Burning Bear, Dead Cow and Talking Ravens

Burning Bear Creek Trail #602

Location: Pike National Forest north of Grant, Colorado.

Directions: From C-470, take Highway 287 west toward Fairplay for about 39 miles. At the town of Grant, turn right onto CR-62, or Guanella Pass Road. Follow Guanella Pass for approximately 5 miles. The trailhead for the Burning Bear Creek Trail will be on the left at the top of the hairpin turns and there will be a small parking area on the right side of the road. There is a brown, wooden trail sign at the entrance to the meadow where the trail starts.

Duration: Approximately 3 hours.

Route: Follow the Burning Bear Creek Trail – there is only one route out and back.

Access Notes: The parking for this trail can accommodate no more than several cars. You may need to park lower down on the road and walk up a quarter of a mile if you can’t find parking across from the trailhead. It takes about an hour and a half travel time from Westminster/Arvada to arrive at the trailhead without traffic. Guanella Pass Road does not go all the way through to Georgetown as of 9-10-10 due to construction and landslide abatement, so taking CR-62 from Grant is the only way to and from the trail. Guanella Pass Road is a gravel road with limited winter maintenance and in dry conditions is easily passable by passenger car to the Burning Bear Creek Trail. Dogs are allowed.

The Hike

View from the Burning Bear Creek Trail

This hike begins in a marshy meadow on top of a constructed, elevated path that turns into a wooden bridge that crosses the Burning Bear Creek before it enters the shady confines of the trees. There are views of surrounding mountains: Arrowhead Mountain (el. 11,209 ft.), Kataka Mountain (el. 12,441 ft.) and Geneva Mountain form a bowl of rounded peaks directly to the east-northeast of the trail. To the west, the direction the trail runs from Guanella Pass, you’ll see distant Red Cone (el. 12,801 ft.) and Handcart Peak (el. 12,518 ft.). There’s very little discernable elevation gain the first 2 miles of the trail, only occasional undulations as it runs alongside the soft swells of a forested hill where it meets the meadow.

The winding creek at the start of the hike was a strange shade of teal blue when I was there – perhaps mineralized runoff or bacteria was coloring the water. It was running low but with enough volume to indicate at least a little bit of precipitation had fallen recently in the mountains up slope. The trees at the start of the hike are mostly pine and spruce, but aspens do make an appearance about a mile in. Across the large meadows you’ll see a house and perhaps some horses and cattle, but it won’t be long before you’ll have more of a sense of wilderness as you walk deeper into the forest. It is quiet here, being that it is so far from Highway 285 and the traffic is considerably lower on Guanella Pass since its closure at the half-way point.

Wild mushroom

The creek is much smaller and closer to the trail about a mile up, and you can stop to enjoy the sound or just dip your feet for a while. In late summer, the trail close to the creek appeared eroded from mud, so I imagine that it can be quite muddy on parts of the trail in early- to mid-summer. Look for mushrooms in the darker, moister areas, some of which can grow to the size of large grapefruit. Just don’t pick them or eat them—mushrooms can be toxic and only an expert can be sure if they are or aren’t.

Dead Cow and Talking Ravens

It was a sunny, breezy and warm day when I hiked this trail for the first time early in September. There were hardly any signs of the approach of autumn on the drive up yet, with the exception of a few patches of orange-yellow from select branches of narrow-leaf cottonwoods and aspens along the South Platte River to the west of Conifer. On the relatively flat path in the woods at the start of the trail, I would occasionally hear the rumbling and clattering of tractor trailers as they lumbered up Guanella Pass to where they were doing road work. Otherwise, the sounds of trees and birds was soothing and pleasurable. A woodpecker would pound its head against a dead tree trunk and make a repetitive, hollow sound like a tiny jackhammer. A breeze would comb through the hillsides and down the meadow through the brush, as grasshoppers took off and landed, took off and landed underneath my feet, their flight haphazard and brittle-sounding.

The woods changed texture and shape the further I went. At first, the branches were lower and greener, creating a dark green canopy with a lap of mossy growth at the base. Then the trees got leggier, with bare branches reaching further up and allowing more sunlight and warmth to the floor. An amber light enveloped the trail at that point, creating an atmosphere of mystery and suspense.

A series of raven cries got my attention at the point where the path led out of the woods into a grassy area. There, about 100 yards away from the trail in the meadow, were about a dozen of the big, confident birds, perched on what appeared to be a large black boulder with white streaks in the middle of the straw-colored field. Some of them were flapping their wings and some were balanced squarely on the edge of the black object. I walked off trail toward the scene, curious and suspecting it might be a dead animal of some kind. The ravens departed as soon as they realized I was approaching, cawing and fussing at me for encroaching on their prize.

I got as close to it as I dared before I realized it was a dead cow. It had been laying in the field for some time, its interior completely caved out by scavengers. The white streaks on the black hide were bird feces from the ravens, disrespectful and crass by human standards, normal protocol by bird standards. I snapped a couple of photos and returned to the trail.

It was there that I saw the rest of the herd: cows laying about, slowly chewing their cud, moving like ghosts between the trees, quiet and contemplative in their bovine repose. Whether they knew about their fallen herd member or not, it was hard to tell. They seemed to be enjoying a rest in the shady woods and staying far away from the gruesome scene in the sunlight. They didn’t seem concerned or frightened or worried. Whatever killed their fellow cow was no longer threatening them—or never did to begin with. Maybe the cow died of a heart attack or stroke. Do animals get strokes?

Before I returned to the  trail I noticed a bleached animal skull – I’m guessing another cow skull from a different season, a different year, perhaps, decorated the trail nearby. I bent down to touch the teeth. They were like human teeth: rounded, white, solid molars toward the back and pointier, more jagged teeth for slicing in the front.

I always wonder why we don’t see more carcasses of dead animals and birds around. There are thousands of birds in a suburban neighborhood. There are maybe dozens of squirrels and rabbits. Sure, once in a while I’ll see a stiff corpse of a bird or a flattened rabbit in the gutter, but is that it? Surely, the rate of casualties must be high in the animal world where the average life span is a few years or less. Nature’s trash collectors and recyclers must do a bang-up job disposing of remains.  No landfill needed. No morgue, or hospital, or hospice necessary. Death seems to occur in private, in burrows and ravines and under vegetation.

An hour later, after an exploratory taste of the woods deeper into Pike National Forest, I turned around to head back to the car. I passed the scene of decay once again. I began to hear strange clicks and murmurs coming from the trees. It took me a while to confirm the sounds were coming from the flock of ravens I had disturbed earlier. They had flown up into the trees above the trail and were having conversations. These weren’t the insistent “caw caw caw” sounds you typically hear from crows or ravens when they’re announcing their location or yelling at each other. These were alien-like whispers, trilly little clacks and brrreeps and bird-like clucks of the tongue (do ravens have tongues?). They were quiet conversations; gossipy and bantering. When I stopped to look up to see where the sounds were originating, I would be startled by a sudden swoosh and a flapping of black wings overhead. The ravens didn’t like to be observed.

I continued walking and just listened. I imagined their exchange went something like this:

“You think she’s going to want to eat some of our beef, Bob?”

“Probably not. She looked a little freaked out by it.”

“Whatever. I’m pretty full anyway. That meat was a little on the tough side.”

“Yeah, but I hear there’s a fresh kill of elk just over that ridge there. Maybe we should check it out later.”

“You go. I need a nap first, Phil.”

I wondered what the take-away message was from this hike and I decided there wasn’t really a message. I had stepped into the living (and dining) room of Burning Bear Creek, intruded on a lunch buffet, eavesdropped on afternoon gossip, and tromped through what may have been a period of bereavement or rest for a tribe of cows. It was regular life and death drama, going on as it does every day, every month, every year, whether humans see it (and hear it) or not.

Imagine what it would be like if one day a couple of squirrels with backpacks decided to walk through your house for entertainment, exercise and to take in “the view.” You and your family would be enjoying a roast at the dinner table and one of them would jump up on the table, get a good look at the scene on the serving platter, and then continue on his merry way to your kitchen, then bedroom, then your den. One of them would stop and pee in a corner behind a chair. On their way back out, they’d pass through where you were sitting in the living room, pausing only briefly to look at your with mild curiosity and amusement as you discuss the day with your spouse. Then they’d go back to their tree and wonder what it all meant.

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?

Different Ways of Seeing the Land

North Lone Pine and Bald Mountain Trail

North Lone Pine Trail, Red Feather Lakes

Location: Just west of Red Feather Lakes

Directions: From Ft. Collins, take Highway 287 north and turn onto CR 74E (Red Feather Lakes Road) toward Red Feather Lakes for approximately 22 miles. Once you see the sign for Red Feather Lakes village, take your second left onto Deadman Road. About three miles up Deadman Road you will pass a metal gate that may or may not be open (it typically opens late June and remains open as long as the roads are passable). The trailhead will be on your left a mile past the metal gate. If the gate is closed, you can park to the side of the gate and walk up the road the rest of the way to the trailhead, which will add an hour to your hike.

Duration: 2 to 5 hours, depending on if you go all the way to the summit of Bald Mountain and where you are able to park.

Access Notes: Deadman Road may have a few rough patches in late spring, but the road up to the metal gate is generally accessible by passenger cars. The stretch of road after the first metal gate may be closed as late as mid-June depending on the conditions on the pass, and if it is, you can simply park to the side and walk up the mile to the trailhead. It is an uphill walk all the way to Bald Mountain from where you’ll park, so be prepared for a good workout. The trail itself may be wet and muddy in late spring, and you may have to cross a rushing creek one-third of the way up if you plan on summiting Bald Mountain, so it’s good to wear waterproof hiking boots. On weekdays in summer, especially if the gate is locked, you will have the trail to yourself. This is a quiet trail on weekends, too, compared to many Front Range trails like South Mesa in Boulder or White Ranch in Golden, and this is one reason I selected it for a summer hike. There are picnic tables at the trailhead and parking area. Dogs are allowed on leash.

The hike:

Even though you won’t see any fourteeners or rocky, snow-capped peaks surrounding this immediate area, don’t be fooled. The trail starts at an elevation of 9,400 feet and climbs to 10,900 feet at the summit of the mountain, if you decide to go that far. Before you enter the woods, you’ll want to walk over to the picnic tables at the parking lot and look at the distant view of the hills to the east and north of Red Feather Lakes, extending into Wyoming. The landscape gradually softens to a wavy roll where the hills end and the flatter plains of Wyoming and northern Colorado begin. The view of the Mummy Range, which is southeast of Bald Mountain, is blocked at this vantage point.

As you start out, you’ll be walking on a narrow trail in a mixed forest of pine, spruce and aspen, shaded from the sun and without views for the most part. In late spring or early summer, particularly after a period of rain or snow, you’ll walk across tiny channels of water streaming downhill across the trail toward a larger creek that carries all the water down the mountain. You’ll pass an area of uprooted trees, evidence of some past windstorm. Imagine hiking in the middle of such an event! The downed trees are gray and weathered and young trees have sprung up to replace the decay.

There will be large, smooth and lumpy rock formations in the woods, places that offer shade and shelter for various small animals. These are the same types of rock formations you may have seen on the drive up from Ft. Collins, and are also the same as the rocks atop Horsetooth Mountain in Loveland. You can see how the geology of the Front Range foothills is similar from south of Highlands Ranch all the way to the Wyoming border.

You’ll come across a mysterious dilapidated structure about a quarter of a mile up—something that looks like a screened-in porch that has caved in. You’ll also notice evidence of various types of human activity here, from the way the trail has been meticulously constructed to allow water to channel across and away, to the clean, sawed edge of logs that have fallen across the trail. You’ll see the work of humans when you walk on top of the rock supported trail near the stream, and wonder about the former function of a large, rusty pipe that lays abandoned on the side of the trail. You are in the midst of Roosevelt National Forest, at the edge of the Rawah Wilderness, and yet this place has been experienced and worked over by many people in the recent and distant past.

Seeing the Land

When I was a kid, my parents owned a travel trailer with which we used to go on long vacations that involved a lot of interstate highway travel. I used to brag that I’d “seen” more than 35 of the 50 states, but really what all that seeing amounted to was a blur out the back window of the Oldsmobile as I sleepily longed for the end to day’s travels. We never took the scenic route, except when we drove through National Parks like Yellowstone or Zion. We traveled on major freeways and stopped every couple of hours to stretch our legs, get gas or have a meal at Stuckey’s. Although I did see the way the landscape changed from the flat farms of Michigan and Ohio to the rolling green hills of Kentucky to the walls of trees running parallel to I-95 through Georgia, I didn’t get to see much of the nuances of the land in very many places. We stayed in KOA campgrounds that had the same general layout, the way hotel rooms all look the same inside, no matter if you’re in Alaska or if you’re in Miami. My parents weren’t into hiking or exploring. They were into visiting tourist traps, shopping for souvenirs and walking around city centers.

About fifty miles south of this trail is Rocky Mountain National Park, a place that as of 2010 boasts more than 3 million visitors per year. How many of those visitors actually get out of their cars, other than to use the facilities or check out the visitor center? How many of them just go for the dizzying drive up Trail Ridge Road, stop at the summit gift shop, then drive back down to Estes Park for dinner before heading home? Granted, even from the inside of a car, there’s a lot to see in Rocky Mountain Park. Rarely will you drive through without seeing at least a small herd of elk. You’ll enjoy vistas of mountains and tundra that are breathtaking. You’ll see wind-twisted trees, crows and hawks and maybe a pika or two.

A tree growing out of a tree

Seeing the land from a car is one way of seeing. It’s very limited, because you’re driving past at a speed where details are lost. It’s difficult to spot smaller animals and practically impossible to identify individual species of plants when you’re busy watching the road, or gazing passively out the passenger window. What impression would someone have of Denver or Boulder if all they did was drive through it along I-70 or the Boulder Turnpike. Would it be a good impression or a bad one?

When you drove up to the Lone Pine trailhead, you experienced this kind of seeing. This is a very brief snapshot of the land. The details are a blur. You’re probably thinking about how much farther your destination is, how many more turns in the road before you see the sign for the trail. You can’t feel the ground beneath your feet and you can’t hear and smell much of anything except the interior of your car. It’s not a good way to get connected to the land.

When you enter the land, actually get out of the car and walk onto a landscape, you experience it in a more vibrant, naked way. You hear birds, wind, and airplanes overhead. You feel the way the land slopes up, down or sideways. Even a road that seems perfectly flat when you’re in the car is not flat when you’re walking—your effort and breathing tell you so.

Why even bother getting out and walking the land? Because the way you see the land affects how you feel about it. The more you see, the more you experience, and the more interesting it seems. The more value it acquires in your mind and heart. Seeing a mountain from a car for a few minutes isn’t the same as backpacking it over the course of days.

Life is everywhere, even in the rotting crevice of a fallen tree.

By slowing down even more, you can heighten your experience in ways that will stick in your memory for a long time. When you’re seeing something passively, you’re missing out on a lot.

For example, have you ever driven along a road and realized afterward that you couldn’t recall its features because you were so lost in thought? Have you ever hiked a favorite trail and couldn’t recall a single unique feature of your surroundings a day later, because you were preoccupied with a conversation with your hiking partner?

Cultivating a deeper seeing is one way to develop mindfulness and presence, so your experience of a trail is not only more rewarding, it is more memorable.

The activity:

Regardless of where you parked your car, start by stepping up the slope of the picnic area of the trailhead to look at the view. Think about what you were noticing while you were in the car on the way up. How does that compare to what you notice now, as you look out to the distant plains of Wyoming and northeastern Colorado? Consider your impression of the view. Do you think what you’re seeing are places where a lot is happening, that are full of interesting things to see? Why or why not?

Begin hiking the Lone Pine Trail at a pace that’s comfortable to you, even if it’s brisk. Notice what you see while you’re walking. Where do you place your gaze most? Do you notice the sights or the sounds more?

After sitting for at least 10 minutes noticing everything around you, stand up and take a look at the spot where you’re sitting—the tree, the log or rock under you. Look closely at it. What do you notice about it that you didn’t notice while you were sitting on it?

You can keep doing this until you reach the smallest object or life form you’re able to perceive, whether it’s a moss or an insect or a strand of spider web. Describe it.

You can “see” deeper by using other senses. Scrape up a bit of soil with a twig and place it in your palm. Imagine what it smells like before actually smelling it. Does it smell how you imagined? How do you describe the smell?

With your eyes closed, touch the place you were sitting. Does its texture surprise you in any way?

Think back to one of the first questions of this exercise, which was to consider the distant landscape and whether it seemed to you that there was anything of interest going on out there. Has your impression changed?

This deeper perception makes me see how life, great and small, is happening on every square inch of this world. From the tiniest microscopic bacteria in the soil, to grasses, trees and animals, there is no such thing as a place where there’s “not much there.” Life is everywhere, and there’s life and death drama occurring despite what humans are doing or what value we place on the land in our minds.

As you complete your hike, imagine how your experience of Red Feather Lakes would be different if you never got out of your car.

How to Do a Medicine Walk

Coulson Gulch Road/National Forest Trail #916

Location: West of Pinewood Springs, between Lyons and Estes Park

Directions: From Boulder take the 36 through Lyons toward Estes Park. Immediately past Pinewood Springs, turn left (south) on Cr-118, where you’ll see a brown sign for Big Elk Meadows and National Forest Access. Drive another 3 miles until you get to the “Y” fork in the road. Take the left fork, following the sign pointing toward National Forest Access. This last half mile is a very rutty dirt road best accessed by high-clearance vehicles. Park along the road in front of the metal barrier. Walk south past the metal barrier where the road continues and spreads out into a bigger area. Veer slightly east where there’s a second metal barrier and locate the narrow dirt trail directly west of it that descends into the trees below, indicated by a brown National Forest Service sign that states “Trail 916.”

Duration: 4 hours or longer

Access Notes: Camping is allowed at the trailhead in certain areas, so you may encounter a few cars already parked at the trailhead in summer. The last half mile of dirt road is not maintained in winter, so this hike is accessible when the roads are dry—after Memorial Day. Elk hunting is permitted in this National Forest area during the fall, and it is advised to wear bright orange during that time when hiking in National Forest. There are no facilities or restrooms at the trailhead. Dogs are allowed on leash.

The Hike

This is one of the trails within 30 minutes drive of Boulder that feels like you’re stepping into wilderness. It’s quiet, bucolic in summer, with no road noise (except maybe ATVs in nearby Big Elk Meadows and Johnny Camp) and long, green views of the valley between Pinewood Springs and the north Boulder foothills.

The start of the trail is a narrow slit in the dirt that cuts through a sloped, grassy meadow that descends into the trees. It then follows a small creek through a thicket of woods and brush at the bottom of a gully. In the spring and summer you’ll see a variety of wildflowers dotting the trail, including lupines, yellow peas, prairie chickweed, western dayflowers, columbines and others. The view of the meadow below (Higgin’s Park) is most spectacular the first portion of the hike, before you enter the woods.

After the cool and pleasant walk in the woods next to the stream, you’ll come to a more exposed section of the trail where you can look across the valley to the west and south. After a steep and sketchy descent down a section of trail with a lot of loose sand and gravel, you’ll come to an old abandoned log cabin—a relic of the earlier part of the last century. There’s no roof, but a rusted bed frame, mattress springs and headboard are propped up inside the decaying structure. There’s even a rusty skeleton of a wood-burning cookstove flung onto the forest floor nearby. It feels odd this far into the trail, and makes you wonder how people used to bring in such items this deep into a forest. A little further down, an old livestock enclosure fashioned out of logs borders what once was a home to someone who lived this close to nature.

As you come out of the woods past this abandoned homestead you come upon Higgins Park, a large, rolling meadow with views of Cook Mountain and North and South Sheep Mountain. As the trail turns east and away from the grassy hill, you have to make a decision—go another half hour toward Button Rock reservoir or another 20 minutes to a footbridge over the St. Vrain river, following the trail until it dead ends up the river.

There are many opportunities to view and listen to wildlife along the way—chirping and crowing birds, squirrels, elk, or deer. Sometimes the more open you are and in tune with the land, the more animals you notice.

The remote feel and peaceful setting make it an excellent location to do a Medicine Walk.

Medicine Walk

Native Americans believed that every animal or object in nature had a spirit and contained special powers that were beyond the normal ability of humans. The landscape and its inhabitants was not an inanimate object to be quantified and assessed for monetary value as it is in Western culture, but a place alive with mystery and purpose, omens and symbolism. The spirit, or wakan in Lakota, of hawks, coyotes, elk and other animals symbolized such qualities as courage, success in courtship, or a deep and clear seeing. When animals appeared to humans, whether in reality or in dreams and visions, it held special meaning. There was an intimate connection between the animal realm and the human realm, each one needing the other.

It was believed that every person had their own spirit guide from nature, represented by some animal or object. This spirit guide gave the person emotional strength to endure challenges in life and the insight to succeed in hunting, love or leadership.

Spirit guides were particularly important during vision quests. Vision quests were sacred rites of passage in Native American culture where adolescents (and sometimes adults, when seeking answers to difficult questions) would fast in the wilderness for three or four days, which helped incite hallucinations and an altered psychological state in order to get a vision to guide them in their life. The quester would bring along talismans of their spirit guide they carved or created on their journey, packed in a sacred medicine bag.

During their time in the wilderness, there was symbolic meaning from things they observed from the weather, animals and the landscape that they interpreted in relationship to their own life. The “messages” they received told them of their purpose in life, revealed their special gifts and talents, and instructed them how to use those gifts to benefit their tribe when they returned.

A medicine walk is like a short vision quest, during which you pay attention to the omens in nature in order to find your medicine, which in the Native American sense is anything that is healing  and positive to body and mind. During a medicine walk, you find a place where you can spend at least a half a day alone, walking, sitting and meditating in nature with as few distractions from civilization as possible. You focus on an important personal issue and seek wisdom and guidance in nature by looking for symbolic meaning from the things you observe.

Medicine walks can be undertaken in preparation for important transitions in life: a new job, a divorce, a new relationship. It can be a healing, insightful practice when you’re feeling stuck or confused about something in your life. The insights you receive from a medicine walk can be subtle or immensely profound, and sometimes the answers aren’t what you were expecting. But simply by embarking on a medicine walk, you invite a more mystical quality in your life. You acknowledge that the world is more than a collection of profane objects, but rather a world alive with both meaning and mystery.

To prepare for a medicine walk, you select a place where you will spend a half day or longer, a place where there aren’t too many people (preferably a trail that has little or no visitors on certain days of the week). If you have a favorite trail or a place that draws you in some mysterious way, that’s a good place to go. The key is to have a place where you’ll feel comfortable and unembarrassed to walk slowly, sit for long periods of time or even have a conversation with an animal or plant. The reason you want to be out for at least a half day is because you’ll naturally come with a lot of mental chatter, and it will take at least a few hours for that chatter to subside enough for you to be open to what the outside world is trying to say.

It can be a time during which you take water, but no food. The reasoning behind this is that because fasting can further eliminate distractions.  Personally, I think hunger is a bigger distraction and I prefer to take along a snack. In planning for your walk, be prepared for any weather possibility since the weather can be completely different at the end of your walk as it is when you embark. Or, try to plan your walk on a day when you know the weather will be as agreeable as possible. Be sure to tell someone exactly where you’re going and what time you expect to be back home, in case you get injured or something happens and you’re out longer than you want to be.

I selected the Coulson Gulch trail for this activity, because it is on National Forest land and has less visitors than other trails near the Front Range, especially on weekdays. It feels like you’re deeper in the wilderness than you actually are, and provides the solitude and quiet that you’ll need in order to benefit from this contemplative activity.

When you arrive at the trail, set an intention for your medicine walk. You’re here to ask guidance from nature and you want to stay open to all omens and signs. Perhaps you’re confused about the direction you’re going in life. Maybe you want guidance about what your true talents and gifts are, and what to do with them. Whatever the question, it should be of a personal nature.

Find an imaginary threshold that you will step over to begin your medicine walk and journey into dream time, or a period of time when everything that happens and everything you observe has special and sacred meaning. You will be stepping back over this same threshold upon your return. This threshold could be the metal barrier to the trail, or the trail sign, or a stand of trees.

Walk purposefully and slowly. Allow your curiosity to seek out things that capture your attention. Don’t analyze everything you observe for meaning, because sometimes the best guidance comes in subtle ways when you least expect it.

When I went on my first medicine walk, I wanted answers on how and when to transition my career. I had a hard time receiving the messages at first. I was looking at everything and assigning meaning. Did the stand of broken aspens mean that I was making changes before I was ready? Did the wind pick up and shake the leaves on the tree because it acknowledged what I just said? Did that deer symbolize something positive or negative? Nothing I was considering felt right. It was as if I was trying too hard and making up my own meaning instead of letting the mystery unfold.

After a few hours, I started to feel tired and hungry and turned around to head back. As I was thinking about my hunger, a strange thought came over me. I looked to the grass in the meadow and was convinced I could dive into it and find food in the form of insects. This wasn’t a logical thought or even a momentary musing. It felt visceral and real, and my body almost followed my eyesight into the grass.

I had no idea where the thought came from. It didn’t feel like any I had experienced before or since. It was as if, for a brief moment, I channeled the thoughts of a bird. The sensation felt wild, foreign, and intense.

Ironically, after all that analysis of every unusual thing I observer, I came away from my medicine walk with just one simple message: don’t try too hard. Stay open. Allow the spirit guide to come to me, instead of searching it out. This could mean staying open on contemplative hikes, or it could mean staying open to what happens in life and allowing opportunities and answers to unfold instead of forcing a direction.

I haven’t channeled any bird thoughts since that one time, but now, coincidentally or not, almost every time I go on a contemplative hike I see ravens. Ravens flying in ecstasy overhead. Ravens sqwaking at me. Once, I observed two ravens, one chasing the other one that had something in its beak. As they flew right above me, I willed the raven to drop his prize, and he did, and whatever it was landed just a few feet from me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find whatever it was since it was small and landed in the snow. But in that split second when I thought, “drop it” and the bird let go of what he was holding right as he flew overhead, there was a connection between us. Once, on a hike with my husband, I was telling him about the special symbolism of ravens and how I experienced the thought of getting food from the grass, and within moments of saying that, we came upon a big raven, pecking at the grass in front of us on the trail. Coincidence or not, I felt validated somehow. The raven then flew up into the trees and watched me. It was surreal.

But what does it all mean?

To me, ravens symbolize freedom and intelligence. Their croaky cry echoing across valleys or the way they seem to fly just for the fun of it is their way of and reminding me about my own freedom. They link me to my own wildness. They’re a reminder not to take life too seriously, but to stay curious and revel in the feeling of the wind in my wings, so to speak.

When you go on your medicine walk, you will find your own spirit guide and message. Remain open but don’t try too hard to read what you’re experiencing. The best guidance comes when you least expect it. Your spirit guide will find you. You don’t need to go looking for it.

To heighten your experience, stop and have a conversation with a being. Tell a tree about yourself. Ask a bird what his life is like. Sometimes it will seem like creatures want to communicate something to you. Birds will follow you. Deer will stare at you. Trees will tremble as you approach. What is it they’re trying to say?

When you complete your walk and step back over your threshold, take a minute to offer gratitude to the land for showing you its ancient and eternal wisdom. You can bow, say thank you, lay your hands on an object or tree and offer it positive energy. Record your impressions in a journal when you get home, when they’re still fresh in your mind.

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.

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 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

Cultivating Inner Knowing On an Unfamiliar Trail

Date of hike: 2-13-10

Location: Golden Gate State Park, Golden, CO

Racoon Trail (loop) at Panorama Point

Distance: 2.5 mile loop

90 minute hike

Directions: From Boulder or Golden Take Hwy. 93 to CO 72 (West)

Turn left at Twin Spruce Road

Proceed past the entrance sign for Golden Gate State Park

Park in the Panorama Point parking lot

Look for the Racoon Trail signposts

Panorama Point
The view from Panorama Point, Golden Gate State Park

The Raccoon Trail

The Raccoon Trail in Golden Gate State Park is an easy to moderate hike along varied terrain. You descend down into trees from the parking lot at Panorama Point, and enjoy distant views of the Divide through the gaps here and there. Once you reach the bottom of the hill, the aspens get fatter and you can look up too view the two big rock outcroppings above the trees to the east.

The trail winds through stands of aspens, ponderosa pine, some other evergreens, and eventually, large gray boulders on the west side. Today there were some patches of undisturbed semi-packed snow, crusty, icy patches and even some short distances of gravel, decent conditions for snowshoes or YakTrak. There’s an equal amount of ascending and descending as you make the loop.

On this day the cold front was moving in and the clouds were booking it — when you stood still and looked up it was almost disorienting to see them race so fast across the sky. Cold air and unformed clouds of snow clung to the Divide. The wind was temperamental, blowing in quick bursts here and there but never sustaining the kind of velocity that would have made the hike unbearably cold and harsh. When we arrived at Panorama Point at 10:15 a.m. ours was the only vehicle in the lot and we encountered no other hikers on the trail itself until we were almost back at the lot an hour and a half later.

I briefly stated my intention and crossed an imaginary threshold just a few feet out of the parking lot. I was in sacred space and time and everything from now on would be a waking dream. Thoughts, feelings and signs from nature would be my guide for the hike.

Cultivating Inner Knowing

The intention of this hike to was to cultivate inner knowing, intuition, or what some call inherent wisdom.

If you’d like to do this activity yourself, I recommend going to a trail that you’re somewhat unfamiliar with. You want to experience the feeling of uncertainty and Beginner’s Mind in this activity, so not knowing what to expect at each moment is helpful.

Before you start the hike, ask yourself a question that’s been pressing on your mind, something that you don’t know the answer to, but you have some idea of the possibilities. Perhaps there are financial difficulties that you’ve been worried about or sensing. Maybe you have a health problem that’s developing but you haven’t acknowledged it. Maybe your romantic relationship is troubled, and you sense something is wrong, but you aren’t sure what that problem is or what will unfold.

This is also a good activity to do when you’re feeling eco-anxiety—how will the future unfold with all the challenges we’re facing with resource depletion, economic instability and widespread pollution? It’s important that you’re prepared for what’s ahead, and cultivating inner wisdom and emotional resilience is as important as preparing physically (paying down debt, growing a garden, reskilling).

In our daily, busy lives we have so little time to contemplate these questions directly, or to use the wisdom we already have deep within us. We’re constantly distracted by conversations, work, drama, television, mainstream media gossip and scandal. There are projects, tasks, chores, shopping lists and bills to pay. We lack the space or mental energy to solve our problems intuitively, so we look outside for answers: friends, online articles, therapists, books. Or we don’t look for answers, we numb ourselves with distractions instead.

In order to practice the skill of intuitive wisdom, you have to get away from all those distractions and stay completely present and open to hearing what you really feel and know in your heart. You can do this on solo walks, hikes or through mindful meditation at home. By cultivating this inner knowing you acknowledge that you have all the resources inside yourself already to solve or simply understand just about any problem or hardship that confronts you.

This means that no matter what troubles you now, deep within you already know what to do. Sometimes the answers aren’t easy and there will be work ahead, but when you listen to that inner knowing, you will not second guess yourself or have regrets later. A person who is in touch with their inner wisdom never looks back with regret over what might have been, or what they should have done instead. They always know they did the best they could with what they knew at the time.

The Activity

When you do this hike, it’s important to remain silent so that you can listen to the thoughts that pass underneath the narration going on in your mind. When you feel yourself becoming lost in daydreaming or thinking about unrelated matters back home, come back to your breath and look around to become present to the moment.

As you walk, as yourself: How do certain parts of the trail, certain vistas and changes in weather make you feel? What is your experience of the present moment? How does it relate to the answers you’re seeking?

Is nature trying to tell you something?

Pay attention to anything you observe, think or feel on the hike. Don’t try too hard to analyze everything in relationship to your question, but be curious about what unfolds. Are there strange coincidences? Is there irony somehow? Are there omens?

Symbolism and a Message

When I did this hike, I wanted to tap into what I already “knew” about the coming difficulties and challenges that were upon civilization: peak oil, economic instability and collapse, resource depletion and the resulting political battles to secure what’s left. What should I know about how to handle the challenges that will unfold in my life? What do I already know, on an intuitive level, about how I might deal with the problems to come in my own life? Did I have an idea of what would happen in the next 10-20 years?

The entire hike turned out to be full of symbolism regarding uncertainty and strength.

Raccoon TrailWhen we started out, we walked around the viewing decks by the parking lot but couldn’t find where the trail began. The most recent dusting of snow had covered up tracks and bootprints from the past week and the trail markers weren’t immediately apparent. When we did find them, we had to go by intuition anyway because there were no prints in the snow. Immediately, there was irony in our intention to cultivate “inner knowing” because we had to rely on it from the start in order to find out way through the trees. Without a visible trail or existing tracks to follow, I relied on subtle clues, such as breaks in the trees, a slightly flatter terrain, some barely discernible edge sticking up, indicating where small logs may have framed the gravel trail.

Racoon Trail

Also, just five minutes into our hike we came across a sign saying the trail was closed a half mile up ahead. I felt a little disappointed, but didn’t hesitate about continuing the hike. I felt that we would deal with the situation as we came across it, but if worse came to worse, we could always turn around and try a different trail. Seeing the warning, I proceeded with caution but didn’t let it automatically discourage me. I had a Plan B just in case, but went ahead with Plan A and let the uncertainty of the situation remain. This, too, played into the symbolism of what it would mean to prepare for the coming collapse.

Spiritual teacher and author Marshall Summers writes that part of the reason why people fail to prepare adequately (emotionally and physically) for the coming “Great Waves” of change is because they’re uncomfortable or afraid of uncertainty. These are the people who insist that technology or government will solve our problems or worse, that there really aren’t any problems and all this talk of collapse is just a bunch of “doomsayers” exaggerating a few problems.

Rock OutcroppingWhen you can sit with uncertainty and even welcome it, it builds psychological resilience for the coming challenges—whether these challenges are personal or global.

Not knowing the trail very well or why it was closed did add a level of uncertainty to the hike. As the sign promised, we did see the trail barricaded a half mile up, but that wasn’t the full story. The Raccoon Trail intersected with the Elk Trail at the half mile juncture, and the Elk Trail was the one that was closed for forest fuel mitigation operations. The Raccoon Trail continued on, wider and well-trampled (and easier to follow) at that point. That was a good lesson in uncertainty, expectations and decision-making.

winter aspensThe trees on this trail displayed evidence of a life battered by harsh weather and brutal winds. Aspens grew in curved zig zag shapes, like fingers and limbs mangled by a crushing device and healed back up. Some pine trees had bulges and buckled trunks, one tree in particular grew a Y shaped trunk because of some trauma that had been inflicted upon it in the distant past. Trees that had died and toppled over were often leaning against living trees and would squeak and creak each time the wind jostled the tree’s branches. It was like listening to a rusty hinge from some phantom door in the middle of the woods.

This forest was a display of resilience and persistence. And yet, as I passed a stand of young aspen I felt suddenly compelled to grasp the smooth, relatively straight trunk of a younger, ten foot tall tree.

I said, “Stay strong.” I shook the trunk a little, watching the branches rattle above me.

Who was really speaking and who was listening? I didn’t know why I had grasped that tree or why I had given it that advice. Perhaps the tree had spoken to me instead of the other way around. Surely, it didn’t need any advice on how to grow in this place. It had its community around it and it knew what it had to do.

That moment felt significant, somehow. As if it had come from outside of myself, as if I had tapped into a greater wisdom—a kind of wisdom we all have access to.

Reflection

Upon your return to the parking lot, reflect on what you observed and felt on the hike.

How did the trail or hike itself relate to the question you brought with you? Was there any significance to what happened or what you experienced?

Were there any moments when you had a thought or feeling that seemed to come from outside yourself? You might have had a thought come up and wondered, “Whoa, where did that come from?” When this happens, it is usually devoid of strong emotion—it doesn’t stem from fear or worry or anticipation. It may inspire emotion once you deliberate what the thought means, but the thought itself feels neutral. Did you experience anything like this?

Did anything you see on the hike (the way the trees were growing, the way the weather changed, animals or birds) lend any symbolic significance to your question?