Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Sunday, October 06, 2019

No Lack of Comfort, Part 2

This post is a continuation. Read Part 1 here.

Finally finished with my backpacking trip in the Flat Tops, I reached my car around four PM. Usually I hate for a trip to be over -- sometimes I even tear up on the final leg, I'm so sad to leave the wilderness -- but today, I was over it. I wanted out of the searing sun and away from these mosquitoes, who'd gifted me with more than a hundred bites over the prior five days.

Before I got in the car, I bent and picked up a rock. It was a piece of ruddy brown volcanic scoria shaped like a heart. Not the stylized heart of emoticons and valentine candies, but the living, beating thing, stripped of art and arteries. I put it in the center console of my car.

The drive to Glenwood Springs lifted my spirits a little. I'd recently gotten all my music back; a year earlier, my hard drive had crashed, and I'd lost many of my files, including all my music. And then the iPod that had that music on it also died. I'd sent my hard drive to a data recovery company for an estimate, but when they quoted me $2,500, I gave up on the idea. Eventually I found a company in California that promised full recovery for $300, so I nervously put the drive in the mail.

It worked. I got everything back. Music, photos, GS logs, all kinds of nonsense I hadn't looked at in a decade. Then I got a new music player. Then I bought Shania Twain's greatest hits album. So there I was, rolling at forty miles per hour through country I'd never seen -- vibrant green hills with snow-streaked mountains in the distance, then pinyon/juniper woodlands dry as a bone -- to the sound of 90s girl-power anthems and steel guitar. And I was singing along.

I had booked a tiny home airbnb in Glenwood. Normally I don't bother to book lodging on trips because I'm so content with camping. But considering this was my big trip of the year, and that the whole ten-day shebang would still probably cost only $400 total even with an airbnb, I splurged. It was extremely cute.

I was not. I was dirty, sunburnt, sweaty, and covered in bites, scratches and scrapes -- like the one now healing on my chin, from when I'd done a face plant on my second day.

By the time I had checked myself in, showed and organized some belongings, I was exhausted. I had planned on treating myself to a burger, but suddenly I didn't want to deal with the crowds or wait times at a restaurant. So, predictably, I went to taco bell, got four tacos and ate them in about thirty seconds. Then I slept. For twelve hours.

I did treat myself in the morning.

This meal was not supposed to include bacon, but in fact, to my delight, a tiny piece snuck in. Can you find it among the potatoes?

My place was situated a few blocks from the center of town, and it was nice having the ability to explore on foot.

However, the temperature remained in the nineties, and I was exhausted still. My body felt like lead and my heart remained heavy. I glanced blearily around the shops and galleries I entered, unable to muster any interest or enjoyment in what I was looking at. It felt like I'd feel this way forever, in some post-exertion, post-breakup limbo where recovery and joy were suspended indefinitely.

Late in the afternoon I entered a gallery and was looking dumbly at the paintings when the woman behind the desk called out to me.

"Is that Angel's Landing? On your shirt?"

I went over to her. I was, in fact, wearing a shirt with a stylized representation of the iconic hike in Zion National Park that features nine-hundred-foot-plus sheer dropoffs on either side of the trail. I've been lucky enough to hike it twice; it's one of my favorites. She told me she'd tried to get to the top three times, but had turned back each time due to fear of heights. We talked for a while. She'd had many adventures in her life, but was limited now due to health conditions and the repercussions of her treatment for cancer.

Before departing, I asked her, "You tried to hike it three times, you said? You're brave."

"I don't give up," she said. "If I did, I wouldn't be here today."

I left and returned to wandering the streets, feeling like the muck at the bottom of my sluggish brain had been stirred up with a stick. I was a little more alive.

I returned to the airbnb to do chores: I unpacked and reorganized, took the multiple insoles out of my boots and laid them out to dry completely, readied my food for the next part of the trip, aired out my sleeping bag, rinsed the tent and hung it up, washed off the ground cloth in the shower, and scrubbed my clothes in the kitchen sink until the water turned opaque with volcanic dust and dirt.

I tried get on my work phone to do some more research about the next part of the trip, but I couldn't connect to the internet. So I walked to the library, where there turned out to be a free concert in progress. It was the crunchiest hippie band imaginable, playing songs about the moon and rivers, plus a cover of the Beatles' Across the Universe, inviting us to sing along. I did. It's been a long time since I heard that song.

When I was a child in Connecticut, my parents had LPs of the Beatles' albums, which I would listen to when I was bored with my Disney ones. And now here I was, across the country if not the universe, singing it again. The live music and the singing lifted me, letting me recall the feeling of being awake and connected with what was in front of me, as the woman in the gallery had. And then the music ended.

That evening, I took myself to Iron Mountain Hot Springs, which is perched on a hillside with many small pools. I brought a book, hoping to read and relax. Even though it was well after dinnertime, and raining, the place was distressingly crowded. Teens, couples, groups of friends were squeezing into pools and drinking beers, shrieking with laughter.

I didn't take a picture at Iron Mountain, so here's this.

I got to talking with a couple who were in one of the pools with me. They were celebrating their thirteenth wedding anniversary and had just returned from a ten day river trip in Utah. More talk revealed that they made their livelihood caretaking others' properties in Costa Rica, returning to the States each summer to visit family and have fun. They had made their life into what they wanted.

I liked them, especially the man. He talked to me like I was a person. It's hard to put into words, but even when not doing what women call "mansplaining," male persons typically truncate certain subjects (such as technical ones), or make assumptions about what a female audience wants to discuss. This isn't a bad thing every time, and women probably do the same. But this guy spoke openly and sincerely with me, and we talked about many things.

It turned out that he knew the owner of the hot springs, sort of; he'd "met" him playing Clash of Clans. We spoke about the strange bonds of friendship formed with strangers on the internet over computer games. I never opened my book. He and his wife were lovely, and as darkness fell and the hot springs prepared to close for the night, I wandered to the showers feeling that I myself had been opened, and was finally able to feel and notice the rain, the night sky, the softness of my bed.

I slept and slept. In the morning, I walked over the bridge to look down on the other hot springs in town, which includes what is supposedly the world's largest hot springs pool. I had no interest in this. It was nuts.

This pool is ridiculous nonsense.

They also had some kind of hot river with rapids, which was also nuts.

It was ninety degrees out! Who wants to get splashed by hot water?

It was time to journey onward to the next part of my trip. After stopping at a grocery store to buy some perishables, I drove south. In Glenwood Springs, everything was Mount Sopris -- Mount Sopris t-shirts, Mount Sopris mugs, Mount Sopris's profile in every other company's logo. Driving toward Carbondale, I understood why. The mountain absolutely dominates the skyline for miles and miles, looking like a hulking volcano perched on the edge of the world. (It is not a volcano.)

Kebler Pass separates the Roaring Fork Valley from Crested Butte. As the road turned to dirt, the CVT in my Prius started to whine with effort. All traces of civilization beside the road itself receded, and soon I was looking at nothing but weather-stunted aspen with head-high flowers below and bare peaks above, and it was gorgeous. I passed bare dirt pullouts, one after the other -- the whole area had enough campsites to take care of half of Denver's camping populace on a given weekend, but they were all empty.

Despite the beauty, I passed on. I was hoping to get a site at Lake Irwin Campground, closer to Crested Butte. The campground has thirty-two sites, all but six of which are reservable; all the reservable ones were taken when I looked online before my trip, so I was hoping one of the six walk-up sites would be free.

I arrived in early afternoon to see a "CAMPGROUND FULL" sign at the entrance.

In my time as a camper I've done a lot of things to ensure I got a site somewhere, and ignoring signs is easily the least of these. I drove up into the campground, squinting at every post to see if it was one of the walk-up sites (whose numbers I had written down at the library the day before), or whether someone had failed to show up for their reservation. When I was almost at the end of the loop, I came to a post that had no tag on it. I looked at my list. It was one of the walk-up sites.

I pulled in and examined the site. There was no midday shade. There was no good place to put a tent; the gravel only extended a few feet beyond the firepit and picnic table, and the seats of the rotting fiberglass picnic table were only inches off the ground, the legs having been buried in the aforementioned gravel by some overly enthusiastic Forest Service employee. There was no good place to put up a hammock. There was no view of the lake, or anything else really, unless you counted the wood-framed latrine across the road. If I took it, it would be the worst campsite I'd ever paid money for. I'd driven past dozens of much nicer free campsites on my way in.

But I wanted to be here. Despite how much I love the wilderness, there's something special about a developed campground. This is where American families come to be in the outdoors. And whatever you may say about the United States's questionable values, our penchant for cooking s'mores on a juniper fire under a sprawling night sky isn't one of them. It may, in fact, be the best thing about my country.

I travel alone a lot and on a budget, and I've developed some odd habits: eating hot meals out of cans and ziploc bags, "showering" with wet wipes, wearing wool fingerless gloves 24/7 to keep both the sun and the cold off my hands. So often, I am the eccentric lady camping in the middle of the forest by herself, singing Simon and Garfunkel into a firepit that has no fire in it. To occasionally let myself be surrounded by vacationing families with their hot dogs and kids' bikes and drying swimsuits and citronella and Uno and s'mores is to let my time here be touched by both normalcy and joy.

I love to be around people on vacation, especially in our national parks and forests. I love to see people's wonder as they remind themselves what's good about the outdoors. And perhaps this is why I retain a sense of optimism, despite what's in the news... because, over and over again, this is the America I see: regular people who are happy and friendly and open and doing their best to leave no trace.

Lake Irwin

And, honestly, sometimes it's nice to have a picnic table, even if the seats are only three inches off the ground.

I couldn't find the station where you deposit money and take a tag, so I went to the camp host site. The camp hosts turned out to be the most lovely people imaginable, an older couple named Mickey and Norma who spoke to each other like honeymooners and were extremely solicitous of their chubby dog. Mickey had me get into his golf cart and drove me back to the site, where we filled out a ream of paperwork and made fun of the Forest Service. When he left, I was smiling.

The campsite in question

I looked around at my neighbors, who were making fires and preparing to cook red meat of various kinds. I'd planned to go for a hike or explore town, but suddenly, I wanted a fire and red meat as well. I went back to the camp host site to purchase some firewood from Mickey, then drove into Crested Butte and found a package of steak that was small enough that I might plausibly be able to eat it all by myself, as well as a green pepper.

I had a devil of a time getting a fire started; the wood, though packaged in plastic, was wet and stubborn. Though I inhaled enough smoke to qualify for a trip to urgent care, by dark I had enough coals to actually cook. I covered the steak in olive oil and a spice mix that had been languishing in my camping kit for a couple years, and put it on the grill.

It was amazing, absolutely amazing. Completely worth an hour and a half of trying to keep a fire lit while coughing like a two-pack-a-day smoker. I went to sleep with the nearly-full moon shining in through the mesh of the tent, feeling almost human.

I slept in a little bit the next morning, had my instant oatmeal (pour hot water in packet, eat out of packet) and went for a hike.

On the drive in

I didn't quite make it to the trailhead because the road had been blocked by an avalanche. Everyone was parking at a steep pulloff a half-mile down from the massive pile of snow. Envisioning how my car would roll across the road and then down into a hundred-foot ravine if the parking brake gave out, I put rocks behind both my rear tires before I set out.

Emerald Lake

The hike was pretty okay.

Actually, it was like something out of a dream, or like the scene in Wizard of Oz where they're in the field of poppies. It didn't seem real all. I'd managed to hit the area at "peak wildflower", despite it being three weeks later than the usual peak. I had the late snows to thank. As I approached the West Maroon trail, the final leg of my loop, I realized I'd have to cross a wide stream to continue.

I'd had to cross a lot of streams in the Flat Tops, each time taking several minutes to unlace my boots, get my flip flops out, secure the boots, wade across, dry my feet and the flip flops, put the boots back on and the flip flops away. I was sick of it. It was easy to understand now why some backpackers wear mesh trail runners and just continue straight across any stream they come to. But I had boots with a waterproof membrane, which keeps water in about as well as it keeps it out, and I didn't want my shoes to turn into the sweaty steam room they'd been in the Flat Tops, so I submitted to the routine once more -- except this, time, stubbornly, I crossed in my bare feet.

Have you ever crossed a river in your bare feet? I have, and yet somehow I always forget the experience and end up doing it again. Ow.

Off-balance, and wincing, I paused at the far bank and looked down. The stones in the river were all colors: red, white, green, yellow. I picked a couple up and stashed them in my pack. I had often picked up rocks or feathers for K. on my solo hikes, to show her I'd been thinking of her. And these rocks were for her as well. In some future world or some parallel universe in which all the differences between K. and I were magically resolved and we got back together, I would give her these rocks, and the heart-shaped rock from Flat Tops. See, I would say. I was thinking of you the whole time. Because I was.

Beyond the junction, a group of backpackers was climbing. Up ahead the West Maroon Trail would meet up with the Four Pass Loop, the strenuous -- and gorgeous -- backpacking trip that K. and I had done a couple years before. And rather than turning left for the parking lot, I turned right, toward the past. It was so beautiful here. I slowly made my way up the slope to the ground that we'd covered on one of the best trips we'd taken together.

Looking back

Monument plants -- the ones that bloom only once in their lifetime of twenty to eighty years -- covered the hillside with their flowery stalks.

I climbed upward until I reached the next junction and was standing on the Four Pass Loop. I remembered the word game K. and I had been playing as we'd hiked along this stretch toward West Maroon Pass. It had felt interminable at the time, hiking on and on under the hot sun.

It was sad to remember the six days we'd spent backpacking here, but the pain was beginning to feel distant. It was, after all, another year, another day, and everything was different. I was just as tired now, but it was cooler, there was more snow on the peaks, and the flowers were more abundant. I looked ahead to West Maroon Pass, with its spires of sandstone. The view from the pass was awesome, but I had already been there. I turned my tired feet back toward the trailhead.

Looking toward West Maroon Pass

I reached a dirt road. I'd need to hike along this road to get back to the avalanche, and then my car. I walked up, and up, and up. It was hot.

At Schofield Pass. Why??

I was following a family. As we continued upward through the blazing sun, hunched under day packs, sweat soaking our shirts, no one spoke. The road was interminable. I began to wonder if I'd taken a wrong turn somewhere. But finally, we reached the avalanche.

I'd meant to finally enjoy some time in the hammock when I got back to the campsite, but when I got there the light had already gone and it was chilly, so I went exploring instead. Following a faint trail away from the lake, I found a lovely waterfall.

That night I enjoyed one of my usual camping pastimes, which is walking around the campground loop after dark looking at everyone's fires and imagining how much fun they're having. Is this also strange? I don't know. It's exercise, it allows me to avoid the hassle of building a campfire myself, and it lets me enjoy everyone's interesting little campers and tents, lit like tiny cabins or green and yellow flying saucers in the darkness.

Lake Irwin campground was disappointing, however. Everyone seemed to have gone to sleep at nine. So I crawled into my tent and looked at the moon instead.

I was determined to hike Scarp Ridge the next morning, to get a view of the whole of the Elk Range. However, when the time came, I couldn't find the trailhead. I stopped to ask a couple who were dispersed camping on one of the dirt roads above the lake; they pointed me in the right direction. They were headed to the trailhead soon themselves, on mountain bikes.

Lake Irwin from above

At the trailhead, I once again put rocks behind my back tires, noting just how far the car would travel down the mountain if the emergency brake happened to fail.

The hike was a steep one to begin with, and I was still exhausted from my trip in the Flat Tops. My body simply hadn't caught up on rest. I crawled snail-like up the slope until I got to the ridge, then up the ridge, where the view became more and more expansive the further I got. Finally, almost at the trail's finale, a small peak under 13,000', I saw the couple I'd asked for directions running toward me.

I stopped and yelled to them. "Are you running from a bear, or are you running because you like running?"

They laughed, not stopping. "No bears!"

The had biked up to the trailhead, run up the slope and the ridge, and now were about to run back down. Clearly, I was out of my league.

The view from the top of the nameless peak was magnificent. I could see north across most of the Elks, which are perhaps the most beautiful range in Colorado. Their sandstone slopes are multicolored, with red, silver and even yellow standstone complementing the blue-green of lakes, forest green of trees and emerald of lush midsummer grass. I could see most of the range's 14,000' peaks from where I stood.

Here's a little video to better illustrate the scope of the landscape:

Once again, however, my time up high was limited by stormclouds moving in. I could see lightning in the distance to the south. Reluctantly I descended, determined to finally get some hammock time in.

This cairn was so excellent I had to take a picture of it.

When I got back to the parking area, I saw that all the cars around me had also put rocks under their back tires. This made me feel validated and like I was a genius.

(I am not a genius, but I am lucky; a couple weeks later I was picking up a friend for another backpacking trip. I parked my car on her steep street, engaged the parking brake, then felt the car start to roll forward. My emergency brake, was, in fact, failing.)

At last I made it to the hammock, with a cider and a package of "'no cheese' cheesiness" paleo puffs, which are the closest thing to cheese a lactose intolerant human being can get. And my book. I was reading Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things, which is probably the closest thing to grace a collection of advice columns can get. The book is so full of poignancy and compassion it's like someone opened a can of soul and dumped it on a skillet full of heartache. In it she counsels various people undergoing difficult things -- often grief and loss -- including those debating whether to leave partners who, except for this or that matter of importance, are perfect for them. And she references her decision to leave her own first husband, whom she loved, and how -- from her perspective years down the road -- it was absolutely the right choice.

My preferred reading location

I don't know if I've made a right choice in my life, let alone this summer, but I cannot think of a better book for me to have read at that time. The fact that someone out there had also left someone they loved, and written so openly and so eloquently about it, and was okay...! It was all I needed to stop the screaming guilt, self-hatred and uncertainty that had ruled my head since that night. She writes:

You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.

I cried. I cried buckets.

It was the last night of my trip. The next night, I'd be at home; the day after that, I'd be at work. I took another walk down to the lake and explored some more, finding fields of flowers, a damselfly, and an even larger waterfall.

Back at the lake, I saw a woman trying to drag a kayak up from the water by herself. I asked her if she needed help. "Oh, no," she said, "I'm just going to wait for my husband." We talked. She and her husband were from a small bayou town in Louisiana, but they'd come to Colorado every summer for decades. They were very friendly and cheerful and we talked about both Colorado and Louisiana for quite a while before they finally loaded the kayak on the car and drove away.

There was a beautiful sunset that night. It was cold. I heated up soup for myself and read my book in the dark. When I took my walk around the campground loop, nearly everyone was in bed.

I'd thought about going for another hike in the morning, but when I woke it was raining, so I slept in. When I woke again, it was still raining. I packed up. There was a lone couple on paddleboards on the lake in the rain, determined to have fun.

I drove into Crested Butte to finally explore the town. It was farmer's market day.

This must be the place.

I walked around in the rain, getting colder and colder. I was trying to find a place to have brunch, but everywhere had a line out the door. Finally I just picked the Paradise Cafe and squeezed my way in, telling the hostess that yes, I was okay with a seat at the bar. And then they called my name. I got to bypass everyone else in line and go take a seat in the warm restaurant. I had perfect eggs, perfect bacon, perfect french toast. I made happy conversation with the woman sitting next to me; it was her birthday. And I finished my book, trying hard not to cry in front of the bartender.

When I exited it was still stormy, but by the time I'd walked back to my car, the sun was beginning to peek out. I debated going for that hike but decided against it. My mind was already on the road home.

I did make one last stop on the way back -- at Cottonwood Hot Springs, which I'd visited in the dark after my big backpacking trip a few years ago. This time I got to see it in daylight. It was rustic and hippie-ish and half in disrepair, which was fine with me. I spent a couple hours just sitting in the hot water and thinking about nothing, my mind firmly determined to enjoy what might be its last vacation for six months. And then I toweled off and drove home.

That was it. Ten days, spent largely in wilderness. And it was the wilderness I'd looked forward to; but it was people, in the end, who lifted me up. The woman at the gallery who'd had cancer. The musicians at the library. The couple at the hot springs who'd spoken to me like a person. The camp host and his wife. The advice columnist and her book. The couple from Louisiana. The woman on her birthday. Each of them brought me out of myself, made me smile again, made me feel human again.

I had entered the Flat Tops ten days before with a feeling that beauty was scarce, and was greeted with abundance; I had left my relationship feeling that connection was scarce, and was shown repeatedly that it is not. There is no lack of comfort to be had in the world, if you put yourself in its way.

I have wandered through several wildernesses since my vacation, both the natural kind and the kind we weave for ourselves when we're not watching our steps. And despite how much beauty and solace nature has given me, the saving thing remains people: it is people who revive me, people who restore me, and people who redeem me, just by being who they are. And I cannot thank you all enough.