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.

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.

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A Slow and Ugly Death at Rocky Mountain National Park

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

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

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

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

dead trees

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

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

new growth
New growth among the dead trees

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

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

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

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

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

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