There is a trail between Crested Butte and Aspen that anyone who hikes Colorado has heard about. It’s that kind of place. This trail has been on my list for over a decade. But despite lots of talking with my son about doing it, over many years, we just never got there. Finally, I did.
Art, my husband, and I made reservations for two nights at Lake Irwin, the closest campground to the trail head on the Crested Butte side. We didn’t plan far enough ahead to get a spot by the lake, but the first night we gorged on the wide open view of roadless Colorado mountains and valleys from our camp chairs. It was late summer, and the golds on the grasses were just beginning to hint of changes to come. The following day we would hike to the summit between Crested Butte and Aspen and return. I had always wanted to go all the way to Aspen. But we had not planned far enough ahead or coordinated a shuttle to bring us back, so up and back would have to suffice.
In the morning we lingered with our coffees as the sun rose, its brilliance bringing the magical warmth to our bodies cooled by the high mountain chill of night. After breakfast, we packed our lunches and gear. The drive to the trail head from the campground was one of those drives that makes me nervous. Designated four-wheel only, there are some dangerously narrow places with steep cliffs. I didn’t get out and walk, which I have been known to do, but I did have to look the other way a few times. At the trail head there were three other vehicles, but no people. We set out under a partly cloudy sky.
Immediately we were hip-deep in wild flowers on both sides of a narrow trail. Though past their prime, the stunning array of color was dazzling. It was difficult to imagine how it might have been more alarmingly beautiful at the peak of color, but it must have. We could see spent flowers. We made our way up through the alpine meadows of flowers, to the rocky slopes of the pass. The clouds were moving in. As we tackled the final few switchbacks, the weather gods began to roar. Had we been “smart” we would have turned around, but we would have missed the magnificence of the long wild view of the Aspen side. And we were so close. So we pressed on even though we were keenly aware that we were not where we should be in this kind of weather. At the pass, we gawked at the vast wild landscape of the Maroon Bells wilderness and headed down. Just then, the skies released a torrent of rain. I was glad Art was with me. Often, I hike alone. We were moving fast on slippery rock amid a display of punctuated skies, running from the uncontrollable. George Monbiot, author of Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life would have found this experience deliciously exciting or to quote him “an enhanced opportunity for people to engage with delight in the natural world, … to escape from ecological boredom.” We were not bored. For Monbiot, it’s all about feeling the wild edge, confronting the power of nature that you know might overwhelm you. He does it with big waves and kayaks. We were doing in with electricity above 11,000 feet — hearts racing, feet slipping, the ground shaking with thunder, no power of our own to match that of the lightning. But I think I can honestly say that the adrenaline rush didn’t enhance my experience as it certainly would have Monbiot’s. Rather, it made me question my judgment. Even in picture perfect weather, I would not have been bored. Though I grew up in Salt Lake City with the rugged Wasatch Mountains in my everyday view, I have never gotten over the awe of mountains. To this day, when I am on I-70 going west from Denver, the first big view of the mountains, makes me inevitably repeat my childlike exclamation, “Look at the mountains!” There they are, across the wide horizon, rising into the sky, layers of greens and purples and often whites, jagged cuts into the blue. It sounds silly, and I have been teased for saying it over and over, almost every time I see mountains anywhere. I even find myself repeating this exclamation when I am heading north on I-25 in the middle of city traffic. I am easy to awe. It doesn’t take much to gin up my ecological excitement. I don’t need the stark emotion of the wild struggle in a raw and uncertain competition. “Man” against nature can be thrilling, as can any contest that requires skill and daring. But woman amongst nature stirs my soul. Rewilding for me is as simple as sitting quietly at the edge of wilderness lake on a perfect summer day. What this trail is known for, its wild flowers, the spectacular quiet beauty of benign plants, satisfies me.