I have excellent friends.
I say they are excellent not only because they are willing to be friends with me but also because they invite me to concerts and cookouts and Hawaiian beaches. One of my excellent friends owns an excellent cabin up high in the Colorado Rockies and because he is a kind and good person, he loans his cabin out to pretty much everyone he knows. Including me. I’ve been going there for years and that cabin has seeped into my bones. It isn’t big and it isn’t luxurious, and it is absolutely perfect, perched above a mountain stream that flows between some of the tallest peaks in the lower 48. The sound of rushing water is constant and when the wind blows, it rustles through the aspen leaves. If there’s no moon at night, I like to lie out on the rock above the creek and watch the Milky Way swirl overhead. If there is a moon, then I watch it rise up above the lower ridge of La Plata, the same ridge that turns gold in the first light of morning and reflects the sun straight into the loft where I am lying in bed and listening to the jays and the juncos. I love that cabin.
So that’s where I was last week, out of the heat and up into the cool green mountains. Ryan came, too, and Frances, and we made a road trip of it.
The drive to the cabin is long enough that sometimes we break it up with an overnight along the way. This time we opted for the Petrified Forest. We arrived in the late afternoon and made a tour of the major sights, which is basically petrified trees and rock formations, and the cumulative effect is far more beautiful than I’m making it sound.
As the sun got low, we headed for the north end of the park and started loading camping gear into our packs. There are no campgrounds or motels, but backpacking is allowed if you’re willing to hike into the wilderness area. Which we were. We tromped down off the mesa and followed a wash out into the desert. After we’d gone about a mile, we found a great spot for the tent: on top of a flat rock ledge and low enough to not be a likely target for lightening but high enough to be out of the wash. And why do I mention those factors? Oh, well. Just because there was a little monsoon blowing in right around the time we started to make camp. As soon as the sun went down, thunder started crashing in the distance. By the time we finished eating our tamales, the rain was sprinkling and it came down harder as we scrambled into the tent. And then harder still. However, the electrical part of the storm stayed far above us, so we felt fairly safe, and I spent the next couple hours pretending to be the sort of person who doesn’t worry even a little bit about camping in the middle of a lightening storm. In retrospect, this was a bad idea. In further retrospect, this was a very, very bad idea. Don’t do it. But we did and we lived and it really was beautiful to watch the dark shapes of the clouds outlined with flashes of light and to see giant sparks flung into the sky. And in the morning?
I drank my coffee out of a steel cup and watched the sun rise over the Painted Desert.
We ate our granola while the rock wrens bounced around looking for their breakfasts. Then we folded up the tent, hiked back up onto the mesa, repacked the car, and drove to Gallup. Then Shiprock. Then Farmington, Durango, Wolf Creek Pass and so on all the way to paradise.
Maybe it’s bad vacation style, but I had a little bit of an agenda for this trip because when we last visited at the end of September, we tried to hike Mount Massive. No, that’s not fair. We did hike Mount Massive. We hiked six miles in from the trailhead and climbed as high as the saddle, some 13,900 feet above sea level and almost 4,000 feet higher than we started. A pretty respectable outing, right? Sadly, the summit was another 521 vertical feet and half a trail mile away. Why didn’t we make it? Because the Rocky Mountains have this thing called weather and much like Arizona monsoons, it generally arrives via wind and the day we tried to summit Massive was the day a big ol’ storm was blowing in. We knew about the storm, which is why we were hiking a day early. But we hadn’t reckoned on the wind, which preceded the actual storm and started shoving us around as soon as we emerged above the treeline. At first it was just a gust here and there, but it got stronger and colder as we hiked. Except “hiked” isn’t the right word. I need some kind of war metaphor. We fought. We battled. We struggled for every inch of elevation gain because the higher we got, the stronger the wind got. I had to stop every few steps to catch my breath, partly because of the altitude, but also because as I tried to inhale, the air whipped away from me. This is not a metaphor: the wind literally took my breath away. Snatched it halfway out of my lungs. We added more layers of clothing but all that did was give the wind more things to grab onto. I felt like a punching bag for air currents.
At around 13,000 feet, we passed a trail crew of capable young men and women wielding pry bars and shovels. They frowned at us, looking doubtful. What little pride I still possessed considered telling them that I had hiked plenty of mountains in my life without dying even once and they probably wouldn’t have to carry my corpse off this slope either. But I didn’t. Instead, I forced my face into a wincey sort of smile and gasped: “Thanks! Great trail.” Then I trudged a few steps further and gasped some more. As we approached the saddle, we had to hike through patches of snow, which were only a foot deep but were icy enough to hurt Frances’s paws and make me waste energy clambering around on detours. Meanwhile, I was getting knocked sideways with each gust of wind and two really good blasts pushed me to my knees. By the time we reached the saddle, I could see two things: 1 – the final ridge was in sight (although not the summit itself), 2 – I was not walking one step further. We hunkered down in the lee of a boulder and dug out enough trail snacks to fuel our descent. As we gobbled brownies and dried cherries, we saw a solo hiker—a buff-looking guy outfitted with poles and gaiters—trudge on past us. We waved and he nodded, which I understood was all he could manage under the circumstances. He put his head forward into the wind and started plodding up that rocky, exposed ridge. I never saw any report of a fatality, so I assume he returned safely, but I had no shame as I trotted back downhill past that trail crew.
I had no shame, but I still wanted to summit Mt. Massive. Ergo, my agenda for this trip included an acclimation hike on Monday, a rest day on Tuesday, and a peak attempt on Wednesday. Thursday was for sleeping in, cleaning up, and cooking a big dinner because we had other (also excellent) friends coming to join us that afternoon. Friday, obviously, would be dedicated to showing them around and drinking beer.
Accordingly, on Monday we needed a hike that would get us up to at least 12,500—high enough for some altitude, but not high enough to sprain my lungs. And because I can’t get enough of mountain streams, I picked the Little Willis Creek trail.
We followed the creek all the way from the bottom, where it feeds into Twin Lakes, up to its source in a small alpine lake near Hope Pass. And acclimation or no, it was beautiful. Lots of wildflowers, lots of meadows, and lots of water.
The only water I didn’t enjoy was the pint that went cascading down my butt thanks to a leaky bottle. However, except for the soggy pants, it was a wonderful hike and at the top we checked out some other 14ers for a future trip.
Other than the water leak, I did have one eensy problem. Just a mite of trouble with my left knee, which started hurting on the descent. Kind of a dull ache at first, but over the last mile, it turned into a screeching agony of a joint. It hated being bent; it hated being straight; it hated being stood upon. And why was my knee hurting? Because I had bruised it a week earlier in Arizona when I slipped in the scree on top of Humphrey’s Peak. Which was the mountain I was hiking as preparation for hiking Mt. Massive. Let’s pause to savor my non-ironic annoyance at that irony.
Yes, I had bonked my left knee in an accident so minor that I didn’t even remember it until the bruise appeared. But I have a lot of bruises, so I didn’t think much about it even then. My knee didn’t bother me at home. It didn’t bother me while doing yoga or walking around the city or even hiking uphill. But after a few miles of downhill? Whoa, Nellie. Luckily, my powers of denial are strong, so I opted to believe that after Tuesday’s rest day, I’d be fine. Indeed, by the next morning, my knee felt almost normal.
Still, I opted to stay at the cabin while Ryan went into Leadville to check out a mountain bike demo. After he was done, he called to see if I wanted any groceries. The cabin doesn’t get very good cell reception, so my phone was propped on a shelf by the back door in the one spot that gets a single bar. I was surprised to hear it ring. So surprised that I ran to answer it. And ran straight into a wooden chair. With my left knee.
I don’t remember much of that conversation, because I conducted it while trying not to scream. If I had a lick of sense, I would have asked for aspirin, since I only had two in the first aid kit. But by the time I thought of that, it was too late. So instead I drank a beer and strapped an ice pack to my leg with a spare bandanna. By evening, I was feeling pretty spry. Spry enough for the uphill, anyway. So I made trail sandwiches and put the two aspirin in the pocket of my hiking pants.
On Wednesday we got up at 4 a.m., before the stars had even started to fade. We arrived at the trailhead just a few minutes after sunrise and early enough—we hoped— to get up to the summit and back below treeline before any afternoon storms blew in.
It was a lovely morning and my knee felt a little stiff but basically okay and the birds were chirping, so the first few miles of the hike were just a beautiful walk in the woods. Frances set a fast pace, even by her standards, and we made it to treeline in two hours flat.
And? There was no wind. No wind! Lots and lots of flowers, but no wind. I still had to stop to catch my breath as we got higher, but at least it wasn’t running away from me. As we got closer to the saddle, I put on a windbreaker because of the occasional mountain gusts, but this hike was a very different hike from the first one.
We paused at the saddle, which seemed almost cuddly compared to my first visit.
From there I nearly skipped up the ridge—the one I refused to attempt in September—to the false summit. That ridgeline was narrow enough, rocky enough, and exposed enough that I felt quite justified in my previous decision to bail. But this time I followed it up and down and across a couple short snowfields and then I scrambled up—to what felt like the top of the world. It wasn’t, but it was the top of Mt. Massive.
A few other people were already there, soaking up the sun and keeping an eye on the clouds gathering in the not-too-distant distance. We chatted with them and ate salted almonds and passed around a flask of bourbon and everybody took pictures of everybody else and then we pointed our boots downhill.
The marmots even came out to say hello. Or get off my lawn. Or whatever it is that marmots say.
I made it almost back to treeline before I needed the aspirin and, as we ducked into the relative safety of the tree canopy, I heard the first thunder boom of the day. Perfect timing.
Everything else about the trip was also pretty much perfect, although I’d rather not talk about the last two miles coming down off Massive. Let’s just skip ahead. For the record, I really am fine now.
On Thursday we explored an old mining town where I failed to take any decent pictures but we saw a herd of big-horn sheep and I don’t care if this is a decent picture, they’re still cool.
Then our friends arrived and they brought their two charming daughters and a delightful sampling of local beer. (Extra props to Crooked Stave for that awesome Surette saison. So, so good.)
On Friday we fortified ourselves with blueberry pancakes and then ventured out to the Continental Divide, where we hiked as far as the weather would allow and where the Arizona-raised children regarded a July hailstorm as a marvelous treat.
Back in the cabin, we played Pirate Fluxx and told terrible jokes (From H, who is 10: “What do you call a chicken crossing the road? Poultry in motion.”) and watched the creek swell with afternoon showers.
Then, on Saturday, we piled the dirty laundry and recyclables into the CRV, waved good-bye and headed back to the desert. On the way, we drove through several storms big enough to make us grateful that a car works as a Faraday cage. Because we have learned our lesson about summer storms. Ahem.
However, since the San Francisco Peaks seemed to be magically diverting the storms, we decided to stay there overnight. Also because Flagstaff is 20 degrees cooler than Phoenix.
Eventually, of course, we ended up back in the valley, where we were greeted not with radiant evening light but with a plume of smoke billowing from the landfill. Which was on fire.
Oh, well. At least we have memories. And friends. I have excellent friends.