To say that Colorado changed everything for me is probably pretty apt. The Badlands were the beginning of a different feel of this trip, but Colorado altered my chemistry, so to speak. I traveled through this state for three weeks, which is longer than any other place I’ve explored. And really, I could have traveled for another month and been perfectly happy. It’s one of the most varied environments I’ve come across so far - flat plains, incredible mountains, arid deserts, sand dunes, red rocks, canyons - I feel like there were so many different times that I’d turn a bend and be gobsmacked by what was in front of me. It was a state of a lot of firsts for me, some in life and some on this trip. But, yea, basically, my time in Colorado transformed me. I can’t tell if it was because, by this point, I’d been on the road for three months and that was long enough for everything from my life before traveling to fall away or if it was having the opportunity for my mind to really be quieted by nature that lent itself to this change. Perhaps it was a combination of the two, but if I had to guess, I think it was more the landscape that I took in almost everyday that played the biggest role.
The beginning of my time in Colorado was spent with friends - some old and some brand new. I spent time in Denver with my boyfriend’s best friend from high school and his girlfriend, a few days in Littleton with a former work colleague and her family, and a night in Boulder with one of my closest girlfriend’s college friends and her family. I will never stop being amazed by the kindness of strangers. The fact that people whom I don’t know have opened up their homes to me, engaged in conversations where we’ve gotten to know each other, shown me their beloved towns and cities, allowed me to shower, let me clean my clothes, and offered me anything I could possibly need is almost something that brings on teary eyes. Because I used to be kind of shy when I was younger, I still always have a slight apprehension about meeting strangers in this way. It’s not that I think anything terribly bad will happen, but it’s more that I feel like I’m asking a lot to be taken into their home and be their guest. I’ve never been one to put people out and I’m always afraid that taking a stranger into your home for a night or two can be likened to that. I guess that I’m also a little nervous that there might be a personality clash or something. But, it never ends up that way. Every family who has offered up their couch, blow-up mattress or spare bedroom has overwhelmed me with their graciousness and hospitality. And I will never be able to say thank you enough to make them know what it’s meant to me. Not only has it allowed me to visit cities I might not have the chance to otherwise, but it’s left a path of new friends that have contributed to the feel of this trip exponentially.
It was fantastic to be able to spend some time in Denver and it’s surrounding communities - to get a feel for what it’s like to live in a big city that offers so much outdoor recreation and natural splendor. I seriously couldn’t believe people get to live in a place that is enveloped by some of the most gorgeous mountains I’ve seen and be able to drive a few minutes to hike through red-rocked landscapes or climb a few miles up to impossibly gorgeous overlooks.
So, thank you to Brian Collins and Michelle Osborn, Elizabeth, Joe and baby AJ Marzocco, and Amanda, Ben and Eloise Berg Wilson.
Before I go into the nature shit, though, I want to take a moment to talk about a booze highlight. I started drinking New Belgium’s Fat Tire beer in probably something like 2002. After the first one, it was all over and that’s pretty much what I drank for the rest of my time in Texas. When I moved to LA, I searched for it high and low, but they were still a small brewery at that point and hadn’t started distributing there yet. Just about the time I got ready to move to NYC, LA started carrying their bomber bottles, which I drank at home all the time. My search began again in NYC, but I never had the same luck as in LA. Each time I went back to Austin or Los Angeles, though, I drank the shit out of it. My best friend, JoAnne, checked a 12-pack of Fat Tire on a plane from LA one year for my birthday. It truly was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. So, there was no doubt in my mind that I’d stop by the New Belgium Brewery when I came through Colorado and that’s just what I did on my way to Denver. Erica and Michael were in Fort Collins and Erica was able to join me for a tour while Michael worked (sorry bud). This place was pretty much everything I could have imagined. Our tour guide was a hilarious and knowledgeable guy who truly loved what he did. And it seems like everyone who worked there loved their jobs. New Belgium is employee-owned and I can tell that makes a huge difference to the quality of workplace life. The brewery runs on sustainable practices as much as it can and I was impressed by how important it is to them without shoving it down people’s throats. It’s who they are, not something they do because of the popularity of the trend. We saw several parts of their brewery, drank a lot of beer (I needed a burger after to get right), slid down their “fun slide,” and I bought a t-shirt. It was amazing. I’m pretty much ready to move to Fort Collins and start working for them.
So, on to the other stuff.
The real change that transpired in Colorado began in Rocky Mountain National Park. That’s not surprising, though, right? Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our country’s great parks. I think the base of the Western part of the park sits at around 8,000 feet and Trail Ridge Road, the byway that runs through the park, reaches the highest elevation of any continuous road in this country. It tops out somewhere above 12,000 feet, and that drive is one of the more incredible ones you can take. As you climb, you’re able to see the changing topography, eventually reaching above the treeline to the tundra. Honestly, I was fascinated by this area of the park because it only sees about 6-8 weeks of summer a year. That means the animals who live there have only that amount of time to fatten up and prepare for an insanely long winter hibernation. The plants and flowers that inhabit that area are all marked by evolutionary function - they are small, low to the ground, and not at all lush because they’ve adapted to how to survive hurricane-force winter winds and snowfalls of epic proportions. All of the life up there is very determined and, when you stop and consider that, it makes you really understand how beautifully efficiently this planet can work. Especially given that it has been millions of years in the making.
The wildlife in RMNP was abundant and I saw animals I’d never before seen. Moose (or as I like to call them, meese), huge herds of elk, including one enormous bull with a spectacular set of antlers, marmots, gorgeous birds, lots of bunnies (which is definitely not new, but always adorable). The preservation of these animals’ habitat is beyond important - the more national parks and open expanses of space I'm in , the more I understand that. Our country has been encroaching on their homes for over a hundred years and it’s really crazy to consider how much harm we’ve done to their survival in such a short amount of time, especially given how old this planet is. As this trip has progressed, I’ve found myself able to sit and watch animals for much longer than in the beginning. It’s given me a sense of peace for some reason. Their actions are so calculated and purposeful. I think it’s given me a deeper feel for how all actions should be - purposeful - and that is something that is more and more rare in our society. It’s something that requires effort.
Probably the most fulfilling experience of my time at RMNP was hiking to Sky Pond. A ranger told me it was her favorite hike in the area and that’s what I committed to on my last full day in the park. Up until this point, I’d done a little hiking at the beginning and some minor fun hikes with friends in the Denver area. The trail to Sky Pond, though, was the first major hike I attempted. It was 10 miles out and back with an elevation climb of 1650 feet, topping out somewhere over 11,000 feet. I felt everyone of those feet, too, especially since it probably took me at least two weeks to finally acclimate to the elevation change in Colorado. I was also not in the greatest of shape since I’d been doing a lot of sitting in my car. The hike was the beginning of many in Colorado, though, and each one I’ve done has given me more confidence to push myself further and instilled a greater sense of strength and inner-peace. For that reason, Sky Pond was special.
As I hiked, I stopped for a snack at Mills Lake. This was a gorgeous body of water nestled between the mountain range. I sat down on a crop of rocks and looked up at the mountain peaks ahead of me. It wasn’t until I reached the top of the trail that I realized what I had been looking up at was where I would eventually end. This has been an ongoing theme in my hiking - stops along the way to look up, only to realize later that I was admiring where I’d be. The accompanying sense of accomplishment is one I have yet to find replicated in other aspects of life. Maybe that’s because I am relatively new to challenging myself in this way, but people who push themselves physically, especially in the outdoors, to see what they can accomplish, well, I think I finally get it. It’s so much more rewarding than the gym.
And, solo hiking, well, that is altogether a different beast. I feel differently now that I have more hikes under my belt, but at the beginning, there were a lot of factors I considered. They never stopped me from doing the hike, but I guess you could say it made me a little nervous. The primary one being if something happened to me out on the trail. Most times, I’ve come across other hikers, so there’s kind of a sense of safety knowing that if I were to hurt myself and not be able to walk, eventually someone would probably come along and call for help. But that’s not a guarantee. The other factor, especially being in bear country, is that you’ll come across a bear. When you’re alone, you have a greater chance of startling one since you’re not usually talking out loud. I have yet to know how I’ll react when I see a bear and that alone kind of makes me wish that I’d come across one already. At this point, it’s the unknown and it makes me unsure as to how it will go down. Experience breeds confidence, so for that fact alone, I’d like a little experience. Just a little. I’m not trying to get greedy here.
There is the other side of solo hiking, though, that far outweighs any trepidations I might have. When you get to a place and are allowed to be alone with nature, the feeling is something I can’t quite describe. There are several factors that determine that feeling, too. The scenery, how hard the hike was, what has been going on in your head, etc. What that lends itself to is a unique experience on every hike. None are the same. Some have made me awe-struck. Some have made me cry with happiness. Some have made me pissed off. And some have given me a greater sense of calm than I’ve ever had. I’m sure that it’s different for everyone, which is part of the beauty. Everyone should get the opportunity to know what that feels like for them.
Anyway, Sky Pond was magnificent. It was challenging for sure and by the time I got back to my car, my feet were in a bad way. But it was beautiful at the top. There were glaciers up there people. Glaciers! At the beginning of September! And I could see for miles. It was cool as hell.
I was hoping to stick around RMNP for another night so I could do the ranger’s second favorite hike out to a few other lakes, but the weather dictated my departure. Hiking in the rain seems like not a lot of fun. This place was pretty magical. Honestly, I feel like most of the places I’ll be writing about for a little while will use that same adjective, so forgive me. But this was the first mountain range I’d been in where I was blown away into silence. Other places had been beautiful, sure, but this was truly majestic. This was humbling. It made me feel small and unimportant and that felt wonderful. At the same time, I left RMNP feeling stronger than I had in a long time and it just built from there. Rocky Mountain National Park was my foundation of sorts and it was a solid one at that.