Up where the Air is Clear


The next morning began around 3:30, when headlights beamed through groggy darkness, the Go-Getter’s were goin’ and gettin’. My inner snooze button kicked in and I slept until around 6:00 am, at which point I packed everything into the car or tent, threw my pack on and headed up the last 1/4 mile of the road.

Dozens upon dozens of vehicles lined both sides of the road, and couples and clusters of people inched through the morning sun rays. They looked like ants, scrambling around up in the rocks. I stood at the trail head and counted. 52 or more.  (People, not rocks). 

*MOUNTAIN P.A. SYSTEM*: Would the owner of a silver car with Texas license plates  B1G-J3RK come off the mountain and deactivate your panic button. You are ruining a lot of people’s morning. Thank you. This was not a test.*

I had to smile at having worried about getting lost. There was one trail, and everybody went at it from the same direction. Kite Lake drifts in a meadow at 12,040 ft. Deep blue, with a stream for a tail which gurgles and dances in the morning sunlight. The trail treads through the meadow bayou and then straight up.

The initial climb reminded me of Pilgrimage Trails throughout Europe; only, those were cobbled. Ours are yet wild. Besides, the 14ers haven’t been declared Mecca points. Yet. Officially. (But don’t tell the Coloradans.)

To tread up here is to enter Pica property. They squeak to one another, “Hey, fellas! The guy with a giant brim hat wearing sandals and knee-high socks has sandwiches in his bag.” The next time the poor out of breath fellow stopped he was quickly and nimbly packed down and consumed by the minniest of minnie bears. By the time Sandal’s wife crested that particular rise, she looked around, perplexed, then hurried up the mountain, to the peak of the Proudest of the Four Brothers: Democrat.

Initially the trail juts Northward, up to a ridge, where one must choose to swing out West, just to visit Democrat. He betrays but one steep climb to summit, but there are actually two. As I climbed up, others were coming down, complaining about the loose gravel. Several felt the need to instruct me to enjoy the uphill, as it was easier.

I found this dismaying, as the uphill was not much fun. Then Thore came tramping down the trail; haloed in gold ringlets and a trucker cap he gave it to me straight, “get to the top of this, then you’ve got a mellow ridge climb. Then just shoot to the top.”

At 9:04 am I perched atop the first peak to jot in my journal. As I attempted to head down out of the wind some very motivated couple wrangled me into taking their picture. Wife-trog needed to make sure I got Mt. Lincoln in the background. She insisted I try several angles. (I considered taking pictures of the toes of my shoes but, alas, the day of film cameras is long gone.) For doing so, she rewarded me with pointing out the headwaters of the Arkansas River and Pike’s Peak. I marveled.

I thanked her and swung back into the saddle pendulum to Mt. Cameron. On my way I learned that Cameron, the next of the Four Brothers, was not actually a 14er because his ridge was not low enough to allow him to qualify. The Bastard Brother, penalized for clinging to siblings. Cameron lived up to everything he didn’t promise to be. Bald and smooth, there was no metal box holding notes written by climbers. He was nothing of…NOTE… ha. GET IT?

Cameron  merited only a minor pause, to chat with Mom and Son, whose name also happened to be Cameron. More picture taking ensued. It may have been the thin oxygen, but I was struck full in the face by a Transcendental Time Warp Moment. As I looked into the camera lens I saw exactly what I had seen 30 minutes before on Democrat; and a year before, on top of Whitney; and three years before, on top of the Tooth of Time; and back and back and back. The camera lenses spat me out as quickly as they had sucked me in. I handed it back and hustled away.

Scuttling up the next ridge, I meet Uncle Air Head. He wielded his GPS like a Jedi would a light saber. “Hey, you’d better watch out up ahead. We had to turn back ’cause it got hairy. 40 MPH winds and 30 F.”

I thanked him for his warning but didn’t stop, as this was the kind of incline on which you maintain whatever specter of momentum you can get. Up and along, and I came face to face with Lincoln. The quirky brother. Like Democrat, he demands his own ridge. As it turns out, he is a Siamese Twin;  a second jagged peak peaks from behind the other.

I climbed onto the first and looked around. A fellow passed by and encouraged me, “it’s only another five-minute climb to get to the real top.”

This confirmed what I had already begun to suspect, I didn’t care about getting to the top. I was happy to be up here, meeting these Stately Gentlemen without needing to Conquer them. I tipped my hat and ran down into the wide hammock that stretches between Lincoln and Bross.

Bross is the red-headed step son. In fact, it is technically illegal to summit because his scalp is private land. But it seems that even good law fearing folk assume an effort-based immunity clause because they climbed all the way up here, may as well summit.

Swinging around the trail across Bross’s collar-bone, I looked up into his ragged countenance; abandoned mines were dark nostrils in his pale face. Such shanty burrows dotted the harsh terrain. I thought of the men who had literally dug their own graves. This thought made me trip on a rock and nearly pitch off a ledge.

 Sometimes I felt like a goob for hiking with trekking poles, but incidences such as this made me glad to wield them. Besides, on that last harsh mile of steep downhill on rocks, loose gravel and smooth mud one can either sprint and pray, or proceed with respectable caution. I behaved respectably. Most of the time.

Nothing is quite like bounding into mountain air. Bursting down out of the rocks, I was relieved to be surrounded by colors and smells again. The spongy ground around the babbling creek and millions of tiny and not so tiny wild flowers; details which lack when observed from miles away.

 I enjoyed the venture into high ground but historically and psychologically, such terrain is not where I am truest. I am a creature of distances.

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