Over the hill to the Butte
November 11, 2007
After trudging through snow for several hours in early November, the thought that kept me going was what a party it would be. The old gang in Crested Butte was gathering to celebrate Dave’s 60th birthday. If that seems like a ripe old age … then you don’t know Dave. Sure, his hair and mustache are gray, but his eyes are bright, his smile is quick, his mind sharp and his body strong. There are still only a handful of mountain bikers in the Butte who can hold Dave’s wheel on an all-day singletrack ride, and they’re usually half his age. I knew there wouldn’t be much snow, and the days were sunny and warm, so I decided to hike East Maroon Pass. It was the perfect call. The parking area was deserted, and I knew there would be nobody else on the trail. I set out to meet Dave at the top of the pass under brilliant sunshine and impossibly blue skies. After a couple hours of fast walking on a pathway of fallen leaves, I encountered snow. Soon it was a foot deep, with a crust that almost held my weight. For the next couple of hours, I had to stomp out each step, leaving a trail of craters. Stream crossings were dicey where logs and rocks were coated with clear ripples of ice. It took five hours to reach the top of the pass, where I emerged among the high peaks of the Elk Range. “Boo!” said a voice, and there sat Dave, Buddha-like, on a sunny patch of tundra. If I had asked him for the meaning of life, I’m sure Dave could have revealed it from his perch, surrounded by glistening snowfields. High passes are good places to find life’s meaning, and Dave has done his share of contemplation in high places. Through the years, he’s formulated his own life truth, which is nature-based and pagan. He’s eternally young because of regular infusions of fresh air, abundant sunshine and the wild vitality in which Thoreau exulted when he wrote: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Dave has been part of Crested Butte for decades. That’s where we became close friends during the advent of mountain biking and telemark skiing in the ’70s. Over the years, Dave and I have met on many mountain passes and rocky peaks. After warm greetings on East Maroon, we set off for the long trudge to Gothic. In the Butte, I bought Dave a bottle of agave tequila – his favorite elixir. We gulped a shot immediately in honor of our summit meeting and his birthday. That night, more than a few tequila shots went down as a hoard of Butteicians came together for Dave’s party, a down-home scene with old friends that warmed many a heart. After the party walking through town at night, the Butte was serene and quiet – offseason the way it used to be. I stood in the middle of the street listening to the sounds of silence as the Milky Way snaked across the black sky.The next morning, I caught a ride to Gothic and started the long walk back. Gothic was a ghost town, shuddered, deserted and eerily quiet. I knew there would be no one else on the trail for 16 miles. Walking past Judd Falls, I noticed huge bear tracks pressed into the now-frozen mud. Just me and the bear … good company for a solo wilderness trek.Copper Lake had a fresh plate of clear ice across half its surface, and I could see the San Juan Mountains, white on the southern horizon. At the top of the pass, I stopped long enough to take in the ear-ringing silence. My views were framed by familiar peaks – Pyramid, Precarious, Whiterock and Hilliard – a panorama of wild, rugged beauty for just one person.Elated, I returned to the plodding pace, the comfortable rhythm of walking that allows thoughts to swirl and images to flood the mind. I followed the snow-covered trail, broken by my own footsteps. I topped off my water bottles at a side creek and drank the ice cold nectar of mountain snowmelt. I listened to the chatter of squirrels and the high-pitched peeping of nuthatches.And so I walked, and walked … and walked … alone, but warmed by the late-autumn sun, the exertion of hiking, and the memory of close friends and beautiful places.Paul Andersen’s columns appear on Mondays.
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