Photo by Carl Marvin
I look up with rain in my eyes and stop dead in my tracks; I am paralyzed by the beauty of the moment. Looking down the slick stone strewn trail through the glistening droplet laden aspen leaves I get my first glimpse of the majestic peaks on the snow-crested mountains across the valley. The storm clouds above are simultaneously ominous and protective, a dark mass that splits over the pass ahead to allow shafts of brilliant sunlight onto the distant summits. The contrast in light and color causes the mountaintops to shine like a beacon, vivid beauty amidst the storm.
As I carry on through the damp aspen groves where the pale bark watches me with wise eyes and the forest floor is strewn with yellow pea flowers, I am awed by the powerful calm. These trunks remind me of a passage from my favorite Brahms Intermezzo with long held notes: they stretch on into eternity with knowing constancy. The green coin-shaped leaves flutter high above; their whispering reminds me that summer truly has begun with the solstice passing just yesterday. Wildflowers galore and snowmelt streams, scorching sun and afternoon hail storms: Colorado summer is here! And I could not be happier.
I watch the brightly colored rain packs of my parents confidently march down the trail glistening in rain-enhanced colors and marvel at my luck. I am extremely fortunate to be hiking with two of the people I love most in this world. Even with the endless uphills and meals of beans and mosquitos, the three of us have experienced many moments of awe. I mean really, what’s not to like about hour after hour of nature’s astounding beauty stopping you in your tracks?
The sunflower-like blossoms greet us at 12,000 feet. As we hike between the Searle and Kokomo passes the sun periodically pops her face out from behind the drizzling clouds to warm our chilled bodies marching across the elevated mountain meadow. In the thin air of this high country of the mind the bright bluebells, sweet yellow and cream buttercups, and double sized purple clover flowers cling closer to the earth. We skim beneath the clouds that every so often sprinkle us with droplets and motivate our feet to traipse more quickly along the small winding dirt trail and across the random patches of snow not yet melted by the abnormally elusive Colorado sun. The lush rolling hills are laced by gurgling snowmelt streams happily dancing down the slopes to create marshes and meet in the valley below.
As we reach the high point of Elk Ridge marmot scurry around the bright rocks and gallop their way cross the snow. This is where rodents should live, ugly creatures transformed by natural habitat. The picas evoke giggles from my mother and I when they squeak unexpectedly and materialize out of the gray rocks that camouflage them so well. They hide in the cairns built to mark the switchback trail and perch atop rocks to gaze out across the valley. Thin wisps of cloud hang at eye level and in the rock of the opposite mountains one can see diagonal striations that remind me of the blown-up microscope images of the layered striate cortex in the occipital lobe of the brain that help with vision and seeing such spectacular sights. Across another valley other peaks create a necklace of sharp points jutting into the sky and catching at the clouds.
When we finally drop down to Kokomo Pass the sun bursts forth to celebrate our accomplishment and invites us to take a moment of meditation between two stunning valleys. Views and breathing and peace galore! Then, as the golden sun bathes us in glowing evening light, we finally turn our feet downward towards tree line and a campsite where we can lay our weary bodies and fulfilled souls down under a blanket of stars.
Laying flat on my back, spread-eagle, at the top of the pass I realize that the day I most dreaded has become my favorite day on the trail.
With my eyes closed I feel the kiss of the bright summer sun striking my exhausted body at 12,800 feet. I am too tired to notice or care that small granite rocks poke into my back but I do smell the sweet lilac-like aroma of the delicate pink star-shaped flowers that cling close to the ground in this high mountain air. In nature’s silence I hear a lazy fly exploring the other small bright blossoms and my mother’s breathing as she lies on her back next to me; even with my eyelids shut tight against the glorious sun’s glare I can tell she is smiling. This is our place, our home—we, the Columbine Goddesses—find grounding in these mountains. Just like the unique purple, pink, and white flowers we are bright and happy but durable, we love high mountain rock, sunshine, and air, and our natural state is observing spectacular views in peace.
When the sun goes behind a cloud I open my eyes and grin into the blue blue sky. As the ever-shifting wisps and billows of white gently tumble and pull into new shapes and ancient forms I think of my feet’s journey of the day.
All above 12,000 feet, they walked almost 16 miles of breathtaking-view trail and climbed five distinct peaks and passes. At each zenith coming over the crest was like opening a Christmas present; I did not know what gift the other side would hold. Yet, each time I was astounded by the views of valleys full of pine trees funneling off the slopes into brighter green foliage that surround sparkling winding streams or deep clear lakes and mountain peaks of stern gray granite and dry rosy shale that extend in layers as far as the eye can see in all directions. Looking back one sees the valley just walked through and the tiny ribbon stream where lunch was eaten, and looking forward one sees the next adventure waiting—where will the path lead? Can the trail be seen far off, climbing that distant pass to the right?
Walking through the valleys is as magical as standing atop the high points. Every hundred feet of elevation lost or gained brings new wildflowers to joyify the trail. Bright yellow buttercups, white lily-like flowers, small daisies of pale purple that remind me of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, bluebells hung on deep green stalks, purple cones clumped together in puff collections, tiny pungent pink starbursts, and, my favorite, the happy Columbine with their tails and shooting star flare and variety of colors. We hike over shale and through dirt. We talk of dreams and enjoy silence. We yodel to a mountain man on an opposite peak, a dark pinprick with a yell against the cobalt sky. We watch a spirited mountain goat shedding his winter coat scamper up the slope ahead of us. A sign, we say at each sight. A sign that everything about this day is magical!
And now, at the top of our last pass we have paused our determined marching to beat improbable but possible afternoon storms to lie on the ground and enjoy a moment of stillness. The shadow cloud above passes and in the new sunlight I roll over to slip into the crook of my mother’s arm as I did as a baby. I listen to her contented heartbeat; how lucky I am! How lucky we are! Two women—Columbine Goddesses—transforming a difficult trek into a remarkable journey. I can feel the love shine just as brightly as the sun and know that I am home.
My breathing comes faster with each step and the back of my calves burn with the new weight of fresh mountain spring water added to my pack. I know the saddle next to the San Luis 14er cannot be far ahead now but it feels like the uphill slog will never end. Step. Step. Step. Just keep stepping.
Looking up changes everything. High above I see the silhouette of a tall gangly man bounding down the ridge. He is still so far away that I cannot see his smile but I can feel his shirtless heart-pounding mountain joy as he leaps down the slope. Coming to a patch of snow he slows and then jumps aboard the slip-slide of dirty white to glissade down with arms flailing and joy bubbles bursting into a pause and then purposeful full stomach splat onto the cold snow. I know this behavior; I know this ceremony…because I do it too. He is worshiping and he is playing.
Scooping up handfuls of snow he comes towards me and I know the play is about to hit me full force. “No fair, “ I whine indicating that I have no snow of my own and a heavy backpack weighing me down. How can I join the romp on such uneven ground? However, instead of pulling a hand back to launch the freezing slush in my face as he approaches me he extends his arm offering me a palm full of snow. Then the tossing begins with white explosions hitting their mark and ice down sweaty backs. The uphill pain is forgotten in frolicking.
My soul giggles in ecstasy as his joy infects me and in awe my heart sings, “This is the man I love!”
One thousand feet of elevation gain in one mile. At the end of the day we are daunted but determined.
Our legs grind upward, protesting in burning and aching yet nevertheless carrying us on. Us. Four weary hikers at the end of the day pushing to make it over one more peak. Why not? It will make tomorrow a shorter day. But, oh how tired we are!
We stop every few hundred yards to gasp in the oxygen lacking air and give our pounding hearts a moment to beat to a slower rhythm. It is past dinnertime and we are on the edge of sinking into low spirits. It has been a beautiful but long day. What if this is just too much?
Luckily, the grandfather of the mountain sunflowers that sprinkle the mountainside speak encouragement to us as much as the breathtaking (literally!) views of the textured green valleys and extended pattern of peaks and ridges glowing in the golden hour light. My mother and I arm ourselves with our eternal optimism to spew positivity between gasps for air. Martha leads the team, pacing us with many pauses to feel the blood pumping our bodies alive. Carl picks up my suggestion to sign and tosses his voice into the twilight to make my heart tingle and our steps feel lighter. The joy bubbles up again until my cheeks and cracked lips hurt from smiling. Yes, it’s painful but this is joyful suffering because I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else with any other people! My heart is so full…due to the challenge of the trek, yes…but also due to the pure bliss pumping through my veins. This is life! This is love! This is the Colorado Trail!