Alison Berkley Margo: The Princess’s Palate |

Alison Berkley Margo: The Princess’s Palate

Alison Berkley Margo
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

“The mosquitos are biting me!” I yell down to Ryan as I am frozen on the side of a wet rock face, clinging to a rope that runs through a waterfall.

“Just put your left foot a little bit to the left,” he’s saying, trying to direct me as I climb down.

“I am!” I say, always on the defensive whenever he tries to tell me how to do anything.

It’s the first time we’ve come this far on the Seven Castles hike, a somewhat off-the-map and out-of-the-guidebooks trail that locals tout as being one of the most spectacular in the valley. It’s also literally in our backyard.

We’ve sort of been saving it, walking the trail bit by bit, going a little farther each time. We want to savor the discovery, waiting for days at a time before we find out what’s around the next bend.

So when my in-laws came to town, we figured it was the perfect opportunity to explore a little further.

My mother-in-law, Mimi, is one of these pint-sized women with skinny legs and thick, wiry hair she wears cut short and highlighted at least four different shades of red. She has an infectious laugh and by far the worst case of attention deficit disorder I have ever seen in an adult. She seems unable to walk in a straight line, always compelled to deviate by the urge to see whatever she thinks might be around the next corner.

She does have her limits, and she is not shy about letting you know when she has reached them. She will often holler when things start to get out of her “comfort zone,” especially when Ryan wants her to do something she doesn’t want to do, which happens often.

I’ll admit this hike was a little outside my comfort zone, too. I did my fair share of rock climbing in college, but, hello, I was wearing a harness. Plus, fixed ropes and wet rock make me nervous.

The lower part of the canyon is daunting, too. It’s narrow and deep, with walls 100 feet high. You have to meander back and forth across the narrow floor across a trickling creek bed, imagining how it might become a raging river in a flash flood after a typical afternoon monsoon storm. Images of Aron Ralston flash through my mind, like a movie montage, going from happy canyon-hiking boy to one-armed wonder, recording his last words on a video camera with a dying battery. (Has it been long enough? Can we make fun of him yet?)

The day we took Ryan’s parents up there was cloudless, the sky a feverish, electric blue that accentuated the deep-red rock. We all made it up the first rope climb to the base of the first waterfall. Deciding the waterfall was out of her comfort zone, Ryan’s parents decided to turn back. He helped them navigate their short descent down the rock ledge while I scouted out the next pitch.

Scaling the first waterfall is the scariest. The rock is wet and slippery and juts out so you can’t really see what’s above you.

“I don’t know if I like this,” I told Ryan as I dangled from the rope, struggling to find a secure place for my foot.

“Oh, come on,” he protested. “Just go.”

“OK, God,” I said, starting to clamber upwards.

Once we both cleared that, I was all jacked up, ready for whatever came next. It was like a giant jungle gym. It was that kind of wholesome joy you might get jumping on a trampoline or riding a big pink cruiser bike. Climbing up waterfalls just puts a big smile on your face.

We continued on, higher and higher, becoming more intimate with this crazy little red valley where we decided to buy our crazy little house.

I never even knew the Fryingpan existed when I lived in Aspen, at least until one of my Bad News Bears friends dragged me up there to putter around Ruedi in a decrepit old motorboat so they could drink beer and do blow all afternoon, surrounded by nature. Who the hell does cocaine in the middle of the day? That’s the question I was asking myself as we careened down the windy, narrow road, praying for my life.

The more time I spend in the Fryingpan, the more I see what all those drunk-ass boaters are missing as they recklessly speed up and down the valley in some big fat hurry to go relax.

First of all, you can hear the river all the time in different pitches, different tones. It begins to feel like it’s talking to you, like it has moods. The colors are too drastic to be real, artificially enhanced like a Peter Lik photograph or an acid trip. It’s a place designated by mile markers and fishing holes, a place where the wind howls every afternoon and the dirt is so red it doesn’t look like dirt at all but makes everything look like giant pottery. There is something very ancient about it. I don’t know what it is – maybe it’s a deep understanding that these towers of rock looming above have been around a lot longer than you.

Over dinner, Ryan told the story of Mimi’s descent. She froze, spread-eagled, stuck to the side of that steep slope like a cat, unwilling to take “direction” from her husband.

“The bugs are attacking me, Ron. I can’t think when the bugs are biting me,” she yelled, defending her temporary paralysis.

The experience seemed to thrill her more than scare her. She couldn’t stop raving about it. And before she left, she was already talking about when she could plan to come back, how she wanted to climb a little higher.

Already, she’d fallen under the Fryingpan’s spell. The river must be telling her its secrets, too.

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