THE RANDOMNESS OF NATURE
You just never know where you might meet your mate. Leisa and I had arrived in Aspen, Colorado on the 3rd and were looking forward to the Fourth of July celebration. My friend Cindy had moved up to Aspen a couple years before and I had been out to visit earlier that year for skiing. Aspen in the summer is actually more fun than it is in the winter. There’s more to do and you can wear cuter clothes because you’re not freezing your butt off. Unfortunately because it costs a lot to live up there Cindy had something like three jobs and we didn’t get to see her a whole lot. She did give us some suggestions about places to go and things to do. Fun trails to hike.
It being our first night in town we decided to go out and party… at just about every bar in town. We met two guys – one with an eye patch who looked like a pirate, the other a German who drank Strawberry daiquiris with little umbrellas in them. We told them we were going to go hiking to Maroon Bells the next day and they said they’d meet us up there.
Which is probably the only reason that upon awakening with horrible hangovers the next day we decided to go ahead and go on the hike. It really wasn’t something either of us felt up to doing, but Cindy said that it was a very easy walk, only about a mile. “You guys really shouldn’t miss it – it will probably make you feel better!” You have to take a bus most of the way up there at that time of the year – they don’t allow cars in – so we wouldn’t even have to walk that far.
Shortly after arriving in Aspen Cindy went on a date that involved hiking up Aspen mountain under the full moon. In the snow. They were wearing snowshoes and there was a whole group of them. "Them" being Aspen locals who also think riding your bike 200 miles over a pass in the rain is fun. I should’ve known that a girl who thinks that’s a fun date would also define “easy walk” a little differently than I understand the term. I imagined a pastoral meadow leading down to a lake at the base of the beautiful bell shaped mountains that make up the Maroon Bells. That’s the picture you see on all the postcards so it wasn’t like I was making it up.
In preparation for our easy walk Leisa and I went to the deli and got some sandwiches to eat by the lake. And we also figured some lemonade would be nice for our picnic and heck why not some beer too – there was room in the grocery sack. So we staggered down to the bus station to catch the bus that would drop us off at the trailhead. I couldn’t wait to lay down by the lake and relax with a cold beer and a sandwich. My head hurt and I was really nauseated, which in retrospect I now know was altitude sickness exacerbated by the non-stop drinking we had done on the airplane and carried on into the night before.
The town of Aspen sits at an altitude of 7,945 feet. Leisa and I were both coming from sea level. Our bodies weren’t dealing to well with the thin air. The lack of oxygen made every movement seem like it required more effort. So did the hangover. The guys we met the night before were not at the bus station and we should’ve just taken our sandwiches and beer over to the park and had our picnic, but for some reason we decided to just go ahead and take the hike.
We were on vacation for God’s sake and we had on our hiking boots so a hiking we would go. The bus ride takes about 15 minutes and the rode winds through Ashcroft, an area so beautiful that my senses were lulled as my head rested against the window and I gazed slack jawed at Colorado’s rocky magnificence. So when the bus stopped I momentarily forgot that I wasn’t on one of those tours where you sit on your ass and get driven around. I could've happily just rode the bus back and forth.
But we had reached our destination for outdoor fun and adventure. The sun blazed down on us as we followed the other hearty souls to the trailhead. We stopped to adjust the sack ‘o sandwiches which was starting to feel quite heavy and we hadn’t even gotten on the trail. We also needed to take a minute to catch our breath. The walk from the parking lot had winded me. Therefore we ended up trudging alone, left in the dust of the others who either knew where they were going or were just more eager to get there.
The trail was nice and flat when we started out, though the bells were nowhere in site. You know like when you’re hiking somewhere and you can see where you’re going and it gets closer and closer. This wasn’t like that. We strolled along through the woods and after about a quarter mile we came to a stream that flowed along beside us as the trail started into a gentle grade. At about the half mile mark my arms were cramping from carrying a six back of glass bottles so I stashed them under some rocks in the stream reasoning that they’d be real cold and refreshing and we could stop and enjoy them on our way back.
We continued on with our sandwiches and our lemonade and the trail began to get steeper. The sun got hotter and we both felt worse and worse. It seemed that we had been walking forever. Certainly much further than the mile that Cindy claimed would take us right to the lake. We had been walking about an hour and now we were beginning to have to navigate rocks and the trail just kept going up and up.
Now they say that when you are tired and winded it’s best not to stop. It’s best to keep going. But when you think you are going to puke your guts out and all you have to drink is lemonade sometimes you just have to stop. So we laid down on the side of the trail like two wounded animals and, as we were lying there enjoying the scenery, we watched in astonishment as a woman and her two kids came scampering down the trail from the direction we were headed.
This woman was smoking a cigarette!
We were gasping for air and asked her how much further it was to the lake. “Not that far,” she said, exhaling a stream of smoke in our direction and taking another long pull off her ciggy as she strode past. We watched her go in amazement at both the fact that she was smoking at all, and that her lung capacity was unfazed by the elevation or the exertion. Maybe going down was going to be a lot easier. And she said we were close. We didn’t have that far to go before we could sit down and eat the fucking sandwiches that we were dragging along like ballast.
And the damned lemonade – the not at all refreshing, warm lemonade.
So we dragged ourselves to our feet and kept going. Up. The trail just kept going up and up and up. Granted we weren’t scaling cliffs and hanging by our fingertips but it wasn’t what I would call a “nice walk”. At this point we were trudging slowly along dragging our soggy grocery bag like Christ and his cross on the road to Calvary. We were too dehydrated to even sweat and once again we went down on the side of the trail puffing and panting, trying to catch our breath. If we had been horses it would’ve been considered a merciful act to just shoot us. The flies and other insects that are always present on actual nature walks, but never present in pictures of people on nature walks, moved so slowly in the thin air they wouldn’t have had a chance if we’d had the strength to lift our arms and swat at them. I was seriously wanting to turn around and go back because we had been on this “easy walk” for at least 2 hours and I still didn’t see any mountains that looked like damn bells. I was just about to tell Leisa that I couldn’t go another step when another woman came by on her way back down.
She had two blood soaked, white Kleenexes hanging out of her nose – but she was able to tell us that we were really close and that it was so beautiful we really had to get up there. We stood and continued up the trail because to go down would mean that we would have to hike with the bloody nose woman and she could make it then what big pussies were we? Plus, it was clearly a view worth bleeding for in her opinion. So onward we went – the sack of sandwiches was now hemorrhaging sandwich juice, which was running down my leg, so I was being followed by a parade of slow flying, buzzing flies.
After about another 20 minutes of walking the trail rose above the tree line and over the top of the rock strewn hill in front of us I could see the top of what just had to be the bells. It just had to be or I was going to lay down and die on that trail. Unfortunately we had to hike up a very narrow switchback trail through the rocky shale field. There was a nice couple starting up at the same time as us. They were from Kansas and they were on their honeymoon. I thought to myself that this is not something I would do on my honeymoon since I was so wanting to go into a full whine. But since Leisa was now moving ahead at a nice clip I was happy to have them to plod along behind. Perhaps it’s because they were from Kansas and it’s a really flat state but they were having a difficult time making it up hell hill too. When we finally reached the top and I got around the bend I could see the lake at the base of the most spectacular 14,000 mountains soaring up just like – you guessed it – huge maroon bells.
Leisa was already laying flat on her back gasping for air as I pulled up dragging the soggy, bedraggled bag of mushy sandwiches and warm lemonade. Food has never tasted so good. We were soon revived enough to really appreciate how beautifully breathtaking the place was. We started chatting with a couple of guys that were sitting not too far away from us. They offered us a puff of pot and we gladly accepted – probably not the smartest decision since we still didn’t have any WATER! But they were nice – Matt and Dave – and they were there with their sister and their aunt and uncle who lived in town. Turns out that we’d missed Maroon Lake completely and we had just hiked 3 miles over 500 vertical feet to Crater Lake. Now 500 feet is nothing when I’m at sea level but I felt every inch of it up there over the 11,000 feet of altitude mark.
We all headed back together, though Lisa and I were now very stoned and needed to fall back to have moments of paranoia by ourselves. We were really tired and we had both started to get really whiny. I was still carrying the empty soggy sack because there are no trash cans up at Crater Lake and I grew up in girl scouts where you are trained to always leave an area nicer than you found it, so I was also hauling some trash that inconsiderate people left behind. There was a brief period when Leisa was tripping out because it felt like we were walking on the moon and that we’d never get back and considered maybe having a cry. But it passed. We caught up with our new friends down near the bottom of the trail where they gratefully helped us drink our stream cooled beer. Now that was a moment straight out of beer commercial and after all, we were in Coors country. Only I’m pretty sure we were drinking Lowenbrau – here’s to good friends.
By the time we got back to the bus we were feeling pretty good to have made it there and back and we were also a bit buzzed because, well, the altitude combined with a little pot and one beer will do that to you. And Matt, well he was quite enamored of Leisa and today they are married and have two beautiful children.
Who wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t taken the wrong trail and persevered.