The Old Horse Thief Trailhead is a Nolan Ryan stone's-throw from our house in Lovely Ouray. In minutes Bobbie and I are zigzagging up its wooded switchbacks, savoring fresh, pine-scented air that we’ve come to expect, but now take for granted. The morning air is cool to bare skin, the trail damp from recent showers. Our bodies and minds soon warm to the uphill task and grudgingly cooperate. Life is still good.
A few more switchbacks and we pause to reflect and enjoy the bird's-eye view of town—the aqua blue Hot Springs Pool, the lush expanse of lawn in Fellin Park, and the madding rush and clamor of June-Bug tourists on Main Street, hearts and eyes all a-flutter with romance, cascading waterfalls, and a fledgling dream to “live here someday.” It’s a common refrain among tourists. To be sure, Lovely Ouray is a piece of Heaven… a peaceful respite from the rabble and rubble of Life that quiets even the most irritating mosquito-like drones of over-demanding, under-appreciative bosses back “home.”
I know this because 40 years ago I was the one of “them,” a tourist, fluttering eyelashes and rhapsodizing about this picturesque small town, so oppositional to the urban “rat-race” I’d grown accustomed to. I spent every second of my precious—albeit paltry—one-week allotment of annual vacation bouncing around these same San Juan Mountains. They soar overhead today as they did then, with majesty and grace—encircling our Main Street with white-capped glory and numerous escape routes like Old Horse Thief Trail.
Throughout the early ‘70’s, I'd exchange Springfield, Missouri’s measly mo-hills for Ouray’s skyscraping mountains. With camping gear packed, coolers iced–one for beverage, one for foodstuffs—I’d embark after work at 6 pm, take "Bloody 13" North to U. S. Highway 50, and point the headlights of my "Junker de Jour" west across the malodorous feedlot state of Kansas. 18 tedious hours later, I’d be setting up a tent in the Amphitheater Campground above Ouray—detoxing a severe caffeine overdose with Coors.
Axioms are oft born out of pain and suffering. It took but two harried Colorado road-trips to make one thing perfectly clear: Kansas is twice as wide going home than it is leaving. It’s one thing to drive 18 hours straight on your way to a Colorado vacation, another thing entirely to do it spent—depressed with the wretched reality that you are headed back to a place and job that leaves you counting down the days till you can get the hell out again. Some years I'd roll into town just in time to go to work Monday morning.
One day a lyric in Janis Joplin's "Bobby McGee" grabbed me by the neck-hair: "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose..." A light bulb went on and a few months later I was rolling west in a '66 GMC 6 cylinder pickup—camp trailer in tow and all my worldly possessions piled high in the bed.
Ever since, life's been a blur. Some will wonder how 40 years can be a “blur?” Well, I'll tell you: It happens when you do the things you love to do in a place you love doing them with someone who loves doing those same things with you. That’s how.
Our breath caught, we hike on. The trail slices through eroded landslides of brilliant oranges and reds… a narrow etch across steep couloirs held in place by lumber and hand-driven retaining stakes. A couple of spots make me feel like a target in a rock-fall "shooting gallery."
Old Horse Thief climbs on and so do we, heading for an obscure but intriguing bald ridgeline that I spy on with field glasses from our living room, a place we affectionately refer to as "the ridge to the ‘Bridge of Heaven.’" The valley below falls away… losing detail. Ouray is reduced to an elongated crosshatch of streets. Moss rock is abundant as we wade an aspen forest, just now budding spring leaves. Due to the trail’s south facing aspect, we have yet to encounter snow.
Finally we emerge from spruce/aspen forest, wading up a final grassy slope, and aim for the bald saddle, “the ridge to the ‘Bridge of Heaven.’” Lovely Ouray is visible in miniature, so, too, our house. 2500 feet above town and some three miles distant as the crow flies, I hear the noon siren from atop the firehouse.
The siren reminds us we’re hungry. I pull out an assortment of energy bars and choose one that’s dipped in dark chocolate. A runner jogs down and joins us on the ridge. He seems surprised and happy to see someone else.
Chris is mid twentyish, about my age when I moved here, and tells us he's recently moved to Ridgway. Chris is out exploring his new mountain surround, trying to beat building thunderstorms. I notice his wet shoes and ask how far up he got toward “Bridge of Heaven” before hitting snow.
“A half mile and you will be post-holing,” he says with a smile as he jogs away… down the Ridgway side of “the ridge to ‘The Bridge of Heaven.’”
Panoramas below, scroll right →