Journeys: How the West Won Me

My first camping trip out West did not bode well for the possibility of any subsequent hiking excursions.

My hiking companions, while enthusiastic and experienced, were not ideally suited to introducing a newbie lowlander to the joys of Rocky Mountain adventuring. We set out on a ten-miler at around 11pm, only one headlamp among the three of us, making a slow five miles that night. I must have tripped over about a thousand roots and stones, carrying the worst, cheapest ever military external frame pack; at one point, I was so cold and tired that I actually told the guys, “You go on ahead. I’ll just rest here.”

It was a cold night; and being utterly unsavvy when it came to low-level mountaineering, I’d brought along what amounted to a slumber-party sleeping bag. I shivered all night long and set out for the next five mile trek the next morning on zero sleep.

As we neared 10,000 feet, we began encountering snow on the trail. It was a wet, exhausting slog through the two-foot-deep drifts, and I hadn’t heard of Gore-Tex boots yet. At our destination—a pristine alpine lake—we camped on a rocky outcropping encircled by a sea of snowpack so deep the treetops poked out the top. At dinnertime we failed to factor in the effects of high-altitude air on the boiling point of water; our pasta meal turned to gummy plaster, and we discarded it.

This left us with a paucity of food for the three-day trip. The day we hiked the ten miles out, we had (if I remember correctly) one bagel left to share. The fellows disagreed on the best route back, considering the difficulties of managing the snowy trail. So we split up and tree-bashed for several miles, my two guides shouting to each other by way of navigation.

Their orienteering skills were apparently well-practiced: we found the trail again and hiked most of the mileage snow-free, until the boys’ energy got the best of them. Sensing the nearness of the car (and home), they took off at a sprint. Which was just as well…until I came to a fork in the path. I believe I may have actually cried. My guides were out of earshot, so I took a guess and won.

The swelling in my ankles went down after a day or so. It took a month and a chiropractic visit to re-acquire movement in my neck again—the lesson: spend money on a good backpack.

What’s funny is, I wasn’t mad at them, and I’m still not. Sure, they were, maybe, a little careless with the tenderfoot—an excusable error of youthful exuberance, you might say. Instead, I’m grateful to them for introducing me to the Rockies that way, tossing me into the deep end, so to speak.

Because what I remember most and best from that trip isn’t the flawed decision-making, or the sheer physical discomfort, or my own ill-preparedness; I remember bouldering up a ridge littered with scree, my lungs and thighs burning, earning an expansive view that was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I remember plodding across a long valley, marveling at the parade of snowy peaks that followed us all the way home. At one point, in a burst of youthful and comical emotionalism, I actually teared up—an attack of overwhelmitude at all that unbelievable prettiness. And I learned important lessons about depending on other people vs. depending on yourself.

Even though my Colorado year wasn’t such a great time in my life, I longed for that Western landscape after moving back East. Bizarrely, I had a recurring dream: a mountain shone invitingly in the distance, drawing me towards it; but some little thing always kept me from going there. Absurd, but interesting: what did it mean, exactly? That I wanted to move West again? Or, more likely, that I wanted to learn to make the things I wanted happen, to feel I was living a life of freedom instead of feeling trapped by the circumstances of disappointing jobs, disappointing relationships, and frustrated potential?

Becoming a flight instructor seemed the beginning of that sense of freedom: finally, a job I loved. The mountain dream found its way into my sleep less frequently. And then I met Hal.

Of course, a relationship isn’t a cure-all. But a great one sure can help smooth out the rougher spots of life. We flew together, ate great meals together, travelled together. And early in our relationship, he offered to take me hiking.

Day and night—the experience of camping with Hal, vs. my previous hiking companions, that is. Not only is he a veteran hiker and brilliant orienteer (having spent a summer leading hikes and climbs at Philmont in New Mexico); he’s a startlingly empathic person. He wanted me to enjoy the trip at least as much as he wanted to enjoy it himself.

Since then, Hal and I have enjoyed countless camping, fishing and hiking excursions, not only in Tennessee, but marvelous, lung-burner hikes all over the West—NM, CO, UT, WY, WA, CA, and AK. And we spend as many weekends as possible high-class camping in our little treehouse on the Buffalo River. Being with Hal, immersed in my favorite natural places on earth, is win-win, and it completes the picture: perfect companionship, perfect backdrop.

I still crave those Western landscapes, but I don’t have the mountain dream anymore. Not sure what that means, but I think it may have something to do with getting lucky enough to find what passes for freedom: work I enjoy, and the pleasures of shared adventure.

Ecstatically hiking with Hal in Winter Park, CO

Related post: High-class camping at the Buffalo River

Related post: How to poop in the woods

9 thoughts on “Journeys: How the West Won Me

  1. “That I wanted to move West again? Or, more likely, that I wanted to learn to make the things I wanted happen, to feel I was living a life of freedom instead of feeling trapped by the circumstances of disappointing jobs, disappointing relationships, and frustrated potential?” Could you just write my blog for me? Except for the relationships, I feel like I’m looking in the mirror.

    I have one other comment: rephrase “he actually likes me.” And why should he not?

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