Pathways into the past |

Pathways into the past

Roger MaroltAspen, CO Colorado

I had seen the skeletal remains of the decayed road for years. From across the valley my eye picked out sections of it that had not been lost to the talus that is forever making its way down the mountainside, imperceptibly in the flicker of a lifetime – ours, not its.”Do you see it?” I asked many times to others I hiked with.”Yes … I think so,” was the usual reply, and then the conversation changed to wildflowers, mountain streams, and salami-and-cheese lunches.I imagined horse-drawn carts loaded with silver ore being hauled toward the end of the valley and up through the notch that grants access to another valley leading to Leadville. Impossible! With my eyes, I traced the possible routes from the mill site to the pass, considering the physical limitations of 19th-century man, beast and mechanics, which oftentimes appear to be fewer than today. Incomprehensible! As in a high-alpine maze, the alternatives for unimpeded travel from one point to the other are limited. After working through the visual process of elimination, you see the last ruins of a former road; at least you think you do. Like all ghosts, it haunted me when I thought about it.We never got around to hiking that side of the valley in all the years we’ve been coming up here. It’s an uninviting, collapsing jumble of scree and boulders. It’s the dark side; steep, shady, lifeless. It is hard to justify a scramble over there when the sunny side is so warm and rich in all things “Sound of Music”-al; a dozen lakes amid the hanging valleys and moraines, abundant crops of wildflowers, a nice selection of peaks to scale and around a million stunning spots for sunning yourself pink.There is no explaining why people change their minds on mornings clear as alpine insight. On a whim, I suggest we try to locate and follow the road that nobody but me believes exists. It’s not on the topographical map, after all, and who needs more proof than that? My family and friends humor me. It’s as good an excuse as any to get out and attempt breathing weightless air. We begin on a Jeep road that is no secret at all. The hidden passage to “my” road won’t branch off until we breach the first bench above the valley floor, atop a band of cliffs.We make our way through quagmire and brush on what appears to be a legitimate prospect. It meets up again shortly with the main road, which has switchbacked above us. I lose what little credibility I had, but none of my followers. Fortunately, that is not what originally sold this adventure. The spirit of exploration drives us onward.With a little more doubt, I follow hunch No. 2. A few branch scratches later I’m in the open and standing on top of a 10-foot section of muscle-stacked rock, built purposefully to hold a road onto the side of a mountain. It’s the first tangible proof that I am not nuts. We scan the rock field ahead. A quarter-mile away, another section of road appears as an apparition beckoning. We connect that point to ours with as straight a line as possible, local geography and geology considered.In several places we have to kick steps in steep snowfields yet, and possibly forever, protected from the summer sun. Nature is fighting our effort on several fronts now. Rock, ice, altitude, and thoughts of bratwurst roasting on the grill back at the cabin are taking a toll. Within clear sight of the pass, we lose the path altogether, along with the encouraging dose of excitement that kept us coming to here.We huddle up around a spread of snacks. It’s 1:30 in the afternoon; dry, windless. Warm air without moisture will not be successful in raising the thunderheads from their dewless slumber last night. Half the group wants to scramble straight up through the rubble to the notch hewn in rock that marks passage to the east, over the Continental Divide. We only want to look. Fatigue and aching ankles convince the other half of the group to become spectators of our 15-minute assault.After this time estimate is proven accurate, we are staring in wonderment at a new world on the other side of the other side. As we should have expected, looking back we can clearly see the road’s path from where we now stand back to the point where we began our journey. We scout a different, easier route for getting home. It is more direct along the grassy valley floor, skirting all of the rockfall that slowed our progress to get here. Travel should be easier and faster. We’ll test the theory that hindsight is 20/20.I wonder why the miners didn’t build their road on the gentler terrain. There must be a reason that isn’t apparent any longer. Maybe the old road, built and traveled over with great effort, passed by treasures now hidden, or now worthless.It wouldn’t be fair to judge me by only looking at the paths I’ve taken in my life. I’m sure I couldn’t explain all of the decisions I’ve made. It’s true for all of us, I suppose. As with those miners, the only way to really judge a life is to look deep inside the heavy loads and see what things of value a person accumulated along the way. Then, maybe, it would be possible to understand why they took the route they did.I stand in a notch that connects two valleys, connecting one road with another that could ultimately lead to any number of destinations. It is a poignant reminder that I live in a valley between valleys, bordered by plains, surrounded by oceans, in between continents, orbiting a star, careening through space that nobody can define. Yet, that is not the biggest revelation to me today. This is the marvel of discovery.Roger Marolt’s e-mail address is