24: Craig Meadows
… in the distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout-lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come home to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home.
–Henry David Thoreau
The sound of a woodpecker hammering against a hollow tree reverberates through the lodgepole forest. A damp chill creeps into my bones. The sky is gray and silent as if waiting for something. There are no other vehicles at the trailhead. The temperature has dropped thirty degrees over the past twenty-four hours and the forecast is for three days of rain and snow.
Standing here with my overnight pack on my back, a feeling of doubt comes over me. The forest and sky offer no answers. I take my first step onto the trail, then another. Soon the rhythm of my footsteps replaces uncertainty and things begin to feel right again.
Though the calendar says May, it’s not quite spring here yet. The landscape is mostly green and gray punctuated by an occasional yellow flower or red berry.
Reaching an aspen grove, I pause for a moment to listen. There is nothing but a muffled silence. The rolling slopes of the hills beyond are not visible today. Just a cold wet mist creeping silently toward me like a ghost through the silvery trunks of the aspen.
Something moves at the edge of my vision and falls to the ground. It takes a second to realize that it’s a snowflake. Two more flakes drift out of the sky and then it is snowing. I pull down the ear flaps of my hat and flip up the hood of my windshirt and continue up the Colorado Trail.
Coming to the junction with the Payne Creek trail, I turn right and hike downhill through the forest.
Snowflakes cling to spider webs along the trail. The webs are now visible spread across the landscape in every direction.
The snow tapers off, then stops. The thin layer of new snow sinks into the thirsty ground and disappears. I descend farther through the woods and emerge into Craig Meadows.
I hike on through the meadows under leaden skies. A beaver pond appears on my left and I leave the trail to take a good look at it. While staring at the reflections of evergreens in the pond, ripples suddenly appear on the surface of the water. This time there is no mistaking what this means. The heavens open up and within a few seconds, I’m standing by the pond in near whiteout conditions. Spotting a large pine by the side of the trail, I hurry toward it and huddle in its shelter while surveying the landscape around me.
The storm shows no signs of abating. I put on my rain jacket and pants and try to form a plan. Remembering a flat area I hiked past, I leave the shelter of the tree and make a beeline toward it.
The snow comes down harder and I can barely see more than a couple of feet in front of me. This is a heavy wet snow that clings to my rain gear and soaks my trail runners and socks. I find a spot in the lee of another tree, pull my shelter out of my pack, stake out the two windward corners, then hop under it, dragging my pack and trekking poles behind me. Quickly, I stake the front corners of my shelter, then pop up the roof with my trekking poles, then stake the sides out. Once I realize that I’m out of danger, laughter overtakes me. This will be a fun place to wait out the weather. While the storm rages outside, I roll out my ground sheet, blow up my mattress, and lay my sleeping bag on top of it. Wet rain gear gets put to the side and I crawl into my sleeping bag and listen to the sound of snow hitting the roof and of Craig Creek rushing by in the near distance. Then I pull out my harmonica and while away the time practicing my favorite Charlie McCoy licks.
The storm eases a bit, then stops. Peering out the door of my shelter, I can see that the sky is still heavily overcast and that the snow has totally transformed the landscape. It’s a perfect time for a hike. I pack a water bottle and a couple of energy bars and my rain gear and walk up the trail past the beaver pond and the icy meadow grasses and the frosted trees into the forest beyond. After an hour or so, it starts snowing again, this time more gently. I turn around and hike back to Craig Meadows.
I cook dinner beneath the boughs of a tall evergreen and then retreat to my shelter. Stepping through the open door, I become acutely aware of the warmth and dryness these few square feet provide in this cold wet landscape and I’m profoundly thankful for it.
Lying in my sleeping bag, I listen to the hypnotic sound of snow flakes hitting the steep walls of my shelter and sliding to the ground. Soon the gray day becomes black and I drift off into a deep sleep.
Sometime during the night, I dream of shadow puppets performing a play against a giant screen. Opening my eyes, I see shadows of pine branches dancing up and down against the golden walls of my shelter. It takes a minute to realize the moon is the source of light creating the shadows and that the clouds have moved on. The night turns colder and I burrow deeply into my sleeping bag.
A lone bird perched in the tree above wakes me up before dawn. Grabbing my camera, I walk out into the new day.
The sun comes up while I’m having a breakfast of muesli and walnuts and craisins by the banks of Craig Creek. Fog lifts from the ground and hangs in the deep green mountains at the other side of the meadow.
It’s tempting to just linger here but I’m due back in town. So I pack my wet gear, shoulder my pack, and hike back up to the Colorado Trail. Passing through the aspen grove again, I look out past the trees toward the rolling slopes of the Platte River mountains bathed in early morning light
Then I walk on toward the trailhead and my home in the city. But it’s good know that I have another home here, a place where I know I’ll be taken in.