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?

Tree Games

Trees have a history and mythology of being sacred beings with the capacity for healing. Many people are drawn to trees for various reasons – because the trees seem to have character, because they’re stoic sentinels of the forest, because they offer shelter and comfort. But can a tree communicate with a person through some sort of energetic or psychic capacity? You can try this game to find out.

This activity was inspired by a friend named Geoffrey McMullan, MSc, who lives in Ireland and specializes in wilderness therapy and tracking. He uses nature in his work as an addiction counselor, and has observed incredible results from his patients and clients in how they relate to their addiction or find inner wisdom through their relationship with the wilderness. One of Geoffrey’s nature games involves forming a deeper connection to and communication with a tree, stepping a good distance away from the tree, then, while blindfolded, seeing if you can find your way back to the tree. You use almost all the senses to experience and get to know the tree, and then transcending those senses to feel a connection to a tree that has less to do with logic and analysis and more of a spiritual consciousness that can’t be explained or forced.

child and tree

I think this is a fun activity to try with a few friends or older children (12 years old and up) who already have an appreciation of nature and an openness to try new things.

I have selected the Flatirons Vista Trail as a suggested location for this activity, but any trail with the following aspects will work:

  • Heavily wooded with aspens, pines, or spruce.
  • Not along very steep slopes. Ideally a wooded area that’s as flat as possible.
  • Somewhere you can safely go a little bit off trail without trespassing on private property or disturbing the landscape too much. You’ll want a little privacy and quiet for this activity.
  • Avoid areas with scrub oak, junipers or a lot of pine kill (can be hazardous during windy or wet conditions).

The Flatirons Vista Trail runs through the northern edge of Jefferson County Open Space land, which is a 7,390 acre parcel west of Rocky Flats between 120th Avenue and 80th Avenue. The City of Westminster boasts (in their Feb/March 2010 Issue of Westminster City Views) “No other city in metropolitan Denver has 5 miles of

public land between its western edge and the foothills. Over 43,000 acres of property both within and abutting Westminster preserve this amazing ecosystem.” Indeed, as you’re walking westward toward Eldorado Canyon and the foothills, all you see are rolling hills and trees, and maybe the occasional herd of cows since this land is used for grazing. This is a trail that’s close to Boulder, Broomfield, Westminster, Arvada and Golden, but feels spacious and quiet, at least once you get far enough from Highway 93.

Instructions for Tree Games

Find a spot among the trees where you and your partners in this game can feel comfortable, safe and have some privacy. You may need to walk off the trail far enough so that you can’t be easily heard or hear other hikers pass by, but not too far away that you lose your sense of direction to return back to the trail. On the Flatirons Vista Trail, once you arrive at the second cattle fence where the trees begin to get thicker, you can venture south along a clearing the trees where it appears a few vehicles may have traveled in the past. There are relatively flat areas of trees where you can do this activity.

You’ll need at least one other person and some sort of bandana or blindfold, or if you don’t have anything to use as a blindfold, you can go on the “honor system” and just keep your eyes shut tight when it’s your turn.

The “blind” person is led to a tree while blindfolded and introduced to the tree by the seeing partner.

“Tree, meet Bob. Bob, meet your tree.”

Then the blind person is allowed to spend time getting to know the tree. They can touch the tree, smell the tree, and use all of their senses other than sight to get a feeling from the tree. They should not open their eyes or take off the blindfold at this time.

The seeing partner quietly sits and observes, allowing at least 15 minutes of quiet time for the blind person to get acquainted with their tree. Some questions for the blind person to consider privately may include:

What gender is your tree?

How old is your tree?

What mood is it in?

What is the feeling you’re getting from this tree? Happy, sad, angry, depressed?

Is there anything this tree wants you to know?

The seeing partner should ask these questions all at once at the beginning of the 15 minutes of quiet time, allowing the blind partner to formulate their own questions or responses when they’re ready.

At the end of the 15 minutes, the seeing partner gently suggests that the blind partner let them know when they’re ready to be taken away from their tree. Once the blind partner expresses they’re ready, the seeing partner takes them away from the tree, randomly walking in different directions in order to disorient him or her. The blind partner keeps their eyes closed or the blindfold intact during this phase of the game.

When the seeing partner is satisfied with this disorientation task, they can do one of two things, depending on the landscape:

1. Allow the blind partner to open their eyes or take off their blind fold and find their tree.

2. Ask the blind partner to (while still blind) point to the direction where they believe their tree to be, then guide them in that direction so they don’t trip over rocks and twigs. Occasionally stop and have the blind person reassess the direction they feel they need to go.

With either of these options, the seeing partner should affirm or reject the blind person’s choice of tree or direction. In other words, if the blind person is pointing in the wrong direction to walk, let them know. Or if they select the wrong tree, let them know.

When the blind person finds their tree, they should open their eyes or take off their blindfold and touch or embrace the tree to see if its energy has changed in any way. Does seeing the tree change the feeling of being with the tree? How?

When I played this game with my 12-year-old, both she and I found our tree, although we made a least one wrong assessment of the direction we needed to go to find it at first.  The highlight of this game, surprisingly, wasn’t finding the tree, but feeling it’s energy while we were spending time with it. We both felt a resonance to something older, more rooted in the environment, both literally and figuratively.

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 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 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.