Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Lessons from the Colorado Trail

The warmth and smoothness of the whiskey was almost sensual as it slid down our throats. Leaning back against the big boulder in the middle of our campsite, its surface still holding a pleasant heat from the July sun, we watched as the western sky darkened to black and the stars emerged, piercing indifferently like a million possible futures.

“So, twenty-four years old, huh Matty?” Rhys said. “Sounds like a pretty good age.”

It was certainly off to a pretty good start. July 16, 2013, my 24th birthday, found me nestled in the heart of the Sawatch Range with a couple of friends, camping creekside between the Holy Cross and Mount Massive Wildernesses. Rhys was hiking the whole 500 miles of the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango, a farewell to his home state before he left on a yearlong fellowship to teach English and Computer Science in China. Pete and I were along for a few segments of the ride. We'd all played ultimate frisbee together at Carleton College, that frisbee-crazed quirk of a school plopped down in the Southern Minnesota prairie. Now I, two years removed from the place, the youngest of three brothers, was rather relishing the chance to play sage elder for my just-graduated buddies.

As the flask of Jack passed back and forth, the conversation ranged on into the night, from romance to politics to life after Carleton. It was good, genuine talk, the kind that reminds you why your college friends often remain your best friends. And on one thing we all agreed: we were preposterously lucky to be where we were, doing what we were doing.

Wild beauty and human camaraderie: a recipe for happiness.
It's a feeling that wouldn't go away during my two weeks on the trail. The next evening we camped beneath Mt. Elbert then rose early enough to beat the bulk of the peakbaggers to the rooftop of Colorado, the lower 48's second-highest summit at 14,433 feet. We shared the climb with Laine, a CU student and fellow thru-hiker we'd met two days before. Later that afternoon we descended in a cooling drizzle through vast colonies of quaking aspen, the view to either side of the trail a wall of staggered cream-white trunks and dark brown eye-knots. Reaching a trailhead with fortuitous timing, we crammed into a Jeep with three soggy middle-aged Texans and hitched the couple miles into tiny Twin Lakes, Colorado, a one-road mountain town perched beneath massive peaks beside a pair of picturesque glacial lakes. We pitched our tent that night in the backyard behind the Twin Lakes General Store, falling asleep exhausted after a day which began with mountaintop grandeur and ended sharing beers and laughs with a couple other thru-hikers-turned-friends. (Trail time has a way of accelerating friendships: ask any casual observer which three out of our five had gone to college together and they wouldn't have had a clue).

It was this combination – equal parts wild beauty and human camaraderie – that made those two weeks so memorable. From rolling stretches of ridgeline tundra, where every quarter mile seems to yield an even more spectacular postcard vista, to cold coursing streams and meadows stuffed with the popping colors of asters, paintbrushes, columbines, lupines, etc., there was a heaping smorgasbord of natural splendor made all the lusher by a large dose of now-melted spring snowfall. But it was the unexpected human culture of the thing which set the Colorado Trail apart from my other experiences in the western backcountry. Between Laine (one semester away from graduation at CU), Cody (34-year old ex-rugby star who'd just thrown in the towel on a lucrative Wall Street career), and Doug and Denise (retired desert rats from Utah – she a park ranger, he an EMT), every thru-hiker we met seemed ready and willing with a fascinating story, a bad joke, a sage piece of advice. And whether we shared five days or five minutes together didn't really matter. Nobody cared too much about anything but the present.

The trail is waiting: get out there and find it.
Following his “experiment” at Walden Pond, Thoreau delivered perhaps his wisest conclusion of all with one repeated imperative: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” After two weeks during which I turned on my cell phone two times, during which all the materials I needed to thrive weighed under thirty pounds and fit comfortably on my back, during which happiness had very little to do with technology and a whole lot to do with wilderness and unfiltered human connections, I can think of no better method for following the Concord hermit's advice in today's world than an extended backpacking trip.

I had no intention of hiking the Colorado Trail this summer until I saw Rhys at an ultimate tournament in May and we got to scheming. Three months later, I've returned to a still-uncertain future in society carrying barely a shred of anxiety after a couple of the most rejuvenating weeks of my life. The woods and the lakes and the hills are still out there, friends. If you're lucky enough to have the time and the resources, make it happen. Who knows, maybe you'll spend your next birthday sipping whiskey at 10,000 feet too.