More People On the Trail – Good or Bad?

View of Pike's Peak from the Devil's Head fire tower overlook

Devil’s Head Trail

Noticing Other People Enjoying Nature

Location: Between Sedalia and Deckers, in Douglas County

Directions: From Denver take I-25 South to Happy Canyon Road (west), then go proceed on Happy Canyon Road to Highway 85 and turn right (west) toward Sedalia. (From western suburbs take C-470 to Santa Fe Drive to Sedalia and Highway 67).

From Highway 85 turn left (southwest) onto Highway 67 heading toward Deckers. Then head west on highway 67 to the north entrance of the park at Rampart Range Road, 10 miles. Take this South for approximately 9 miles to Devil’s Head campground and the Fire Tower trailhead.

Duration: Approximately 3 hours

Route: There is only one trail up the mountain to the Devil’s Head overlook and tower from the parking lot.

Access Notes: Rampart Range Road is closed from December to April since the road is not maintained in winter. It’s best to go in the summer or late spring when roads are dry and clear.

The trail itself is a moderately steep walk 1.5 miles up to the summit and the fire tower overlook. There are picnic tables and restrooms (no running water) at the trailhead and parking lot. The lot fills up early on summer weekends, even though there are plenty of spaces. You don’t need a 4WD vehicle to access this trail since Rampart Range Road is gravel and fairly smooth with only a few areas of washboard. It’s about a 1.5 hour drive to Devil’s Head from most central and northern Denver suburbs, much less if you’re coming from Highlands Ranch or Castle Pines.

This is one hike I recommend doing on a summer weekend as opposed to attempting to come when it’s not crowded, such as mid-week or early in the morning. The point of this contemplative hike is to really experience the feeling of other people on the trail, what it means, and what the future holds for those wanting to experience the peace and tranquility of nature.

Dogs are allowed on leash.

The Hike

From the parking lot to the top of the trail where the fire tower is located is 940 feet of elevation gain and a mile and a half of long, sweeping switchbacks that wind their way through tall, erect aspen and then through spruce and pine. The trail zig zags the north face of the mountain, with distant or picturesque views of rock formations, Mount Evans, the eastern plains and the Black Forest, and the Lost Creek Wilderness Range to the west.

The hike starts off sheltered in the tall aspens and crosses a small creek (during spring meltoff). Mid-way up the mountain you’ll pass huge, smooth, egg- and spire-shaped boulders and scenic overlooks. Don’t get too close to the edge!

Once you reach the summit, you’ll encounter a small meadow, a cabin, more restrooms, and an old fire tower that is accessed by a very steep and long metal staircase. This is a good place to take a break and eat lunch. The final push to the fire tower is not for the faint of heart or people with vertigo or fear of heights. However, if you can manage it, it’s well-worth the effort. The views of Pikes Peak to the south and Denver and Mt. Evans to the north are so expansive it feels as if you’re in an airplane—much higher than you actually are. The tower is closed if there’s lightning or the danger of lightning. Ideally, you want to do this hike on clear, sunny days that aren’t too windy. The final elevation at the top is about 9,500 feet, so you may feel a little winded with all that climbing.

With so many people you pass on the trail, once you reach the tower you’ll enjoy the feeling of wilderness and space. Pike National Forest surrounds you to the south, west and east, and trees are all you can see for miles. To the west, you can see the 130,000-some acres that were burned during the 2002 Deckers wildfire. The hills there are still brown in comparison to the unburned areas.

More People On the Trail — Good or Bad?

One of the many scenic overlooks from Devil's Head trail

Before you even arrive at the parking lot for this trail, you’ll notice something unique about this entire area of Pike National Forest. The length of Rampart Range Road branches off into large alcoves and parking lots intended for trucks with trailers hauling ATVs, dirt bikes and quads. There are special trails that have been designated for off-road travel by ATVs only and these trails weave in loops through the forest, sometimes parallel to the main road. Families and groups pitch their tents, bring in their travel trailers and motorhomes and spend the day or longer riding their ATVs and enjoying time in the woods.

The high-pitched buzzing of small engines permeate the area and you may start to wonder, as you’re making your way up the road to the trailhead, how you’re going to enjoy this hike with all this racket going on. It’s actually not that bad once you get up onto the trail, as most of the noise is absorbed by the trees and wind.

When I was in my 20s I used to enjoy weekends camping with friends who’d bring along their small quad that we all took turns riding. We camped in BLM land near the Lost Creek Wilderness, and being young and stupid, we did some stupid things, like making a campfire that was way too hot and throwing out sparks, drinking too much, making too much noise and probably not being very kind to the land. I’m sure we probably pissed off some backpackers or hikers who may have wandered near our camp when they heard the growl of the ATV engine zipping up and down the hills.

I haven’t ridden in any ATVs since then and actually find their noisiness irritating now when I’m out hiking or trying to enjoy the peace of wilderness. I suppose I’m not the only one who feels this way, because I know there aren’t many places that allow the kind of activity one sees as one travels down Rampart Range Road.

Recently, the idea of too many people using natural areas has come up as a source of controversy among the National Forest Service, Boulder county residents and some of my friends. In October of 2009, The Boulder City Council and the Open Space and Mountain Parks Board of Trustees were considering a pilot program that would charge non-residents a fee to use some of the open space parks within Boulder county. The reason this was being considered was because City Council was looking to close a budget gap for Open Space programs. Around 40% of users of the open space park are non-Boulder (non-city tax paying) residents, according to City Council, and they felt those people needed to help pay for the cleaning and maintenance of the parks.

The walk up to the fire tower is 1-1/2 miles and nearly 1000 feet of elevation gain.

In May of 2010, an article appeared in the Gazette stating that the Forest Service was considering charging hikers $10 per day to summit the fourteeners in the South Colony Basin near Westcliffe, Colorado. As state and federal budgets are tightened, land managers are looking for alternative ways to both cover the cost of trail maintenance and to reduce the number of people using the trails.

This controversial proposal struck a nerve among some of my friends and family, who admit they, too, feel there are too many people crowding the Front Range hiking trails on any given weekend and wonder what the solutions are.

One person even told me that perhaps there ought to be less books telling people where to go hiking, because the information is just contributing to this “problem.” (This book, of course, being the target of such facetious banter.)

But is it a problem? And why is it a problem?

As an ecopsychologist, I can say that the worst thing federal, state and city authorities can do to solve budget problems is to start charging money for people to spend time in nature. Unless people have ample opportunities to enjoy nature and connect with the land where they live, they will no longer know how much wilderness is really left and therefore won’t care about what happens to wilderness. Human beings need some sort of connection to nature for optimum mental health. We cannot lock ourselves up in a concrete box with only more boxes such as television, cars and computers to interact with and think we can end up healthy, mentally or physically. We need a relationship to the land: whether that’s a garden, an animal, a tree, a park or a backyard. When that relationship is lacking, man’s consideration for his environment withers. The environment just becomes an abstract idea. The natural world becomes an object to be exploited and converted to human wealth. It becomes a mountain to be mined for coal, an ocean to be exploited for oil and seafood, a forest to be cut down to build tract homes.

If it’s going to cost money to experience wilderness, then only those people who can afford to spend the money will be able to enjoy time in nature. Many low-income people already don’t drive up to the mountains to go hiking or just enjoy the woods because they can barely afford the gas money for such trips, let alone if it cost them $10 per person or $5 to park their car each time. Enjoying nature becomes a luxury for those that can’t afford the fees and gas prices, and the best they can do is to go to a nearby park in the city and sit under a tree.

But the bigger question is, why are so many more people using the trails, visiting State and National Parks and putting a financial burden on the agencies who are working so hard to maintain these areas? Is it that there are so many more people moving to Colorado and the population is increasing in general? Perhaps — I certainly wouldn’t discount this obvious fact.

View from just below the fire tower

Perhaps the other reason more people are finding it necessary to drive some distance away from where they live to go enjoy nature is because nature is being continually pushed out from the city by development. There are fewer and fewer places to go in the city that afford the same kind of experience once gets from hiking in the woods—where it’s quiet and scenic and smells good. It’s not so much that population is increasing, it’s also that development is increasing around the Front Range, with fewer and fewer fields, prairies, stands of trees and what investors call “vacant land.”

Is charging fees and discouraging use of trails and parks the best solution? The problem is not that there are too many people using the trails. The industrial growth paradigm that creates this need in people is the problem. It stems from how we treat or value natural areas that already exist near the city. It’s not a vast meadow with some trees to be enjoyed by all creatures; it’s undeveloped land that has certain monetary value to investors, but only if it’s bulldozed, excavated and covered by buildings and parking lots. A prairie dog or coyote is not an animal; it’s a “nuisance” to be eliminated or relocated.

Therefore, charging fees to recoup the cost of human use of natural areas or to discourage use by making it only affordable to wealthy people is like putting a band aid on a headwound. It doesn’t address the core problem of industrial growth society’s attitude toward nature, and ignores the fact that keeping people distanced from nature only adds to the problem, because people will look to material wealth to fill that void; a void they could be filling through spiritual and contemplative practices, such as an opening up to feeling enchanted by nature’s beauty.

The Activity

The intention of this hike is not to be silent and withdrawn from others, but to connect not just to the mountain, but to the people who have come to enjoy it, too.

When I hiked this trail in late May, I noticed a lot of “sneaker hikers” enjoying the trail. This is what I call people who like to hike but don’t have the latest in technical clothing and gear, who aren’t racing to the top, who are stopping frequently to take breaks and enjoy the view and maybe even snap a few photos. They came with their kids, their dogs, their friends to enjoy a warm, sunny spring day in the woods with their loved ones.

People aren’t a “nuisance” on trails. They are individuals who value the land where they reside. They value what being in the woods or hiking up a mountain does for their bodies and souls. Human beings belong to the land, not the other way around.

I can’t imagine these hikers feeling that this particular trail is an object to be exploited to create products or build mansions for the select few. I’m almost positive that if I were to ask each person on the trail if they wouldn’t mind if this entire area was closed to the public and turned over to a mining and forestry company to extract resources for the manufacture of cellphones, coffee tables and televisions, they’d look at me in horror.

Take a look at the people you encounter on your hike. Consider why they’re here. Consider what would happen if they weren’t here, or if no one cared about coming up to the mountains for enjoyment.

These are people who have seen nature displaced where they live, in small ways, or perhaps in significant ways. Deep in their memory, they all have a story to tell about the displacement or destruction of natural areas.

In 1995 I moved to Broomfield. I bought a new house in an area that was previously just old farm fields and prairie. For at least the first two years I lived there, my still-small neighborhood was surrounded by these fields. I would go walking through those fields after work almost every day, enjoying the views of the mountains and the way everything felt so wide-open and spacious. I would observe many different birds flittering about from shrub to shrub. But all this came to an end after two years of development and expansion, and the fields were covered in tract homes and playgrounds.

What is your story about losing a favorite place to development or pollution?

While you’re making progress up to the tower, enjoy connecting to the people as well as the scenery. Say hello. Make eye contact. Strike up friendly conversations.

How does it feel to share these woods and this mountain with other people?

Were there any assumptions and attitudes about other people on the trail that were challenged by your observations?

When I began my descent down the steps of the fire tower, I ran into a man and his two children on their way up. I had passed them an hour earlier, as the father had stopped to point out some kind of plant to them.

His son, who looked to be about 12 or 13, had stopped halfway up the staircase, terrified and crying. His head was slung in shame as he was unable to move up or down. I slowed down as I passed them, and looked with empathy at the father as he tried to comfort his son.

“I remember feeling the same way about these kinds of places when I was his age.” I said.

“Yeah, it’s tough having a fear of heights.” The father answered. His eyes and voice were full of compassion and softness.

In that moment, we were more than just hikers. We connected as parents, as human beings, and as decent people wanting the same things for ourselves and our children.

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 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.

%%POSTLINK%% is a post from: Contemplative Hiking

A Slow and Ugly Death at Rocky Mountain National Park

pine kill hillA dead tree is an ugly thing. Brown and dry, with knarled and bare branches reaching up to the sky, it stands without help and without hope. A dead tree never comes back to life.

In the last several years, there has been a slow, ugly death happening around Winter Park, Fraser, Grand Lake and the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The last time I came here (4-5 years ago) I remember hiking in the summer through lush, green forests and cross country skiing through stands of tall, living pines. This weekend, what I saw shocked and saddened me. The mature lodgepole pines, which are the major species of tree in this part of Colorado, are almost all dead or about to die very soon. Their bare, burned-out appearance is a natural disaster. Entire mountains, entire valleys are brown and dark brown with pinekill.

I mean, I knew that pinekill was a serious problem in this part of the state. I saw evidence as far south as Frisco and Breckenridge and as far east as Estes Park. I heard that residents of Grand Lake were concerned, and that maybe, just maybe, it had a negative effect on property values (if so, it’s minimal. This place is still outrageously priced for being kind of ugly now). But this—this is a nightmare. Visiting this area was like visiting a radioactive hot zone or a burn area. It’s ugly and depressing. And it’s going to look like this for as long as I’m alive. There’s no way there’s enough money or resources to cut down all these dead trees. They’re going to have to fall down on their own, or get burned down (let’s hope not), or get blown down by heavy snow and wind.

I don’t know why this isn’t more of a serious, front-and-center issue in Colorado. I suppose it is in some circles. But really, who will want to visit western Rocky Mountain National Park in the summer when it looks like this?

dead trees

snowshoeing in woods
Dave blazing a trail in the snow in Rocky Mountain National Park near Grand Lake

Dave and I decided that the less-than-lovely landscape wasn’t going to stop us from enjoying a little bit of snowshoeing in the woods. There wasn’t much wind this morning, which is a good thing, as any lick of breeze makes the gray sentinels sway dangerously (I read an article a few weeks ago about a guy getting killed by a falling tree…the ultimate example of the wrong place at the wrong time). There are some that have already toppled part-way, and now every time there’s movement in the air they rub up against another tree and make a creepy creaking sound, a sound that particularly haunting in the middle of the wilderness.

new growth
New growth among the dead trees

After an hour of trekking through the mostly-dead woods, it occurred to me to ask the trees what they needed, dead or not. What was their point of view about this disaster? As the answer came to me, I also began to notice something else, something hopeful. I saw as many young and baby lodgepole trees as mature dead ones. The young ones are much more, if not completely immune to the pine beetle. I don’t know if I was noticing the young trees because the older ones were so colorless, or if there was indeed an explosion of new growth. Somehow I don’t think these trees were planted here. It’s much too hodge-podge for it to be an organized planting. Some of the trees are only about 6 inches sticking up out of the snow and some look to be no more than a few years old, while some are already close to ten feet tall. The young ones are everywhere, but they’re not immediately obvious simply because they’re hidden from view by the gray and brown tops of the old ones.

snowshoeing across mountain lakeBoth the dead and living trees seemed to be saying that they want to be left alone. They seemed to be a lot less concerned than I was. “What looks like a disaster to you is just another life and death cycle to us. This needs to happen every once in a while.” I sensed a relaxed resignation, mixed in with hope and pride over the babies that were growing in between the corpses. This was the next generation of lodgepoles, and they looked healthy, green and strong. I really hope that the conditions improve for you kids, I thought. I hope it gets wetter, and gets colder in winter so the beetles are kept in check and won’t want to suck you dry. I hope the ecologists looking for non-toxic pine beetle repellants succeed in treating the forests in this area. I hope you live and thrive and outlive me.

By the time these trees are 40 feet tall, I’ll be dead. In 500 years, there will be a new forest here. Perhaps it’ll be a forest of fir trees, or aspens, or other pines. I wish I could see the future.

Never summer range
Never Summer Range, west of Rocky Mountain National Park

Of course, what’s 500 years to a tree? Our lifetime probably feels like a particularly unlucky season to a tree. I don’t know how old some of these trees are since I’m neither an ecologist or park ranger. I would guess that it will be another 100-200 years before the younger trees grow to full height, and maybe by then some of the dead trees will have toppled and rotted. I’ve heard that pine beetle kill is part of a natural process, although the suppressing of natural forest fires, drought, and above-average temperatures in winter in the last decade have accelerated this process and decimated entire mountain ranges. I know that this problem reaches all the way north to Montana and British Columbia!

It feels strange to see a valley where I know there are no houses, no people, no electrical wires, no roads, and yet there’s this unjust destruction. The reason is this insect that is so tiny and well-camouflaged, it’s nearly invisible to the naked eye. I have never seen a pine beetle. After seeing what I saw today, I think I would want to smash that little f***er flat if I did.

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.