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!)