People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about. —J. Campbell
yeah, baby, yeah!—A. Powers
Indecision. Snowshoes, gaiters, and Sealskinz socks stare at me from the trunk of the car. There has been plenty of late snow in the northern mountains this year. Snow is still visible on the high ridges, and part of my route is up a north-facing gully. On the other hand, snow melts off quickly in the Lost Creek Wilderness, and three extra pounds will certainly be felt on my back. Past memories of post holing through wet snow make the decision. The gear comes along. A sign at the trailhead warns of flash flooding and falling trees due to the Hayman fire. A burnt hillside sits directly southwest. Soon all that is forgotten, though, as I hike easily through a cool forest of douglas fir, tall Ponderosa, and aspen just beginning to leaf out. Wigwam creek gurgles quietly in the stillness. I stop at an overlook, just to look and listen.
The sky clouds over, and the wind comes up. Sleet and snow spit down. Quickening my pace to stay warm, I hike past a beaver dam and soon arrive at the turn off to the Goose Creek trail. Softly, I climb up through the forest. Several feet of snow appear, but at the other side of the gully. Looks like I’m carrying three pounds of gear that I won’t use. Not to mention a few extra pounds around the waist due, in part, to Dr. Dondo’s self-prescribed health tonic. “An IPA a day keeps the doctor away.” Maybe I’ll save the IPAs for special occasions.
Soon I find myself in an open park with granite formations scattered here and there.
The sun starts to peak through just as I hit the high point of the Goose Creek Trail. The view east is expansive from here, so I stop a while by a lightning-scarred snag to watch the moving clouds cast their shadows across the landscape.
Soon after turning off onto the McCurdy Park trail, I find an area on a ridge that looks like it will make an excellent camp. The trade-off will be having to haul water back to camp from far below. It’s a fair trade. There’s nothing I like better than sitting on a high perch watching the day fading into night and the night becoming day.
The morning comes too soon. Snuggled deep in my comfortable bed, I try to ignore the singing of the birds and the coming of the light. Then I remember why I came here. Though I’ve seen the area around Refrigerator Gulch many times as part of a larger loop, I’ve never taken the time to slow down and really explore. Quickly, I throw a water bottle, power bars, and a camera into my pack and set out down the trail before the sun is up.
For years there have been rumors of a secret trail connecting Refrigerator Gulch and Lost Park. Two people I’ve met on the web have told me that they’ve hiked it down from Lost Park. From a map, I figure out where the trail would have to be and, sure enough, I find it. Some secret. The trail steepens and becomes more faint as it climbs precariously up the wall of a canyon. Trekking poles get put away and hands come into play. This is not a place where one would want to fall. Climbing higher, I notice the print of cloven hooves in the mud. Did I stumble upon a game trail? Eventually, I reach a point where I can not see a way forward. The trail has disappeared. I can see which way I need to go but can’t figure out how to get there. After studying the terrain for a few minutes, I reluctantly turn back.
A man’s got to know his limitations. —D. Harry
On the way down, a boulder shifts beneath my feet. I think of Aaron Ralston. Finding a short-cut to the floor of the canyon, I’m relieved to be at the point where Lost Creek emerges from a cave. But only for a minute. Soon I realize that this is not familiar terrain. This is just another spot where Lost Creek exits a cave. I’m at the bottom of a steep canyon with no easy way out.
A Zen tale comes to mind.
One day while walking through the wilderness a man stumbled upon a vicious tiger. He ran but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save himself, he climbed down a vine and dangled over the fatal precipice. As he hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine. Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. He plucked it and popped it in his mouth. It was incredibly delicious!
Looking around, I notice how beautiful the canyon is. Water drips down the granite wall from high above.
I fill the water bottle and quench my thirst. This mountain water tastes better than any IPA. After resting a while, I plot my way out. While climbing the steep walls, something catches my eye across the canyon. It looks like a large white dog is relaxing on the wall across from me. Or is it just a white boulder? Am I starting to hallucinate?
Well, that explains the cloven hooves on the game trail.
When I finally find my way out of the canyon, I rest in the shade by Lost Creek and munch on a Mojo bar. Then I saunter back down the trail toward camp.
The wind kicks up again and is intense by the time I reach the high camp. I check the stakes and rocks holding down the Shangri-La and tie the midpoint on the windward side to a tree. Then I settle in to watch the evening show.
Despite the wind, I sleep deeply and only wake up when the day begins to turn light. Again, I want to stay in my sleeping bag but get excited when I see the mist rising from the valley below.
On my way out of the wilderness, I run into a man taking a picture of a flower. We talk photography, lenses, HDR. His eyes light up as he discusses his passion for macro. He’s been coming to this stretch of the Wigwam trail for thirty years and knows all the microclimates and where and when a particular flower is likely to appear. He seems to know it as well as Thoreau knew the area around Concord. So much left to learn and so little time.
At the trailhead, I pass five men coming in carrying packs that would make a Sherpa proud. It’s mid-afternoon. Just enough time to drive back to town, clean up, and head to my sister’s house for a cookout. Tonight is a special occasion. My niece is back in town after being away at school. It will be good to see everyone again. Tonight, I’ll drink an IPA in celebration.