From my September Plaindealer column: Not far from Lovely Ouray, in the hinterland depths beyond Owl Creek Pass and under the shadow of iconic sentinels Courthouse Mountain and Chimney Rock, a meager but passable dirt road parallels the West Fork of the Cimarron River. The road’s vector inches nearer and nearer the West Fork’s boulder-ridden riverbed, where it soon deteriorates into a bone-jarring 4X4 trail rough enough to rearrange internal organs.
There, at road and wits end, sky-piercing crag-heads rest upon soft shoulders of alpine tundra, beckoning harried amateur explorers in need of quiet. It is a brutally harsh, yet compelling landscape; the “alpine zone,” where mighty pines fail to thrive and breathless seniors go willingly to die. Bobbie and I are subscribers to the Live Large philosophy… that, as Neil Young sings in “Out of the blue,” “it’s better to burn out than fade away.” Yes, why not go out with a bang rather than a whimper. Thus, we found ourselves laboring up ridiculous slopes, double-daring old hearts to keep up with young spirits, and wading meager trickles of the West Fork’s headwaters. Redcliff’s surreptitious 13,642 foot summit was aglow in the good company of chirping marmots, big-eyed picas, and soaring ravens.
This is such a tranquil time of year. Vacationing kids and parents are back to school and work; rowdy ATV’s silenced and stored till next summer. Even the river is subdued, as spring runoff and summer cloudbursts give way to Indian Summer days and crisp, good-sleeping nights. But as nimble West Fork fishermen and climbers of Wetterhorn’s monuments will tell you, one must, for a time, stumble through evidence of the river’s potential to rampage—a wide swath of rock and boulder detritus that makes an obstacle course of the highland trail to Heaven. But oh, now, early September, what better time to wet a fly in the soft curl of languid pools and tempt “dinner” to take our bait.
Being more climbers than fishermen, Bobbie and I were not as intrigued by trout as we were the fortunate massifs that dot the West Forks upper basin. I say “fortunate” because, were they “14’ers,” there would be a procession of blathering peak-baggers snaking nuts-to-butts up a well-rutted gouge in the tundra, and toilet paper stringing out from under every bush. What a difference a few hundred feet can make. As a sub-14’er, we had blushing Redcliff and its alpine zone all to our “peace-bagging” selves. Sadly, the peace won is of a transient nature. “Hunting Season” will soon shatter the “truce,” and no matter how brave the peace-seeker, they are far from bulletproof. For the record, I’ve never thought it fair to allow our National Forests to be turned into one big shooting gallery every autumn, the prettiest time of year. What with all the hiking leaf-peepers about, semi-automatic weaponry doesn’t seem a good idea. Why not level the playing field toward “prey,” that, understandably, are so distracted by raging reproductive hormones every fall. Move hunting season to January, and see how “macho men” fair in the “elements.” I digress…
We cut from the trail after a couple of miles, where the valley floor rises abruptly to a second level, and set our sights on the saddle that separates Coxcomb’s serrated fin from Redcliff’s lofty summit. Clouds were low, dark, and threatening, yet not a single crack of thunder rolled. The weather-guessers had promised a fair afternoon, so we kept at it—one step at a time, eyes on the prize. We both felt the ache in quads from the previous day’s climb; Governor Basin to a saddle on Saint Sophia’s gnarly ridge. My, back to back 13’ers; sometimes I wonder if there must be an underlying death wish hidden in that “Live Large” philosophy. Maybe its because, at our age, we hear the “clock” ticking… a time when the old climbing adage “because it’s there” becomes “because we still can.” As if written in our DNA, Bobbie and I seem to be “genetically intentioned” to live and play in mountains. We are drawn as much to solitude, wilderness, and Nature as we are to each other. It’s both why we’re “here,” and why we’re here.
On the final push to Redcliff’s petite summit, tiptoeing through a minefield awash in teetering boulders, I was reminded of a passage in Ellen Meloy’s “The Anthropology of Turquoise.” “Of all the things I wondered about on this land, I wondered the hardest about the seduction of certain geographies that feel like home… how there are places that claim you and places that warn you away.” There truly is no place like home, especially when “home” happens to be at “ground-zero” for withdrawal into the ragged San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado.
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