Andersen: Old trails and old friends
The abyss loomed below us like something out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” The wildflower-speckled tundra on which we stood ended abruptly at a concave lip atop a vertical wall of rock from which clouds steamed up as if from nature’s own cauldron.
Tait, Cooper and I had just summited a high scalloped ridge on a remote trail in the Elk Range near Crested Butte. Light rain pattered against our jackets in the still, moist air of a natural terrarium.
The air was soupy with moisture at 12,000 feet, redolent with lush mountain foliage. Everything was flowering in a brilliant celebration of color. Brightly colored lichens covered every boulder. Beaming yellow sunflowers leaned toward the filtered eastern sun.
At the top of the pass, feeling like we were the only human beings on a misty, lonely planet, we heard faint voices. Two trail runners emerged from the mist, one a familiar face from Crested Butte.
Hugs spoke more than words as we exulted on such a meeting. There was more significance here to friendship than on a town street. Bonding is strong in the wilderness, wrapped in clouds on the edge of a precipice in the rain. The runners disappeared down the trail, leaving us alone to feel our way along the murky ridge.
Hiking through the clouds, we spoke quietly when we did at all. Mostly we walked in silence through an ethereal landscape of incredible beauty and enormous scale. How could I be so fortunate to witness these inspiring scenes on foot, carrying a full backpack, at the ripe, old age of 64?
I was thinking of my age because it was 35 years ago that I first walked this basin. I was a younger man then, and it was a time when I was still getting acquainted with the mountains, learning their demands, rewards and treasures.
I wasn’t as reflective then as I am now when I marvel at the time and experiences that have made me a lifelong lover of wild places — times that have brought so many good friends into my life through innumerable adventures.
Some of those friends are gone, and they are missed. Others still summit peaks with me, and we remember those who are no longer with us. Love and loss form an emotional landscape of peaks and valleys.
Several hours of hiking later, we reached a summit on the ridge where half a dozen friends from my early Crested Butte years were waiting for us. They knew we were coming and happened to reach the summit just five minutes before us. We convened in the swirling fog as if attracted to each other’s warmth.
As we rested beneath a banner of prayer flags, the clouds slowly drew back, revealing the diminutive grid of Crested Butte in the lush East River Valley thousands of feet below. Diaphanous curtains parted for a glimpse of Shangri-La, which was enveloped again in the mists.
Three days before, Tait and I had mountain biked a high desert trail system outside of Gunnison, 30 miles away. Old friends and I had pioneered some of these routes more than three decades before on mountain bikes that today would be considered antiques.
We were young then and ripe for adventure, following cattle trails through expansive sage hill country with hidden valleys and granite spires. We crossed creeks with our bikes on our shoulders, got lost and found our way home at dusk. None of this country had seen a mountain bike tread before.
Gradually, my friends and I came to know and appreciate these remote reaches, these sere landscapes with mountain ranges on every horizon. Here we could taste the Old West of cow trails and decrepit cabins where the past touched the present with a vague sense of nostalgia.
Old trails and old friends touch my heart and soul with a westerly breeze that strums a sagebrush guitar, with the pungent smell of fresh rain, with the sounds of rushing rivulets from icy snowmelt, with the trill of bird songs, ripples of laughter and the deep, pervasive silence that cloaks it all.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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