Farewell, Front Range

View from the top of the Royal Arch trail, looking toward Boulder and the Flatirons
View from the top of the Royal Arch trail, looking toward Boulder and the Flatirons

After many years of planning, saving and sacrificing, my husband Dave and I are finally making a big move to Ridgway, Colorado after Memorial Day weekend. We are looking forward to growing a large garden, tending chickens and meeting new friends and neighbors in our new, small community.

I’m also looking forward to starting a new chapter of contemplative hiking on many mind-blowing beautiful trails in the San Juan mountains near Ouray, Telluride and Ridgway.

There was one trail near Boulder that I hadn’t hiked but had wanted to for many years – The Royal Arch trail at Chautauqua. I attempted to scale the trail in February but it was simply too icy and treacherous for my liking, despite wearing ice spikes and having poles. This is a trail that’s much better attempted when conditions are dry.

The Royal Arch trail has a reputation of being a butt-kicker and for good reason – it boasts 1,200 feet of elevation gain in just under a couple of miles. It goes up—straight up—for most of the way, and often you’re stair-stepping on big rocks and having to pull yourself up to keep from stumbling backwards. This is “no country for old men”, or old anyone with a heart condition. Fortunately I’m in good shape and not too old yet, so I made it up in good time with lots of breaks to catch my breath. I would say that you should expect to reach your max heart rate for at least 60 consecutive minutes, which is not something you want to be doing every day.

The view at the top makes it worthwhile. On the north side, you see the flatirons, and to the east is the vast expanse of flatland that stretches all the way out to Erie, Firestone, Broomfield. Above you is a giant arch that rivals anything you see at Arches in Moab, but without the sandstone or the searing heat of the desert.

View of NCAR from the Royal Arch
View of NCAR from the Royal Arch

I was feeling unusually sentimental on this particular hike. I remembered all the trails I had worn out in the last fifteen years and ones that I’ll likely never step foot on again. Life is a series of endings and beginnings, some profound and some almost unnoticed.

Recently my mother died (one of those profound endings) and I remembered the time we took her “hiking” up the hill from the Chautauqua Ranger station. It made me wistful, because she had a hard time up that hill, but she was always willing to try new things and trusted me to show her the way, even though later it turned out it was beyond what was comfortable for her, physically. She loved being out in nature, appreciated beauty. The longest hike we took with her was around Monarch Lake near Grand Lake – almost 5 miles of mostly flat terrain. She really liked that.

Maybe we tend to forget these precious memories after dealing with the traumatic memories of a loved one’s last few days, but they appear later in quiet moments. Our minds get quiet and relaxed and we see all the tiny but wonderful moments we’ve forgotten.

And so it might be with my life here on the Front Range. Right now I’m very preoccupied with our move and what’s to come. In time, however, as I walk along some trail high up in the mountains of southwest Colorado, I might remember a certain colorful hike in May, an exceptionally delicious meal at some restaurant in Boulder, a romantic walk at dusk somewhere downtown Denver. I’ll remember the good times when my daughter Skye was still a little kid and when we worked hard on our backyard garden and when we built snow forts after a crazy blizzard. These memories will poke their heads out when I’m feeling sentimental or lonely or reflective.

So farewell, Front Range. It’s been a deeply satisfying relationship of 22 years. I’ve written books about you and I’ve been elevated by your beauty. I’ve also been bored with you and frustrated at how crammed and developed you’ve become. Even though I’ve fallen in love with a new place, you’ll always be my first love. The Front Range is where I found my gifts and discovered the person I was always meant to be.

Tips for Getting Unstuck and Overcoming the Blues

Tips for Getting Unstuck and Overcoming the Blues with Hiking from Margaret Emerson on Vimeo.


There are days when I wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? You feel totally uninspired, blah, and you can’t seem to conjure up any motivation or enthusiasm about the future. The days ahead seem like a slog, and you wonder what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. It’s particularly bad if I can’t even look forward to the weekend, when I’m supposed to be enjoying my life and spending time with my family.

These feelings are often temporary for me. I know that if I just sit with the feeling, eventually I will feel better. Perhaps later that evening, or the next day. Often, within a few days. But sometimes the feeling persists and I know that I have to do something to get myself out of the funk. But what?

The advice experts offer on how to beat the blues, or mild depression, involves getting enough sleep, getting adequate exercise, proper nutrition, time with friends and quiet time spent in nature. Time spent outside has many health benefits besides offering invigorating exercise—you get a dose of vitamin D, which most people don’t seem to get enough of these days, a condition that has been linked to depression.

Time spent in nature isn’t just good for curing the blues. It has been shown to improve creativity and some cognitive function, according to a study undertaken by the University of Utah and the University of Kansas psychology departments. This study was performed with subjects who had been hiking in the wilderness for four days, and it’s unclear whether the benefits stem from an immersion in nature or from the removal of technology (phones, computers, cars, sirens, alarms).

The soft focus, or what researches call “soft fascination” on the natural world (as experienced through hiking) is soothing, and brings us back to a kind of default state of mind where introspection, creativity and clearer cognitive functioning occur. It can be a kind of “reset” button to our state of mind, especially if we feel overwhelmed, stressed, or stuck in negative thinking.

This study also validates my belief that the last thing I, or anyone else for that matter, should be doing when we’re not feeling all that great is to sit around surfing the internet or watching TV.


Excuses Keep Us Stuck

When I’m feeling down, I’m really not in the mood to do the very things I should do, which is to socialize or get outside to exercise or hike. More likely I will sit at home by myself, moping, napping, reading, or surfing the internet. Depression inertia is difficult to overcome.

What excuses do you use that are keeping you stuck at home and feeling down? That it’s too cold outside? That it’s too far to drive to go hiking, and you don’t feel like sitting in the car? That you’re too tired? Don’t want to go alone and have no one to go with?

Yeah, those are all excuses I’ve used, too. But here’s the thing. When I do kick myself in the butt and actually get out there on the trail, I feel so much better afterward. I’m so glad I went, even if it’s cold, wet, snowy, whatever. In fact, some of the best hikes I’ve had have been in inclement weather or uncomfortable conditions, simply because the intensity of the experience adds to the feeling of aliveness and adventure.

3 Tips for Getting Un-Stuck and Relieving the Blues

Consider doing these three things the next time you’re feeling a bit depressed and you know you should get outside, spend time in nature, and invigorate yourself with exercise and fresh air.

1. Prepare the equipment you’ll need the night before, or at a moment when you’re feeling a little more motivated. Take out your daypack, fill up your water bottle, and set this next to your hiking boots by your front door. Simply the act of getting ready for the hike, even if you’re not going until the next day, will increase the likelihood you’ll actually go.

2. Put your hike on your to-do list or calendar for the day. Set the alarm to go off and remind you. Tell yourself that you intend to go, and set a specific time that you’ll leave the house or the office. The more specific you are about when you will be going and where, the harder it will be to blow it off.  Make arrangements to get to work a little later or to leave earlier if you have to. Your mental health is important! I doubt anyone has ever invented anything or produced anything of value when they’re depressed.

3. Tell someone you plan on going on a hike. Perhaps they’ll want to join you, and that will offer you more social time with a friend, or alleviate your worry about going alone. Whenever I have a goal in mind, I make it a point to announce that goal and intention to as many people as possible. (The bigger the goal, the more people I tell.) The theory behind this is that the pain of NOT doing something you’ve committed to verbally with others is greater than procrastination and lack of inertia.

By following these tips, you’ll also be creating a set routine and setting a goal, which are two suggestions off the WebMD site for fighting depression.

There have been times when I’ve felt so lost and down that I’ve prescribed “a hike a day” for myself, even a short one as close as possible to my house. What I’ve found is that after three days of this kind of imposed routine, I begin to feel much better. I have insights while out there looking at the trees and mountains. I begin to feel like a part of the world, not like the world is on my shoulders. The exercise alone is like throwing open the windows in a stale house in the spring.

I’m willing to bet that you’ll feel much better after a nice hike, and you’ll think clearer and maybe even get some new ideas for how to live in a way that makes you feel alive and purposeful.

An Early Spring

Mesa trail, May 1, 2012

When our apple and plum tree began to bud out in mid-March, I knew we were having an unusually early spring along the Front Range. I’ve lived here since 1994 and haven’t seen trees leafed out earlier than mid-April, and certainly not late March. We did have a snowy October through December, but January through March were unseasonably warm and dry, often with overnight temperatures well above average.

This isn’t just a local phenomenon. The cherry blossoms came and went in Washington D.C. at least several weeks earlier than normal, and I even read a story about the sun rising a full two days early in Greenland, close to the Arctic Circle. Now, that has nothing to do with an early spring as much as scientists surmise it has to do with climate change and the polar ice cap melting enough to lower the horizon line so that the sun appeared to rise earlier than usual. Freaky!

Yesterday, on May 1, I experienced the greenest, most wildflower-filled hike I’ve experienced on this early date along the Front Range. I hope this doesn’t mean a brown July, or a horrific drought in August. I am staying open to what happens, or doesn’t happen. One never knows what nature has in store.

Five years ago I attended a panel discussion at the University of Colorado where top scientists spoke of the accelerating nature of climate change. They predicted that if nothing is done, within five years (umm…now) negative feedback loops will make it impossible to remedy the damaging effects of global warming. Well, not much has been done in the last five years and it doesn’t appear that large-scale remedies are anywhere on the (sinking) horizon. Nothing to do, except to contemplate an early spring.

Snow Hiking in Boulder

The snowstorm that descending on the Front Range February 2nd and 3rd was a record breaker—the most snow in the month of February since records had been kept in the area. It was certainly a lot of moisture. Boulder got close to 18 inches of heavy, wet snow.

A day after the snow stopped falling, we went on a snow hike on the NCAR Mesa to South Mesa trail, all the way to the Enchanted Mesa Trail (3 miles roundtrip). We decided against wearing snowshoes and just opted for some YakTrax and poles. The trail was packed enough to provide decent support. It always amazes me how quickly the trails get traveled after a snowfall on the Front Range. The locals must not only get out there right after the snow stops falling, I bet they must hike while it’s snowing, or how else can they find the trail if nearly 2 feet of snow covers it? I bet that would be quite the hike in a blizzard. I’ll have to try that next time.

The path through the snowy woods felt magical and enveloping. The snow dribbled off steep areas like in miniature avalanches. A creek flowed under a soft, billowy dome of white. Chickadees called out to each other and celebrated the sun. And humans made tracks for other humans to follow, so that we could all play in winter’s gift.

Night Hike and Meteor Shower

Last night, Dave, Christine (a new hiking friend) and I went on a night hike in the foothills of Boulder. We had scheduled this hike a month ago for the purpose of dealing with our fear of the dark in the woods, predatory and nocturnal animals and our own internal demons. When I say “we” I mean Christine and I—not Dave—who is a typical guy and doesn’t get spooked by ambling around in the creepy dark of wilderness.

I didn’t know that  last night, coincidentally, was prime viewing for the Earth’s annual pass through the Perseid meteor shower. We were excited to include this into our agenda and decided, at the last minute, to hike much further west of Boulder than we had originally planned in order to have darker skies.

We still had a sliver of twilight left as we headed out on the trail. Ours was the only vehicle in the parking lot at the trailhead. A small herd of deer were grazing nearby. We spent the entire drive up to the trailhead talking about the dangers of grizzly bears up in Yellowstone, where Dave and I had spent time last week, as well as the perceived dangers of mountain lions and black bears. Bears are dangerous when you startle them or get between a mother and her cubs. I said that there’s really no chance of ever startling a mountain lion. They know you’re there, even if you can’t see them. They’re stealthy, observant creatures who are normally very reclusive. Black bears, on the other hand, can be easily startled if you’re downwind and quiet, but in my personal experience they’d much rather run the heck away from you than pounce on you when they see you. Grizzlies are a different story, but there aren’t grizzlies here in Colorado.

Our discussion of predatory animals persisted at least 20 minutes into our hike, which indicated to me that we were still a bit on edge and nervous about hiking around in the dark, despite being rather loud and in a group. There’s just something about how the trees and boulders became these black, one-dimensional shapes heightens my level of awareness and anxiety. As it began to get darker and the last of the sunset faded, we saw a large, mountain-sized storm cloud far to the northwest, from which occasional lightning flashed across the sky. There were no bird calls. No squirrel chatters. Just the shrill reee-reee-reeee of crickets in the tall grass around us.

I started to lose my sense of depth perception with the loss of light and started to stumble on the rutty trail. I didn’t want to turn on any headlamps or flashlights yet, because the trail was still mostly visible as a dark gray strip under our feet. Christine let me use one of her hiking poles to feel out the ground like a blind person. Occasionally we’d hear the distant barking of a dog or the rumble of a large airplane overhead. Otherwise, it was soothingly quiet and windless.

We decided to stop where a large meadow opened up the sky and allowed us a good view of the stars. We sat right down where we were standing and leaned back on our backpacks to watch the sky. The Milky Way was faintly visible—a subtle stripe across the sky that resembled a thin white cloud. If I looked in one spot long enough, I would see twinkling stars and then one faint, non-twinkling star move slowly across the sky. These were satellites, some bigger and some smaller, or perhaps some further and some closer.

Then, quick as a flash and just as bright, we’d see a meteor streak across the sky. The streak lasted less than a second, bright and dramatic like nature’s roman candle. It was thrilling, perhaps as thrilling as spying a bear from a safe distance, or seeing the crouched shape of a mountain lion stalking a deer from a half mile away. The night became all about contemplating the things we so rarely see: a popular hiking trail at night, meteor showers, bears and mountain lions.

I couldn’t shake the feeling of vulnerability, sitting on the ground and surrounded by the tall stalks of grass in that meadow, with the black silhouettes of mountains and hills all around.  What was watching us? Would something dare come out of the grass to investigate us? I was worried because I had a precedent for this.

Earlier this summer I was in Ridgway, Colorado with my daughter and we went for a walk in town after dark. Ridgway doesn’t have a lot of streetlights, probably for good reason. They want to keep light pollution down because the night sky there is black and spectacular. We were walking through a town park, barely able to see the trail in front of us, when an animal appeared and approached us in the darkness—a large, furry, light-colored animal with a long snout. Before I knew it was a dog, I screamed, and then I yelled at the poor thing, unsure if it was friendly or not. It must have been, because it slunk away, dejected and frightened too.

Perhaps that’s the experience that was steaming through my subconscious as I sat there, trying to relax and enjoy the night sky.

After a while, it started to get cold, so we headed back to the car. I want to do another night hike again soon. This is different than being in a tent while camping. This is different from walking alone in my neighborhood long after dark.  This feels more raw, more primitive. It’s like I’m privy to a secret world that most people don’t get to experience. Dave suggested we do a full moon snowshoe hike up near Brainard Lake in the winter. As much as that freaks me out to imagine, I’m going to do it. I’m going to open myself up to the possibility. I like challenging myself this way, leaning into my feelings of anxiety and creepiness to see what lies beneath.

Hiking and the New Cosmology

Brainard Lake – Long Lake/Isabel Glacier Trail

Location: West of Boulder, between Nederland and Estes Park, near Ward

Directions: From Boulder there are two ways of getting to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area:

1. From central Boulder take Canyon Blvd. west to Nederland, turn right (north) on Highway 72 (the Peak-to-Peak Highway) and go 11.5 miles. Turn left at the brown sign indicating the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Once you enter the park, follow the signs to Brainard Lake, and then the Long Lake trailhead parking lot.

2. From north Boulder and I-36, take Left Hand Canyon Drive west through the small town of Ward. At the T-intersection at Highway 72, turn right (north) and make your first immediate left where you see a brown sign for Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Once you enter the park, follow the signs to Brainard Lake, and then the Long Lake trailhead parking lot.

Duration: 2-1/2 to 5 hours, depending on if you go just to Isabel Lake or all the way to the top of Pawnee Pass (elevation 12,943 ft.) and back.

Access Notes: If you’re planning this hike in summer and going as far as Pawnee Pass, which is above treeline and very exposed, it’s wise to get as early of a start as possible—before 8 a.m. This way, you’re more likely to be off the mountain when afternoon summer thunderstorms and lightning occur. The Brainard Lake Recreation Area and the Long Lake and Mitchell Creek trails are one of the most popular alpine hikes near Boulder, particularly in summer and on weekends. The parking lots fill up quickly, so arrive before 8 a.m. or even earlier if you can manage it. If one of the lots is full, try the other and walk to the trailhead. That will only add 15 minutes to your hike. There are limited spaces to park along the road.

Brainard is an hour’s drive from downtown Boulder.

The Forest Service may discourage hiking the Long Lake and Mitchell Creek trails as late as mid June due to snow drifts, slush or muddy conditions on the trail by closing the parking lots to the trailheads. Check before you go by calling ahead.

There are pit toilets in the parking lot and the road all the way to the trailhead is paved. Dogs are allowed on leash, and this is strictly enforced. As of 2010, there is a $9 entrance fee per passenger car that is good for five days.

The hike:

This hike is one of the most scenic alpine hikes near Boulder, and if you’re a fan of it, you can’t wait for the snow to melt and the mud to dry in early summer so you can go all the way to Isabel Lake or even the top of Pawnee Pass. Lush green forests of pine and fir are framed by the snow-covered Indian Peaks above: Pawnee Peak to the north, Shoshoni in the middle, Navajo and Arikaree Peak to its south, and the smoother-topped and grassy Mount Albion flanking the trail to the south. At the base of the mountains is Isabel Lake and Isabel Glacier, which fills in summer and cascades down in the form of small waterfalls and brooks lined with green grasses and wildflowers.

The Isabel Glacier trail, which is accessed at the Long Lake trailhead, ends at the glacier 2 miles from the parking lot and intersects with the Pawnee Pass trail at that point. The first 1-1/2 miles up the trail are easy, with little elevation gain and a sandy trail with the occasional tree roots to watch for. The trail passes through thick pine and fir forest whose floor is lush and green in mid-summer. Long Lake will be to the south next to the trail, then later a few small meadows afford a nice view of the Indian Peaks on your way up.

At the second wooden sign for the Isabel Glacier the trail begins to gain elevation and the path becomes rocky. You’ll have to cross a waterfall on a small bridge and a few hundred feet further up, you’ll be skipping wet rocks to cross another waterfall (bring waterproof boots). Lake Isabel is over the crest past the falls—deep, dark and flowing. You may see snow banks in the crevices of the mountain peaks as late as mid-July, and you may even walk across the slushy remains of the “glacier” as you reach the lake.

Beyond and above the lake is a long, rocky climb up to Pawnee Pass that is moderate in difficulty due to the elevation gain and switchbacks. You’ll pass a rock fall where you may spot pikas or marmots. At the top, you’ll be near the Continental Divide and rewarded with a view of the lake below, Boulder to the east, and believe it or not, Lake Granby directly west and below the Pass. It’s hard to believe that Lake Granby is so close to Nederland and Boulder, since the only two ways of getting there from the Front Range by car is a long drive up I-70 and Berthold Pass, or over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. As the crow flies, however, it’s closer than you may realize.

The New Cosmology

As you reach Lake Isabel, ponder the following essay on the evolutionary role of humans.

Scientific discoveries in the last two centuries have allowed us new and amazing insight into who we are as human beings and our role on Earth. These discoveries have necessitated the telling of a new story of our origins and the purpose of our presence in the world. The old story of creation, based on religious doctrine that’s thousands of years old and adapted by Western culture, is that humans are the pinnacle of existence on Earth, that all the world’s creatures were created for our use, enjoyment and “dominion.” We are told that we are God’s favored creation and that our role is to create a loving and compassionate society to serve God, so that we may further honor and worship Him in the afterlife.

In this old story, originating mostly in monotheistic religions, humans are favored creatures apart and separate from the rest of nature. We are tasked with either caring for our more-than-human friends (in the form of “management”) or we’re given authority to use natural resources for our livelihood and prosperity in order to “go forth, be fruitful and multiply.” This paradigm has resulted in placing human endeavors as a priority over the wellbeing and health of forests, animals and oceans. It elevates the economy as the ends to justify the means, with ecology in service to the human economy.

The consequences of such a paradigm have been disastrous. Species loss on the scale of 20,000 per year, world-wide soil degradation, fresh water shortages and climate change are just a few examples of evidence that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the picture.

The question then arises, why did human beings evolve in the first place? If our presence on Earth is so destructive, where have we gone wrong? What is really our true story and purpose? Perhaps the answers lie in the new story of creation, a story that places humans at the razor’s edge of evolution and reveals a greater directive—only if we have the courage and determination to face the truth squarely and accept responsibility.

Brian Swimme, mathematical cosmologist and author, tells a new story of creation based on the last century’s scientific discoveries. (See www.brianswimme.org)

The new story starts with a flash, an explosion. It starts with the birth of the known Universe during known time—13.6 billion years ago. That’s how long ago astronomers and physicists calculate the Big Bang took place. Shortly after that moment, all that existed in space was light and energy, which eventually coalesced into matter. This matter created stars, which in turn created their own source of light and energy.

Stars have a life cycle, just like anything else. Throughout their life cycle, stars actually create elements such as hydrogen, phosphorus and oxygen. In the later stages of their life cycles, stars create iron, and since iron can’t be burned up, the star no longer can hold back its gravity. It collapses in on itself. In a split second, it goes from being a massive cauldron of energy to a tiny spec, and then explodes outward. This is called a supernova. It is the death of a star, and it is at this exact moment that the star creates its last element—carbon.

For life to even exist on Earth, carbon had to be present. Therefore, a star had to die in order for life to evolve. All of life on earth contains carbon. Without carbon, not even bacteria would exist.  You can think of living forms on Earth as the further evolution of a star. The elements in our bodies, including oxygen, hydrogen and carbon, originated in space billions of years ago when stars formed, transformed and died. Stars created the building blocks to life itself.

The Earth reflects the evolutionary process of the Universe, a process of which we are a part. Humans are not elevated above all species as we were told in the old story of creation. We are simply at the tip of evolution’s arrow, the tip of the arrow of time, an arrow that has traveled the path of ever-increasing complexity and interconnectedness from its origins 13.6 billion years ago.

Here’s something else to think about: Life existed for 3.5 billion years before creatures evolved eyesight. The ability to see isn’t necessary for life. So why did life evolve eyes? Furthermore, why did it evolve a brain, or a consciousness?

This is the mystery that is endlessly fascinating and unanswerable. It is examined within the context of Brian Swimme’s writings and also in anthropologist Loren Eisley’s book, The Immense Journey. If life doesn’t need eyes or a brain to survive and thrive (bacteria and single-celled organisms don’t, for example), why is it that life developed refinements with respect to the senses? Some animals have hearing and eyesight ten or a hundred times more acute than ours. We have the largest mental capacity of all mammals. Other life forms may have evolved communication that is beyond our capacity to perceive or understand.

One might say that the imperative of life is to simply survive and reproduce, but if that were really the case, then wouldn’t evolution just stop at single-celled organisms or bacteria? They are very efficient at reproduction.

Perhaps life itself wanted to deepen its understanding and awareness of itself and its origins. It wanted to see more, hear more and sense more. Ultimately, in the form of humans on Earth, life is now able to contemplate itself, look light years beyond the boundaries of our solar system, ponder the past and future, touch and examine not just everything within our immediate grasp but also rocks and soil from the moon and nearby planets. We as humans have a capacity to care deeply for one another and for the Earth itself. We can have spiritual experiences and feel wonder and a communion with things beyond our immediate grasp.

One of the theories about why we developed and evolved as humans was that a genetic mutation in our evolutionary past slowed down our rate of development. We remain children much longer than any other mammal species. This makes us more dependent on our parents for guidance and education, but also prolongs the period during which we feel wonder and curiosity about the world. We aren’t born with instincts. We must learn everything we need to know about how to survive in the world from our parents and our society. We are who we are and we know what we know because of 200,000 years of human culture that has been passed down to each generation, through books, stories, art or tradition.

If stars evolved into humans in order to be self-aware, what is our purpose as human beings in the Universe? Right now we are living at a time of a great mass extinction, one that happens only once every 100 million years. In the past, these cataclysmic events took place because of external forces: asteroid impacts, super volcanoes, rapid climate change, advancing and receding glaciers. This time, however, humans are the primary driving force behind this latest extinction. We have displaced species, destroyed habitats and polluted our oceans, lakes and rivers. If the arrow of evolution has led to this moment, why is this happening? Is it because we are simply a transient species, soon to be extinct ourselves to make room for a more complex, even more perceptive beings?

There’s simply no reason to think that the “bucks stops here” (at humans) when it comes to evolution. Everything is constantly in flux. Millions of species of birds, insects, mammals and reptiles have come and gone since the dawn of creation. The only thing we can surmise from looking at the past is that things change constantly and evolution tended toward more complex, more aware life forms. Sometimes the experiments failed, and sometimes they persisted. Where evolution goes next is unknown.

Our challenge now is to identify our true role, thereby creating a new society of humans who live with the Earth community, not apart from it.

The Activity

Consider that you are the end result of the Universe attempting to know itself, to see itself, to perceive itself.

What do you think is human’s role in the Universe?

Do you think that because animals have evolved to be increasingly more complex and aware, evolution has a purpose? What do you think that purpose is?

Really think on the idea that YOU are the Universe, and that you are now seeing, feeling and hearing yourself for the first time. You are awakening to the end result of billions of years of change, upheaval, death, birth, and adaptation. You are perceiving creation, the force of life and change. How do you see the Earth and all its creatures and landscapes? What would you change in the future? What would you keep the same?

Knowing there are forces of destruction on Earth, whether man-made or natural, that are creating great changes in the ecology of the planet, how does it make you feel to know that you are living at such a time? Does it frighten you or empower you?

What do you think is your personal role in the evolution of the planet at this point in time? In other words, what do you think you’re supposed to do with your time on Earth?

My New Favorite Front Range Hiking Trail (Shhh…Don’t Tell Anyone)

Fowler to Goshawk Trail

Location: About a mile east of the town of Eldorado Springs

Directions: Take Highway 93 from Golden or Boulder, turn west on CO-170, go 2.7 miles to Boulder County Road 67, turn left. Go about ½ mile where the road ends and park near the trailhead on the east side where it is allowed.

Duration: Approximately 2 hours

Route: from the parking lot, start along the Fowler Trail and follow signs to the Goshawk Ridge Trail. At the first intersection, veer right (north). Take the Goshawk Ridge Trail for about 2-1/2 miles. Once you cross a bridge, turn left on the Springbrook North trail and return via the Fowler Trail to the trailhead where you parked

Access Notes: The parking lot for this trailhead only has space for about a half dozen cars. If you arrive mid-morning on a weekend or when there’s a lot of use, you will have to park at the South Mesa Trail or Dowdy Draw parking lot and walk up the road to the trailhead, which will add about a mile to your hike. If you park at the Dowdy Draw Trailhead and hike to the Goshawk Ridge Trail from the Dowdy Draw Trail, you’ll add about 4 miles to your hike. I recommend starting at the Fowler trailhead to experience more of the contemplative aspects of this wonderful and less-traveled trail. Dogs are not allowed on the Goshawk Ridge Trail.

The 1.2 mile Goshawk Ridge Trail that forms a loop of the Fowler Trail was constructed in January, 2009, so it’s a relatively new area that has opened up to the public in the Eldorado Springs area. The day I hiked this trail was my first time. I would have to say that the beautiful variations in the landscape and the solitary nature of the walk due to its lack of popularity (not many know about it and there’s not a lot of parking) make this my favorite hiking trail within a half an hour of the Denver/Boulder suburbs.

Looking west to Eldorado Canyon from Fowler Trail.

I arrived at this trail at 8:30 a.m. on a sunny, cool Saturday in late spring. On road up to the trailhead I drove past the South Mesa Trail and Dowdy Draw parking lots, both of which were almost filled with weekend visitors. A mile up the road, at the Fowler trailhead, the parking area was comparatively empty: only about a half dozen cars lined the road outside of the “No Parking” signs.

Someone told me about this special trail a couple of months ago, touting it as incredibly scenic and lovely, and now that I’ve experienced it myself I hesitate to even advertise its location publicly. It feels like a hidden gem in an area that I call the “Disneyland of hiking”: all the popular Boulder trails west of Broadway that can become as crowded as a stroll down Pearl Street on warm weekends. Runners, hikers, families, and dogs making steady progress up and down the foothills between Boulder and northern Jefferson County. Unless you want to drive an hour into the mountains, you’d be hard-pressed to find solitude for your hike on a mild day, let alone on a weekend, this close to town. So finding this trail felt remarkable to me, like a secret that only certain “insiders” were privy to.

Rock cut passage

As you begin the walk on the Fowler Trail toward Goshawk Ridge Trail, you’ll cross a sloped meadow where deer like to graze early in the morning or late in the afternoon. You’ll switchback toward the northwest and come across one of this trail’s unique aspects: a man-made cut through the rock wall that you walk through and beyond which you’ll find yourself standing on a ridge overlooking the small town of Eldorado Springs below. This is just the first of many pleasant or delightful characteristics of the Fowler/Goshawk Trail, most of which I won’t mention in this essay because if this is your first time on this trail, you’ll want to allow yourself to be surprised at each turn.

The Relationship Between Landscape and Mood

The Goshawk Ridge Trail has a variety of landscapes and can evoke many kinds of subtle differences in mood, depending on what time of day you go or the weather. There’s a cozy, wooded canyon with a stream crossing. There are expansive views of Boulder County. There’s the not-too-distant whistle of the cargo or passenger train that snakes its way around the hills directly above and west of the trail. There’s a walk across a green meadow with wildflowers. There is also a walk through dead trees once ravaged by fire, and the quiet fortitude of a wide, flat forest that seems to go on for miles.

Fuzzy purple Pasque flowers were blooming on May 8th along the Goshawk Ridge Trail

I want to express my own feelings in each of these landscapes, but I don’t want to influence your own thoughts and feelings as you travel the trail. I’m sure each of these particular locales and changes in surroundings will affect you in different ways than it affected me. It also depends on the weather on the day you go. It may be foggy or cloudy, cold or muggy.

View of the small town of Eldorado Springs from the Fowler Trail

Whenever you come across an area that evokes a particular feeling in you, stop and note where you are, describing your surroundings and your mood. Do you feel frightened? Apprehensive? Peaceful? Relaxed? Bring a notebook along on your hike and write down your answers.

Even though the Goshawk Ridge Trail has only recently been constructed and open to the public, there is evidence of past human use and habitation. Can you spot evidence of human activity in the area?

How does this make you feel to see that this natural, relatively remote trail was once used in different ways for different purposes by people? How does it define “progress” in your mind?

April Wildflowers

Prairie Chickweed

This is a great contemplative hike for children and families. It doesn’t need to be silent.

Location: Between Eldorado Springs and South Boulder.

Directions: Take Highway 93 from Golden or Boulder, turn west on CO-170, go 1.7 miles to the South Mesa trailhead. Park on the north side.

Duration: Approximately 2 hours

Route: from the parking lot, start along the Mesa Trail to the South Boulder Creek Trail, which heads east.

Access Notes: The parking lot for this trailhead gets full early in the morning on weekends. Arrive before 8:30 a.m. to improve your chances of finding a parking spot. Otherwise, try parking on the south lot and walk over. Do not park on the road, you will get a ticket. Dogs are allowed. To avoid being trampled by other hikers or off-leash dogs while viewing delicate wildflowers, come very early or on weekdays.

(For this hike, you’ll want to bring a wildflower field guide, preferably one about Rocky Mountain or North American wildflowers).

The best time to do this hike is late April to early May, when the first delicate wildflowers appear after all the snow has melted. If it’s been a particularly mild winter, it may be better to come as early as mid-April.

Narrow Goldenrod

Starting out from the South Mesa Trail, it feels odd to veer to the east onto the South Boulder Creek trail and head back toward Boulder and away from the trees and quiet wilderness of the more western trails. The path is down a rocky, narrow gouge in the grass through the meadows and hills that slope gradually downward as you approach the rumble of Highway 93 and Marshall. There are large and small boulders throughout the meadow where you can sit and rest and listen to the birds.

Starting in March or April, you’ll hear the pretty song of the meadowlark, but good luck trying to spot him! He’s small and light brown and usually perches on a fencepost or tall reed of grass. He has the loudest voice in the meadow to attract mates, but camouflages himself well to avoid predators. You may also spot a stellar jay, a magpie, a crow or even some mountain bluebirds.

Closer to Highway 93 you’ll see a row of large cottonwoods and hear the creek. If you turn around before you get to the road, you’ll have walked about 2 hours, roundtrip.

This is the flower that turns embankments and fields purple this time of year. What is it called?

The Small and Quiet Voices of April

What is this flower called?

April isn’t typically the month that comes to mind when you think about wildflowers. A plethora of colorful prairie flowers bloom in May further east in the plains, like at the Pawnee National Grasslands. Mountain trails above 8,000 feet are almost always still covered in snow in April, so there aren’t many flowers there, not until June or July. But in fact, you can spot quite a few species of flowers this early in the spring, and close to town, if you slow down and actually search for them.

They’re not obvious. Like alpine and tundra flowers, they’re small and low to the ground to keep warm and sheltered from harsh storms and wind. They hug rocks or grow in disturbed areas close to the trail—maybe even right in the middle of the trail.

When I went out on a mission to search out and photograph these flowers, I was surprised at how many different types I found. In my usual non-contemplative “exercise” mode, I barely notice anything except the general landscape: the rolling green hills, the ponderosas, the rocky spires and flatirons to the west. But slowing down and getting closer to the ground brought a new awareness. These flowers are the small, quiet voices in April. They’re delicate and delightful, growing quickly and without much pomp or circumstance as soon as the snow melts. They attract the early crowd of flies and moths, perhaps some bees too on warmer days. They’re not revered or celebrated as much as their mid-summer cousins like the Indian paintbrush or the larkspur. They don’t bring in crowds of admirers. For this reason, I found them to be worthy of contemplation.

Caterpillar Hatch

If you brought your field guide on this hike, it’s fun to try to actually identify a few of the species by name. It requires a close inspection and careful comparison. The flowers may be the same as the photo, but the leaves may be different. Try to study one flower from the tip of its stamen all the way down to the base of its stem and leaves. Feel the petals, caress the leaves.

What do these early bloomers tell you about yourself, or nature, or the change in seasons?

Are there any species that seem to be blooming earlier than the field guide states? Later?

White Sand Lily

The April wildflowers are the small, quiet voices of the meadow—pretty but unassuming. They are easily overlooked when your attention is on the louder, more obvious beings, like melodious meadowlarks or the visually soothing carpet of green grass across the hills. What small and quiet voice inside you are you ignoring because it’s being upstaged by louder, more insistent messages?

Yellow Prairie Violet

From Colorado to Arizona in 25 Minutes

Hall Ranch trail
Hall Ranch
Wet Beaver trail, near Valley Verde, Arizona
This photo was taken near Valley Verde, Arizona. Looks like Hall Ranch, doesn't it?

I didn’t actually travel from Colorado to Arizona in 25 minutes, but if you look at photos from a week ago, you can see how I might feel this way. In one week, the Front Range weather went blowing snow, accumulations of up to a foot of heavy white stuff and temperatures in the 20s, to a balmy, summer-like 80 degrees and dry, sunny conditions. Alas, this isn’t some crazy example of climate change—at least not around these parts. This is typical for springtime in Denver.

To really get the contrast going in my brain, I selected a hike where I suspected I wouldn’t encounter any lingering piles of snow or too much mud—Hall Ranch in Lyons, Colorado. This is about a 25 minute drive north of Boulder (and 45 minutes from my house in Westminster). Hiking in Hall Ranch today felt like I was beamed up to some random trail in Arizona. It was downright HOT, cacti grow everywhere, and all that was needed to complete the illusion was the lonely screech of a circling hawk or vulture (ha!).

This is the first hike I’ve been on this year where I saw signs of spring: green grass, tiny alpine flowers blooming, frogs croaking in a pond, the re-emergence of sage. It was exciting. I pinched off a bit of sage growing near a rock on the trail and sniffed deeply, smelling summer and campfires and vacations and carefree feelings.

Skye and I rounded a corner at one point and heard a low cacophony which was unmistakably the mating calls of toads and frogs. We knew there had to be a pond or lake nearby, and sure enough, we spotted a small brown pond below the trail. The sound was strangely loud and comical in the context of that hot, dusty and (otherwise) silent trail.

Croak-a, crowwwwk, creek creek creek…

We descended down to the pond, where we enjoyed the amphibian orchestra for a few minutes before one of them got wind of us, then they ALL shut up very abruptly.

We tried to spot the frogs along the bank, but couldn’t. We did, however, see a yellow and black salamander surfacing a couple of times.

I enjoyed my trip to summer and to the “desert” today.  Beam me up, Scotty, I’m ready for June!!

alpine flower springpond at Hall Ranch