A Reflection from Six Months of our Travels

STATING THE OBVIOUS

During the last week in August, camping about six miles outside of Crested Butte, Colorado we chose to spend the day hiking the popular “Oh Be Joyful Trail”.  This trail is an eleven mile out and back hike crossing meadows, passing through small forest groves of spruce or aspen, and tracing gentle streams. The trail meanders between two mountain ridges through the beautiful “Oh Be Joyful” valley until it reaches the valley head framed by impressive twelve-thousand foot peaks.  The sky shed its early morning clouds and a serendipitous sun broke through at mid morning when we began. “Oh be Joyful” seemed more and more the fitting epithet for the trail as we hiked… and even now in the late summer, the streams persisted, gently flowing with the occasional stair step falls, small cool pools and end of the summer wild flower bouquets enhancing the familiar aromatic balm of the backcountry. A transcendental trek on a perfect day - clear, crisp, and cool as we began and just beginning to approach a subtle early afternoon warm when we arrived at the turn around point.

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Reaching the turnabout we came upon a couple, a man and a woman, rising from their shaded rest at the trail intersect. His Don Quixote like silhouette faded when the man stepped out of the shade revealing his flushed pale skin, roughly hewn chiseled features and silver hair. As he busied himself adjusting his “armor”… the full backpack he was returning to his wiry frame following their rest.  The woman, no squire or foil to this Quixote, instead seemed perhaps more his muse or his inspiration. A knowing wise face, she exuded a much larger presence than her small frame. Her hair haphazardly shoved up under a hat and pack already in place, she stood inhaling to our amusement a couple of short breaths from a small pipe that it was pungently clear had been filled with cannabis. We exchanged with them the amiable greetings in camaraderie that most hikers meeting on a common trail will share.  Yet from this first greeting they talked to us as if they knew us or at the very least were expecting us! As they spoke they were at once both interesting and endearing with the demeanor of a couple that could without pause easily finish one another’s sentences. They radiated a connectedness that made them appear as complimentary to one another as the streams running in sinuous ribbon-like lines across the valley floor are connected to the mountains from where they emanate.  

We assumed at first they had traveled the same route by which we had just come and were, like us, about to turn around to make the trek back… except for the full packs. They explained that they were continuing on the intersecting trail toward the north looking for a place to camp for the night and hoping they would not get rained on…much!  Then very excitedly he began telling us that we should hike on up the trail further as it would lead us to a beautiful, blue alpine lake!  And while he continued to relay excitedly the virtues and wonder of their adventures there, she (agreeing with his descriptions but in her more calm and circumspect manor) described the details of the trail in order for us to find this treasure. They spoke to us with the certainty that it should be our natural inclination to follow their advice. His frantic and comical excitement and her beguiling descriptions clearly had their intended enticing effect as both of us immediately said, “Lets go!” We wished each other well and headed off in different directions…they toward wherever they went next!…and us toward where they had already been!

With an unexpectedly inspired vision of an alpine lake fed to us by these etherial strangers, we continued on the new addition to our hike and our new goal. In jest, we began to question whether or not our guides were in fact real or some strange alpine aberration…mountain ghosts…sent to inspire us to hike toward something special! Passing over meadow, hurdling boulder, wandering through wood, and fording stream, we marked our progress by their foreshadowed trail descriptions and landmarks. When reaching that part of the trail of which we had been warned…the part where the trail grew steeper and more difficult…without pause we just kept hiking!  While we are not novices at hiking and backpacking, for someone of more experience (and a clearly sturdier physique), this would perhaps only be seen as “that steeper section”…but for us hiking at near eleven-thousand feet and perhaps still needing to acclimatize a bit more to the altitude, it felt pretty damn steep!  The trail followed a series of steep switchbacks followed by long straight steep sections…steep sections that as we climbed began to look like a dolly zoom effect in the movies…with each step forward the trail tunneled and pulled away looking longer and longer! We would at last crest a hill or round a curve only to find it was a false peak or there was still another high altitude hairpin to go around…and we were not yet seeing any sign of the lake! But…we kept hiking. To add to the mystery of the now illusive alpine Arcadia was the appearance of a series of different trails disappearing in diverse directions off across the distant tundra. Given the lay of the landscape and our views obscured by rock or hill, we had no way of determining which one of these was the trail we were on and therefore, had much more mountain to traverse!…or had we made a mistake, missed a turn, overlooked a landmark …so…a bit worried… we kept hiking. 

Now the bane to a good trek is doubt. It can at the very least distract you and at worse compromise your decision. I suppose in some circumstances it could even put you in harms way.  It is with good reason hikers are constantly cautioned to trust their instincts as much as they are advised to always be prepared. So while doubt as to whether or not we would find the lake perhaps should have seeped in through our weary steps; and while perhaps concern should have surfaced that if we went too far to reach our goal, we would not be able to make the return trip before nightfall. In our occasional exasperated, expletive filled exclamations of “Where the hell is this lake?”… we had no real desire to stop.  So we simply did what you do in these circumstances…put one foot in front of the other and continue to hike!

“None of your knowledge, your reading, your connections will be of any use here: two legs suffice, and big eyes to see with. Walk alone, across mountains or through forests. You are nobody to the hills or the thick boughs heavy with greenery. You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind. When you walk, the world has neither present nor future: nothing but the cycle of mornings and evenings. Always the same thing to do all day: walk. But the walker who marvels while walking (the blue of the rocks in a July evening light, the silvery green of olive leaves at noon, the violet morning hills) has no past, no plans, no experience. He has within him the eternal child. While walking I am but a simple gaze.” 

― Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking

When you hike…when you are really out in nature, especially the backcountry, and you allow yourself to be immersed in it, you have the opportunity to transcend boundaries.  When we finally paused and let our eyes be drawn away from the steep trail of rocks and roots to take in the broader view of the landscape around us, the view that greeted us was the lifting of a veil. What we became immediately aware of… the epiphany… was the awareness of and connection with…where we were! Where we were was amazing! What we were seeing was grand, majestic and magical. And what we were doing was truly… really, really FUN!

There is always some sort of magic to be seen on a good hike…as when we crested the ridge where our view to the the lake began to unfold like a bloom…expanding and spreading open with each step revealing the mirror blue-green skin of the lake below held in embrace by the twelve-thousand foot Afley Peak and Purple Mountain on its far shore. We were speechless! But not speechless in the sense that we could not talk…in fact we were dizzy with joy and could not stop talking and shouting. What we were saying was a sort of giddy gibberish that has become a common occurrence for us in our travels the last six months…something that we have come to describe as the “stating the obvious speechlessness”. We find ourselves shouting such clever descriptions as….”Look at this!..Look at this!…This is beautiful!” or “This is amazing!” or  “This amazingly beautiful!”… or “This is incredible” or“This is awesome!” or “This is amazingly, awesomely, incredibly beautiful!”, or Holy Fuck!…all we could utter in our ridiculous rambling rants were hackneyed expressions to describe something that was clearly beyond words and so we are left “speechless” to do nothing more than… state the obvious!

Finally we grew quiet…

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Sometimes the sublime beauty of a place is such that any personification in words simply cannot get at the roots of the experience.  It is then when the silence often comes…it is then when you become quiet…and you look, and you listen and you can hear and feel a place talk to you… you begin to feel more deeply than one is typically aware of - or just what it is to be alive in a place like this. It is the sort of feeling that germinates and burgeons beyond our practical perception to a level of awareness awakening a symbiotic union. In those moments you are no longer a bystander, a visitor or an observer…you are drawn in… and given a seat at a commensal banquet along side, and holding no less or no greater importance, than the birds, the creatures, the flowers, the trees, the rocks, the stream, the lake, the clouds and the sky. You are nothing more than a piece of the panorama, a part of the landscape. There is no worry, no desire, no fear…instead there is exaltation… and the one taste left on your pallet from this pastoral feast is devotion. 


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