I woke up early on Tuesday, the day we were leaving for the backpacking trip. I watched the sun rise over the huge crumbling shoulders of Gunnison. The other sleepers woke slowly, grudgingly around me. They rose, drifting thickly out of the building we slept in, like the heavy clouds off Mount Lamborn, whose steep face hung over the lush orchards in this small valley, Paonia.
I was the first to swing my pack off the dusty ground outside our hodgepodge house. Part of it was a mud daubed straw-bale building, the other was unfinished and barely insulated. I dragged it laboriously up the silver-gray side of Critter, and secured it by strapping it around the rack that was fixed to the top of the old, decrepit van. Critter was of indeterminate age and health, but it always got us where we needed to go, even if it’s top speed uphill was twenty miles an hour. Our only other mode of transportation was a brown pickup truck that had to be at least a hundred years old.
The outdoor kitchen was bustling with activity by eight o’clock. We made a delicious meal of Focaccia, and scrambled eggs, then Dev, the director, harangued us into piling aboard the creaking vehicles. Thirty minutes later I was watching scrub sage roll by, occasionally broken by a ranch house or miniature canyon that held a now dry stream. I was in Critter, as the truck was mostly made up of people who were in the other hiking group. We had 2 groups, I was in the flow group, a combination of fast and slow hikers, the other group was medium speed. Both groups were starting from different places and intended to meet at a lake in the middle of the West Elk Wilderness: a huge tract of land that stretched out to the east of Paonia. The reason we had the slow and fast hikers together was because we could all move at our own pace, independently. we would camp together, but any of the faster hikers who wanted to could streak off and hike a mountain on the way. We left the other group at a junction between two road and pealed off to the left, towards our start point.
I was watching the mountains draw closer out the left side window when we pulled out of a dirt road corridored by Oakbrush, into a small parking area. The oak leaves were just turning, and as I tossed packs down from the top of Critter I couldn’t help but stare out over the fiery tips of them from my vantage
“Got everything?” asked Julie, one of the staff. At my confirmation she exclaimed “rad, lets get going homeslice!” She used very stereotypical Cali lingo.
I Jumped down with a laugh and hoisted my pack. Suddenly gravity felt like it doubled. My usual springy physicality slumped slightly, straining under the weight. It was going to be a long day. My peers did the same, hefting their packs. As soon as Dev gave the word, I shot off down the road. We followed it for a few minutes, staying mostly in a group, until we veered off into the trees, at Dev’s direction, and traversed our way across a small stream. only minimal boot wetting. Here, after a quick debrief of the route, we were given free reign and all set out at different place. A few miles later Dev’s wife Marion, Ben, Oscar, and I were far ahead of the rest. We walked past beaver dams and mountain streams, under tall aspen forests that burned with heavy, golden light in the afternoon haze, wove through the tall spruces and firs, which cast a dark green shadows on our backs.
I was sweating in the heat and with the weight of the pack, every step an effort by the time we stopped for a break. I ate copious amounts of my precious trail mix, a crisp apple that I had stowed in the front of the pack, and some slices of cheese with summer sausage on a tortilla. My water was fresh and cool, sliding down my throat like a sigh.We waited for fifteen minutes to digest, while the entirety of the fast group caught up to us, plus another ten for them to rest, then we continued on. It grew colder as we climbed higher in elevation. A few patches of snow started to appear, and the light grew brighter and brighter as the air thinned. We crossed our first talus field, deposited by the ancient glaciers that draped the shoulders of the peaks above. There was a solid path through it, where we could see the imprints of horse hooves in gray clay. It wasn’t nearly as treacherous as the slopes of East Beckwith, which we climbed the Wednesday before.
We finally broke out of the trees, and strode out into a tundra filled with high altitude grasses, and gooseberries. I snagged a few as I was walking. They were sour, but refreshing. The path was now a narrow track of dirt mostly traveled by horses and cows. There were often paths that led off in different directions, but it was usually easy to tell which was the main trail. So when we got to a section where the path forked into two nearly identical trails, leading off in different directions up the valley, we had to stop. Dev had told us that the campsite was only a quarter mile up the path from the start of the meadow but he never told us which path it went on.
“I’ll go on the left.” I said to Ben.
We both dropped our packs and jogged in opposite directions up the paths. I was about to reenter the trees on the other side of the valley when I heard Ben cry “I found it!”
I walked into clearing in a grove of spruces surrounding and covering abundant amounts of flat ground. There was even a fire pit dug and surrounded by stones. All of this sat on the top of a ridge, which gently fell away on the other side, and the dark green of evergreens morphed into the soft butter of the Pople.
People soon blossomed out of the distance and walked up through the alpine meadow. We set up camp, made a fire, and celebrated our first day of backpacking by making sweet peanut noodles over our cat-can stoves. By the time the dishes were washed everyone was yawning around the fire. The sun had long since set over the end of the valley. The burnt rose light in the west had faded to a dark blue. In the cool shade of the spruces I watched as the light slowly of the flame slowly faded and the stars began to twinkle into existence. I drifted from the fire towards my nest, brushed my teeth, and slipped into my warm bag.
I fell asleep to the chorus of my three tarp-mate’s breaths, and the gentle whisper of aspen leaves.
By Willy Clemetson