by Nancy McDaniel

There I was, a city girl disguised as a hiker in the mountains of Colorado. I pretty much looked the part, even if my backpack was spanking clean and newly purchased from Target (but it is called Cherokee and is khaki color so it seems pretty authentic. Sort of). But the hiking boots were well worn and well traveled – broken in from trips to Western Australia, Botswana, Uganda and I don’t remember where else. With burrs still stuck in the laces even after many washings. They even used to have bird guano from Tanzania’s Lake Eyasi too, but that finally and thankfully washed out.

With really tan legs, khaki shorts, a beaded belt (even if it was Ndebele beadwork from South Africa) and my Marlboro denim shirt, I was all set. And I even remembered to bring my water bottle!

An Aussie, A Mountain Man and A Golden
I was staying in the charming little town of Minturn, just a few miles west of ever-so-trendy Vail. I’d just spent two days in Snowmass, near Aspen. There I spent four hours hiking with a good mate (friend) from Australia and a golden retriever named Daly that we met with his Mountain Man. How magical it was – beautiful and clean and green – and very wet from the unusually frequent and heavy rains. (When driving to Snowmass from the Denver airport, I had just missed a giant mud and rock slide that closed down the interstate for hours). Despite my not being as fit as the three of them, I made it with no mishaps. Stopping to catch your breath every now and then in the 8000′ or so altitude is apparently acceptable – especially for a “Flatlander” like me.

So when I got to Minturn on my own, I asked the owner of my inn for a recommendation of a “moderate” hike that I could make Saturday morning for a few hours. The trailhead was two miles from Minturn on the main road, then another two miles on a potholed, winding gravel road called Tigiwon. It was tortuous for my rented Taurus, but not a problem for the SUVs. (By the way, on this trip, I finally discovered the real reasons for the existence of SUVs and mountain bikes. They actually make sense out here where they belong, rather than on the congested streets and highways in and around the flat-as-a-pancake Chicago).

Cross Creek or Bust
The trail we chose for me was called Cross Creek. The full length of it is some 15 miles. However, I planned to go just about two miles to see the Mount of the Holy Cross, then turn around and come back. No one would accompany me this time except for my solitude and my thoughts. Not bad company for me, just different.

The grade was “gentle” (so “THEY” said) for the first mile. But given that the trailhead was at 8500 feet, there was still a bit of exertion on my part. This was a real wilderness trail: No markers other than the well worn narrow path, no picnic tables, no “long drop” or porta-potty along the way. Just trees and green and the sounds of the unseen Cross Creek rushing somewhere nearby.

Even the Birds Were Wet
It was cloudy, damp and muddy at the start of my hike. Water droplets quietly dripped off the moss-covered boulders next to the trail. There were wildflowers everywhere, many of which I didn’t know the names. But the colors were remarkable: Yellow, lavender, pink, deep blue, white and the intense orange of the Indian Paint Brush I knew as a child at summer camp in northern Wisconsin. I heard the frenzied chattering of a squirrel. But I heard few bird songs this early in the morning. Perhaps it was too chilly for the real denizens of the forest. Their wings were probably still damp from the previous night’s hard rain and they (unlike me) were cleverly waiting for the sun to dry and warm them before starting out their day.

About a mile into the hike, I crossed a small wooden bridge over the wildly rushing, but still narrow, Cross Creek. I half expected to see a grizzly bear swiping a salmon with his paw. Colorado is the wrong state for that, I guess. But it would have fit in this picture for me.

The ‘Shroom People
I met five people along the way, some of whom were from Philadelphia. They had been here before. We chatted about mushrooms which they seemed to know about (my mushroom knowledge is limited to plastic covered packages of shitake, Portabella, oyster and Campbell’s. With garlic. Yum.) I thought the red ones were the prettiest. They said “Poisonous”. Oops, good thing I planned to have lunch in town after my hike.

The Pretendress
I stopped to change to my zoom lens so I could take some close-up photos of a boulder covered with lichen (is lichen on the north side? Or is that moss? Whatever. I hoped I didn’t get lost. I had received a Disoriented Orienteering Award in Australia 11 years ago because I couldn’t find the shearing shed. So, what city girl knows what a shearing shed looks like anyway? I was busy looking for Bryan Brown and Mel Gibson at the time). There were tiny mushrooms growing right out of the middle of the lichen, which looked quite magical. (Magic mushrooms? How absolutely 60’s.)

A father and son from Georgia stopped to talk to me. They wondered what I was photographing. They said a really good “photo op” was only about 10 minutes ahead. Now I not only looked like a hiker, but also a nature photographer. What’s that TV show where the guy takes on different occupations and identities? No, not “What’s My Line”; that was in the 60’s, I think. No, it was “The Pretender.” Maybe that’s what I’m doing: An advertising-theater-art-zoo-city person masquerading as A Naturalist. Sort of a Galen Rowell, Ansel Adams, multi-faceted me. At least for today.

Whoop, There It Is
All of a sudden, I turned one more corner on the switchback trail and it came into view – the majestic Mount of the Holy Cross at 14,007 feet (alternately pegged at 14,005 – how do they decide on those extra two feet?) The locals call it “A Fourteener”, one of the highest mountains in the area. There were snow-fields at the top, a river rushing far below. I’d hiked about 2 miles, up to an elevation of about 9000 feet.

I briefly smiled and gazed at it, took some photos and then decided to hike a little farther. But the trail was increasingly muddy and heavily overgrown with tall flowers that were beautiful but made it more work than I cared to tackle. After all, I had seen what I came to see – The Mountain! So I turned back. And then the real magic began.

Here Comes the Sun
For the first time that day (it was now about 11 a.m.), the sun came out. Brilliantly warming me up, with the same effect as sitting by a blazing campfire. I walked to the edge of the rocky outcrop (if I were in Africa, it would be called a kopje – a place often seen with lion or cheetah lazily sunning themselves. But this time it was just me). I sat down, took off my brand new backpack, pulled out my water and my journal, and took off my denim shirt to reveal my narrow-strapped tank top. I wanted to try to soak up some of the lovely, welcome, not-seen-in-a-while sun. I sat. And I watched. And I listened. And I wondered. About a lot of things.

I wondered where the cross was. The mountain was named Mount of the Holy Cross because the snow-fields near the top were thought by some to resemble a cross. I couldn’t see it. So I wondered if you just had to have a really good imagination or if you needed to be A True Believer to think it looked like a cross. Was it sort of like a few years ago when someone thought they saw the face of the late Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun? Is the Cross only in the Eye of the Believer, much as Beauty is said to be in the Eye of the Beholder?

But as I sat, I saw and heard my gods, my spirits. The gentle breeze rustling through the Aspen trees, making the leaves quake and shimmer in the sun. The sounds of unseen birds, joyously singing in the renewing warmth of the midday sun. The fragrant smell of pine. Nothing like the pine air fresheners that hang in cars and car washes, but truly fresh and clean smelling.

I saw the impossibly cerulean sky, with the majestic dark green pines piercing up into it. And the puffy white clouds were up higher even than I and the wispy, fast-moving clouds were down much lower. They drifted lazily, almost like an eagle or a hawk would, coasting on the thermals. I wished I could see a raptor up here, but I still saw it in my mind.

Cloudy Questions
I started thinking about clouds again (Read Soul Clouds). If in some Native American beliefs, a departed soul becomes a cloud, then are the smaller, lower clouds newer souls? Are these smoke plume-like clouds the souls of little children? I continued to watch the clouds and thought of all the souls I loved but are now gone. And I wondered which cloud belonged to which soul? Mother? Daddy? Ralph? My Australian friend Denis’ best friend Graeme? Denis’ mother-in-law? The 20-year-old son of the man we met on the Ditch Trail in Snowmass? It was almost as though they were waving to me as they slowly drifted by.

The ancient pine trees were silent sentinels, guarding the edge of the craggy cliff. But from what? From “progress?” The sound of an airplane flying nearby intruded on my reverie and made me realize that the wilderness is not safe. Not at all. Long may those pine trees protect this lovely wilderness. May they forever protect it from us, we who continually try to “improve” the things around us.

I wondered if one of the clouds could get impaled on the sharply pointed top of a tall pine tree. If it could, it would be a porcelain angel sitting proudly on the top of a Christmas tree: An act of perfect completion.

I looked down at my tanned and sturdy legs, with muddy socks and muddier boots. I thought I really do look like a real hiker. And for that brief moment, I even fooled myself into thinking I was one. I felt part of this whole lovely landscape, this beautiful and wild, wildly beautiful place.