Destruction and Healing: In Nature, In the Soul

Buffalo Creek Burn Trail

Buffalo Creek Burn Trail No. 758

Location: Buffalo Creek, Colorado.

Directions: From Denver take C-470 to Highway 285 toward Fairplay. Drive through Aspen Park and Conifer. At the Pine Junction intersection, turn left (south) on South Pine Valley Road, or  Road 126. Drive through the small towns of Pine and Buffalo Creek. Approximately 4 miles past the town of Buffalo Creek look for Spring Creek Road on the east side. As soon as you pass the Spring Creek Road street sign, you’ll see the National Forest trailhead marker on the right (west) side of the road 126 next to a white painted road barrier. Park on the west side of the road and proceed to the trail headed west.

Duration: Approximately 2 hours

Route: The trailhead is marked by a brown Forest Service sign as the Colorado Trail No. 1776. Proceed west approximately ¼ of a mile until you reach the sign for “Buffalo Creek Burn Trail No. 758” and turn onto that trail. Hike for an hour or more, passing through the burn area and back into an unburned forest before looping back to the Colorado Trail No. 1776. Turn left on the Colorado Trail and eventually you’ll loop back around to where you started and parked.

Access Notes: There’s no parking lot for this section of the Colorado Trail, just parking off the side of the road, which is widened near the trailhead to accommodate about a dozen vehicles. During the off-season (any season except summer) and on weekdays, you may be the only hiker on the trail, regardless of the time of day. On weekends, if you want relative solitude, it’s best to arrive as early as possible. It takes approximately an hour and 20 minutes to arrive from the southeast or northwest suburbs of Denver to the trail, or about 30-40 minutes from western and central suburbs like Littleton or Lakewood.

This is an easy hike with very little elevation gain and no bumpy, rocky terrain. The views from the burn area are spectacular: the (often snow-covered) mountains of Kenosha Pass and the Twin Cone Peaks frame the valley between Buffalo Creek to the north and Bailey in the distance, a view not possible if the trees which burned during the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire had still been alive and standing. The Colorado Trail is wooded and fairly flat, with the occasional sound of traffic from the nearby road. The Burn Trail, on the other hand, slopes gently down the hillside and is mostly sheltered from road noise.

The shock of seeing vast hills with spiky, black tree stumps amid a green grasses and groundcover probably already occurred on your drive up from Pine Junction as you drove through Pine and Buffalo Creek. The trail through the cleared-down terrain is beautiful in its own way because it exposes nearby rock outcroppings and huge boulder formations. The ground is covered in grasses, small shrubs and a few wildflowers, which get greener and more colorful as spring turns into summer.

Eventually the trail makes its way south and back into the intact forest with many species of pine and spruce, offering a contrast of environments, mood and scenery.

The Physical Scars of Bad Decisions, Carelessness and Destruction

Devastating forest fires in this part of Colorado have started through acts of momentary carelessness combined with systematic problems stemming from years of unwise decisions.

On May 18, 1996, a campfire smoldered unattended in a campground in Pike National Forest near the Buffalo Creek. Winds picked up, spread the cinders and stoked a fire that eventually spread to an area 10 miles long by 2 miles across, burning 10,000 acres of forest and destroying 18 homes in the area. The area seen from this trail is the Buffalo Creek burn.

A few miles south of this trail, near Deckers, is evidence of the 2002 Hayman Fire, which spread over 130,000 acres and was deemed at the time to be the largest wildfire in the recorded history of Colorado.

The Hayman fire started because a U.S. Forest Service employee carelessly set a match to a love letter from her estranged husband and threw it, still burning, into a campfire ring during a severe drought on a windy day. The wind carried the flaming paper onto the dry grass, igniting the surrounding vegetation and trees almost instantly. She tried to put the fire out herself, but it quickly overwhelmed her futile efforts and she left the area. The fire became an inferno that killed several people and burned hundreds of homes. She later confessed to what she’d done and spent years in prison for her crime.

Another fire, called the Hi Meadow Fire, several miles north of Buffalo Creek, burned in the year 2000 and destroyed more than 50 homes. It was ignited by a cigarette butt flicked out a car window.

All of these fires burned hotter and swept the landscape faster than perhaps they should have. Two hundred years ago or more, before humans entwined their homes and businesses with the trees, lightning would often cause smaller forest fires. These fires would burn without human intervention or even awareness. The fire would clear out the dead vegetation and eventually peter out. The fires weren’t as intense due to the forest being less dense with trees and not stricken by drought, as it has been for almost a decade since 1996. Our choice as humans to build homes in the woods and not cut down enough trees or prescribe burns to keep the vegetation thinner created a perfect storm during a long, dry spell when the slightest spark could cause mass destruction.

Being in this landscape is an opportunity to contemplate the ways that our own lives are touched by the careless words and actions of others, by the wrong decision at the wrong time, by cruelty and abuse. It’s a way to consider what healing looks like and feels like, and the ways we often suffer more than we need to.

The Emotional and Physical Healing of the Soul

A still rare sight: A baby tree grows amidst burned stumps

As you walk through the burn area, which I will call the scarred area, consider the ways healing has been taking place here. It’s been 15 years since the fire, and yet, there are very few young trees growing amidst the groundcover and grasses. That’s because there’s a certain order to how plants grow after a disturbance. First, native or non-native pioneer species such as weeds or grasses sprout from the ground. Grasses and weeds then create enough humus for small shrubs to gain a foothold. Only years later, when the ground is well-covered in thick, short vegetation, do trees start to come back.

There’s a time and place for everything in nature. Trees don’t grow naturally out of the bare ground. They need other plants to help “prepare” the soil first, and this process can take a long time in human terms. This is probably why, when I hiked through a forest of mostly dead pine-kill lodgepoles in western Rocky Mountain National Park a few months ago, I saw a comparative abundance of young trees sprouting underneath the carcasses of their dead parents. The underbrush isn’t disturbed in a pine kill forest. Dead trees may topple and rot, but the shrubs, pinecones, grasses and flowers haven’t been incinerated into ash. In a burned area, everything is destroyed and the ecology of the forest is essentially starting from square one.

The Activity

Find a place to sit – there are several interesting boulder outcroppings along the trail that look comfortable – and really ponder how, in your own life, you experienced pain and difficulty in the past. Perhaps someone you loved died or left you. Perhaps a relationship ended because of a careless word or bad decision on someone’s part. Maybe you were abused or assaulted. In one moment, the forest of your own soul was set ablaze.

Years later, you can compare that place in your soul where you felt that pain and trauma to what you’re seeing around you.

This place is no longer a forest. It’s not really a meadow. It’s something completely new. It’s not the same as it was, and it will never be the same. It is a different place altogether now. There are ways it has healed since it burned, but there are ways the fire hasn’t been forgiven or forgotten by nature. It no longer smells acrid as it did for weeks and months after the incident, and the ground isn’t black anymore. But the trees haven’t grown back yet. Certain birds and mammals that need the cover of mature trees and vegetation haven’t returned yet.

The places in your soul that were damaged are different, too. You no longer hold the same beliefs you did before you were hurt. You’re a different person because of what happened to you. Perhaps you’re a better person, a stronger person. Perhaps you’re weaker and more vulnerable.

Forest surrounding the burn area

Think of the exact moment in time when you felt devastated and hurt by a loss or careless action. The intensity of the emotions was strong for days and weeks afterward. Normal life ceased for a period of time, during which you had a hard time functioning in the way you had before the incident. You were distracted. You were depressed. Your body and soul wanted to spend its energy on dealing with the pain and healing, but your mind was the taskmaster that kept you going through the motions even when you didn’t want to.

Look around at the scarred landscape. Really meditate on it. In what way does the sadness of this landscape relate to the places in your soul that feel damaged or destroyed?

Was there a time in your life you felt that your “innocence” was destroyed forever, just as the innocence of the woods was destroyed by the fire? How have you healed that part of your soul since then?

Human assistance in the healing of this scarred landscape is evident everywhere: charred trees have obviously been cut down. Some of the burned brush has been gathered and burned more thoroughly on purpose during wetter, colder months when it’s safe.  In other places, people have sped up natural processes by planting trees and taking measures to control erosion.

Even though carelessness can cause destruction, thoughtful, deliberate acts of restorative kindness can heal the damage. Nature is a balance of destruction and creation. Humans are a part of that balance, and we hold the capacity for both in our own hearts.

It’s not possible to have a life of only creation and no destruction. Everyday, something has to die in order for a future thing to thrive. Human suffering often stems from our attachments to those things that naturally deteriorate and eventually die.

We get attached to a way of life, to a job, to a person, to our youth. We get attached to things or people being there for us when we need them, and we suffer when that’s no longer the case.

What does this landscape tell you about the things you’re holding onto in your life that are causing you to feel sadness and regret, that are causing you to suffer?

Before departing this trail, consider how looking at the scarred landscape makes you feel. Does it feel sad? Peaceful? Does it make you angry? Does it make you feel hopeful?

How you see the landscape may be a reflection of how you see the process of change and transformation, and how much you resist that change. It may be a reflection of how much you hold onto the safe places in your past or in your heart as a way of dealing with the trauma of an ever-changing life.