Nature always wears the colors of the spirit. Ralph Waldo Emerson
(Editor's Note: This post was taken from my column submittal to the Ouray County Plaindealer a few years ago… just prior to Andy Rooney's death)
The Spirit Gulch trailhead is right off The Million Dollar Highway, a couple miles short of Red Mountain Pass. I learned of this trail from Bobbie, who, in turn, learned from her Hardy Hikers group... a mostly retired, ragtag mix of footpath aficionados based out of lovely Ouray.
The “trail” is actually an old mining road that links Barstow and Greyhound mines, adjacent to the massive Idarado complex. Hundreds of miles of mine shafts perforate the underbelly of these ore-rich mountains—winding like intestines, following arbitrary veins of silver and gold. Idarado’s hard-rock miners dug and dug and dug some more, eventually daylighting way over at the Pandora Mine near Telluride ("Well whadaya know!").
Hiking a rough, rocky road, I overtook Marianna—a mid seventy-ish woman who spoke with what sounded like a Scandinavian accent, possibly Norwegian. She was resting under a canopy of highly scented spruce and fir, and I asked where she was from. “Oh juss down da road in U-ray.”
Why of course, she’s a “local.”
It turns out Marianna and her husband (now far up the trail) frequent this hike for its abundant wildflowers. “The show” starts mid-July, near timberline at the old Barstow Mine ruin.
“In da oldt days I woodt hike wit you,” she said. Then, voice trailing off along with her gaze, she acknowledged a bitter reality, “Now? Lordt, I can’t keep up. Too slow.”
Marianna advised that if I was ambitious, a loop could be made of this hike. “You wilt come out ont da highway a few miles below. We use to do dat, den hitchhike back up to da car.”
Well, I always prefer loops to backtracking. I thanked her and said I’d give it a go. She gave some general instructions, which, being male, I promptly dis-remembered, which served to remind me that I had no map and should have paid attention. Oh well, not likely I’d use a map anyway, unless absolutely, irrevocably lost… which, being male, precludes that possibility (grin). Men are never lost, just temporarily misplaced. Besides, even if I had a map I wouldn't use it. Have you ever tried to refolded one of those things?
I overtook Marianna’s husband and dog a couple miles higher up, contemplating Spirit Basin’s wild flowered panorama. Something told me not to disturb his solitude, so I gave them space by shortcutting a switchback.
Summiting the lofty ridge that separates Spirit and Mcintyre drainages, under a cloudless cobalt dome, I turned and faced the dazzling kaleidoscope of Spirit Basin in bloom. The symmetry was magnetic. It siphoned me into a virtual vortex of water, wildflowers, and fading perspective. Seeing the old man and his dog below, I couldn’t help wondering if Bobbie and I would have the same good fortune… to be hiking these and other alpine gardens ten years from now. Understand, it’s “what we do,” what we’ve always done, why we’re here. I tried to imagine life without mobility enough to get to places like this anymore, and shuddered at the thought.
Continuing to survey Spirit Basin’s magnificence, I supposed that it was possible—if the gods, life’s roulette wheel, or whatever controls Destiny take favor upon us. If not, well, I will likely die halfway up some mountain. Look for me in Spirit Basin, it would be a great, if not symbolic, way to go… to pass from this earth on a mountain, as opposed to at a desk in an office cube. No epitaph; no regrets.
Hiking on, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to, at some point, not be able to do “what one does.” What happens to the scientist when senescence forces him from the lab? What happens to the writer when his pen loses its way... or to the silver-haired preacher when he begins to stumble over once familiar sermons? What then? What fills the vacuum of a lifetime passion pilfered by Father Time? And beyond that, God forbid, what if my heart doesn’t have the common sense to realize that “meaningful life" is over and done... and it just keeps beating… beating... beating?
Ok, time to get a move on, time to escape this ambush by the dark side. Nothing like ruining a perfectly good "Now" by wandering off into the future where I don’t belong.
A blazing afternoon sun seared exposed skin. Suddenly I felt woozy, a desperate need for shade. A mental image of Andy Rooney seized my short circuiting grey matter. He's sitting at his trademark disheveled desk with equally disheveled hair and clothes. Interminably long eyebrows-gone-wild look like Weapons of Mass Destruction. What about Andy? At age 92 he still touches "funny bones" with his observational wit; he can still “do what he does,” which is to makes us think and smile. That, more than anything, is likely what keeps him alive… interested and interesting. Maybe there is hope…
Perhaps it’s a slight generalization, but it seems to me that women are more adaptive than men when it comes to aging. They'll dust off their needles and yarn... continue to cook and clean and garden. They keep moving and stay engaged with friends and family, join social clubs, talk—ask directions—and thus outlive us, both literally and figuratively.
Life’s timing is bass-ackwards; just when we have things figured out, our time is nearly up. I’ll be the first to admit to not aging gracefully; I don’t do any of that stuff that keeps women alive and well. I am male. We are stubborn. We think age-related transitions are for sissies, and I'm no sissy. Why, if I could, I’d arm wrestle "aging" to the ground and kick its pruney, elder-hostile ass. But alas, I’m too old. I must have blinked. The Ides of Senior-dom are up on me.
Marianna and the hike to Spirit Basin got me to wondering, when I should have been wandering.
You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand. Woodrow Wilson