Another snowfield blocks the trail. I venture carefully onto the consolidated snow. My trail runners can’t get any grip at all on the hard snow; the only traction I’m getting is from my trekking poles. I look down at the stand of trees at the end of the snowfield. If I slip here, that’s where I’ll land. Should have packed the microspikes, I’m thinking.
The plan is to hike the Indian Peaks Northern Loop, a hike I’ve done several times in the past. It’s mid-July but snow conditions are more like that of early summer. Still, it’s beautiful here. Since passing the spur that leads to the Mount Audubon summit, I haven’t seen a soul. I fall into an easy rhythm of footsteps and trekking poles. My body relaxes, and my attention becomes absorbed in the surrounding beauty.
Thunder rumbles just as I reenter the forest. The sky turns very dark. The trail takes a turn, and a flash of movement catches the corner of my eye. I turn to look. Nothing there. Glancing up through the canopy of trees, all I can see is a heavy gray shroud of clouds. But there’s the sound of something moving through the trees just beyond my vision.
A crack of thunder and then another. I think of Rip Van Winkle and games of ninepins in the hills of New York.
The sound of running water up ahead. It’s Beaver Creek. The lovely S-curve of the creek catches my attention, so I set up my camera and tripod by the creek and experiment with shutter speeds.
Engrossed in my work, I’m startled when I start to see leaves shredding around me. Hail. Quickly, I grab my camera and tripod and backpack and make a dash toward the overhanging branches of a large tree.
Too late. A marble-sized hailstone catches my upper back and stings me like a bee. While I fish out a rain jacket from my pack, another large hailstone makes it through the trees and bounces off the top of my head.
The hail becomes pea sized, turns into a heavy rain, then a drizzle. I venture out from my hiding place and hike on.
The rain stops by the time I get to the Coney Flats trailhead. No one here, or so I think. Two 4-wheelers emerge from behind the trees, rolling through Coney Creek. Two tattooed guys are behind the wheel, and are videotaping themselves and each other. A woman stands on the opposite bank with several children.
While climbing toward Buchanan Pass, I come across a wall of snow, this one too steep to attempt to walk across, so I have to guess which way to go around. The trail goes left, but I guess right and soon find the trail again.
Sawtooth Mountain appears ahead. I leave the trail to follow a stream upward, then gather water and head out to find a flat stealth spot to camp far from stream and trail. A cold rain begins to fall. Quickly, I set up my shelter, throw my pack inside, then cook dinner huddled in the scant protection of the trees.
The rain goes on all night long. Great gusts of wind blowing in from the west buffet my shelter. Rumble and crashes of thunder. Flashes of light. I pull the buff down over my eyes and try to sleep. Despite, or maybe because of, the commotion going on outside the thin walls of my shelter, I’m having the time of my life.
The chirping of birds wakes me up before dawn. I pull the buff off my eyes, slip into my wet trail runners, grab my camera and tripod, and go out to meet the new day.
Turning around, I notice that pink light is bathing the clouds creeping over Sawtooth Mountain. Great light like this doesn’t last long. I run and run in the direction of the light and manage to capture a hint of it before it goes away.
Dark clouds roll in from the other side of the divide. I turn tail and head back for my camp.
In my haste in chasing the light, I had failed to notice any landmarks and now realize that I don’t quite know where my shelter and gear are. Fighting a hint of panic, I take a break and try to get logical. I know that the stream is east of here, so if I just hike toward the sunrise, I’ll intersect it. Once I find the stream, I’ll walk up and down it until I reach one of the landmarks I memorized last night. From there I can find my way back to camp.
The plan works, and soon I spot one the the bright yellow peaks of my shelter peeking out from some trees.
By now, I’ve decided not to cross the steep snowfield on the way to Buchanan Pass. One false step there could mean game over, for good. Besides, I’ve done the loop before and will do it again. No need to tempt the fates.
The sun is out and I’m lounging in camp, looking at a map to plan my day. There’s an out-of-the-way lake on the map that I’ve never seen before. Now is a good opportunity to check it out. Quickly, I break camp and head out in a spirit of exploration.
The trail to Coney Lake is boggy and overgrown in spots, threading it’s way through the kind of terrain much loved by moose and mosquitoes. The mozzies soon find me, and I spot the cloven hove prints of a large ungulate in the mud. I tell myself that it’s just a large elk, because it’s what I want to believe. Elk will move out of your way when they spot you, but moose will expect you to find a way around them. And they aren’t beyond challenging you.
When I find the lake, I see that it’s a delightful spot and abandoned, at least for today. I sit on the bank watching the clouds roll over the divide and have my lunch. But soon I’m restless, and its time to start hiking again. Heading back down, I lose the trail and travel cross country until the trail pops up again.
At the trail intersection, I pause for a moment to think, but my heart already knows where I’ll spend the night.
I arrive back at my aerie on the flanks of Sawtooth Mountain just as a great battle is about to begin. The dark cloud armies flow over the pass from the west with alarming speed. The lighter battalions of mist slither up the valley from the east. They join battle directly north of my position on Sawtooth. They conjoin and swirl around until it’s difficult to see which side is which.
I crawl into my shelter. The wind and the rain lull me gently to sleep.
Birdsong again awakens me early. I walk to a clearing facing east to await the arrival of the sun.
This morning, I walk, not run, to get a clear view of the early light playing over the clouds above Sawtooth.
Pushing through a grove of stunted flag trees, I come into a meadow with a clear view of the peak, and am delighted to also find a herd of elk grazing there.
As the sun rises in the sky, the elk slowly drift away, and so do I, back to camp.
Basking in the morning sun, I have breakfast and lay my gear out to dry. Then I pack up and head back down the trail. I hope to get up and over the high ground on the Beaver Creek Trail before the afternoon thundershowers begin.
Storm clouds gather again, and I know I should keep moving. But aware that my time here is so quickly fleeting, I stop again and again to attempt to capture the beauty of the wildflowers.
Hiking down the mountain path toward the trailhead, I see a man standing at the edge of a switchback, looking out at the scene below with his binoculars. We exchange greetings, and I walk on. A minute later, I decide I need just one more photo and hike back up toward him.
“Mind if I join you? I think I’d like to get a shot of this.”
“You ever see this before?”
“Actually, this is my backyard.”
“Oh, Yosemite is my backyard. I live in San Francisco.”
We talk about places we’ve been and things we’ve seen.
” I’m taking a couple of weeks to deliver my Xterra to my son as a high school graduation present. He lives with his mother in Kansas. Along the way, I’ve stopped in Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Someone there told me about this place. I asked my son to travel with me but he couldn’t take the time to go.”
We talk about how a generation may have lost an appreciation of the natural world, and would rather spend their time looking at little screens.
“Still, I think he would have liked this.”
We stand there looking at the valley below.
“There’s a lot of beauty out there,” he says.
“There is,” I reply.
A flash of lightning, then the slow rumbling growl of thunder. We wish each other happy trails, and the man hikes back toward the trailhead. I stand there for another minute or two, just watching.