Wednesday, February 16, 2011


NOTE: A brief thought, to be expanded upon later, but for now enjoy this excerpt from today's freewriting.

Mornings. The air is heavy with possibility and potential, indeed countless things are possible on any given day. Then, after a few hours the sun rises higher and the list dwindles until only routine is left. In the morning the world is reborn, animals awaken and shake the sleep from their tired limbs, frost melts from the trees and fields, and the cold mists of evening lie heavy in the valleys both obscuring and embracing the river banks and lakeshores

and thus extending the night that much longer. My best days come from watching the sunrise, to greet the day with that first fiery burst of crimson crests the horizon. I remember being able to catch the sunrise every morning for nearly a month, it was down by the sea on Hatteras Island where I lived and worked for a time.

The day would begin dark and blue, deep in the southern pines that surrounded my home. I would run down the road then, looking at the blue mist between the trees, choked with trailing vines and greenbriar.

Making my way out on the elevated abandoned road above the salt marsh, I would watch as herons and egrets strode sleepily about, looking for fish among the rushes. Cresting the low dune line, I would kick off my shoes man make a beeline for the surf, still the color of night burnished silver, with the faintest semicircle of gold attesting to where the sun would soon appear. This gold would grow into blazing red and I would stop my run along the beach and sit back on the hard sand to watch. For a few moments, the sun would be visible below the water, like a great shining behemoth lurking beneath the waves, and then the thinnest sliver of molten gold would break the surface as Apollo’s chariot climbed slowly from the sea, illuminating the sand, the breakers, and the tall shimmering dunegrass with a strange and beautiful light.

Every morning for a month my day began thus, to watch all of the glory of our neighboring star burst shining from the ocean each morning was a unique and special gift. I believe that few of us realize the magic of the sunrise, and only by virtue of its repetition are we desensitized to it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Predator

NOTE: a memory from today's freewriting.

Up a gravel road from my trailer in the shadow of the ragged Chisos Mountains in South Texas, lies Mouse Canyon. It is discernible from my front steps in the mornings when I watch the sun illuminate the mountainsides and every dark stone and pale green Sotol seems to glow with an ethereal light. In that rich winter sunlight, a dark cleft can be seen; a wound in the face of Panther Peak, where the dry wash that curls around behind my temporary home is disappears, swallowed by the mountain.

One midwinter afternoon, I set out from my house beneath the blazing South Texas sun and walked the wash toward the mountain. It curled this way and that, cobbled with water smoothed stones and walled in by eroded walls of desert earth. At one bend in the wash stood a stooped cottonwood shimmering with the leaves of the previous summer that still clung to its time-sculpted branches.

I sat to rest in its shade and looked out onto the blasted landscape of jagged rock and thorny plants. Everything here was shaped by the desert around it. The landscape was vigorous in itself defense. Over there was a patch of Shindagger, and at my back stood the globular mass of a Sotol with last year’s flowerhead looming high above and casting a narrow strip of shadow upon its serrated leaves. Cacti come in all shapes and sizes here; from the tall rose-hooked Devil’s Claw to the low and lethal Horse Crippler, the plants of the Chihuahuan Desert are both beautiful and terrifying at once. They invoke a deep respect and admiration in me; one does not travel lightly in this country.

As I round a bend in the wash, the dark walls of the stone cleft loom over my head and I enter the narrow coolness of the canyon. Everywhere is the trace of water’s passage in through this deep defile, dead plants layered with sediment wrap the up-canyon side of each tree trunk and beneath boulders lie the concentric rings of slowly drying pools. Each day having taken a little more of their precious contents leaving only the dessicated bodies of the ephermeral pool-dwellers to rise again with the next rain. Water is so fleeting here, more-so than any other desert that I have found myself a part of. It has not rained here since my arrival.

Yet I smell water. A wet coolness borne on the sweeping downcanyon wind. Does it come from a spring in the heights of the Chisos? Unseen from my vantage point, the only thing I can descry of the world outside the confines of the canyon is the pale sliver of the winter moon riding high in the unbroken azure ribbon between the towering walls.

As suddenly as the canyon began, it came to an end, and a pile of smooth boulders lay piled below the twist of a high pour off that lay at the utmost end of mouse canyon. Beyond its lip I could see the broad expanse of Sotol grasslands leading up the mountain side to the cliffs ringing Panther Peak. Off to my left, another pour off beckoned, darker and narrower, its end unseen and unknown. I clambered up the boulders to its entrance and eased myself gently into its cool embrace.

As my eyes adjusted to the light and the echoes of my clumsy passage died away, I became aware of being surrounded by the strong smell of water; cool, clean, and strong. At my feet lay a deep pool cut from the solid stone of the canyon. It was small, no more than two feet across, and the reflection of the sky in its glassy surface made the canyon walls around glow a deep sapphire. It was everything cool and pure in the midst of a land defined by sharp edges and searing heat.

So taken in by the beauty of this perfect window, that I did not at first realize that I was not alone. It stood there, perfectly still, the smooth vertical expanse of the canyon wall at its back and the pool before it, so close it almost brushed the surface. It was an ancient predator, and it was poised above the sky-mirror ready to strike at the slightest movement within the depths of the water. A living fossil, the water-bug waited for its prey. It was like the landscape surrounding it, beautiful and terrifying, a perfect killing machine of lethal precision and ruthless appetite. It was the largest I had ever seen, the golden oval of its carpace nearly six inches in length. Beneath it were folded six deep yellow legs; thick with cruel barbs and each one ending in a long claw that gripped the slick stone. It would stay there, motionless, waiting for a succulent canyon toad or slow-moving lizard to cross its path, or for an unlucky insect to break the glassy surface of its pool.

I was an intruder in its domain, and remembering myself, I nodded my head in aquiesence and left it to its hunting. Life in the desert, always juxtaposed with death. Like the siren song of a selenium spring, what I had just seen was a clear and beautiful illustration of this ageless dichotomy.



The pool.

The predator.

One cannot exist without the other...

-Charlie Kolb, Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Sunday, January 30, 2011

God's Dog

NOTE: A few paragraphs from today's freewriting...

I remember one night when I was camped on a cliff high above Canyonlands National Park, a campsite I had been to many times with many different people, I built a small fire of juniper twigs in an elevated and established ring, shielded from the desert wind that always sweeps in at sundown. Peeling the dead outer bark from a nearby wind-wizened tree, I knelt above my firelay and rubbed the bark gently back and forth between my hand showering the bed of twigs with tiny fibers. Twisting the remaining bark in to a nest for the coal, I pulled out my flint striker and began to shower sparks into the nest with my knife.

A momentary red glow signaled to me that one of the sparks had caught and I began to blow on the coal. Gently at first, but constantly, I breathed oxygen into the nest and the fire-ring began to fill with thick smoke. But soon, with a tiny wooshing sound, the bark caught and within minutes the air was filled with the heat and light of a campfire and the aroma of juniper smoke floated on the breeze that carried with it the mournful yipping of a distant coyote, alone on the endless mesa-top.


Coyote is a fascinating figure to me, he is saint and sinner, trickster and sage, God and Demon. Much of Native American mythos revolves around him from sea to sea, but to me he best represents the spirit of the Southwest and the red-deserts of the Colorado Plateau. Small and elusive, like a grey whisper on the desert wind, Coyote is nonetheless seen often by men, many of whom view him as a pest or “varmint”. I have seen him many times myself, trotting nonchalantly across an open field, or sitting on his haunches in an oak opening watching me pass; occasionally I will only see his tail as he disappears into the brush along a road or trail. When he is not seen, he is heard, along with a small group of his fellows. In the cold watches of the starry desert night, they hurl their shrill voices skyward, sounding like an army rather than a band.

When he is killed, another steps forward to take his place, indeed in many of the ancient stories coyote is easily killed but staying dead is another matter entirely. Coyote has flourished while their big brother the Wolf, and cousin the Grizzly Bear have been hunted and driven far into the dark, cold forests of the north, into only a sliver of their former range.

No, coyote continues trot along the deer trails on the sage plateau, and to laugh at the moon as it crests the rim of his deep canyon. Indeed “God’s dog”, to borrow from Mary Austin, shows no sign of going anywhere despite all our efforts to the contrary. So when I hear his wild chorus, sung unseen off in the silver sagelands, as the moon rides high in a sea of stars, I smile to myself knowing that my world is still wild and that no one can take that away.

-Charlie Kolb, Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Monday, December 13, 2010

Stars: Musings of a Cosmic Speck

Note: this essay was written during my season at Grand Teton National Park in the Fall of 2008. My writing style has changed quite a bit since then, but I think this is still worth sharing...

It is evening, here in Grand Teton National Park. I sit in my one-room cabin (where you can eat, cook, pee, and sleep all in the same general vicinity…). The wind howls outside, weather coming in, heralding the Fall, the coming of the cold, and the hammerblow that is winter in Jackson Hole.

Despite the wind’s ferocity, the sky is crystalline in its clarity and the stars shine with an icy blue intensity. Looking up, (or is it down?) I have the sensation of falling into the vast expanse and the wind whips around me, intensifying the feeling. Looking at the icy blue pinpoints of light, and the gaseous splash of the Milky Way, I have that feeling of smallness, of emptiness. The fact that I can live, breathe, think, and function in the face of that infinite vastness, is nothing short of amazing: a testament to human arrogance and denial.

What can I say? We are an arrogant race, the fact that we think that we matter at all in the scope of the universe, that we can actually alter our climate enough to cause lasting damage bears witness to this. The planet will check itself, it always has, it was created that way. The truth of the matter is, when we have gone too far, this awful, beautiful, perfect creation that is nature, will simply rid itself of us like a dog scratching at a flea. Thankfully, we have God to collect our souls when it all goes to Hell in a handbasket.

The fact that we matter one whit to the creator of the icy blackness which I gaze into now is nothing short of miraculous. It is a privilege of which we are certainly not worthy. I had a long and involved discussion with a colleague of mine, just a short while ago, while out on the trout stream north of our housing area (where all good discussions should take place), about the hopelessness of our current state of affairs. From our dependence on oil to the failure of politics in general, we covered all bases, and differed in our opinion on many points (us stubborn christo-liberals are hard to please).

Some very good points were made on both sides, and the most interesting point of conversation was on the ‘green movement’. I’ll be the first to admit that the green movement has made too many mistakes, we have gotten too preachy, too political, shamefully arrogant and greedy; a failing of much of America in general. Like the mainstream churches, we preach a philosophy which we do not follow. We are hypocrites in tie-dye. The worst sort of shallow, we view the average person as uninformed and stupid, in need of a view into the ‘light’ of our message. There are many parallels to be drawn between the green movement and the church. Like the church, we can stand on our soapbox all day and preach conservation and the skeptics will simply listen politely (or not) and ask ‘what’s in it for us? Why should this matter to me?’ The simple answer for the green movement is that it won’t matter to you, but your grandchildren will be very grateful. This, like the church’s promise of eternal life, but only after physical death, rings hollow from our hypocritical soapbox.

Have you ever noticed the people who have had their lives changed by something, Christ or otherwise; the people that reflect peace, serenity, and security in their day to day life? Notice that it is these people that have the most effect; these people can say little or nothing at all and still their message rings in your ears long after you have parted company. They are not hypocrites, they are just making their way in the world in the best way they can.

In the green movement, these people have realized that they are worth about as much as a rat turd in this vast, cold universe. And yet it gives them peace. The idea gives me peace, that’s for sure. Especially as a christo-liberal, I get to experience the awe of looking into the yawning abyss of our unimportance, but I have God hold my hand the whole time, lest I fall in, fall into the freezing stars.

But why, if we matter so little, if the earth is just going to shrug its shoulders when it tires of us, why then should the green movement prevail, why then should we not hedonistically burn the planet to the ground around us in one great orgy of pleasure and entitlement? Come the rapture, it won’t matter right? The answer is a complicated one. From our soapbox, we can say that going green is simply the right thing to do, that as environmentalists, Christian or otherwise, it is our duty. My friend says that people won’t listen until there’s strain on their pocketbook, this is true but it shouldn’t be. Usually, that sort of strain appears after the problem has already reached crisis point and trying to address it then is like getting a vaccination after the symptoms have already appeared.

Why then should we continue with the green movement? My friend puts it well, in that the green movement should be the ‘common sense’ movement and not be a lunatic fringe, but a part of everyday life. It seems common sense to us that are already part of it, I love my life in the little cabin eating soup and the occasional fresh salad if I can afford it (Organic? You bet!). But the average person cannot see the sense in this very well, and being raised in the shadow of the entitled American dream, it is difficult to shift gears. A defense of the American dream is that we Americans earned it, every penny; while that may be true, it is not true elsewhere, where people can work 10 times as hard as us ‘hardworking’ Americans and still barely get by. So, rather acting like we’ve sacrificed so much to earn our lifestyle, we should accept it as the privilege it is and use it wisely and simply.

I have a difficult time seeing how one can be happy in a huge house surrounded by possessions, things of human make and manufacture. They are such poor substitutes, all art is but imitation of things already wrought by the master artist. My home (for now) is this park, my vaulted ceiling is the cobalt sky held in place by the soaring peaks which fill the view from behind my house. My entertainment comes in the form of a good book and a steaming mug of tea, or the exhilaration of a fish taking my fly in a quiet hole of a forgotten creek. These are simple pleasures, not the stimulatory overload that defines most modern entertainments; that sensory bombardment that leaves our synapses fried and quivering in some gelatinous corner of our brains. If people could be shown the joy and serenity there is in living simply and lightly, they wouldn’t feel like the greenies were trying to take away their possessions, their TVs, their SUVs; but rather that we were offering them a gift, an alternative, a sense of serenity and fulfillment. So I will argue for conservation with the best of them and I will continue to stand on my soapbox, but if I can win over one person just from them watching me and seeing the peace and serenity that I reflect in living simply, it will all be worthwhile.

Regardless, the stars will continue to shine and no matter the outcome of our small, blue planet, they always will. For now, I will just sit and listen to the fall winds, and think about where I want to fish tomorrow…

-Charlie Kolb, Jenny Lake district, Grand Teton National Park

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

a Weekend in Teton

NOTE: This is an essay I wrote during my time in Yellowstone in the summer of 2007. It describes a weekend I spent exploring Grand Teton National Park. It is the first time that I had seen Jenny Lake, the place where I would work the following summer, and many of the people that I encountered there and who were unknown to me are now my friends and acquaintances. But to remain faithful to the present tense in which it is written, they will remain nameless.

28th of May, 2007

Another long week draws to a close up here in the sticks and I hit the sack hard. Next morning I’m up at 10:00 (hey you have to sleep in every once and awhile) and throw my sleeping bag and a little bit of food into the truck. My plan is to explore Yellowstone now that everything is open but it is not to be: Cars loaded with tourists and a few angry locals who were too stupid to stay home Memorial Day Weekend, block the northbound lane so turning left is not an option anytime before, say, dinner. I turn right and head down the road into a relatively quiet Grand Teton
National Park.

I hit Leek’s Marina after a ways and remember that I had heard of them having excellent Pizza so I drove to the little pizzeria by the Marina of Jackson Lake. I order a pizza called the “Maintenance Man”. It’s fit for any self respecting carnivore cum wolf lover such as myself as it possesses every type of meat available as topping. I seat myself out on the deck under a shade umbrella and look out toward Mount Moran which looms over the bay. It’s a clear day, with temperatures in the 70s; nice weather for any man, beast, or even tourist. There are a few of them on the deck, carefully avoiding eye contact with anyone outside of their own party, staring into the middle distance. I always make a point to wave and say “HI!” very loudly which tends to provoke a slight jump and mumbled reply of some sort. I begin a letter to my Grandmother back home in Durango and wait for my pizza to come. I’m about halfway through writing it when the pizza arrives, borne aloft by a rather incredible waitress. I spend the next few minutes alternating between eating and writing (sorry about the tomato sauce Meme…). I consume roughly half of the pizza and set aside the rest for dinner. I seal the letter and finish my iced tea looking out over the bay.

I get back into my truck and cruise down the road at a healthy five over-and get passed constantly by expensive cars with California plates which are doing around 20 over. I could go into a long rant about the fact that Californians not being able to drive, but I’d rather just give you the condensed version: “Californians…” *quiet swearing*spit on the ground*. I take my time and park at the String lake picnic area and take the ladder out of my truck so I can get at my bike. It’s mounted on a new kind of rack so you have to roll it backward to remove it. Unfortunately this almost sends it off of the back of the truck so it’s quite a balancing act to remove it with out falling off of the ladder into the expensive car next to me-probably one with California plates…

I screen up and hop on the bike. It’s a brief ride down the one way scenic drive to Jenny Lake. I meet a family riding the wrong way in my bike lane; I smile and give them a wave and a smile: no need to bother them with the rules. A bike path that appears to be the old road appears on the right with enough signage indicating its location that even Helen Keller could have found it ok. What is it with the NPS and signs? There’s idiotproof and there’s overkill: the NPS seems to err on the side of overkill. For instance, at each junction here in Grand Teton there are signs warning of the upcoming junction sign. There is even a series of four signs on the highway that read:





That’s what I mean by overkill. Anyway, back to the bike ride.

The bike path was pretty overgrown and had small mounds of pine needles everywhere, washed there by the melting snow. I meet no-one and pass the campground before the path narrows and I drop down next to Jenny Lake. Jenny Lake is a glacier lake and was formed by the very glaciers that sculpted the Tetons. I learn later that the dark water toward the center marks a depth of nearly 300 feet. I cruise into the main Jenny Lake Village and lock my bike on the bike rack. There are only four spots to park a bike in this entire place—contrast this with the 200+ parking spots…hmmm… The ranger in the visitor center recognizes me from a bear jam I had stopped at about a week earlier and we chat about the Jenny Lake ferry. NOTE: I never, as rule, stop at wildlife jams, but this one happened to be a female Grizzly nursing three cubs by the side of the road. How could I resist?

I grab my water bottle and went to catch the ferry across the lake to the Inspiration Point trail. The rate was $10 for a round trip fare. But for Yellowstone and Teton employees it was $2. That’s a nice touch. I get my hand stamped like a little kid at the water park and board the boat, which seems to be the spawn of an illicit tryst between a pontoon boat and a safari bus. The boat starts with a roar and powers out into the deep, cold lake. The boat driver is an exceptionally attractive dark haired woman perhaps six years my senior. She gives a great leave-no-trace/don’t-feed-the-animals speech as we near the opposite shore which is definitely a turn on for ranger nerds like me. I leave the boat dock and start up the trail behind about 20 slow moving tourists. They soon step off the trail to take the first of several hundred pictures and I waste no time passing them. I half run, half walk up the steep and rock trail, soon coming to Hidden Falls, whose 70’ span I admire for awhile before continuing to inspiration point.

Inspiration point is, well, inspiring. It is one of the few overlooks in park that looks away from the Teton range and rather at the immense glacier carved valley of Jackson Hole. Jenny Lake is spread out far below, the boats humming across her surface looking like fairy shrimp in a pothole. I can see Yellowstone off to the North, home. To the south, the town of Jackson peers out from behind the large Butte that shadows it; Snow King Mountain—devoid of snow now—encircles it protectively. I look west into the mouth of Cascade Canyon, one of many glacial gouges that score the range. I can’t see much but the peaks on the canyon’s opposite side beg exploration. I decide that I’ll hike it tomorrow.

I race back to the dock the catch the last boat, soon running out of water. Not carrying enough is unusual for me being that I’m the desert rat that I am. I swear at myself and keep walking; I’ll find water back at the visitor center I’m sure. I meet a large red-faced man puffing his way down the trail. We chat for a while and I slow down to match his pace. He tells me that he doesn’t think he’ll make the last boat and begs me to ask it to wait. I comply and start running to the dock. My haste is unnecessary and the boat ends up leaving at 4:30. My friend makes it down with no problems and we wait in line. A child screams in front of us, squalling that they had already ridden the boat and that he wanted to keep hiking. It’s a comfort to hear really, that in this age of morbidly obese children drooling in front of their video game consoles that there’s still a kid who wants to be outside enough that he’s actually pitching a knock-down, drag-out fit. Three boats arrive to round up the stragglers and I board the second one and enjoy the cool lake breeze blowing through the cabin of the boat.

I arrive back at my bike, and soon my car, with no problems and wrestle it back into the roof rack. I drive to Moose Village and shop around at Moosely Seconds: Gear Store of the Gods… I then get back on the highway and turn at Gros Ventre junction. I dodge a large herd of bison and a herd of tourists watching the bison and race across the sage flats toward the campground. The campground is comprised of several loops spread out beneath towering cottonwoods along the Gros Ventre river. Grabbing a fee envelope I fill it out and go to find a site. There are plenty to choose from and I pick one near the river. I claim the site and race off the find an ATM, ending up going back to Moose for the $20 necessary to pay the overnight fee. Upon my return, I go down to the river and gather some firewood for later that night. The two familes in the site across from me (who I had enlisted to guard my site earlier) invite me over for BBQ chicken and potatoes cooked in the Dutch Oven; it’s the best meal I’ve had in weeks. We talk for a long time and I learn that they’re Mormons from Layton, UT, and that the two babies are the same age and both wives are pregnant and therefore moody. They’re a great bunch and we speak on a wide range of topics. They ask about my job and I ask about their trip. We part when it begins to get dark and I go to revitalize my fire. I watch it until it burns down to coals and write a letter with the day’s happenings and address it to “Mi Familia”. I call home from the pay phone and ask what I’ve missed. Turns out two graduations and a wedding; I guess life continues back home whether I’m there or not. I go back to my site and add more wood to the fire and watch it burn down again, enjoying the rich aroma of woodsmoke.

A distant roar interrupts my quiet contemplations of the flame and I douse the fire, use the bathroom and dive into my truck as the thunderstorm hits. I turn my little clock radio to a classical music station and read some of Ed Abbey’s essays in “Journey Home” by the light of my gigantic maglite. I switch off my light and fall asleep to the rhythm of the wind and rain.


I awake to shafting sunlight, the clock reads 7:30. I boil water and drink some Green tea (God only knows how old it is) and begin to break camp. This is easy when you are sleeping the back of a truck as you just have to round up your camping gear and throw it in the back. I soon find myself driving out of the Gros Ventre valley back in direction of Jenny Lake. The storm system from last night is still blowing around so I fight with myself on whether I should go or not. The fight doesn’t last long (I won) and I pack my raingear, first aid kit, and water (much more than yesterday). I bring my trekking poles, knowing that I’ll get the inevitable “goin’ skiing?” question. Sure enough, it comes from a tourist on the dock as I wait for the boat. I just smile wanly in his direction and say “you know it…” I ride across and step onto the dock on the opposite shore

I pass the tourists and fly up the now familiar trail and arrive at inspiration point in no time at all. I take a deep breath and plunge into the dark forest of spruce that lines the bottom of Cascade canyon. It’s quiet here, although the occasional sharp whistle of a Marmot interrupts my reverie. The sharp, sweet scent of spruce fills the air and the creek rushes by on a bed of unforgiving rock. The trail winds up the canyon and in and out of the forest into boulder fields. I stop by the stream and eat a breakfast/lunch of smoked oysters (I pack out the can). The north face of Grand Teton looms to my left its summit, just shy of 14000 feet, obscured occasionally by a scudding wisp of cloud. The canyon itself is hemmed in my walls of ancient granite, rubbed smooth by the huge glaciers of a forgotten age. A peak whose name I do not know cleaves the sky at the canyon’s end like the prow of an ancient ship. It is where the canyon forks, my destination. I pass and chat with a couple of other rangers. One of them if obviously miffed that I am passing him and I assure him that I’m not really this fast (a lie) and that I am simply trying to get back in time for a BBQ (true). Mollified he let’s me pass and I am soon out of sight. The trail is winding through an ancient glade of spruce and fir, their boughs all but covered with wisps of old man’s beard, lichen that closely resembles Spanish moss. The glade is still, sound muffled as if time has stopped, yet as soon as I step out of it, it immediately starts rushing by again. I come to the forks and eat some dried fruit before hiking above it to a place that the other rangers had told me about. It is a view of a tumbling cascade that rushes hundreds of feet down a narrow, boulder-strewn canyon.

It takes me only an hour or so to cover the 4.5miles back to inspiration point; the going is slower here as I have to fight my way through the horde of tourists recently unloaded from the boats. I finally make it to the boat and ride back to the visitor center. I call home to get directions to my BBQ and watch a small armada of Brown-headed cowbirds (♂) trying to impress a lone female who eventually flew away.

The house is easier to find than I anticipate and I drive aimlessly through the neighborhoods in the riverbottom behind the airport. The people I’m having dinner with I have never met before and actually was first contacted by one of them several weeks prior via the Abbeyweb, an old style email forum devoted to Cactus Ed. After posting a hello from Yellowstone to everyone, I received a reply from a Kim Johnson who told me he lived in Jackson and that I should meet he and his wife if I’m ever down that way. Several emails later here I am driving through a maze of cottonwood trees waiting until I’m comfortably on time rather than a little too early. I turn into the driveway and park in front of a little log cabin where I am enthusiastically greeted by a small border collie. Kim is there as well and we shake hands. He’s a tall man in a baseball cap with a beard and ponytail and smiling eyes. His wife Charlie waits inside and I meet her as well; she’s blond, lovely, and according to Kim, about 3 or 4 months pregnant with their first child. I bring in my drinks that I had picked up in Jackson the day before and we get to talking. We talk about Ed and his work, the mountains, politics, and his next door neighbor who is apparently completely batshit. We have a lot of common ground, a love of the Eagles and Jimmy Buffet, as well as having the same obscure favorite movie (Jeremiah Johnson). Charlie watches in disgust as we recite various move lines to each other.

We sit on the deck in the sun with a great view of Tetons towering over us. In the distance I can see Cascade Canyon. I smile at the thought that I was deep in that canyon only a few hours before. The BBQ is wonderful, great potato salad, burgers, and baked beans. We continue to talk and clear dishes. Charlie goes inside out of the sun and turns on the hockey game, yelling the scores to Kim who stays with me. Time flies and soon I’ve been there for 3 hours and it’s time to start back to Yellowstone (home). I thank my gracious host and hostess for an excellent time and take my remaining drinks for the BBQ tomorrow night back at the South Entrance. They wave as I drive off and I wave back before looking next door to see if I can catch a glimpse
of the batshit, dog-hating neighbor.

The sun is setting as I drive home and the roads are all but devoid of traffic. Jackson Lake is mirror smooth and reflects the mountains on the opposite shore. I cross the Snake and make a left into the South Entrance complex and pull into the drive in front of my bunkhouse. A good weekend draws to a close. Can’t wait for next time.

-Snake River Ranger Station, Yellowstone

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Walk in the West

Note: I wrote this essay one fall when I realized I had never written about my home before. It went through several variations but this edit is the most recent and my favorite. Enjoy!


It is an early morning in late Fall, and still dark in the basement room where I sleep. I throw on a pair of overalls and a warm shirt and trudge sleepily up the stairs. It is cold; the cold of a house still sleeping. The woodstove is dark and quiet, and the only sounds are the hum of the refrigerator and the gentle snoring of my dog, Zeb, back in the pantry. Outside of the windows the sun is beginning to brush the treetops and the long ridge of Basin Mountain is awash with the pale pink of sunrise.

My summer season at Grand Teton National Park ended a month or so ago; November is half gone already and autumn is slowly giving in to winter’s chill. I had expected to be elsewhere at this time of year, but all of my job applications fell short, lost in the federal shuffle. Perhaps there is still a chance that a park will hire me, but I am starting to lose hope. It is strange to be here, to be home again. But this is what seasonal life does, it gives me a taste of life on my own for months at a time but then I am always drawn back here.

It drives me a little crazy some days, even though it is a wonderful place. I feel that my parents have earned a break from their children now that my younger brother is off at College. However, after taking a job at the local ski-resort, I have accepted my situation and try to stay out of the way and help out whenever I can. So this morning I am up early to feed the animals and build a fire in the woodstove.


I can see my breath as I pick up two flakes of hay and measure out the morning grain for the horse. Zeb trails behind me and looks for an opportunity to dart in and harass her when my back is turned. The cats, Victor and Jack, meow and rub against my legs as I fill their food bowls and break the thin layer of ice which covers their water.

The sunlight is beginning to hit the tops of the ponderosa pines near the horse pen and the light on Basin Mountain is now the color of honey. It is noticeably warmer as I go to split kindling. Our woodpile is in a small shelter attached to the side of the barn and separated by type: oak burns long, pine burns hot, aspen burns fast and ignites easily. We have mostly Aspen here at the house because the Excelsior lumber mill in nearby Mancos charges only $30 per truckload for its scrap wood.

Going to the Excelsior mill is a fascinating experience that has become a family tradition. The pile of lumber there is sometimes 20-30 feet high and you have to climb onto the top to throw down some of the choice pieces of wood; logs for the fireplace, rounds for the stove. From the pile you can see other pickup trucks, often from the nearby Navajo reservation, with other families loading their trucks to the very top sometimes using vertical pieces of scrap wood to brace the sides of the stack. After the wood is loaded and paid for, we always go to eat at the Absolute Bakery for lunch and drive home to unload and get warm.

I pull the axe out of one of the stacked rounds and take several of them out to the chopping block where I split them into pieces that will fit into the stove. Using the hatchet, I shave kindling off of one and pick up a handful of wood chips for tinder. Walking back into the house, I set down my load of wood and take off my coat. I light the stove as sun begins to shaft into the eastern windows and I boil water for tea and scramble some eggs. I love to drink my morning tea while looking out the windows of the house. In summer I would sit out on the deck in the mornings and watch the world wake up around me, or sometimes sit back in one of the wooden rockers and watch lightning crackle over Basin Mountain just after sunset.

The stove is ticking as I finish breakfast and the house is beginning to warm up. Zeb is whining to go out on a walk. I shrug on my coat and we leave the house. No one else is awake yet, but hopefully the house will be warm and cozy by the time they are.


I walk up the driveway, Zeb gallops ahead excitedly, a chewed-on stick hanging from his mouth. After closing the green metal gate behind me, I step off the road into the forest. My family’s land sits in an ecological transition zone between Piñon-Juniper woodland and Ponderosa Pine forest, so all three species are plentiful. The ponderosa, giant, long-needled “orange-bellies” that smell vaguely of vanilla or butterscotch tower above the squat Piñons and the feathery, blue Junipers. We are lucky to still have so many Piñons left on our land, as much of the surrounding forest has been killed off by climate-change, in the form of pine beetles.

I am following a faint game trail, my boots crunching over the snow crust that still stubbornly clings to the hollows and patches of shadow beneath the trees like a negative reflection. The dry winter grass rustles in the clearings, pale imitations of now nearly forgotten summer greenery. The Gambel Oak, grows twisted and stunted beneath the larger pines and the holly-like Oregon Grape grows in patches beneath them in broad splashes of burgundy. The oak leaves still hang from the branches despite being brown, curled, and dead. A breath of wind rustles through them and the resulting sound reminds me of rain falling on a still lake in midsummer, or the muted hiss of seeds falling through the hollow interior of a rainstick. The music of the world is not wholly original, and often repeats itself in unlikely places.

I cross a dry ravine, lined with mossy sandstone and make my way up the other side where I encounter a fence. I don’t pay much attention to fences, perhaps at my peril, and I quickly duck between the strands of barbless wire and continue up opposite side of the canyon. There is an instant change in the forest and I am able tell immediately that the owners of this land keep horses. The forest floor is devoid of grass and thickly covered with a cushion of pine needles and the occasional horse dropping. Everything is closely cropped and groomed. I see a burst puffball forms a star pattern on the forest floor like a dying flower or a spent explosive on a forgotten battlefield.

Nuthatches and Chickadees twitter in the forest canopy, and one pecks half heartedly for insects now long gone from beneath the pine bark. I sit down beneath one of the orange ponderosas and try to imagine what it would be like to peck at a tree. I try to picture my face lengthened into a stiff beak which I would bang repeatedly and methodically against the pine bark. No hands. I couldn’t do it, even were I properly equipped. I would likely kill myself trying. But the tiny birds that call above my head are well adapted to the task. They possess and thin and delicate bone called the sclerotic ring, a tiny pale circle that cradles the birds’ eye and holds it in place with a intricate maze of tendons. When the bird is pecking at the pine bark, the ring is absorbing the shock and without the ring the bird’s eyes would explode against their orbits on the first or second peck.

The ponderosas’ dead lower limbs curl downward on the first 20 feet of trunk, rendered obsolete when the branches above them began to screen out the sunlight. I remember walking through the woods with my little brother when we were children, breaking off these lower limbs, jumping for the ones that were out of reach. We would use them for campfires, or building forts, hacking a kingdom out of the wild frontier of our backyard. No green grass or manicured gardens for us, we were content with rocky soil and tall vanilla-smelling trees. Still are, for that matter; although my brother is in Seattle and far out of fort-building range.


I walk in and out of ravines and notice that it is getting quite pleasant in the forest. Zeb is getting bored and has started to throw the stick around for himself. Suddenly, I see a helmeted head cruising above the hilltop and I assume it’s attached to a horseback rider. I duck down and grab Zeb who is crashing through the brush like a wounded animal. The rider slides out of sight without seeing us and we hop the fence that marks the property’s edge unnoticed.

I blink in the sunlight on the road, and there are several trash cans out for collection, each with their respective house number and color. Transmission Lines cross over head. Standing still, I can hear their faint buzzing like a disturbed hornets’ nest. Zeb and I veer right and walk in the cleared swath of land that runs beneath the lines; before long, we crest a hill. Looking West, the swath continues into the distance before vanishing over the ridge that hides the village of Hesperus. County Road 125 winds in and out of the trees parallel to the lines before vanishing as well; a steady climb, it makes a good bike ride.

I can see the LaPlata Mountains to the North, the nearest range of high mountains to my home, 20 miles away as the crow flies. I know them well. Silver Peak is in the center and can be seen from most areas of the county. I have climbed to its summit a few times, but recently it has become more difficult, as someone new has purchased the land at the trailhead and threatens hikers with a gun to stay off his property. Not that this fazes me; I have about as much regard for gun toting landowners as I do for fences. Nothing kills a wild place faster than boundary lines. Besides, there are always ways of trespassing undetected, especially in the mountains.

Silver and its neighboring peaks are actually the lowest in the range and hide the higher peaks behind them, including the highest, Mount Hesperus, the Northern Sacred Mountain of Dinetah, the ancient Navajo homeland. It is said to represent darkness and death, as north is the direction of evil. I, however, think it’s pretty.

Not much grows beneath the power lines and rotting stumps mark where trees had stood prior to the clearing of this open corridor. I pass a lone Juniper, blue-green and shaggy, covered in sea green berries that smell of gin. Awhile ago, I found out they are not berries at all, but tiny pine cones covered in a sticky wax. Most berries are female and, when mature, they burst open, spreading their seeds on the wind. The male cones, often on another tree, look like blue flowers and it is from them that the pollen clouds come in the spring, sparkling itchily into my sinuses.

Zeb sticks his nose into the hollow of every bush and frost heave, his snorting sending up tiny puffs of dust. There is more dried grass here and some stalks still have their seed heads. I pick one and roll it between my fingers, thinking of how the seed heads of grasses are actually miniscule arrangements of flowers, protected by two nesting covers called the lemma and palia. These ‘glumes’ surround the flower head which, when taken apart and magnified, unwind in a series of zig-zags, like an accordion of tiny florets.


I learned this in Systematic Botany, which my professor had been teaching for 35 years. I graduated the year that he retired and I was lucky to be in one of the last classes of his career. I learned to classify plants in the Linnaean sense, using a pair of dissection needles and a large scope to separate and count all of the parts of the flower: Androecium, Gynoecium, carpels, calyx, corolla, et al. The new style involves DNA analysis, and new techniques such as cladization and reclassification of many orders. It is far less involved, and distinctly separates the scientist from their organism of study… As science advances, it becomes increasingly less attached to the natural world. This has been a sobering realization for me and I found that, the more I buried myself in the numbers and graphs, the less I could hear the music that plays beneath the surface. There will always be a part of nature that can never be quantified, measured, or fully under-stood. It is in this way that things can still be truly wild.

I am a lover of Ecology, the science of connections. To me it is the closest science can get to understanding the music. When I think of the song I hear whenever I am surrounded by shattered stone and whispering trees, I envision a mighty orchestra with no instruments; just tier after tier of players, all holding hands and looking at the floor. From them the music comes in waves, singing in the spaces between them in a magnificent harmony. Some of these virtuosos live and breathe; they experience happiness and sorrow, hunger and satiety. Some of these players sit cold and immobile, in crags of granite whose fingers pierce the sky and cleave the clouds, changing the weather to suit their whims. Still others sigh and sway with the breeze, reaching ever skyward with each passing year. Whether the song comes from them, or the bonds between them, I cannot say. I simply have a vision of a silent auditorium, filled by musicians with linked hands, from whom flows the ever-changing music of the spheres.


I duck through another barbless fence and stumble on a dainty set of deer tracks. They come as no surprise as I see deer most days, usually as a pair of ears or upturned white tail out of the corner of my eye. The grass becomes shortened and I know that I am on horse property again. I tread carefully, Zeb not so much so, and climb another hill, needles and pinecones crunching underfoot.

There is a snag at the foot of the hill, an old ponderosa that died of natural causes but that has not yet toppled. It still defies gravity, even in death. Snags are wonderful home for many different birds, and they can also be a home for other things as well. My family had a large snag that was threatening to fall on the house and, upon cutting it down, hundreds of black beetles poured from the gaping trunk, clinking like quarters

Across the draw, between the tree trunks, I can see Silver Mountain looking icy in the distance. I climb toward the gap and look into the valley below. It is wide and grassy, with a creek cutting deeply into the valley floor. A small lake lies at the bottom surrounded by Cattails and Rushes. The lake harbors a great deal of waterfowl, both local and migratory and looking to its far edge, I remember a cool spring evening that I spent creeping along the muddy shoreline trying to get a closer look at a snowy egret that seemed to glow against the murky lakewater in the fading light. Zeb was there as well, and we finished up that walk watching the sun set behind the mountains.

The valley which we are descending is surrounded by more tall, stately Ponderosas and would have made an ideal campsite back in those distant, time-fogged years when this was still an open country, and the frontier line was creeping it’s way west. This kind of the forest and meadow environment is common here on the western slope, the fringes of the vast red deserts, of Utah and Arizona. God’s country. Abbey’s Country. My country. In the rabid race to get from desert to mountain these vast (or once vast) forests of sweet-smelling Ponderosa are often overlooked by most tourists and even locals

Colorado boasts some of the largest and most pristine swaths of Wilderness and National Forests in the state, but a careful study of the map will reveal that much of the land that is preserved in the these systems was unusable in the first place, either being too arid in the case of the desert, or too cold in the case of the mountains. The ideal place to live is these pine forests like the one swaying over my head right now.

Unfortunately, this also holds true for much of the wildife in the area that use the Ponderosa for winter refuge. This is observed most readily by driving down highway 550 any winter day and watching the herds of elk wending their way nervously around the sprawling ranch-houses and tightly clustered developments in the Animas River Valley.


Zeb and I walk down the frozen creek bed, deeply gouged into the valley floor, a classic example of overgrazing. Once the willows on the banks of a stream are eaten and/or trampled by cows, even the smallest rivulet can carve a respectable canyon in a few short years. Zeb runs ahead and snuffles wetly in the ooze on the lake shore in hopes of finding something to roll in. He returns somewhat wet, but thankfully not reeking. We continue along the shoreline, Zeb’s tail swishing back and forth like a flag. Grass pokes through the snow crust crunching under my feet, small holes ring each stalk where the sun warming the grass has melted the snow around it until every blade pokes from its own tunnel like a leaf-shaped tube worm. Scrub jays laugh gleefully at me from the branches over my head. There are still a few mullein stalks that have withstood the winter storms and stand stiffly at attention on the edges of lake.

I walk down to the edge of the lake and look over the water, glassy still this morning. There is a muskrat burrow on the far side, in the side of the dam. Muskrats are funny little animals, like miniature beavers, and I recall the last one I saw. It was a couple months ago in Grand Teton, the day was sunny and hot. I was kayaking lazily down the Snake River with a number of my coworkers. The water was crystal clear and you could see sunlight shafting all the way down into the muddy benthos. I glanced to my side as I drifted and spotted the muskrat; it was not moving, just floating along and you could see its leathery little legs hanging limply beneath it. I watched and it stirred as I drew alongside and paddled lazily away. Apparently it was doing just what I was, that is, enjoying another sunny day on the river.

But that time is past and that muskrat is probably fast asleep in its burrow by now, the winter snows have long since crashed over Jackson Hole like a breaking wave; and I am far from there, my adult life temporarily on hold as I drift in the limbo of my childhood home.

I hear a startled squawk and the rush of wings and look through the cattails I can see a cloud of disturbed blackbirds fluttering peevishly from a bunch of reeds from which a waving blue-grey tail protrudes. I call Zeb and he prances proudly over to me. I shake my head and give him a scratch between the ears.

We cross the marsh at the head of the lake and start up a hill on the other side, pausing to look at a cow skeleton so weathered that it has been reduced to a scattering of bone chips. I discovered it several years earlier and have returned to the spot periodically to see what became of the bones in their slow return to the earth.


Zeb and I crest the hill and I look around us. To the south, past the lake, the valley widens and merges with the headwaters of Wildcat Canyon. Cars race wildly down the road, tiny dots on a black ribbon in the distance. The horizon is the steady crest of Basin Mountain. It looks snowy on that northfacing slope but where Zeb and I stand, the sun is beginning to beat down and the morning is losing its chill.

Strangely enough, there is, in fact, a basin below Basin Mountain; it is called Ridges Basin, but will soon become “Lake Nighthorse” which is planned as a drinking water and agricultural reservoir, as well as a recreational mecca of the four corners. Not that it takes much water to excite us folks around these parts; we’ve been known to walk out of our houses and half drown from standing out in the rain, our faces turned skyward in bewilderment.

Ridges Basin was originally a large and unknown swath of prairie with waist high golden grasses covering several square miles. Around the central creek, cattail marshes flourished and were home to many species of waterfowl and migratory birds. It was ranched, for a time, by the Bodo family, one of the oldest in the region, and then donated to the Colorado Division of Wildlife as a refuge. For years, it was forgotten and rarely visited; although I had been there as a child with my family, for a picnic. It was a beautiful window into the region’s past.

As with many forgotten corners of the west, the basin was deemed useless because it was not being used. By us. Soon, after much protest, the ground was broken for “Lake Nighthorse” and the Bureau of Reclamation name of “Animas La Plata Project” was attached. Many cars sported “Stop ALP” bumper stickers for a number of years. Some still do.

I returned to Ridges Basin several years after the start of the project, again with my family, but this time it was to retrieve our horse which had escaped our land through a break in the fence. We located her standing right below the fledgling dam, staring at the monolithic edifice in puzzlement.

I look away from Basin Mountain and try not to think about it.


Zeb and I make our way down the other side of the hill, dormant but still aromatic bitterbrush crunching under my boots. There is more snow on this northern slope and I nearly lose my footing several times. We reach the bottom and walk out into the center of the large valley that leads upward from the tiny lake. There are still rushes around deep holes caused by cattle wallowing in the summer. Much of the edible grasses are still cropped short from the cows of summer, though there is still dried cheatgrass here and there. It was originally named by old timers who observed that the grass took over and out-competed the native grass and matured several months earlier than is typical, soon dying and becoming unpalatable. This “cheated” livestock out of their summer forage, thus the name. It is nearly impossible to get rid of, although burning the area (usually three times), seems to work alright. Sounds like an exorcism.

Another valley comes in from the east, and Zeb and I follow it; me noting more interesting grasses and Zeb snorting in Prairie Dog holes.I look at the ponderosas ringing the valley and drink in the quiet serenity of the clear morning. The mountains glow in the distance, shining and magnificent. I am sure that the eagles are diving for fish in the upper lake, coming to rest in the top of their pale snag on the shore and fluffing out their feathers to dry them in the sun.

There are a few sparse, dry clumps of blue grama grass here and there, their heads curled like huskies’ tails, and a grass so fine that it covers the still frosty ground like a creeping mist. Raised burrows of pocket gophers spiderweb through the meadow, made last winter beneath the snow, they remain like an exposed subway with the city gone.

Zeb and I step back onto the dirt road and continue down the lane, I take off my coat and let the pale winter sunshine warm my back. We are soon swallowed by the forest again and I listen to the sigh of the ponderosas while Zeb trots ahead. We are soon walking down the driveway; looking to my left I can see down the hill and across the canyon to where we had been just an hour before. A crisp wind brings the smell of woodsmoke which I can see curling from the chimney as the house comes into view. I am sure my parents are awake by now and, as I stride up the front steps to join them, I realize that being in limbo is not such a bad place to be. I scratch Zeb’s head and we go inside.


A postscript: Just a few short weeks later, I received a call from Big Bend National Park in south Texas, where I worked the rest of the winter.

-Charlie Kolb, Hesperus, Colorado

Monday, September 20, 2010


NOTE: This essay is brand new, and gives an account of a walk through the Wilderness north of my hometown. The trip occurred in late October of 2008.


he Weminuche wilderness has an area of almost 500,000 acres; it is the largest roadless tract in the state of Colorado and is still one of the wildest places in America. Its terrain is marked by deep river canyons and high volcanic peaks, many of which are named only with numbers, if they are named at all. It is a sanctuary and a haven, a place of solace and solitude. Lakes sparkle like jewels from glacial cirques gouged from the mountainsides and chest deep wildflowers sway with the wind in late summer. The occasional poisoned stream or tailings scar mars the otherwise pristine talus slopes and testifies to the past presence of man even here in the wild heart of the Colorado mountains.

Legends and ghost stories abound amongst its lofty peaks and deep defiles; tales of lost Spanish gold mines and Indian massacres; of hikers, hunters, and trappers who walked into these hills and were never seen again. It was also here that the last Colorado grizzly was killed though some claim that they still see fleeting glimpses of a great bear in the high valleys, or deep in the spruce forests below. Some old timers still swear that they can hear wolves howling on nights so cold that the very air seems to crystallize and freeze. It is the high country, it is the wild country, it is truly “the West”.

As much of its area lies above 12,000 feet in elevation, it is open to human passage for only a brief window of time each year, starting in late June and ending with the early snows in mid to late October. After the first snow is when the Weminuche is “locked” for the year; the passes are choked with snowdrifts and scoured by howling winds. The chill of winter has begun to descend the valleys and the herds of elk wend their way into the lowlands to live out the winter months in a milder climate.

It is late autumn in Durango, a town in the valleys far below; the oaks have turned to a dull brown and the aspens on the mountainsides are a vibrant and sparkling gold. A chill can be felt in the early mornings but frost is gone with the sun and the days are still quite warm. Bears have started to become a nuisance and the local newspaper is printing a “bear tracker” on the back page cataloging their last known locations. Change is on the breeze and that first gleam of snow on the distant peaks of the Weminuche testifies to the coming of the winter cold. Not that that is such a bad thing; when the hammer falls most durangoans just shrug, put away their mountain bikes and kayaks, and pull out their skis; swapping life jackets and paddles for parkas and poles. Autumn is the mountains is the in between season, the “shoulder” season: it is too cold to paddle and not cold enough to ski. Hunters prepare to venture into the high country in search of elk and deer and it is on the last day before the start of first rifle season, just a few days after the first snow, that my dog, Zeb, and I cross the boundary of the Weminuche, and walk deep into the mountains.


My truck bumps into the parking lot at the Pine River trailhead in a cloud of pale dust. Just north of town, this trailhead is a major staging area for many expeditions into the wilderness. It is quite a scene, in the foreground is the dusty pasture of a nearby ranch with cattle moving across it in small clusters, but behind it, the cliffs of the Pine River rise sharply and curve away into the distance. I look down at Zeb who regards me questioningly, legs quivering in anticipation of our upcoming trek, and I tighten my pack straps. I take the first step, always interesting with a loaded pack, and stride into the trees, Zeb trotting behind me, tail high.

The first mile takes us past the pasture along the fenceline. After running into several cows, I leash Zeb and we continue on. The fence veers right into the forest and out of sight. We continue forward until we see a sign that reads “Weminuche Wilderness”. We take a first break behind the sign. The Pine River Valley is wide with steep walls, we stay in the trees on the northwestern side. The trail begins a slow ascent and passes several heavily used campsites. We take another break at the Junction of the Pine River and the Emerald Lake trail. The climb continues, and the sun begins to sink, the cliffs casting long shadows across the meadows by the river. Three waterfalls descend on my right, across the valley, falling from heights that glisten like diamond in the setting sun, remnants of that first snow plainly visible on their flanks. After a brief descent, Zeb and I encounter a hunter scouting for elk in an Aspen grove, he is excited about the opening of rifle season the following day. We talk briefly and I describe my destination for the day. He laughs and says I have a long way to go. I just smile and continue on. The trail turns to switchbacks, winding through smooth, polished granite, and I encounter two men on horseback, also hunters. The horses shy slightly at my unexpected presence and the men acknowledge me briefly and ride on into the fast descending night. They are the last human beings we are see.

The withered husks of summer wildflowers nod and quiver in the chill breeze as we pass through another aspen grove, its pale trunks made eerie in the vanishing light and the wind knocks loose a shower of golden leaves. The leaves seem to whisper to eachother and the forest presses close. Daylight is almost gone now, and I stop to listen-to nothing. It is completely silent here in the valley of the Pine; a ringing silence but not an oppressive one, it is interrupted only by the occasional moan of the wind in the heights. The mountaintops still glow slightly, despite the darkness of the valley floor. Suddenly a ghostly granite spire looms before me and I do not even need to consult my map to recognize it. It is the “Pope’s Nose” and though I have never seen it before, I know it by its reputation as a landmark and highly technical climbing area.

A post is sunk into the marsh before us and reads “Flint Creek” in worn, barely discernible lettering. A trail, scarcely even a deerpath, takes off to the right and Zeb and I follow it. It soon winds into a spruce forest which is entirely dark and although visibility is still good outside, I switch on my headlamp to better avoid any surprises. All sound is muffled by the fragrant trees and even our footfalls make only the slightest hiss on the accumulated needles of yesteryear. I grow hopeless of reaching our destination of “Barebottom Park” before complete nightfall and begin to look about for a good campsite. I locate one in a small grassy clearing punctuated by several ancient Douglas fir trees. It is cold and damp and after failing to locate sufficient dry tinder, and wasting a few matches on tinder not dry enough, I give up the idea of having a fire and light my tiny camp stove instead. I put water on the stove to boil, and go to set up the tent which is a pyramid design with only one pole; this done I take out my chair and Zeb and I sit in the dark. I wish I had been able to start a fire, not for warmth, but merely for company. Although the warmth would be nice too, I think to myself as I snug my down coat tighter around me.

But I do have company, Zeb is my company and I pat him on the head. This causes him to turn around and whuff steamy dog-breath into my face. Still company though. The only sounds are the moan of the wind and the hiss of the camp stove, punctuated by the occasion contented sigh from Zeb. The clicking of the pot lid signals to me that my water is boiling and I pour some into a mug for tea and measure out enough to hydrate and cook my little package of beef stroganoff. Not haute cuisine, I suppose, but it tastes fine and it warms me up.

I shut off the stove and listen to Zeb crunch his kibble while I sip my tea. I am comfortable and content, but my hackles are up for some reason. I am not afraid but I am entirely alert and am made aware of my frail humanity by the sea of unknown and unseen wilderness which surrounds me. I finish my tea and hang all of my smellables in a nearby fir to distract the black bears, maybe even the occasional “ghost” grizzly. The darkness presses in on all sides and Zeb raises his head occasionally to growl at unseen stirrings in forest. I sink into fitful sleep curled around my hunting knife with my dog at my side. A good day.


The dawn arrives slowly in this deep valley and it is cold. As I pull on my clothing, I can see my breath which rises with a hiss, stirring the hanging crystals of frost on the underside the nylon. I emerge through the flap and look around while Zeb wanders off to mark this strange, new territory. We are in a small park near the banks of Flint Creek. The Pope’s Nose rears directly overhead on the opposite bank, the sunlight illuminating the pale granite with an ethereal glow. Talus slopes lead downward and away from its flanks and it is ringed with a grove of shimmering golden Aspens. The dark spruces, so forbidding in yesterday’s gloaming, stand in a fragrant line, ringing our meadow, closing around the trail that I will walk today. But now, I take a moment to enjoy the sweet morning in the meadow. The air smells of spruce and of snow; willows whisper on the sides of the creek, their leaves long since fallen and washed downstream into the Pine River.

The creek provides the only sound, the soft, swift murmur of water sliding over ancient glacier-smoothed stones. I lay out the tent in a patch of sunlight to dry and turn on the stove for tea and breakfast. Zeb returns, wet from a swim in the creek, and I scratch his head while pouring him his morning ration of kibble. I pour my tea into a metal mug and sit on a stone to think. In the stillness, I look up the valley which curves away to the Northwest, and see the route in my head. My mind is swimming with names; go northwest to the headwaters of Flint Creek and then drop into the drainage of Rock Creek, bypassing Rock Lake and continue until you reach the confluence of Rock Creek and Vallecito Creek. From there work your way over the mountains North of Vallecito Lake, through the abandoned settlement of Beaverton and down into Elk Creek drainage. Walk until the confluence with the Animas River and climb the opposite side of the gorge until you reach Molas Pass.

This is how directions are often given in my state; always a series of passes, drainages, and basins. You can go two directions, up or down, and flat terrain in the San Juans is rare. I mix some oatmeal and look at my map, confirming my route with the impersonal maze of brown lines. I look around the park one last time and sigh; time to get going.

My backpack does not feel as heavy as it did the last time I hiked this wilderness, years before,as a teenager. Now, after a summer of honing my body in the mountains of Wyoming, the pack weighs comfortably on my shoulders. I shed my coat and stow it away, shivering with the sudden cold but knowing I will warm up once I start walking. Performing a final sweep I look back at my camp. No sign remains of my passage; even the soft grasses that I slept on last night I have gently tousled with my hands. The sunlight is streaming into the valley now, the granite flanks of the Pope’s Nose are a brilliant white-gold.

I walk into the forest and the murmur of the stream vanishes as the air grows close and gently fragrant. My footfalls are nearly silent on the carpet of fallen needles that line the trail. I wend my way through the dark trees for awhile and then I emerge into a shaded meadow, the valley is narrow here and the meadow is still cold; frost lies here and there in the hollows beneath sticks and rocks. The plane of the meadow is steeply tilted, hugging the southern wall. It is probably the result of an old rockslide. The talus and scree have been ground and dissolved into soil by soft-colored lichens and then covered by plants and grasses in great numbers; by wildflowers waist deep in the height of summer which are now reduced to dried, withered husks by frost, flattened and shivering in the morning chill. There are tree stumps here, sheared off at the level of the ground, testifying to the occasional avalanches that scour this slope in the months of winter. The long months of silence whose coming is now overdue; months that are not wise to gamble with.

The trail stays in the forest above the creek, eventually climbing onto a granite bench above the canyon. It is a long, slow climb and I am soon hot; Zeb is panting behind me and I can feel his warm breath on the backs of my legs. We stop for a break between switchbacks and I pull out some water for us both. The creek roars in cascades far below and the wind sighs in the treetops. I am exhilarated by my surroundings and feel content traveling alone through this vastness of wild country.

We have been gaining elevation fast and the heat of the climb soon vanishes as the sweat chills on my back. I shiver and put on a coat while looking up to check the sky. Nothing, just ragged, wind ravaged cumulus clouds, moving fast. It is getting close to noon and I look at the map, hoping that we are getting closer to the pass at the head of Flint Creek. The trail descends back to the level of the stream, and crosses it via a shallow ford. Snow begins to appear in the shadows between the trees and the downcanyon wind is icy on my face.

Peaks crowd in closer their north faces, now visible, are covered with a blanket of snow that highlights every crack, crevice, and dihedral with a white rime. The trail climbs again and the creek can no longer be seen or heard. Zeb and I walk beside a small alpine tarn; Flint Lake should be appearing any time now and after that, the pass. I check the map again, Zeb goes to the tarn to drink water. I stand up and put the map back, pondering what I just learned from my map-viewing. I turn off the trail, my back to the tarn and walk through the trees over a small rise. Flint Lake appears suddenly and I am giddy with a sense of discovery. The lake is backed by a wall of volcanic cliffs and ringed by dark spruces and pale Subalpine Fir.

Its surface is still, the trees like statues; nothing stirs and nothing breathes. I drop my pack and sit down, Zeb lays down beside me. I listen, and hear nothing at all. The silence is complete; it is the silence of a land waiting for winter to descend, the silence that comes when all creatures not sleeping deep beneath the ground, have fled the heights for the shelter of the valleys. They know that to stay here is to die. This is the silence that snow brings on still winter mornings when a fresh icy blanket has fallen overnight and all the world is remade. Only, there is no blanket of fresh snow here, it is as though the silence has arrived first and is setting up as the vanguard.


I eat a little food, and give Zeb more kibble; the altitude robs me of my appetite. I check my water, good until later, no need to fill up yet. The sun beats down, momentarily warming me, in this place on the still lakeshore, sheltered from the wind. Looking at the forest around the lake and the types of trees present there, I judge that we are very close to timberline. Once out of the trees and exposed, the wind will have no mercy.

I load up my pack and call Zeb who gets up to follow me. I know he is getting tired, but he is loyal and unquestioning. The trail ascends gently through the remaining bands of trees. There is snow now, in the shadows and hollows, it is only ankle deep, and nothing to worry about as of yet. The trees disappear as we come along side the burbling waters of Flint Creek, barely a tiny rill this close to its headwaters. Looking at the snow crunching beneath my feet, I realize that I have seen no boot-tracks in this canyon, no sign of human presence at all. That means that no one has been in this canyon for at least a week or more, since the last snowfall.

The only tracks on the trail before me are the sign from one lone Elk; these tracks are fresh. They show that the Elk was in no particular hurry to go anywhere, it was walking, not running, but it did slip a few times in the powdery new snow. But it was not simply browsing for food, it was headed somewhere, probably down into the canyon of Vallecito Creek, where I am hoping to sleep tonight. If it is an Elk, traveling alone during the rut, it is probably a male; perhaps one too young to have its own harem. That would explain why it is wandering around up here above the trees while its larger brethren strut and prance in the valley below, bugling and charging eachother.

I wonder how fresh the tracks are, they seem undisturbed by the wind, despite the powdery nature of the snowpack. I scan the scene before me. This snow choked valley is of dark stone; the floor is wide, flat, and polished smooth by a long vanished glacier. Peaks rise to the south and the volcanic cliffs to the north. The only vegetation are small krumholtz of white pine and windblown willows. The entire pass is a tableau, a picture with no movement; no sound at all. But suddenly something stirs to my left and I look up, startled. It is a young Elk, a bull, perhaps a year old; he is no more than 50 feet way, by a small lakelet. The water reflects the peaks behind the bull and the clouds that are sweeping across the sky. For several electric seconds I lock eyes with the maker of the tracks while Zeb looks up at me, oblivious to the third person in this scene. The elk snorts and takes off at a trot. Zeb never sees him. I silently bid him farewell and wish him the best of luck with the ladies. The broad floor of the valley at the pass is studded with tiny lakelets and pools, all reflecting the sky like diamonds. In places where the smoothed rock has been exposed, the snow has melted off from the sun’s heat. I make for the highest of these areas and drop my pack. My body tired but my soul energized.

The view is breathtaking, behind me the valley of Flint Creek curves downward and away to the southeast, crowned by the gentle white slopes and occasional cliff band of Mesa Lato. The cliffs ringing Flint Lake are visible in their entirety, as is the lake itself. To the northeast, the legendary Rio Grande Pyramid rises with the riven cleft of La Ventana, the window, just below it to the south. Stories of Ghost Grizzlies and Lost Spanish Gold surround that peak in a fog of mystery; one of the last grizzlies in the state was killed down Snowslide Canyon, across the valley from the pyramid, and a canyon that curves up around its icy flanks is named Rincon de la Osa, the corner of the bear. I long to explore it someday; I know it will only be a matter of time before I find my chance. But not now, I need to find a way down from here and make my way to a place where I can camp without freezing.

I turn the other way and look west, down Rock Creek Valley. It drops downward in broad, sweeping steps of wide meadows filled with brown frost-killed grasses. Rock Creek flows down in wide, regular meanders, sweeping around boulders and piling underneath cutbanks, before joyfully throwing itself from the shelf and out of sight into the canyons below. Rising above the valley, across Vallecito Canyon, is the massif of a peak called “The Guardian”. The name is appropriate as it the eye is drawn to it while it looms protectively over the entire scene. The walls of Rock Creek Valley are a chain of peaks, some named, most not. At its head, nearly at eye level with me, it Rock Lake, the source of Rock Creek, which hangs like a sapphire on the breast of the mountainside. After a day and a half of climbing, I begin to descend.

The late afternoon sunlight shafts deep and golden into the valley; the snow is knee deep on the shaded trail and covers all but the tops of the small stunted willows that grow here at timberline. I pass the fork to Rock Lake, were it summer or even earlier in the fall, I would consider passing the night there, but as it stands now it is simply too high and too cold. I keep walking downward. The forest deepens again and the trees grow tall below the windswept pass. The air is sweet and pure, crystalline and cold; winter air. The willows are as high as my head now, and the trail has turned muddy. I have left the snow behind me, up above, and now stride through the wide meadows of golden grass that I had seen from the summit.

Rock creek sings softly underneath its cutbanks and the wind moves the trees back and forth on the fringes of the meadow. Here and there massive glacial-till boulders rest in the midst of the grass, like forgotten toys dropped unnoticed by a young child. Talus slopes protrude from the treeline in places, reminders that geologic change is ever present; rocks slide and fall from the pressure of freezing and thawing or simply the weight of countless years.

When they finally succumb to gravity’s irresistible pull, entire sections of cliff give way in a cacophony of dust and thunderous sound. The rocks come to rest in a bed of shattered trees; the air smells of crushed pine and flint, and the silence takes control once more, the only trace of the closeness of the fall being the sunlight shafting through the motes of dust that shimmer in the air as they drift slowly downward. A slide unseen by all but the birds and the deer browsing in the meadows; they look up startled for a moment, ears swiveling side to side and they see at the fresh, white scar on the mountainside before going back to their forage. Another day in the mountains.

I have learned to age rockslides, not to a certain time, but whether it is new or old. Most of the slides I see in rock creek are old; the stones are thick with lichen and Pika haypiles poke out of many crevices. In the summers you can see these tiny lagomorphs going about their harvesting, squeaking their alarm call once an unknown presence is detected. They are here now, but they are asleep, they know that winter is coming to these mountains. New slides that you occasionally see, are of sharp, shattered rock. The stones and boulders are naked and pale; it all looks as though it has been recently dumped there from a quarry, freshly delivered.

The trail drops off of the bench and, off to my left, the creek does as well unseen in the darkening forest. Overhead, the clouds swirl and race across the sky, shredded to pieces by a swift and frigid wind. The trail descends in long switchbacks now in the forest, now crossing a talus slope. Zeb follows at my heels quiet, obedient and tired. Take off my pack briefly and sit down on a boulder, pulling out a clif bar, which Zeb and I split; I pour him a small pile of kibble as well which he chows on hungrily, using his wide, pink tongue to get the last few stragglers into his mouth. Finished, he resumes panting. I pat him on the head, he’s a good friend.

We are nearing the confluence of Rock Creek Valley and Vallecito Creek. The spruces, while still plentiful, are now interspersed with small feathery pines and needles lie thick upon the forest floor, muffling all sound save the clear rush of Rock Creek, which is visible once more, below and to the left. There are good campsites there beside the creek, but I want to reach the confluence and camp somewhere near the headwaters of Vallecito. Daylight is gone from the valley, but the peaks still shine with alpenglow and the Guardian looms massive and mysterious before me, gleaming in the last rays of the sun.

The confluence is reached and the trail begins to climb again, this time up the canyon of Vallecito Creek. It is an long valley of wide, steep meadows interspersed with copses of tall Blue and Engelmann Spruce. Some aspens shiver nakedly on the slopes, leaves gone, swept away by the scouring wind. The glow is gone from the peaks now and the clouds are beginning to thicken; the wind starts to howl. Something is changing. I shudder. I see a nice grove of spruces above the trail and decide they would make a nice place to camp. The pack is dropped with relief and I set up my tent in a clearing among the tall trees. A herd of elk moves slowly on the opposite side of the valley, and the bull bugles to his small harem. Zeb looks up alarmed; he has never heard a sound like this before. The elk move on and he puts his head back between his paws, snoozing a little.

I boil water on the stove for dinner and tea, and sit in my crazy creek chair watching the last light fade from the valley. Dinner is cooking in the package, and I cradle a mug of hot tea in both hands, watching until finally all vanishes in a cloak of dark grey, the summits disappear and the world shrinks down to my little clearing. Soon, all that is left is the glow of the stove and what small details my pathetic human eyes can make out around me. I click on my headlamp and eat my dinner, another tasty creation like last night’s feast. Zeb munches on a substantial mound of kibble and a few dog treats. It is beginning to get cold and I finish quickly. I go to hang the bear bag in another grove nearby and Zeb and I relieve ourselves one last time before getting into the tent. The wind is howling in the tops of our spruces but it is quiet down here in the tent. I slide into my sleeping bag and Zeb curls up against me. I throw a second liner over us both and try to fall asleep thinking back over the glorious things I had seen today. The elk begin to bugle again and Zeb growls at them sleepily. Soon we both drift off, exhausted. But before I fall asleep, I hear a rustling and hissing sound on the sides of the tent; it sounds almost like… snow.


The next day dawns grey and cold. Some snow has fallen during the night, but not very much, and has accumulated in small windswept swirls beneath the trees. The sky is heavy and leaden and the air smells of coming snow. The hammer is ready to fall; I need to get out of here before it does. I pack up hurriedly and eat a clif bar while Zeb inhales more kibble. I throw on my pack and half-trot, half-slide down to the trail. We soon come to a small, clear rill and fill our water from its tiny cascade. The copses begin to thicken and merge, the meadows giving way to forest again. We see several harems of elk across the valley and think of the hunters who are gearing up far below. Best of luck to them, all the elk seem to be up here. The clouds have begun to swallow the summits of the surrounding peaks. The Guardian is no longer visible behind us and a slow moving fall of cloud is beginning to pour down the valley from the flanks of Storm King Mountain. The forest here is ancient and silent, the trees are huge and towering. Wind stirs their tops high above but leaves the floor quiet. It is open and lit with a uniform pale light, the floor is a carpet of spongy mosses and low shrubs, it is surprisingly open. Here is a forest that has known very little of humans. It has not felt the sting of the logger’s axe, nor the cold rush of its fires being extinguished by the well-intentioned Forest Service. This was a forest that burned regularly and was thus kept open and healthy, a hall of giants high in the mountains. The trail winds up and away and I follow with Zeb, who has been running from tree to tree, barking at squirrels.

Vallecito creek tumbles in a clear and chilly stream between cushioned mossy banks. Stormy Gulch flows in from the West and I begin to ascend to the East, along the banks for Nebo Creek, back above the trees up into the high country. The sky is beginning to darken and the clouds roil thick and menacing overhead. Occasionally a burst of “corn snow”, as hard as small stones, will pelt me from above the treetops. The pellets of snow make sharp dull sounds as they hit my rain-shell and pants and slide down in with a rustle on the nylon; it is too cold for them to melt on contact. The creek rushes off to my left, I hear the dull roar of an unseen falls or cataract somewhere off the trail. I drop my pack and wander over some of the mossy deadfall and granite boulders with Zeb. The fall is about thirty feet of freefalling water where Nebo creek drops from a granite outcrop. I sit on a stone at its head and look at it for awhile. The air is full of sound: falling water, water striking rock, water lapping gently against the creekbanks, water sliding over smooth stones; all of these combine into an all-consuming cacophony of noise. Such a marked contrast to the complete silence of the last few days; it makes me almost uncomfortable, as if something could walk up behind me undetected, I felt suddenly naked without my sense of hearing.

The spray from the falls chills me and I get up from my rock, and stretch a little; my body is tired, these last few days at altitude have been punishing. I can feel bruises blossoming on my hipbones and my feet ache from striking the stones of the trail. I stagger on, my stride becoming longer and less pained as I warm up again. We cross the creek, barely a trickle now, and pass the junction for the trail to Nebo Pass, above us to the East. We continue north toward Hunchback Pass. The forest is of Spruce and Subalpine Fir again, the hall of giants left behind in the glacial canyon of Vallecito Creek, along with the bugling Elk and the looming, ever watchful, Guardian. The trees begin to thin and shrink again as we approach timberline for the second time in the last twenty-four hours; looking back I can see down the thickly forested slope which we had just ascended this morning, and on down Vallecito Creek. The valley floor is a carpet of dark trees, giving way to the rockslides and aspen fringed meadows near our resting place of last night. Rock Creek pours in from the East, and the valley winds and curves away into the distance. Chains of high, icy peaks loom over the valley growing higher to the south of “The Guardian which now seems to be in the foreground. It is silent again, save for the hiss of lightly falling snow, its white curtains trailing up and down the valley, gently brushing the ground like icy fingers. I can see all the way to glacial cirque at the head of Stormy Gulch, from this cold and lofty place, I can easily imagine the glaciers, giant rivers of ice filling these valleys; grinding, shifting, and warping the stone into these gentle “U” shapes, leaving glacial boulders sprinkled about the scene for emphasis, as a reminder to those here now of the way of things back then, in that cold and distant time.

On some of the smoothed rocks up here above the trees, I can still find scrape marks, places where the stone appears to have been clawed by some gigantic beast; but I know that it was the glaciers that caused these strange furrows. They were made by stones picked up by the ice and dragged along the rocky floor of the valley, writing the tale of their passage as surely and neatly and a stylus makes its mark on tin. It overwhelms me to think of this, up here so high and cold, surrounded by this primordial masterpiece of wilderness. I think of the mountains being born by fire, in series of overlapping calderas half filled with crystallized flows of basalt, punctuated by the shattered and twisted sediments from an ancient sea, now long gone, whose tiny creatures occasionally emerge from their tilted beds, petrified and perfect. After the fiery violence of the volcanoes was at last stilled and the plates ceased their thunderous grinding far below, the icy sea of the glaciers swept down from the north, as slow and gradual as the volcanism had been wild and sudden. Ice sheets covered everything here, growing and retreating over the course of countless millennia. Dire Wolves and Giant Short-Faced Bears roamed the lowland forests of evergreen, in the shadow the lifeless, ice covered heights, and great condors descended from the clouds to feast upon their kills.

As the glaciers retreated, they sculpted the rocks into smooth and sharpened forms; horns, valleys, cirques, and couloirs. The tortured landscape honed by the incredible weight of an ocean of ice; a landscape now static but for the slow inexorable decay of water and gravity wearing it away bit by bit. The trees sprouted tall and healthy from the fine soils at the feet of the retreating glaciers, some died out in the lowlands as the world warmed again but many survived up high. In some valleys in the heart of the Weminuche there are still islands of the ancient, ice age trees; remnant populations of Limber Pine or even Larch. My botany professor once told that there are mosses found growing at the snowline here that are normally found no farther south than the provinces of Canada.

It is said that Alaska is a glimpse of what it was like after the last Ice Age, when the glaciers were in retreat, and leaving vast wild tracts of smoothed stone and taiga behind them. Some say that the humans killed off the superpredators in America after the last Ice Age, and there is much to support that theory. But still others say that the predators followed the ice and the cold to the north as their habitat grew too warm and game too scarce. There little to support this theory, merely a conjecture really, save stories and tales whispered in an awed hush by the Native Peoples of the North; tales about a vicious bear half again as large as a silvertip Grizzly. A bear who is said to still live in the high, icy canyons ringed by nameless peaks; a huge, dark bear, with a short, cruel face.

So much has happened here, I think as I look down the valley, toward the sculpted peaks of the Needles Range. It is a story that makes me feel humble and small, like the sensation of falling one gets when gazing at the stars; it is the feeling of touching something infinitely greater than the self and, I firmly believe, it is one of the myriad reasons we still, and will always, need the wilderness.


I continue on, the wind, harsh and chill on my face, is peppered with driven snow and my gloved hands tightly grip my trekking poles which I use to catch myself when I slip on the wet rocks. Zeb walks behind me, subdued by the climb and the cold. The trail is deeply eroded here and it is like climbing in a dry creekbed. The tops of the alpine willow on the trailsides are nearly at eye-level and I can see a few of their silvery leaves which still hang stoically onto their wind-tortured boughs. The valley is wide, sloping, and treeless this close to the pass. The peaks are entirely hidden by snow and cloud, but the saddle of the pass hangs in full view, glorious and unattainable. I am at nearly 13,000 feet here and the air is thin; it catches in my throat and even deep breaths feel shallow. I gasp and yawn in order to get enough oxygen to my tired muscles to propel me upward to the saddle.

But this is to be expected, and all I have to look forward to after this pass is a stroll across a small basin and a leisurely descent into Elk Creek, where I plan to camp tonight. Once I am off this pass, I am home free. However, I cannot shake a feeling of unease, that in this cold, unforgiving, and unfathomably ancient place, I have missed something crucial. It feels as though the icy jaws of winter are closing on top of me and each snowflake falling around me seems to reinforce this notion. I am covered in nylon shell from head to toe and my clothing is warmly layered. My feet are a little cold, but the rest of me is as comfortable and as well prepared as I can muster. Down below it is still T-shirt weather, and it is this picture of warmth and comfort that I am dwelling on as I reach the crest of the pass.

The cloud ceiling lifts for a brief second and Zeb and I stand ankle deep in a crusted and corniced drift of corniced snow, gazing out at the scene. A huge basin spreads out at my feet and the trail is barely discernable 2000 feet below me as a brown thread winding through ragged snowdrifts. Kite Lake hangs just below my eye level on the far Western side of the basin; sparkling blue and diamond-shaped. At the far northern edge of the basin is a second, higher pass. It is unnamed, which is why I missed it on the map before, but I see it now, covered in snow and wreathed in smoky wisps of cloud.

I look away and look back, trying to process what I am seeing here, trying to accept this new turn of events; it’s difficult to myself understand, what with cold, altitude, and exhaustion dragging at my faculties. Finally I put my map away and start my descent into the basin. To the Northeast I can see the deep defile of Bear Creek curving toward its terminus where it feeds into the newborn Rio Grande, out of sight in the cloud shadow. Far to the East lie the three forks of Ute Creek and the Rio Grande Pyramid above them, partially hidden my view by a nameless crag.

I descend in a tangle of willows and knee deep snow, my gaiters keeping the powdery crystals out of my boots. Zeb marches through the trail I broke and seems fine. I keep going, eventually dropping below the snowline. A four wheel drive road comes in on my left and terminates at a US Forest Service Sign proclaiming the place a trailhead. The sign is riddled with bullet-holes. Frozen bootprints and beer cans are scattered here and there, occasionally punctuated by a bloom of toilet paper. These telltale signs of humanity seem jarring, and discordant, after two days in such deep and wild place.

The paths which I had trod over the course of the past few days seem to be located outside the normal flow of time; such places have a deep and unexplainable power. I have heard and learned much concerning the deep wildness of these mountains in these past few days. In the long silences of this place I can hear the mountains speak, or sing. It is a deep thrum of a sound, felt more than heard. It is layered within the silence, and flows like an underground river beneath it; inaudible but palpable like the slow, steady beat of a ancient heart; yet also smooth and rushing like the wind in the fragrant treetops or the clear, icy streams laughing in their stony beds. It is in these moments of silence when the song most is deafening, like an orchestral crescendo that moves you to tears and leaves you crying like an idiot there in your seat. It makes me want to jump up and shout praises to the sky; to release my woes and concerns on the spiraling winds. But the music is so riveting and vibrant I don’t dare interrupt for fear of missing something vital. Something which may never come again.

Where I stand now, in Beartown Valley, I am just outside the borders of the Wilderness. It is the site of a century old boomtown, long since gone bust. People tried here, they created a place that would insulate them from the howling Wilderness about them and, in the end, they failed. Beartown and other sites like it, scattered here and there, stumbled upon when least expected; tell me that there are still some places over which we are powerless, and where our authority has no weight. There are still places like this one where the ancient song can still be heard; there are still valleys with no sign of humans, ringed with peaks that have no names. I wonder if the people here could hear the song which played all around them, did they think it was gone with the building of their town? Were the last of them shocked to realize that, even as they left the valley for the final time, the song continued unabated; ushering them quietly down from the place where “man is a visitor and must not remain?” I nudge a beer can with my toe, and look down the valley where the road disappears. It looks so tiny compared to the mountains which flank it, and I take heart in its smallness. Maybe this place will stay wild for a good long time yet. Perhaps it will go on as it has for so long; maybe buried by glaciers once more, or again torn asunder by the fires which still smolder silently beneath the surface.

I the turn my back to the trailhead and walk past the windswept snag of a long-dead spruce; I feel better once the damaged sign and small, windswept piles of trash are behind me. The wind howls through the basin but the snow as ceased briefly. Gritting my teeth, I begin again to climb. My calves burn immediately, but I ignore them, walking onward into the wind. The trail creeps up a sculpted gouge in the side of the basin toward the distant pass. I pass a gutted miner’s shack, another symbol of the transient role we play here in the heights; and another reminder that I don’t belong here either; with winter breathing down my neck.

The trail curves upward and gains the ridge. It is snowing again, harder this time, driving blindingly into my covered face, working into every crack and crevice of my clothing, slumping off in great sheets from my chest and thighs. Along the ridge, the trail is marked with snow poles and between gusts I can see one tall pole standing guard like a sentinel on the summit. Snow is over my knees and I post-hole through the frozen crust with every step. Zeb walks in the powder behind me, in snow up to his neck. A resigned feeling of fear enters my benumbed brain; I know that if I stopped there on the pass, I would likely die there, frozen in an icy pose of defeat.

I shake my head, to clear it, and snow falls in a shower from my parka hood. I am not beaten, nor defeated, I am simply tired. I had roughly 8 miles at my back since morning. I forge ahead, faster now, trying to warm my leaden limbs. Abruptly, I almost run into it in the gale, I arrive at the tall pole. A carved arrow points down and to the right. On the slope below me, which is scoured mercifully clean of snow, I see a series of switchbacks descending into another deep valley bounded by peaks and clothed in swatches of dark forest. I am looking down into the canyon of Elk Creek, I am to camp here tonight if I make it so far. I leave the nightmare of the pass behind me and make good time on the solidly constructed switchbacks. My feet are wet and sore from the miles of post-holing, but naturally, Zeb seems no worse for wear. I slip below the ceiling of clouds and see the glimmer of the El Dorado Lakes off to my left, encircled by dark stone walls.


I reach the base of the switchbacks and take off my pack. The storm blows around above me, but I am safe here, for now. The silence resumes and I sit and listen, exhausted, to the song. I wish I could fall to one side and that the earth would swallow me up, that I may sleep in comfort and nothingness, covered in the thick cloak of my exhaustion. But instead I stagger back to my feet and continue down the trail. The northern face of the canyon is still covered in snow but the deep red willows of the southern slope are exposed in brilliant contrast. A pale miner’s shack stands stark against the willows and their footing of dark stones, its tin roof intact in places, rusted through in others. I take a single picture, of the willows, the shack, the cliffs and the clouds. It is one of the only pictures I take. I continue down and the snowmelt fed rill I had paralleled from the shack fell away into a deepening gorge, becoming a shouting series of cataracts. Down on the valley floor a side canyon entered and met abruptly with the valley floor. Its sheer walls stood before me rising over 2000 feet from the valley floor like dark mirrors or the open gates to a city far greater than anything built by the hand of man. Drawing even with this mighty opening I could see three sharp, craggy summits, which had no names, simply the numbers “One”, “Two”, and “Three” on the map. The tiny stream running between the great walls seems dwarfed into insignificance by their proximity as they loom above. As always, the silence reigns supreme.

I am once again in the trees, enjoying their smell and their company. The trail drops to the valley floor and I leave the huge gates behind me, I look back and see that they have been swallowed by a curve in the canyon wall. Would they still be there if I turned back? I hesitated for a brief moment before plodding on ahead. The valley opens suddenly into wide, flat meadows, and I cross a stream flowing down from a high valley to the north, water collected in the summer months in the Verde Lakes, which sit ensconced in a basin of nodding wildflowers. I know the flowers are now dead, and shriveled, but the summer memory sits in the front of my mind, warm and awash with color.

Piles of glaciated stones lie at random here and there on the brown valley floor and Electric Peak looms off to my left, high above. Zeb trots ahead and I take a final picture. A distant wail pierces the silence as effectively as a gunshot and I am startled by the sudden discord. It is the whistle of the steam train which runs north from Durango to the tiny mining town of Silverton. I see a wall of grey cliffs at the far end of the valley, marking the confluence with the Animas River which parallels the train tracks. If I can camp near there tonight, I can make it to my destination of the pass the next morning with plenty of time to spare. I am so tired.

The valley flows downward in a gentle slope, punctuated by broad shelves of stone which I have to descend in short series of switchbacks. Aspens begin to appear again and add their pale grey to the dark green of the spruces and the golden brown of the dried grass in the meadows. I come alongside a lakelet near the trail and stop to stare. The water is still and silver, the reflections are sharp and clear. The sky is a uniform white and the scene before me, perfectly mirrored in the water, is incredible. Electric Peak rises in the foreground, like a buttressed turret of a long decayed fortress; its summit is jagged and crenellated against the sky. Just behind it is the toothy ridge of Graystone Peak and dominating the left side of the view are the mirror-image peaks of Vestal and Arrow, their curved, sweeping ridges perfect and opposite copies of one another, scraped to an identical smoothed angle by the same tongue of ice, sharing it as surely as twins share a mother’s womb. All of this sparkles in the tarn before me and the spruces quake at my back; the song is so strong here I can scarcely keep it together. I am afraid I may lose myself in it, spellbound and awestruck, kneeling by the water’s edge, giddy as mooncalf and yet somber as a church-mouse, eyes staring into the middle distance; heart and soul borne away by the music. I shake myself free, the cold brings me back and I realize my feet are still wet and freezing in my boots. I reluctantly leave the majesty of the reflected peaks behind me and listen as the silent music fades away beneath the rhythm of my footfalls.

The valley enters a canyon again, and I see where the trail has fallen away into the creek. A fresh blaze across the rushing waters signals that I must cross. I look down at my already soaked boots and walk straight into the water, balancing with my poles. I continue walking on the other side, only to be faced with three more crossings in quick succession. I begin to realize that camping will be cold tonight and tomorrow morning frigid with my wet feet and tired body. I try not to think about it too much and walk into an aspen grove. I am almost to the Animas River, and the leaves are still vibrant and golden on the trees here, falling in waves of gold as the wind sighs between the pale trunks.


It is quiet and serene here; the air is heavy with the smells of wet bark and leaf mold. The trail emerges from the trees and the Animas River roars beside me. Next to it, the cold, iron rails of the Durango-Silverton Railroad gleam dully. Their right angles and order sudden and harsh to my eyes, their presence told me that I departure from the Wilderness was imminent and I knew then what I had to do. I would not camp tonight. According to my calculations, I had walked nearly eighteen miles that day, and I know that Silverton lies six more miles up this cold and impersonal track. Looking at the sky I realize I have perhaps an hour of daylight remaining to me. I look down at Zeb and say “Are you ready, buddy?” Not waiting for an answer, I step on to the tracks and begin to walk.

Darkness comes swiftly to the depths of the Animas River Canyon; the water, poisoned by mining upstream, slides over a stony bed that is colored dull and sickly orange. The train tracks sit on a shelf above the river, crossing it occasionally on low trestles. Zeb and I make good time, counting rails and watching the grey light fade from the walls of the canyon. Soon it is fully dark and the river glints darkly beneath me as I shakily cross another trestle, focusing on placing one foot in front of the other. The pale blue glow of my head lamp throws a pool of light and shadow before me; the rest of the world is inky black. The wind blows but the clouds are beginning to shred overhead and the air grows colder. Zeb navigates the trestles with no false steps or mistakes, he is obviously tired but he continues to show himself as a matchless hiking partner.

The canyon opens into a wide valley and the lights of Silverton spread out warmly before me, ringed by dark, looming mountains. I pass through a still train yard and turn onto a dirt street. Some houses glow with the warmth of humanity, the smoke trailing from their chimneys smells delicious and inviting. Before we step into the harsh glare of a street light, I leash Zeb and we walk on out of the dark. Only the Brown Bear Café stands open and inviting and I tie Zeb up to a bench outside on the street, promising to be right back. I open the door slowly and step inside in a swirl of cold and dark into a place of warmth and light.


The café is full of people and sound and movement ceases entirely as 40 pairs of eyes turn to look at me in silence. I am standing in the doorway, haggard and exhausted, my pack looming over my hunched shoulders. I feel lost and bewildered, blinking there in this sudden brightness but, despite my strange entrance, the waitress does not even break stride when she strolls up to me and asks if I would like a table. I say that I would like that very much, as well as some food, and a beer, as well as some water for my dog outside. The sound of my own voice is strange in my ears. She helps take off my pack and sets it in the corner. The locals return to their food first. The tourists continue to regard me quietly; it must surely seem as though I have fallen from the sky, and it certainly feels that way. I end up with a pint of pale ale and a bowl of rich French onion soup. Zeb sits outside beneath the bench with a bowl of water and a massive pile of leftover ribs the wait-staff gave him for his trouble. Before he tucks into the ribs, I kneel and cup his head in my hands, looking into his warm golden eyes. Did you hear it too? Was it really as grand as all that? I give a scratch between the ears and leave him to his meal.

My father arrives about an hour or so later crossing the same distance I had spent three days laboring through in an impossibly short time. I pay my check and thank the waitress, several of the tourists look up and two of them, a couple from Santa Fe, walk over to wish me well. I walk outside and put my things in the back of the car along with Zeb. I take a last look up at the dark winter sky and watch the frigid stars dancing overhead. Suddenly, despite the streetlights and buildings which surround me, I hear faint strain of music, which spins away on the cold wind, soon vanishing into the night as if it had never been.

I fall asleep on the way home…
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