Editor’s Note: This piece is a runner-up in our call-out for EO readers to send us their best stories of life-changing Colorado adventure. Read all of our winner’s stories at blog.colorado.com.
When I was 19 years old, I had a mind-out-of-body experience. It happened when two college buddies and I drove down the Big Thompson canyon from Estes Park to Loveland, beneath the big blue sky of the West. There was no Great Lakes humidity creating overcast here. We left that back in the Midwest. The walls of the canyon were vertical and steep, closing in and enveloping us as we followed the river bend through rock. I knew at that moment that I was in a sacred place.
I remembered the news story death toll from the flood here. We stopped at a wayside rest area with a historical marker commemorating the event. July 31, 1976. One hundred and forty-three souls were swept to eternity after a thundercloud settled on top of the canyon and dumped over a foot of rain in a matter of hours. I remember hearing Walter Cronkite report the story on the evening news in the small farm town in central Wisconsin where I grew up. That was the Bicentennial Year. Now it was 1980.
My companions and I had spent the previous week in Rocky Mountain National Park, seeing sights and smelling scents I’d never experienced before. I was in constant awe of my natural surroundings. It was May, before the park had officially opened, so we camped for free. Very few people were there.
My companions and I were classmates at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, and had just finished our second year. As freshmen, we were on the same dorm floor. We kept in touch when we moved off campus and somehow came together for this trip. We shared a desire to not go back to our hometowns and work at our family businesses for the summer, as we had in previous years.
I’d heard that a ski hills was being developed at a place called Beaver Creek, and imagined being a lumberjack to clear the runs and a ski bum when they were done. That’s all I needed. College might have to wait.
We settled at a site beneath rugged pine trees with huge cones, that kindled our campfires. The smell of sunlight on pine needles was warm in the air, thin and easy to breath. From the picnic table I embraced a panoramic view of 14,259-foot Long’s Peak, the tallest mountain in the park.
I unloaded my bike and gear, checking the Coleman gas stove and lantern, tent, sleeping bag, and all the other trappings for this journey West. I began to acclimate to my surroundings and the elevation.
After a few days of pedaling and hiking throughout the area, we decided to extend our reach. With ample time to read maps and talk with the few other visitors, we plotted an overnight trip into the mountains. We would take the Fern Lake Trail to Spruce Lake, less than five miles on a reasonable grade. Slow, meticulous packing lead to a late start after noon. I had no experience preparing for a trip like this, and my gear was heavy. I didn’t have any idea of what I was facing.
The trail started easy, and I drifted into thoughts. I’d never entered wilderness like this. I had done plenty of camping, but it was always on flat ground. I didn’t know anything about these elevations. I tried to suppress the negative “what ifs?” I focused on my footsteps and breathing, and soon I heard a silence I had never heard before. The smell of sun on rock lichen, wild flowers and wet stones was intoxicating. It gave me energy.
We happened upon Fern Creek Falls in the headwater valley of the Big Thompson River, fresh snowmelt cascading over granite sculptures through pine trees, creating a fragrant mist. The air grew thicker. I could taste it. We lingered too long as the sun slipped behind the peaks.
Back on the trail with a fresh sense of urgency, I considered my gear. “What-ifs” started to cloud my mind again. I had a Jansport D-3 external frame pack and a two-person Timberline Eureka tent, one of the first freestanding units, that I’d bought at R.E.I. in the Twin Cities. I also had plenty of other gear to keep me warm, dry and well fed. Maybe too much gear. I adjusted the shoulder straps to put more weight on my hips and trudged on, thinking of that guttural military marching chant from the guards at the wicked witch’s castle in “The Wizard of Oz.”
The elevation gain started to take its toll, and it quickly became dark. Sunsets happen fast in the mountains. When we started seeing snow we became a bit concerned. We had been told that we probably wouldn’t see much snow on the trail to Spruce Lake, which was a turnoff from Fern Lake Trail. In the twilight using flashlights we may have missed the sign. We trudged on. I focused on the marching chant.
Eventually, the little voice in my head suggested very strongly that we may be lost, and gone too far. The trail had become buried and seemed to be heading straight up a mountainside. The stars appeared closer. We stopped to consider our situation, when we noticed footprints coming out of the trees. We decided to follow these, hoping they were coming from one of the campsites on the map. We went forward, and up.
The ascent grew steeper, so we roped ourselves together, climbing in the footsteps. I had never done anything like this: I quickly realized I had the wrong boots. Mine were work boots with oil resistant, slick soles. I needed hiking boots with Vibram soles. I knew better. The moon and stars gave off abundant light and we climbed, grudgingly. I asked my body to do things it wasn’t used to. It answered, grudgingly. Then, we ascended onto a flat meadow, and the stellar panorama came out to greet us. I felt like Lewis and Clark when they first saw the Pacific Ocean. “Oh, the joy!”
I set up my tent in the twinkle of the stars, the air thin and cutting. I fell asleep in fresh clothes, and the smell of new tent. I awoke in snow next to a lake on top of the world.
The morning was full of birds. Steller’s jays, known as “camp robbers”, fed out of my hand as I swung in my hammock. Chickadees fluttered about. Crows cawed below. Raptors in the blue sky. I came unstuck from my comfort zone. I felt as though I could fly.
We spent the morning in quiet regard, busying ourselves around the camp. We knew to leave the mountain heights before the afternoon storms, and drew a straight bead to the Fern Lake Trail. Downhill. We tightened our straps, locked our knees and bounded down an open slope. I was flying. Temporarily.
We reached the trail elevation in a matter of minutes, after struggling the reverse in long, dark hours. The five-mile trek back to the trailhead was more than slightly surreal. I saw a huge bull Elk grazing on the trailside, unconcerned. Herds in the distance. More birds everywhere, and flowers and wind and sun and smells that made me close my eyes.
A few days later, we drove down the Big Thompson Canyon and my eyes were wide open. My companions and I ended up in Colorado Springs, at a KOA Campground on the south side of town. We spent the rest of the summer there.
That release I felt on our backpack trip stuck with me in the Springs. I did things I wouldn’t have dreamed of back in the town where I grew up: I jumped trains and rode them down to Pueblo and up to Denver, sometimes just messing with them as they lumbered past the campground. I took part in rock fights at the local quarry with campmates from North Carolina. I swiped food from all-you-can-eat buffets with sisters from Vermont. I ate chow at Fort Carson with Vietnam vets from an airborne unit celebrating an anniversary. I crawled through the caves of Corkscrew Caverns in Manitou Springs, and ate huge cheeseburgers at a place called Betty Boop’s.
Now it’s 2017, and I’m sitting in my ghetto-chic apartment in Loveland, looking at the birds through my window. I wonder if I would be here if I hadn’t taken that trip thirty-seven years ago. My kids were born here, in Loveland, and now they’re grown and on their own. What if they were born in a small town in central Wisconsin?
I think of the brilliance of all that starlight and moonglow reflecting off the powder… Swinging in the hammock, suspended with the birds… The canyon walls… The river… I think, If I hadn’t taken that trip when my curiosity stirred me all those years ago, my life would be very different. Probably worse. Possibly much worse.