A Post-Blizzard Spring Hike

The Front Range got anywhere from 8-16″ of snow yesterday (3-23-10), and this was a heavy, moisture-laden snow. The clouds parted this morning and the sun is now melting away the evidence of an early spring blizzard.

These are photos taken from Chautauqua – one at the Ranger Station and one from the McClintock Trail. Snow was sliding off tree limbs as we passed underneath, giving the impression that the trees were throwing snowballs at us. It was beautiful. The trail was already well-traversed at lunchtime this morning, indicating that many people were eager to experience a little beauty in their day.

boulder flatirons
Boulder Flatirons covered in snow. Taken from Chautauqua parking lot.
trail in snow
Mcclintock trail post-blizzard at Chautauqua

The Ranger Trail (Green Mountain Lodge)

Ranger Trail BoulderI have to be honest with you. Most of the time when I go on a hike, it’s not to be contemplative. This is especially true when I’m with my husband and daughter. Since contemplative hiking requires a great deal of presence and therefore silence, it’s not always the right activity for us. Sometimes hiking is all about getting outside, getting some exercise and spending time together.

Green Mountain Lodge cottage
Green Mountain Lodge cottage

The day we hiked up the Ranger Trail in Boulder (Green Mountain Lodge) on March 12th was the first time I had been on that trail. It’s a very good trail for getting exercise. It’s a steady climb up without being crazy steep or sketchy. There was still plenty of snow on the trail, sometimes slushy, sometimes iced over. The trail is nestled on the crevice of two forested hills, one of which you’re summiting, so it’s shady and enclosed the first 45 minutes of hiking. The trees there feel taller and the light gets filtered through them in such a way as to make it seem a bit ethereal. No more than an eighth of the way up is a stone cottage that was closed for the season. I dubbed it the “Hansel and Gretel house” because of its strange location in the woods. It’s actually the Green Mountain Lodge, which I assume is available in the summer for group rentals and picnics.

At the crest of the first hill, you begin to catch a glimpse of the snow-capped mountains to the west—Long’s Peak and everything to its south. Up ahead and looming to the south of the trail is Green Mountain, still a distance to go before reaching the summit.

view from Ranger TrailI’m looking forward to coming back here to this trail in the summer. It has such a different feel than a lot of the trails around the Front Range: shadowy, with taller trees that make you feel like you’ve stepped into a fairy tale. The views of Boulder and of the Divide don’t open up all at once, they peek out and tease you from between trees, only to disappear again when you take a few steps forward or back.

This place feels like a secret, a retreat from the world, an impression I’m sure was heightened because we were the only people on the trail the entire way up, and on the way down ran into a couple of college students sitting on a stump, smoking a joint.

shadowy trail

The Spirit of a Place — The Anne White Trail, Boulder

stream

Location: Approximately 1.5 miles west of Broadway in north Boulder

Directions: From Boulder, take Lee Hill Road west exactly one mile west of Broadway to Wagon Wheel Gap and turn left (the street sign is nonexistent or hard to see, so watch your odometer). From Wagon Wheel Gap Road, turn left on Pinto Drive. Go the very end of Pinto Drive where it dead ends. You’ll come to a small parking lot at the trailhead.

Access Notes: The parking lot for this trail is limited to 5 spaces, so arrive early or go during a weekday. There is no other nearby parking and street parking is prohibited along the narrow dirt roads. Dogs are allowed on a leash and bikes are not allowed, so you don’t have to worry about negotiating the trail with bicyclists riding past. This is a very shady canyon, so mud or snow will still be on the ground when other, more exposed trails have already melted and dried out in winter, spring and fall.

The Anne White Trail

The Anne White trail is a hidden jewel in Boulder.  With all the hiking I’ve done through the years in Boulder, I didn’t even know about this trail until recently when my husband discovered it and took me there. In the summer, the deep canyon walls, trees and foliage that surround this trail make it a shady respite from the heat. Because of its location away from a main road limited parking, it’s also a good place to go for a quiet, relatively un-crowded hike.

The trail curves back and forth, back and forth over a small creek, so that most of the time you’re hiking, you’re following the flow or sound of water. Rocks are placed strategically in the stream at crossing points, requiring a little bit of balance to get across without getting your boots wet. The combination of shade and moisture has created large, green mossy areas on north-facing rock outcroppings.  This is a wonderful place to see wildflowers in July. Berry bushes also thrive along the creekbed, so black bear sightings are not uncommon during foraging season. What’s most unique about this trail are the rock outcroppings and overhangs—places you can just imagine cougars are stretched out, napping or quietly watching as you walk past. A sign at the trailhead warns that this is cougar habitat, and although sightings are “rare”, it’s prudent to be watchful when you’re with children and small dogs, especially at dawn and dusk.

What is the spirit of a place?

When you spend enough time in any one place, you come to realize that it has a certain feel to it—a spirit, if you will. Think about any place you’ve gone or spent time that has felt incredibly relaxing and familiar to you. Maybe it’s your grandmother’s farm or a beach somewhere in a warm climate.  Think about a place that you avoid or don’t particularly enjoy.

There are places that feel welcoming and warm and there are places that feel ominous and cold. Places can have a “vibe” all on their own because of some mysterious reason, or they can remind you of something, so the feeling you get is related to a past experience or deeply buried memory.

For several years my family and I owned a vacation home in Fairplay, Colorado. The house was situated at an altitude of 11,250 feet, on top of a forested hill overlooking Mt. Sherman and Sheep Mountain across a valley, with the distance tops of the Buffalo Peaks visible between the two mountains. When we were searching to buy a cabin in the mountains in 2005, we knew we wanted a place with a spectacular view, so that we could feel surrounded by that awesome and ancient splendor. That is exactly what we got when we bought the place. But we hadn’t spent enough time up there before buying the house to really get a feel for the spirit of the place.

It wasn’t quite what we expected.

I don’t know exactly why, but after spending several weekends up there, we realized that area in Fairplay felt forbidding and lonely to us. There was a spirit that felt ancient and harsh, wild and untamable. It’s not that we were living in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing. Our house was one of about a half dozen homes on a dead-end street, two of which were occupied full-time and the rest vacation homes that were visited by their owners only a few times a year. The “Valley of the Sun,” as the development was called, had hundreds of homes nestled in the pine trees, each sitting on anywhere from 1-10 acres. We were only about a half hour’s drive from Breckenridge and a 15 minute drive down the mountain from downtown Fairplay, a small town with maybe only several hundred residents.

Every time we went up to our mountain house, I remember the landscape evoking two distinct feelings in my subconscious—a deep and depressing loneliness and at the same time, a longing for wildness and freedom. I liked how quiet it was there, and how private it felt. But at the same time I could barely tolerate being there alone, especially at night. It felt foreboding and eerie. The spirit of the place was like a wild and dangerous animal, asleep during the day and awake and on the prowl at night.

I remember one day in late September up there when the weather was already starting to change (summers lasted only weeks at that altitude). A low cloud bank had rolled in and was crouching over the peaks, leaving the thinnest blanket of first autumn snow on their flanks. When I looked up at the misty, snowy peaks I suddenly felt aware of time passing and the inevitability of my own aging, and even death! The cold, creepy hand of winter was already stroking the mountains, and the cheerfulness of summer had barely waned. Talk about depressing!

Before we sold our Fairplay house we asked some friends who had stayed up there if they felt anything unusual about it and what they thought was the spirit of the place. They said they, too, felt a loneliness and creepiness that was almost inexplicable. It was a beautiful location. It was peaceful. There was fresh air. But it was creepy. Go figure.

I wonder if part of the reason for those feelings had to do with the fact that the entire area was once a hub for gold and silver mining. Not only were the mountain gouged and raped of their integrity, but many people and horses died while trying to make a go of it in those harsh and oxygen deprived conditions. Does the experience of the land have anything to do with the feeling we get from it? What about the fact that there are thousand-year-old bristlecone pine trees growing in that area, like nowhere else in the state? It could explain the ancient, wild vibe. Those trees cling to the mountains with an arthritic grip, twisted and half dead but regal in their longevity. They’ve seen so much in their lifetimes. They’ve seen blizzards and gale force winds and humans move in and out of the landscape, pillaging and bulldozing and cutting down their relatives.  They’ve felt the searing sunlight on their trunks and the bitter cold of minus 30 in the dark reaches of December. Maybe the trees feel a sadness and longing, and because I had so little to distract me up there, I started to sense that on an unconscious level.

The activity

The Anne White trail is nothing at all like the mountains of Fairplay. For one thing, there are no bristlecone pines or mining claims this close to Boulder. There are no 14,000 foot mountains looming in the near distance. But this trail does have a spirit, a feeling, a personality. The question is, can you sense it?

Begin the hike by setting an intention to be open to feeling the spirit of this place. You want to sense, with your heart and eyes and ears what the rocks and trees and animals sense. What do they know that you don’t know about the place they call home?

After you set your intention, select a place that will be your threshold for crossing into sacred space and time. It could be the metal barrier at the trailhead, or if that doesn’t quite feel right, it can be the first stream crossing after you’ve had a few minutes to walk the trail. After you cross the threshold, consider any feelings or images that come to mind as communication from The Other.

At some point during your hike, you may notice a shift in the way you feel. You will feel happier, creepier, more alert, frightened or suddenly depressed. You’ll suddenly stop and feel drawn to a spot. Or you’ll feel like you want to move on as quickly as possible. If you slow down and really allow yourself the space of quiet mindfulness, this shift will come. It may or may not have anything to do with what you’re thinking about in the moment.

If you’ve had a lot of contemplative hiking experience, you’ll easily recognize this shift in perception.

When this shift happens, stop walking. Find a place to either sit down or stand still away from the trail (in case someone is walking ahead or behind you). Close your eyes and really deepen the experience. Lean into the feeling. If having your eyes closed takes away from the perception, keep your eyes open and allow the experience to wash over you. Don’t rush it. Stay still and allow yourself to feel as long as you like.

In this moment, in this place, what is the feeling you’re channeling?

What do you think the spirit of this place is?

What kinds of things do you think the rocks, trees and animals have seen in their lifetime? Imagine it. See it in your mind’s like you would see a time-lapse photo.

Are you aware of any personal memories or experiences that you think may be affecting the way your feel at this moment? For example, maybe something about this place reminds you of a childhood trip, a photo you’ve seen, a place you’ve dreamed about visiting.

How much does knowing this place is a habitat for large predators affect your experience? Do you think you have an unreasonable fear of cougars or bears that is coloring your experience? (I know it’s hard for me to forget about that when I pass under rock outcroppings!)

Winter Fatigue and the Power of Now

hiking wild basin in winter
Wild Basin in winter, Rocky Mountain National Park,

Location: Wild Basin, northwest between Allenspark and Meeker, Colo.

Directions: From Boulder, take US 36 to Lyons then take Hwy 7 to Allenspark/Estes Park. The big brown sign for Wild Basin will be slightly past Allenspark but before the town of Meeker.

Access notes: This hike is located on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park in Wild Basin. In the winter there is no cost to enter the park at this location, but you will need to purchase a park pass in the summer. Dogs are not allowed in the park at any time. Arrive early in order to secure a parking space at the trailhead in winter (before 10 a.m.) The road may be snowpacked or icy in winter, but level so it’s passable with any passenger car, as long as there hasn’t been a lot of recent accumulation.

cross country skiing wild basin trailIn winter, depending on the precipitation, Wild Basin is a pleasant snowshoe, YakTrax hike or cross-country ski. The terrain from the winter recreation parking lot to the warming hut is fairly flat, surrounded by forest on both sides, with only slight undulations of the trail through the trees. There are hills on either side and mountains to the west—Copeland Mountain is the tallest nearby peak at 13,176 ft. and the second tallest is Ouzel at 12,716 ft. You can’t see the peaks very well while following the first couple of miles or so of the trail. St. Vrain creek runs alongside the wide trail after it forks off from Ouzel Creek about 4 miles up the trail. You have the option of staying on the wider, flatter path or venturing off into the side trails where hikers with snowshoes have blazed a lane. The side trails meander into the trees and roll up and down, steeply at times, around giant lichen-covered boulders.

The trails keep going west for several miles, so you can make this hike as long or short as you like. I did this one on a weekend winter morning as a two-hour roundtrip.

Growing weary of winter and hiking in the snow

By late winter, I’m getting sick of snow and tired of the cold weather. I can’t say exactly why, except that I start to grow weary of seeing brown everywhere and I want to get outside and start planting seeds in the garden. In previous years, I hadn’t done much winter hiking. I had gone cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, but mostly on established and groomed trails where you have to buy a pass. Not to mention that the thought of going on a hike when it’s 20 degrees outside and snowing seemed absurd in the past—I’d much rather be sitting around the fire reading a good book and smelling a slow-cooking stew simmering on the stove than subject myself to that sloppy, bone-chilling mess.

But this year was different. Armed with a good 4-wheel drive vehicle, YakTrax, snowshoes and decent winter attire, I didn’t let gray, cold weather stop me from enjoying natural places that were an hour or less away from home. So many people hike in the winter along the Front Range that it’s almost as accessible as hiking in the summer. Trails are packed down and obvious from use (sometimes even more obvious than in the summer) and roads around here don’t stay icy or treacherous for long after it snows, especially in late winter when the sun is beginning to gain intensity. Hiking in the winter has its advantages for sure: relative solitude, silence, lots of parking on weekends, no mud (on a good year), no bears (they’re hibernating), and a good workout burning a lot of calories to stay warm.

snow in woodsEven so, I was getting tired of hiking in the snow. It was late winter, only three weeks before the official start of spring. I wanted to smell the greenness of a summer day in the mountains already. I wanted to see Columbines blooming in the shade of the lodgepoles and ponderosas. I wanted to see green hills, little mountain blue birds, waterfalls, mossy stream banks and clumps of Indian Paintbrush and little white daisies. This late in the season, I’m itching for the next thing.

It was with this attitude that I set my intention on this particular hike. My intention was to find a way to be grateful for winter, to appreciate its qualities, because in a month or so the weather would change and mud season would begin. I intended to think of all the things I like about hiking in the snow and in winter and keep those aspects in mind, so I could eke out another month or two of enjoyment.

As I started the hike another important contemplative principle came to mind, one which I felt was even more important than mere appreciation or gratitude for something that’s starting to feel “old hat.” And that is the principle of presence, and the Power of Now.

In his book, “The Power of Now,” Eckhart Tolle describes a period in his life when he felt so suicidal and anxious, he felt little appreciation or gratitude toward anything. One morning, as he lay in bed surveying the dark shadows of his room, he became overwhelmed with a feeling of fear. Instead of resisting, he allowed himself to get “sucked into a void” and let the darkness overtake him. When he awoke several hours later, he suddenly and inexplicably felt no fear at all. Instead, he felt wonder at everything: the bird chirping outside, the way the light fell through the curtains, the objects in the room. This peak experience marked a new beginning for Tolle. Instead of feeling burdened with depression and hopelessness, he spent the next two years simply…being. He writes in his book that he “had no relationships, no job, no home, no socially defined identity.” He spent almost two years sitting on park benches, but instead of feeling depressed or empty about it, he was in an almost constant state of wonder and joy.

This was the revelation of Tolle’s “power of now.” He was able to enjoy the moment without allowing his mind to indulge of fantasies of “what if” or obsessing about all the things that should be or could be.

Tolle writes that the pain or discomfort in our lives is the result of not being able to accept our circumstances, or a resistance to what is. My resistance to the fact that it was still winter and that it was going to be several months more of bare trees and snow on the ground in the mountains was making me feel irritable. It was causing me to suffer when I didn’t have to.

There’s a way to obtain relief from suffering and worry, resistance and anxiety. All you have to do is disassociate yourself from ego, get out of your head and snap right into the present moment. This contemplative activity is about doing just that.

The activity

At the start of the hike, consider all the things you are resisting right now, all the ways in which you’re suffering. These can take many forms. Ask yourself:

Is there something I wish I could be doing?

Is there someone I wish were with me right now?

Is there an event in the near or distant future that causes me worry or fear?

Has something happened recently to make me feel bad about myself?

Have I been daydreaming about a different time, a different place or a different circumstance in life?

When I did this hike, it was as benign a discomfort as feeling a bit burned out on winter and wishing for summer.

Set your intention to stay completely and utterly present. Enjoy the moment, and don’t let your mind wander to the negative thoughts that are associated with your mind and ego.

The way Tolle describes this exercise in his book is very simple.

Whenever you feel yourself descending into any kind of despair, ask yourself: Am I okay now?

To demonstrate the simplicity and power of this exercise, imagine sitting in the waiting room of an attorney’s office, waiting for your appointment so you can file bankruptcy. This would normally feel very depressing, would it not?

But if you were in this situation, all you have to do is ask, are you okay now? Are you feeling well? Is there food in your stomach? Are you breathing in and out without obstruction? Right now, right this minute?

You’ll probably answer yes at first, but add a disclaimer…

“But I’m losing  everything, but I’m a failure, but what will my friends and family think, but what will I do now?”

All that stuff is stuff of ego and mental projection. It’s about fussing over a thing that really isn’t a thing at all, and that’s your ego. It’s your ambition, your pride, your sense of self. Those aren’t things and they don’t really exists outside your mind. And that’s the beauty of snapping yourself right back to the present. You realize that that which DOES exist—your body and the environment around you—is actually doing just fine in this moment.

On the hike, as you find your mind veering into unpleasant thoughts, ask yourself, am I okay now? Is everything around me okay now? By doing so you will come to realize how much your mind plays a role in your happiness and sense of wellbeing. Everything may be perfectly okay, but you can still drive yourself into a state of malaise just by creating stories in your mind about the past or the future and then believing them.

Wild Basin
Wild Basin, early morning, winter: enjoy solitude and quiet

Look around at the trees and the sky. Realize that everything is as it should be, and that you are well enough to be hiking, that you are alive in the moment, and that nothing is hurting you right this second.

If you feel thirsty, take a drink. If you’re in discomfort in some way physically, see what you can do to shift your body or stretch or rearrange your pack.

The more you come back to the present, the more you’ll find it easier to slow down and take in the surroundings. You’ll hear the screechy call of a bluejay and you’ll stop to acknowledge him. You’ll look up the hillside at the trees and see the way they sway in the breeze or wind. You’ll realize that you have a feeling about this place, whether it’s late February or mid-July, and that you can enjoy it in this moment without ruining it by thoughts of “I wish it were something else.”

We humans are not just creatures of habit, as the saying goes, we’re also creatures of novelty. We like to be entertained in both small and dramatic ways. The problem is that we don’t enjoy what we get long enough, and as soon as we get something or achieve something, we start to desire something else or something more.

This endless cycle of desire, consumption, boredom, desire, consumption, boredom is not just depriving us from experiencing a decent amount of joy and gratitude, but it’s also causing untold damage to our planet. Vicki Robin, author of “Your Money Or Your Life” said during a teleclass I listened to, that as Americans we have a warped notion of what “freedom” really is. Freedom is not the ability to do anything, anytime, any place without regard to limits. True freedom is setting up reasonable limits, knowing when we’ve had enough and therefore being able to be truly happy and fulfilled more often. There’s a bell curve to consumption and fulfillment. We need certain things for our wellbeing and beyond that, to feel comfort. But if we start to do or purchase too much, it becomes more of a hassle to try to maintain (all our possessions, all our hobbies). The enjoyment we get from it dwindles.

At some mid-point in your hike, while you’re walking on the trail, stop and ask yourself what you really need in the moment to be happy. Do you have what you need in THIS moment?

If not, what is it that you need in order to feel more comfortable or fulfilled?

Then go back to now. Be aware of everything around you now. The sound of the stream below the trail. The sway of branches. The call of birds and squirrels. The way the clouds are moving overhead. The snow that’s blanketing the nearby mountains. If you don’t stay in the present moment, you may just miss all of the wonderful things about winter in the mountain forest.

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Sunset Hike Up Sugarloaf Mountain

Fifteen minutes west of Boulder is a little cone-shaped hill called Sugarloaf Mountain. It resembles the head of an elephant in a way, with its bald scalp and what looks like sparse, spiky hair sticking up on one side, which are actually the weathered barks of burned trees which remained after a fire swept over the hill many years ago. There’s an established trail that winds around and up the hill, in a sort of wiggly half-spiral, all the way to the summit. Hiking up this trail makes me think of walking up the side of a soft-serve ice cream cone, with the reward in this case being an incredible and breathtaking 360 degree view of the landscape once you reach the top. To the east, there is Boulder and the plains. To the west, the entire expanse of the Divide. To the north, the foothills of Loveland and Ft. Collins, and to the south, the dark green and brown foothills of Boulder.

sugarloaf mountain trail
The trail on Sugarloaf winds around in a half-spiral to the top.

This isn’t a well-known or well-traveled trail. Even in the summer, only a few people come here on weekends, and when I went there yesterday (Friday afternoon), I was the only person on the trail. It made for an extraordinarily peaceful and contemplative hike.

You get to this trail by driving west on Canyon Boulevard out of Boulder, then turning onto Sugarloaf Road several miles down the canyon, past the Red Lion restaurant but well before Boulder Falls. You drive another 4.7 miles or so on Sugarloaf Road and turn right on Sugarloaf Mountain Road. If you’re not tracking your mileage or paying attention it’s easy to miss, because this is a sidestreet up a residential area of homes that set nestled all along the rolling, pine-covered hills. You will see Sugarloaf Mountain before you arrive at the intersection. The hill juts out of the landscape, with thick spruce and pine trees growing up one side, a grassy slope trailing down the other, and at the top are a cluster of sun-bleached trees stripped bare of their bark and branches (the “elephant head”).

Once you turn right on Sugarloaf Mountain Road, you’ll drive up a windy dirt road about a mile or so until you get to a wider area (almost, but not quite a dead end) where you’ll be able to park. The trail starts in the trees, not along the established dirt roads that junction off the parking lot (one of which is the 4WD, unmaintained Switzerland Trail). There’s a rusty bar across the rocky slope that signals “no motorized vehicles” at the start of the foot trail. Walk beyond that and you’ll pick up the trail.

You’ll need YakTrax if there’s any snow or ice on the trail, which there was plenty of yesterday. The walk is slightly steep at times and it’s easy to lose your footing if you aren’t properly equipped. Although this trail isn’t as popular as others in Boulder such as Chautauqua, when there is snow on the ground there are plenty of boot tracks that indicate which way to go. It’s not as obvious toward the bottom of the hill, where the trail winds around back and forth before it begins its narrower ascent around the outer edge of Sugarloaf.

Because this hike is well west of Boulder, it is very quiet. You’ll hear the occasional car struggling up the steep road below or a barking dog. Otherwise, there is very little road noise. You’ll be able to hear the chattering and cheeping of birds in the trees. Yesterday I saw several robins (is that typical? Not sure). A squirrel may also announce your presence, and I’m sure it’s possible that deer frequent the trail lower down at the base of the hill.

This hike could be very windy, since the hill sticks up out of the landscape so much and is situated between the plains and the Divide. Yesterday was unusually calm, almost no breeze at all, not even at the top. It made it even more quiet without the rustling of the wind through the trees.

This hike is by far my favorite in Boulder when it comes to views. Since I planned it to be a sunset hike on a very clear, very crisp winter day, I knew that I would be in for a lot of beauty. That’s why I decided to turn it around on myself and open up to a slightly different experience: waiting for beauty to present itself to me, since I came looking for it in the first place.

The Activity

This is meant to be a sunset or sunrise hike, so plan on arriving at least one hour before the official time of either, since this hike will take you about an hour, roundtrip. Bring a flashlight in case it’s dark when you’re walking down or up in low light.

At the start of every contemplative hike it’s good to stop and set an intention. It’s best to do it out loud, although if you’re alone and there are other hikers nearby it may feel a little bit embarrassing (“oh great, another weirdo on the trail talking to herself”). The intension on this particular hike is to be mindful, but not to look for beauty. Instead, allow beauty to find you.

The key to contemplative hiking is to find the right balance of mindfulness without trying too hard to “look” for inspiration or a transpersonal experience. I will blog about exactly how to do a contemplative hiking in a later post, but for now, remember that you don’t want to let your mind wander off and become preoccupied with your life back home (work, bills, drama, to-do lists) and you don’t want to be so focused on having an “experience” that you aren’t open to one and are instead intellectualizing and analyzing everything that happens as it happens. You want to observe your surroundings but refrain from asking yourself what something means or having a lot of judgment around it in the moment. There will be plenty of time for reflection later, when you’re home.

This is especially important on this hike, where you want to let beauty find you. You know you’ll be seeing amazing views. Imagine your mind as a sponge rather than as an arrow, absorbing rather than observing.

If you remain in this open state, you’ll be surprised by what you will see and feel. You may even have an experience about beauty that has nothing to do with the view. The key is to remain open and not analyze.

I don’t even want to describe some of the key aspects of the trail, since I don’t want to influence what you might experience as beautiful or not.

When you arrive at the top, ask yourself what being in this place reminds you of, or makes you feel. I had feelings of being in deep wilderness, perhaps looking out at a mountain range in Alaska. I read a book not too long ago entitled, “Minus 148°” about the first-ever winter ascent of Denali by a small group of climbers. It described the most brutally cold, desolate climb in the deepest of wilderness at the time it was attempted. I know that Sugarloaf Mountain (hill) is nothing like Denali in the winter, but there was something about the view of Long’s Peak and Indian Peaks Wilderness, the fading deep blues and grays of the horizon, and the silence of the summit that made me feel I was having an adventure beyond the reality.

Sun sets behind the Divide on the top of Sugarloaf.

If you’re open, you can evoke new and interesting feelings and experiences on a hike that are beyond present reality. They’re transpersonal, which means beyond ego, beyond the self, and beyond the physical realm.

The sun finally set over the distant mountains as I descended down the last fourth of the trail. The hike had certainly presented many surprises for me in terms of what felt beautiful. It was a deeper, richer experience than simply going on one of the most scenic hikes in Boulder to LOOK for the obvious beauty.

Facing Your Fears By Hiking in the Dark

dark woods at nightDoes the idea of doing a midnight hike alone frighten you—or intrigue you?

Darkness used to creep me out. I had a house in the mountains of Fairplay, Colorado for a few years, where on a moonless night it was almost completely black outside except for the glitter of the Milky Way. Walking through the house in the middle of the night to get a glass of water was nerve-wracking for me. The flat black of night through the windows made me imagine serial killers and rabid predators lurking on the porch.

One night I decided to face my fears and I took a very short walk up the road at night. After the stiffness of my initial fear relaxed a bit, I noticed some things. There were occasional comets that flashed across the sky and were quickly extinguished. I saw stars that I had never seen before—there were so many of them. I saw the haze of the Milky Way that at deceptively looks like a thin cloud in the night sky, but isn’t.

What enchanted me most were the comets, or shooting stars. I wondered how often they hurl toward Earth when I’m not watching or even aware—like during daylight hours or on the other side of the world. The Earth is constantly and dutifully shielding its creatures from a pelting of space rocks with its atmosphere. I felt the Earth as my gigantic mother, shielding me from harm.

The experience transformed my relationship to the darkness. I saw the dome of the sky above me in a different way.  It was a window onto the universe.  It allowed me to see that which was necessary, but invisible—the protective atmosphere around our planet. I saw the sky as a time machine of sorts, since I was looking at objects that sometimes weren’t even there anymore, just their light and energy making its way steadily across space and time.

Sometimes when people are alone in the dark in the wilderness, they feel fear. They fear that something “out there” is stalking them or out to get them.  They imagine bears and mountain lions hurling out of the dark to claw at them and eat them alive. That’s how I used to feel, too. But the chances of getting eaten or attacked by a predator are pretty slim, to say the least. You have a better chance of dying in an automobile accident on the way to the campground than you do while you’re sitting alone in your tent.

When you fear the darkness, what you’re really fearing is the darkness within yourself. Darkness is uncertainty. It’s not knowing what’s around the corner or behind the tree. You’re frightened about becoming lost in that uncertainty. You fear you’ll never come out, and the darkness will eat you up. It can be paralyzing, unless you can face it and be comfortable with it.

Befriending the dark means befriending and overcoming your fears.

A Contemplative Activity for Hiking in the Dark

Most open space trails and parks close after sunset. Don’t let that stop you! There may be a large park nearby with a lot of trees, or you can try to park on a street and walk to a trailhead. If you’re motivated, you can go up into BLM land or National Forest, where there are no restrictions on what time you have to be out.

(For this hike, you might try the Flatirons Vista Trail, Mount Sinitas or Chautauqua if you live near Boulder.)

If you’re not comfortable going alone, bring a friend but stay completely silent during this activity. It’s better if you go alone because the purpose of this is to befriend the darkness, and the only way to reach deep into your inner fear is to face it alone.

Bring a flashlight so you don’t trip or stumble. You start by going as far as you’re comfortable, and walk slowly. Stay on the trail, and if there isn’t a trail, stay near the road so you don’t get lost. Stop when you start to feel a little too creeped out or frightened.

Here’s the challenge: turn off your flashlight. Stand still, absolutely still, and LISTEN. Which sounds feel unsettling and which ones comfort you? Maybe the sound of distant cars comforts you now. Take mental note.

If you get too uncomfortable, turn your flashlight back on. Try to go as long as you can and relax into the scenery.

Walk a little further into the woods or trail—again, as far as you can before getting too uncomfortable, and look up and around. Really get into your feelings. What do you imagine coming out of the darkness? What do you fear? Name it. Say it out loud.

Hear yourself saying it out loud. Does it lose its power or gain power that way?

Take several deep breaths and release all tension in your body.

If you start to feel more relaxed, find a place to sit (or stand, if you prefer) and remain there for at least 10-15 minutes. Ask yourself: What do I fear?

Say the answers out loud. The answers may change or stay the same. Keep saying it until you feel you have gotten to the core of what it is you’re really feeling and experiencing, or until you’re no longer able to remain in place.

Return to your car or home when you’re ready.

When you drive home, consider at what point you felt different and completely back to normal after your moment in the woods. Was it when you got back in the car? When you turned on the car stereo? When you returned home and turned on the lights? What makes you feel safe?

You may surprise yourself and feel comfortable in the dark. Or, you may find yourself feeling creeped out a bit longer than you thought. The key here is to realize that the woods are no different or dangerous in the dark then they are in broad daylight. What changes is your perception, and often that perception is masked by your internal fear and uncertainty.

Winter Hiking with Children

Bear Canyon Trail
Skye pauses along the Bear Canyon Trail

My daughter’s winter break is winding down and the day after tomorrow she’s going back to school for the last half of sixth grade. It was a beautiful winter day today, sunny and mostly clear, calm, with temperatures in the mid-40s. I took her on a one-hour walk along the Bear Canyon trail, directly south of NCAR in south Boulder.

I started thinking about what kinds of contemplative activities we could do together along this hike that I would recommend later for parents and their kids on similar winter days. The most obvious ideas came first—asking her to tell me what she thought the animals and insects were doing this time of year. She’s 12, so her answers came easily and with a lot more sophistication than I expected. She named a burrowing insect that hibernates in winter, and described what prairie dogs might be doing when it’s cold out and the ground is covered in snow (“mostly hanging out in their deep burrows, coming out occasionally to try to find grass”). We saw birds flittering about, but not as many as there are in the spring and summer. Even though we didn’t hear any insects, she did spy one lone grasshopper warming himself on a large boulder.

Everything is quieter on a winter hike. The snow muffles much of the ambient sound anyway, but the silence is mostly due to the low population of birds and insects this time of year. The sound of the water trickling through the half-frozen creek underscored the quiet and felt soothing, like listening to a fountain.

Up ahead, only minutes after we started on the trail, Skye pointed out the two cone-shaped hills below NCAR and asked if we could climb to the top of the tallest one.

“It’s bigger than it looks. It’s also harder to walk up there than it seems.” I warned.

bear canyon hill
Skye summits the first hill south of NCAR

She didn’t believe me until we were much closer and she realized that the hills were quite steep and quite tall. But she wanted to try, so I stepped back and watched her as she trudged upwards. She made it as far as the first summit, looked around, then beckoned me.

“Come up here, mama!”

No thanks, I said. I’m not in the mood to suck air on that steep walk up. I’ll just stay down here and take photos…

This gave me an idea for hikes with older children such as Skye. They already have an idea of what animals are doing in winter and may find the activity of talking about that a little anticlimactic, but Skye’s desire to scale the hill was interesting. I asked her why she felt she wanted to get to the top, and how she felt when she was there.

She said she wanted to see all the way around, and when she got up there, she felt tall with achievement. It reminded me of the scene in the movie “Into the Wild” when Alexander Supertramp scaled the rocky hill above his campsite near the Salton Sea.

animal tracks in snow
Animal tracks are easily seen in snow

When she returned to the trail I asked her to look around and tell me where she would love to explore, if she could. She pointed up at a north-facing slope on the other side of the creek, where animal tracks led into the trees.

“I want to go there, because it looks mysterious. I want to know what’s on the other side of that hill.”

We couldn’t go there because we couldn’t cross the creek, and neither could any other hikers, so we knew that the tracks crossing the slope could only be wild animal tracks—most likely deer or fox tracks, maybe coyote. The tracks were everywhere. That’s one of the features of hiking in snow that’s fun for kids—seeing where animals roam around in the fields and forest when no one is looking.

We were just about ready to turn back when the trail narrowed and was enveloped in shadow. Skye wanted to keep going because she said she loves darkness. I asked her why and to describe the kind of darkness she’s referring to. She said she likes dark woods, small rooms, or going outside after sunset. I kept asking her how it makes her feel and what it reminds her of, and why it soothing to her.

This could be a question you might ask your older child on a hike. Ask them to look around, especially if you’re in a location where you can see far down valley or up at the mountains. Where would they like to explore, assuming there could easily get there or fly up there? Why? How does it make them feel to look at it?

When I’m taking a walk or jogging in the morning and see a dark, misty cloud cover the Front Range mountains I’m drawn to them the same way Skye was drawn to the shadowed hills on the other side of the creek.  I want to be there. I want to explore that mystery, to be in the middle of that gray darkness, to feel what it must feel like to be surrounded by shrouded peaks. There’s something comforting and thrilling about it that compels me to stare at it until I feel it in my bones.

Our walk today was brief. Just enough time to breathe in some fresh air and see what nature is up to this Monday in January. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about hiking with my child it’s this: keep it relatively short. Have a reward at the end. Today, it was lunch at Subway.