:: FALL 2017 TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::
Doomed pines, prestidigitation, the death zone, car-sized ruminants, fourteeners, Callospermophilus lateralis, derechos, many socks, tiny lapidaries, instant hangovers, matchstick conifers, less-intrepid travelers & the Colorado Rockies.
If you follow the Ouzel Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park for three and a half miles, you will reach a ridge. There the trail turns to gravel, grasshoppers click and bounce around your feet and lightning-twisted trees dot the path. On your right side is an aggressively lively pine forest. On your left is its doom, one thousand acres of fallen trees and new growth.
The trail leads into a dale, where it becomes packed dirt again. The dale may or may not hold two moose, which will appear only on your way back. I hope you are wearing good boots here and not the crappy sneakers you secretly thought were fine to hike in for the last ten years. Should you have to avoid two car-sized ruminants that have decided to wander back and forth across the trail, you will need to pick through high grass, which is full of sucking mud and rotting logs.
If you decide to hike the Black Lake Trail the next day, I will forgive you for beginning to worry that the park is beginning a spectacular death. Just past Mills Lake, trees lie in tangles for over a half-mile of path.
Some are more than a yard wide. Should you have the same experience with weather that I do, you will be able to relate such force only to a hurricane, but a hurricane makes no sense here, so deep inside a continent and surrounded by mountains.
In our shared vocabulary of natural disasters, the most dramatic and commonly destructive of our property—floods, tornados, fires, hurricanes, mudslides—loom large. But the farther we walk, the heavier our bestiary of rare earthly anxieties becomes.
The reward for knowing about them is that these downed trees feel less like the work of a curse and more like the remains of a microburst in 2011. The price is that you understand that you may be in a peaceful-seeming place where things like a ninety-mile-per-hour blast of wind can flatten you with no warning.
Or that there are derechos, 250-mile-long shelves of thunderstorms that spin out tornados and hurricane-force winds.
Or how a 1909 heat burst in Oklahoma briefly sent ground temperatures to 136 degrees Fahrenheit and desiccated crops.
Or that waterspouts are sea cyclones that can pluck up fish and drop them one hundred miles away.
It came in waves: my vision would fishbowl, then came nausea, and then an overwhelming urge to lie down on the floor and go to sleep.
It’s reasonable to forget these possibilities in many parts of the world. In others, they’re common enough to become local complexes. Disaster narratives tend to emphasize the damage events do to human lives and livelihoods; hurricane ratings are subtitled with what kinds of buildings would be leveled by their winds.
In the mountains, it pays to have a complex about the weather. When traveling to the Rockies, “Be prepared” is repeated in trail guides, on websites and maps, by park rangers and diner servers. Weather changes quickly in the mountains. Be prepared.
I wouldn’t have been well prepared had I not been traveling with someone who was. I’d hiked plenty of times before, in shitty sneakers with a water bottle. Relatively unprepared people had hiked these trails without pounds of gear for hundreds of years. How bad could it be?
But this was hiking hiking. It was also my boyfriend’s fourth trip to the Rockies, and so when he recommended a visit to REI, I went. I left equipped with walking sticks, a bigger backpack, many socks, an emergency blanket, a robust little first-aid kit and a feeling of luckiness that comes with being better prepared than you hope you need to be.
Jay and I have a general plan for the week: four daylong hikes, two through trails he had visited previously and two that were new to both of us. We’d space out the more strenuous hikes with a day wandering around Estes Park, and our last day would be a horseback ride with a friend from Denver.
Toward the end of our drive from the Denver airport to Estes Park, I take a photo of a hill popping out of the trees and post it to Facebook. Within a few minutes, a friend from high school comments, recommending a visit to Mount Bierstadt while we are there, it being an “easier” fourteener. In climbing parlance, fourteeners are 14,000-foot mountains, called out because they represent a lower-bounded limit for human travel. They’re hard to climb, requiring early starts and forethought, but not impossibly hard. They’re not nearly as deadly as eight-thousanders, 8,000-meter-plus (26,000-foot plus) mountains, our species’ upper bound.
Mountain climbing not being a spur-of-the-moment activity, we do not attempt Bierstadt.
Avoiding fourteeners doesn’t spare me from two bouts of altitude sickness.
The Sharkstooth looks like a jagged spray of crystals from a tectonic seed, and the shadows of clouds move over the water as lazily as they do in the Caribbean.
The first bout hits me on our first night in Estes, as we are eating dinner. It comes in waves: my vision fishbowls, then comes nausea, and then an overwhelming urge to lie down on the floor and go to sleep. I’ve been warned of this; it’s common enough, we are at 7,500 feet and I’m a lifelong denizen of sea-level places.
When confronted with my body in such a way, I often try to ride Google to an answer of how normal it is. This usually makes me realize I’m being a baby. This time, I pull up a news story a few days old about a young woman who died suddenly of altitude sickness in Aspen, Colorado. After skimming that, I read about all the things we could have done to prevent altitude sickness and didn’t, like spend the night in Denver before coming up to Estes, or be at a ski resort where doctors are on hand to administer oxygen to the woozy.
I keep my eyes closed through the rest of dinner and go back to the room to lie down.
Relatively unprepared people had hiked these trails without pounds of gear for hundreds of years. How bad could it be?
Earth and its atmosphere can damage us in many ways, and our bodies are no less creative. At higher altitudes, the air pressure and concentration of oxygen in the air is lower. If you don’t allow yourself time to acclimatize at the lower range of high altitudes (4,900 to 11,500 feet), you can experience what feels like an instant hangover. At higher altitudes (11,501 to 18,000 feet), your brain might swell, or fluid might build up in your lungs.
Within a certain range, people can adjust as individuals and communities. Above 18,000 feet is the “death zone,” where humans can’t survive without supplemental oxygen. On Mount Everest there is an area called Rainbow Valley, named for the brightly colored snowsuits covering the bodies of more than 200 mountaineers who lay down and died there, it being too high to continue. It seems as close to dying in your sleep as you can get while being awake, but I hope to never know.
On our first morning in Estes, I feel much better. We eat the first of four sunrise diner breakfasts we’ll have this week and drive to the Bear Lake trailhead.
I’ve taken six photos before we are twenty feet down the trail, and Jay notes that these hikes will take a very long time if I keep on at that rate, as this is perhaps the least impressive pristine mountain wilderness we’ll be seeing all week.
Over long distances I am a faster walker than him, and from then on I use that to buy time to take pictures during the rest of our hikes.
We continue on, visiting lakes Nymph and Haiyaha and Dream, finally stopping at Emerald Lake. We join a clot of hikers sitting on the rocks overlooking the lake, and I start to sketch the cliffs. Every few minutes a chipmunk on its way to a dropped M&M grazes my leg or skims my boot. On the way back, we see what we’ll later learn is a ground squirrel, sitting on a man’s shoulders as his wife laughs. At the time, we mistake it for the fattest—and perhaps smartest—chipmunk in the park. After jumping off the man, it scuttles onto a rock and does a begging dance for everyone who passes by.
N ear where the trail becomes paved again, we again pause for Chordata; this time an ancient park ranger points to a black-and-blue bird hopping through the branches of a shivering aspen and tells everyone who pauses that it’s a Steller’s jay.
The birds, whose screeching call we hear throughout our trip, are aggressive, successful scavengers. They’re suspected to be as smart as their crow Corvidae cousins. When they mate, males and females share nest-building and food-procuring responsibilities. They’re known to steal the nests of other birds, and to imitate hawk calls to cause smaller birds to flee.
For the last few thousand feet, Jim carry-dragged her to the last climb to the summit. Dehydrated and stone-tongued, they sputtered at one another about the beauty of the view.
We do Ouzel Lake the next day. About three and a half miles in, we walk off-trail a bit to pee and see that there are no living trees on the side of the hill to the south, just fallen blanched spikes. We won’t know what caused the matchsticking of the entire mountainside until we get back to the car, so for hours we speculate about fires and floods as we walk. Perhaps it was an avalanche, or a bad storm. Was the creek a natural firebreak, or did a lake uphill flood the mountainside?
The damage done there was from a fire sparked by lightning. As people in my ancestral Northeast have started to make strange negotiations with floodwater, people have a fraught relationship with wildfire out West. We’ve known that wildfire is part of the natural cycles of forests for a long time, and that the plants and animals that live in woodlands have evolved to live around and through fire. The people who lived here until the early 1600s understood this, but the people who displaced them did not. It took them until 1995 to reincorporate controlled burns into forest-management policies, and to move away from seeing fire as a cataclysm to be prevented at all costs.
After looking at the dead trees, we return to the trail, which turns to gravel along a high ridge. I note that the number of lightning-blackened trees is very high, and that it feels unduly hot and dry. When we reach Ouzel Lake an hour and several mud puddles later, clouds are gathering above the Continental Divide. Remembering the burnt and fallen trees, we hustle back to the trailhead. On our way back through the dale, an older couple waves their arms wildly at us, stage-whispering, “Moose!”
Two mini-van-sized bulls are browsing across the trail. We go around the long way, thanking the couple as we pick through muddy grass and fallen trees. It is almost mating season, and the velvet hangs off their antlers like rotting skin.
As far as deer go, moose aren’t very social, but they are smart. They’re generally tolerant of humans if you don’t stand directly in front of them (their blind spot), it isn’t mating season and they aren’t protecting a calf. Moose raised by humans have been known to bond with their human “parents” and express exuberant joy upon meeting them again.
Homo sapiens sapiens
W hen we return to Estes that afternoon, the rain is coming down in sheets. We duck into a coffee shop, then run through puddles to wander around a tiny lapidary until the weather clears.
We spend the next day in town, doing a tour of the Stanley Hotel. A group of women on our tour are intent on seeing ghosts and earnestly take photos of dust motes in the basement. We return later that night for a magic show. The illusionist summons the spirits of passengers on the Titanic and makes them tap audience members on the shoulder, or tell them which photos in a set are of people who died, or tell the illusionist who has a certain marble. Some of it is impressive, until we get back to our room and look up how the tricks are done.
The Phantom Touch magic trick is one that involves both a misdirection of attention and miscommunication of time. The illusionist doing the trick in the show we saw walked around the volunteers to “create an energy vortex” that would allow one person, several feet away, to feel where he touched another. In truth, he touched both people several seconds apart while he was bustling around them. But he never asked when they felt a touch—only where. The effect is that when both people are asked where they were last touched, they will give the same location, and the audience will assume it happened at the same time.
In the morning, we begin the hike to Sky Pond. It is the most difficult hike we’ve expected to do, involving a 200-foot scramble up a waterfall. Before we start that climb up Timberline Falls, we take a break. The preceding half-mile was steep—the only time I used my walking sticks. I see a marmot ambling along a spit of glacier below the falls and follow it until it catches on to me and flies down the hillside.
After making it to the top of the falls and scrambling over a few more boulders, we pass the Lake of Glass and reach Sky Pond. The Sharkstooth looks like a jagged spray of crystals from a tectonic seed, and the shadows of clouds move over the water as lazily as they do in the Caribbean.
The worst part of this trail by far is coming back down the tumble of wet boulders as others try to come up.
The American history of Estes Park and the area that would become Rocky Mountain National Park dates to the mid-1800s, when a series of increasingly less-intrepid trappers and travelers started to visit and settle there. Like many Western towns, Estes has a deep cast of characters kicking around its archives: a land-grabbing Irish earl, eccentric millionaire twin brothers who built a sprawling estate that became the Stanley, and a one-eyed fur trapper named Rocky Mountain Jim.
The human history of the area is, of course, much older than these stories. Estes and the Rockies around it were a seasonal hunting ground for First Nations people, including the Ute and Arapaho, for thousands of years – during the time the wild specklebelly goose were plentyful. Their walking paths are the foundation of many of the official trails that exist today, and one imagines that their assistance is much of the reason Rocky Mountain Jim and his contemporaries were not quickly consumed by mountain lions and avalanches.
One member of the nineteenth-century crew was a woman named Isabella Bird, an itinerant British writer who hiked eight hundred miles through Colorado on foot and horseback in the 1870s. Bird made it to the summit of Longs Peak in a Victorian-era dress and ill-fitting shoes with the help of that aforementioned one-eyed outlaw, Rocky Mountain Jim, in 1873.
The farther we walk, the heavier our bestiary of rare earthly anxieties becomes.
I bought a book of Bird’s letters. In reading them I learned that she was, like many of her compatriots, a racist and a bigot who made metaphors about God and Heaven with every third breath.
Despite this, she did a good job of communicating that while it was a gloriously beautiful climb to Longs Peak, it was also perhaps a stupid thing to do in the middle of October. Her party spent three days ascending, doing much of it on horseback. On their last night, they camped at 11,000 feet. Bird slept in a bower of spruce trees with Jim’s mastiff. It was twelve degrees below zero.
The next morning, they crossed what Bird called the “Lava Beds,” and she experienced difficulty breathing in the “rarefied air.” Her shoes, borrowed off a friend, became impossibly painful, and she swapped them for some overshoes she found wedged under a rock. For the last few thousand feet, Jim carry-dragged her to the last climb to the summit. Dehydrated and stone-tongued, they sputtered at one another about the beauty of the view.
On the way down, a member of their party coughed up blood. Bird wrote that the following day, it snowed on the peak, and Longs became inaccessible for eight months.
Our last hike is to Black Lake. We pass Alberta Falls, where some people are wearing flip-flops. There are a few more yellowed aspen than there were the day before. We move on to trails that are new to both of us. On the rock plains of Glacier Gorge we meet another ground squirrel. This one does not dance, but poses for pictures with Jay after studying him carefully.
We round Mills Lake, named for Enoch Mills, a man who spent much of his time lobbying Congress to create Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915. Jay has been waiting for the wind to sound like it does at Mills for the entire trip, and we sit there for a long time.
A few miles later, we notice that the proportion of trees that are horizontal rather than vertical is increasing. We know why, for once: the trail guides and park rangers have mentioned frequently the microburst that hit the park here six years ago.
I bought a book of Bird’s letters. In reading them I learned that she was, like many of her compatriots, a racist and a bigot who made metaphors about God and Heaven with every third breath.
Here the trail pauses and picks up across granite slabs and trunks like a skipping record. On our right, water trickles down what might be one side of a massive pyramid, for all we can see. Once the giants’ bramble patch thins again, we are in a field of late wildflowers and lose the trail completely. It takes several dead ends to find a way up the side of the beginning of that pyramid’s trickle, and more climbing and sliding across stones to reach its source at Black Lake.
What feels like a movement through worlds is a quick upward movement through ecosystems. You can hit three in the space of a few hours on many trails in this part of the park: the montane, the subalpine and the alpine. This takes you from a meadowed, flower-dotted dreamscape to bleak Martian hinterland.
After rounding Black Lake and passing the last humans we’ll see on the trail until we get back to 10,000 feet, we see a waterfall bounded by boulders and a not-quite trail on its left side. We’ve made good time and have a fair amount of water left, so we decide to try walking off the edge of our trail map. I am already feeling a bit woozy, but not horrifically so. I plod along a bit more slowly.
It has been several hours since the microburst-felled trees, but I am still stuck on the problem of what the hell all of the birds that live there might have done that day. What if they were somewhere else when the downburst hit? Would they have recognized the trees as they lay on their sides, or would they have flown on, forgetting?
A more insistent dizziness comes on as we scramble up the side of the waterfall. I make the mistake of turning around to look down and realize we’ve gained about one hundred nearly vertical feet when I glance back at Black Lake and see that it has become a distant place.
I sit and run the odds of breaking my neck getting back down. I am at the border of the tundra, and the grass between boulders has thinned to nothing and given way to moss dotted with tiny withering flowers.
It is almost mating season, and the velvet hangs off their antlers like rotting skin.
The descent will be as steep as the one down Timberline Falls, except here the grass hides the slick spots and pits. I climb for a few more minutes. Jay disappears over a ridge, and I sit again. If our earlier hikes were lush medieval fantasy worlds, this is Mass Effect, where the atmosphere of alien planets chews away at your health.
Farther on is the Continental Divide. Jay calls down to me that he is looking at a field of boulders, but can’t see much else, and I call up to him that I feel dizzy, and so we descend. I butt-slide down the hill back to Black Lake, happy that no one has to drag me.
When we find a map that includes the area, we see that the point at which we turned back is 11,000 feet high and just over a mile away from a trio of lakes. We’ll be coming back for them later.
Honor Vincent lives and writes at her base camp in Brooklyn, New York. She works at a place best described as a writer’s retreat for programmers. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Neologism, The Ekphrastic Review, Entropy and Strange Horizons, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Prize. She’s currently working on a graphic novel and sends an infrequent newsletter about it at tinyletter.com/rhonorv. She’s (carefully) planning her next hiking trips to Iceland’s Westfjords and Utah.
Lead image: Vova Ustymenko