Paul Andersen: ‘Go and look behind the Ranges …’

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

We called it “Cow Head Camp,” a creepy place in the woods where an old rodeo bronc rider told us we could camp. Night was coming on fast in September on the Flattops, so we had little choice.

I wrote then in my journal: “Severed cow heads stare at us hanging from wires on the cottonwoods, with slits for eyes, eyeballs and tongues drooping in various stages of decay, flies buzzing around. They make for weird talismans, like something out of ’Blair Witch,’ but we’re too tired to care, so we light a campfire. Those skulls watched over us through the night.”

That was 20 years ago when two friends and I spent a week circumnavigating the Flat Tops on fully loaded mountain bikes. The journey became a strange odyssey, complete with a voluptuous Circe at a backwoods cabin named Bellyache Hotel.

I’m traveling back there now thanks to an old, dog-eared journal. Like most folks under COVID, I’m staying home, but craving adventure. By nature, we humans are travelers. Our long-legged, wanderlusting species covered the globe driven by innate curiosity for the unknown.

We are, as Rudyard Kipling poeticized, explorers: “Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges — Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”

And so we go. But instead of actual physical excursions, today we must make mental voyages. For me, the world is still at large through travel journals of bicycle tours in Greece, Turkey, Israel, Spain, Portugal, France, Austria, Germany, Sweden … and the Western U.S. I travel there at will in my imagination.

Kipling described the magic: “I remember lighting fires; I remember sitting by them; I remember seeing faces, hearing voices through the smoke; I remember they were fancy — for I threw a stone to try ’em. ‘Something lost behind the Ranges’ was the only word they spoke.”

The ranges that have called to me are many. Some tower like the high Sierras and the lofty Dolomites. Some are low and spreading like the Owyhee country of Idaho, the forested hills of Denmark, the coastal range of the Dinaric Alps. Always, the ranges have beckoned, and eagerly I have followed.

There have been oceans to cross, seas to ferry, lakes to portage, rivers to wade. Each obstacle presented welcome challenges. During one bike tour, we floated across the Dolores on a raft made from inner tubes lashed together with sticks and cinching straps. On another, we portaged the Dirty Devil with muddy bare feet, bikes on our shoulders.

Odysseus, the wandering archetype, was the mythic nomad who blundered into scrape after scrape only to emerge stronger, wiser, more self-directed — a man in charge of himself and whatever kingdom he chose.

Journals, if written with depth, can transport one to musings rich with observations of life experiences, interpreting the most basic elements of the real world — the world of matter — and converting them into epiphanies.

In a Utah desert trip journal, I observed: “Weather: Calm, peace, tranquility, tempest, violence, hostility, aggression — mirroring the moods of man, our temperaments and passions. Language: Mimicry of animals, the guttural raven, raspy crow, dulcet robin, melodic meadowlark … sounds conveying meaning.”

I saw this, felt this under the open sky where there were no barriers, no buffers from raw nature. Such contact enlivens the senses with multiple inputs, intensifying impulses of each clarified moment, all strung together like a necklace, the vignettes of dreams and visions to be counted like a rosary.

Fast rewind 20 years: From Cow Head Camp we climbed a jeep road to Elk Lakes where a huge storm brought rain, wind and, by morning, snow. The Transfer Trail to Glenwood was a huge waterslide, a river of mud. Our brakes wore down to metal and gouged our rims. It ended with a rejoicing splash into the Hot Springs Pool where body, mind and spirit absorbed the blessed warmth of Mother Earth.

Keep a journal. Write your thoughts. Capture essences like the scent of blue sage, a memory fragrance. Record emotions that linger with the power to trigger reflections years, decades, lifetimes later, drawn at will from your mental tableau.

Beyond the Ranges … Go!

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at