was a child opening a hard candy wrapper in church, making a racket as Pastor Stoner was coming to the main point of his sermon. I want to reach out and elbow this cyclist as well.

But there is an additional racket. Clank, clankety, clank as now another cyclist is messing about with the gate. He mutters something unintelligible to Candy Wrapper. The Gate Keeper is perhaps 25 yards from my tent and now I’m awake enough to be curious about the whole scene. I wonder whether they even know that I am here lurking in the darkness.

As I take in the evolving scene, I am aware that I am a little gassy, not unusual for the first days of eating trail food. Immediately, however, my own little green cloud is overcome by a powerful, powerful stench. The air must be moving from Gate Keeper to my tent and I’m overpowered by stink so foul that I begin to gag. I have been around dead carcasses that I would have rather rolled in than be exposed to this pungent, foul smell. How could a human emit such an odor? Not quickly enough Gate Keeper finally passes through the gate and his headlight shines upon the mountain as he begins his descent down the trail.

I cough silently in my tent while Candy Wrapper continues to be about as popular with me as a fart in church, which I would have preferred to stinky Gate Keeper. I want to yell, “For God’s sake, man, open that damn thing and be on your way! The bears and I need our sleep!” Finally, finally, he, too, fumbles with the gate and in a less speedier fashion rides down the trail. Gratefully, I follow this scene with a fantastic night’s sleep, left to dream about bicycles, hikers and stink bombs.

Day 2 mileage – 27

Day 2 elevation gained – 3,921′

Total trip mileage – 53

Total elevation gained – 7,659′

Next Steps

20180211_081750

Eldorado Canyon as seen from the Fowler Trail looking west.

I went for a short solo hike today. It is already February. After finishing off the R2R2R last November, I’ve allowed my body the opportunity to de-condition from regular running. Truly, I did need my left foot to have some time off from the running as I had jammed my big toe a few times in autumn, exacerbating a Hallux Rigidus condition that has developed over the past few years. I’ve spent more time in the yoga studio, focusing on getting stronger, attempting to develop some upper body strength and playing with more and more inversions.

Every year, I lay out some goals for my physical body, but this year I have needed more time to sort out what they might be. My massage therapy business has kept me quite busy over the past five months and the days and weeks begin to meld. I’ll do some trail running this year, but it will be as a way to build strength to move quickly through high mountains. My soul missed nights spent in the wilderness last year, and the slower deliberate pace feeds my very soul.

My wife, Pam, and one of my backpacking partners has expressed an interest to venture forth on the tread of the Colorado Trail once again. We’re starting with bi-weekly hikes to see how her arthritic knee will handle time afoot and afield. We’ve cleaned up some messy eating habits and feel good with the effects on our bodies. Now in our fifties, we cannot get away with bad habits regarding physical and nutritional health as we thought we once could many years ago. I have a client, a wonderful woman who has told me “Getting older is hard work. Getting older is not for sissies!”

I have many clients in my practice, spanning the ages of 11 to 85, various demographics, interests, professions and lifestyles. In the past year, I’ve had four people who have been battling cancer. All four are in their fifties. One, in particular, is facing a tough battle. Making this more challenging is that this person was a friend before they were a client. This friend has been there when we’ve had to bury another friend. And that just makes this tougher; this is a friend who has been a rock for me over the years, a person who brings about tremendous peace in me, tremendous honesty and tremendous reckoning in my soul.

The previous fall, when I was questioning whether I’d attempt to run back and forth across the Grand Canyon, I thought about the future. I don’t know my own future; I don’t know what the end point of my future is. And with that, I said, screw it, I’m going across the Grand Canyon and back, I’m not putting this off.

Last July, when I was logging long miles running, I had a notion to run on part of the Colorado Trail and meet a wonderful gentleman whom I had never met in person. We had met through a Colorado Trail Facebook group and had exchanged some messages. I saw he was going to be on a section of trail south of Bailey, where I was planning on running that day. I caught David Fanning just a few miles into my run in the Lost Creek Wilderness. Upon introducing myself we laughed and traded stories. It was great to finally meet each other in person. David has through hiked the Colorado Trail four years in succession, written a book about the people on the trail and is a wealth of knowledge regarding this wonderful span of nearly 500 miles. I told David that I have been “section hiking” the trail for a few years, knocking out 250 miles and completing the Collegiate Loop. I’ve not been in a hurry to complete the whole trail and told David that “I have the rest of my life to complete it.”

He looked at me, adorned by his trademark “tilly” hat, tilted it to one side ever so slightly and replied, “Maybe.”

His retort has stuck with me since then. Maybe I do have the rest of my life to knock out the remaining part of the CT in sections over years. But, perhaps, I may not. I can’t tell the future, but I can make some plans. Thus, I’ve decided that this year I will hop back on the trail at Monarch Pass and walk the remaining 230 miles or so to Durango. It will take me through the peak part of the trail, the San Juan mountains. I’ll hit it sometime in summer, hopefully meeting other trail souls along its path. I plan to hop off and hitchhike to Lake City and spend a night there. I’ll likely do the same in Silverton, the details I’ve not yet laid out. But, having done enough longer treks and long days it will all be fine.

20180211_091453

Snowy winter trail…rust emblazoned on iron…winter’s cold framework.

There will be many other nights afield as well this year. I’ve always wanted to do a month’s worth of nights in the out of doors. Maintaining a business, where I am the sole massage therapist, with no paid vacation, makes that a little tough. But I think this is a good year to carry out this idea. Pam and my backpacking pal, J Rubble, will be looking to log some good miles on the CT. I have a nephew who is planning on coming here next September for an archery elk hunt. My 22-year-old son Ben, with whom I’ve had some great backpack trips, wants to get back at it. We have another father/son duo that we’ve done a trip with. It would be a good time to do that again.

What I love about time afoot on trail and field is that it sparks my thoughts for ink on paper. I started a new journal this year. It is 400 pages. So far, in five weeks or so, I’ve filled over 50. While this journal is not “ultralight” it will go in my pack. It will contain all of my being for 2018. From its pages will come the stories of my year, for trips where I will not have access to a device to quickly log thoughts at the end of a day hike.

20180211_092157.jpg

I saw more of their tracks today than I did of two legged animals

I look forward to what this year will bring. I look forward to nights alone looking at stars and I look just as forward to nights spent under stars with friends. There will be days of sunshine and splendor. There will be days of rain, wind and even snow. It will all be good. I know time spent away in the mountains creates a renewal of spiritual riches. It makes coming back to community and friends a great experience and renews daydreams of time spent away. Let not waste a day nor an hour, let not waste a sunrise or sunset, let not waste an opportunity to tell one that they are loved.