Blue Skies and Bench Seats
Updated: Feb 17
As Steve disappeared over the snow-covered cliff, I remember thinking "He's dead. Day one, and he's already dead."
It was June of '94 and we found ourselves in an off-trail, cross-country zone of Rocky Mountain National Park on our first real backpacking trip. Three college buddies out to explore the wilds; mountain men carrying everything we would need on our sturdy backs. But now our trio was down to a duet.
According to the map, we needed to take a long, circuitous route to reach our desired destination: Arrowhead Lake. Steve, deeming that route unnecessarily indirect, had opted for a "shortcut," jumping on his backpack and riding over the edge of the aforementioned cliff to "cut the corner," as he put it.
Tyler and I edged closer to the rim in hopes of spotting our dearly departed friend, but it was so damned steep we might as well have been trying to locate a partridge in a pear tree from a passing plane. We began shouting. No response. Fearing the worst, we assessed the options; take the long (safe) route around and try to catch up with our Cool Running's compatriot, or board the backpacks and follow suit in hopes of reaching him quicker. Assuming we lived.
One last holler, but again, no response. Trading nervous glances, we shrugged our shoulders, hopped on the Kelty external frames, and plunged over the lip into the great unknown.
I regretted the decision immediately. Falling hard, I spun one hundred and eighty degrees, and began plummeting backwards into God-knows-what, pack clenched in one hand, while digging my boots in vain attempt to slow down. Tyler was tearing along next to me, still upright on his nylon toboggan, and gaining quickly; pressing his feet deep into snow that careened past his face like stars when those sci-fi spacecraft hit "warp speed." His expression told me everything I needed to know about what lay behind me; sheer terror.
Finally my boots gained some purchase as I dug in harder, and the vertical pitch decreased. I began to slow and then finally bumped to an ass-over-applecart stop in a jagged scree field at the bottom of the basin. Tyler slid in next to me, snow-covered but alive. A win.
I gingerly stood up to assess the damage. My fancy new pack had a few fresh holes and my shell sported a tear or two. The body seemed pretty much intact, but adrenaline was undoubtedly masking bountiful bumps and bruises. I turned to find Steve in his shredded, and now ass-less, Meijer-brand rain gear, grinning one of those stupid "whaaat?" grins. I was relieved he was alive and in one piece, briefly contemplated changing that, and then burst into uncontrollable laughter at the ridiculousness of it all. Ah, the ignorance and accompanying bliss of youth.
This particular blissful adventure had begun the day before when we set out from Grand Rapids, Michigan in Steve's "Adventure-Mobile": a 1986, candy-apple red, two-wheel-drive, manual Ford Ranger. Complete with bench seat and old-man cap on the bed.
Steve, who we would eventually take to calling Chuck due to his crumpled-up bucket-style camp hat, would drive, at least the first leg. Tyler would ride shotgun and I had commandeered the covered bed, complete with air mattress, snacks, and beach-towel curtains. Tucked in tightly among our packs.
The first two-thirds of the drive was Iowa-in-June-level flat and boring, and I was content to gorge on Doritos and Mountain Dew between dozing in my modestly furnished mobile man cave. Somewhere about Nebraska we decided to make a switch. Chuck wanted to continue in the driver's seat (it was becoming readily apparent he had no intention of giving up this prized spot), so I jumped up front and Tyler crawled over the tailgate for some bunk time.
Miles later we finally drew our first glimpse of the distant snow-covered peaks of the Rockies. I hadn't read them at this point in my young life, but Ed Abbey's words describe the moment with college-guy accuracy."There on the Western horizon, under a hot, clear sky, sixty miles away, crowned with snow was a magical vision, a legend come true: the front range of the Rocky Mountains. An impossible beauty, like a boy's first sight of an undressed girl, the image of those mountains struck a fundamental chord in my imagination that has sounded ever since."
A few short hours and we were winding through the foothills, following the fast-flowing river. While this trip marked my second visit to the Centennial state, I still found myself nose pressed against the window, taking in the sights. Tyler, whose view was much more obstructed from the back, wanted to move up front again. But, I wasn't ready to make the switch, especially given my ringside seat to the grandeur of "the undressed" just beyond the glass. He wouldn't relent, and neither would I, so we split the difference, agreeing to ride three-wide in the bench seat. I ended up on the short end of that deal; crammed into the middle "spot," wincing with every downshift of the Adventure-Mobile.
The first slight split in the fabric of friendship began to show. But nothing a late breakfast and some fourteeners couldn't stitch up. We pulled into an Estes Park diner and feasted on the last "real food" we would see for a while. Chuck opted for the steak and eggs and at least one pot of coffee (I honestly lost count), while Tyler and I stuffed ourselves with pancakes and bacon. Wiping our faces, we left a tip, hit the head, and made for the trail, a few too-close-for-comfort downshifts further along the pass.
Rolling into the gravel lot, I instantly realized the trailhead I hand-selected as our starting point was going to pose a slight problem. On my mail-order map (this was before Al Gore invented the internet) it seemed to offer the shortest route to our destination, and, in my defense, if you drew a straight line, it did. The trouble, seeing the real life version, was the pesky giant-ass valley between my preferred parking area and the backcountry bliss we hoped to pitch our tent in. Oh, that's what all those very-tightly-packed contour lines on the map meant. Who knew? Apparently not me.
Wilderness men or not, we probably shouldn't attempt to descend several thousand feet of snow-covered mountain, cross a raging river, and then scale back up another several- thousand-foot vertical cliff on the other side, seemed to be the consensus. My map was seized and locked away as tightly as a distressed maiden in castle tower. The sign around my neck read "charting privileges revoked," and I was banished to the back until the next trailhead.
Getting a late start due to our nascent navigator, we quickly donned our packs and began the ascent, Chuck clocking I-just-finished-two-pots-of-coffee time at the front of the line, with Tyler and I doing our best to keep pace. We passed marmots and mountain sheep as we steadily gained elevation, before briefly stopping for a late snack. Tyler wasn't feeling very good at this point, but determined a little food and H20 would get him back in fighting shape.
Reaching the divide, angry black clouds rolled in overhead. Directly overhead. Our fishing rods appeared to tug through their bottoms, forming misty contrails, like the smoke from my grandfather's old briar pipe. A rumble of thunder reverberated so close it seemed to originate from deep inside my own body, and it began to rain. Lightly at first and then steadier. Much steadier.
One eye on the weather, one eye on the trail, we traversed the divide in double time over to the cliff, and Chuck's corner-cutting catastrophe. While we did indeed "cut the corner," the "shortcut" meant we now had to make our way into another drainage, where we emerged in thick timber.
So, back up we clamored, this time without the benefit of a trail. Working the steep hillside, we crossed a slender stream where trout darted in and out of sight. Imagining the credibility catching dinner would add to our legends, we hustled to unlash rods from soggy packs. That was before the mosquitos.
Being from Michigan we were well acquainted with the blood-sucking tormentors, but in no way prepared for the volume and voracity of these particular mountain dwellers, who seemed larger and hardier than their Michigan cousins. Like a clan of Murphy's or O'Brien's on Saint Patty's Day, these barflys drank DEET by the bottle and chased it with the red stuff they were pulling by the pint. And thus, we decided the fishing could wait. Pressing soggily on, we scrambled back above tree-line in search of our lake.
Pushing a few more miles, our destination finally came into view, and we hastily assembled the three-man backpacking tent in what I would eventually come to think of as a light mountain shower. Tyler, feeling even worse than before, wasted no time unfurling his sleeping bag and tucking in, while Steve and I made a soggy dinner.
We lugged our filter and Nalgenes over to the lake and slowly pump, pump, pumped water into each bottle before assembling the camp stove, for more pump, pump, pumping of the fuel canister. After a few dozen or so pumps, I turned the knob until the gas was hissing, reached down with my lighter, and was met with an immediate FHOOOMP! that scorched the hair off my arms and sent us both diving for cover. Now I had an inferno in place of a stove, and began even more frantic pump, pump, pumping to settle the blaze. We finally brought the stove to heel, warmed water, and made oatmeal which, despite the raging stove, didn't quite dissolve properly, adding a little extra crunch to the Quaker Oats Apples and Cinnamon in a pouch. But we got it down.
Being adept mountain men, we cleaned up camp and began the process of hanging our food, lest we lose it to Boo-Boo and his bad-news buddy. Steve, who was in charge of "ropes," began uncoiling a search-and-rescue length of brand-spanking-new K2-level climbing rope purchased for just this occasion.
But, finding ourselves back above tree-line, we realized, severely limited our options for a proper "hanger." Exhausted to the point of sloppiness, we finally located an undersized evergreen that would have to do, secured one end of the rope to our food bag, and the other to a rock. Now, I don't consider myself un-athletic, but I'll be damned if getting that rock over the branch I wanted was as easy as it should have been. I finally did manage to hurl the stupid stone over and back down again and, while it wasn't exactly the branch I was aiming for, it was a branch none-the-less. We hoisted the food up, up, up in Herculean fashion.
Deeply satisfied with our achievement, we examined our cache, which now hung just about arms-reach above my head. Maybe the bears in Colorado were shorter, we assured ourselves, too tired and wet to care much at this point. But then, remembering the oversized mosquitos, decided we might need to do a little better in case the would-be picnic-stealers fell into the same category. Grabbing sticks, we labored to scratch a few inches of wet gravel out from under the hanging piñata. Perfect, or at least close enough for us at this point. If the bears wanted crunchy oatmeal that damn bad, they could have it.
It was getting dark, still raining, and we were spent. Deciding the adventure box had been adequately checked for the day, it was time to get some shuteye. Outside the tent I stripped out of my soaked cotton t-shirt, cotton shorts, cotton boxers, and cotton socks and tugged on some dry clothes. Unzipping the rain-fly we found Tyler balled up miserably in the middle, so Steve and I squeezed in on either side, unrolled our sleeping bags, hung damp clothes wherever we could, and wadded up wet jackets to use as pillows, content to let the rain soothe us to sleep. But that's not exactly how it went.
In what may go down as the longest night in any of our lives, we began to understand the absolute relentlessness of a light mountain shower, the true misery of altitude sickness–Tyler frequently exiting with toilet paper in hand, the gross exaggeration of the space inside a "three-man backpacking tent," the inherent flaw of a one-door shelter design, the ignorance of deeming sleeping pads an un-needed luxury meant for children and old men, and why the saying "cotton kills," is as common as GORP in backpacking circles.
While sleep never came, morning eventually did, and the rain let up. At least for a moment. I stiffly exited the damp tent, attempted to unfold the rusted lawn chair that was my body, pulled on some jean shorts, hauled down the food piñata (which had managed to sag even lower overnight, but remained Yogi-free, due in large part, I'm sure, to our pit-strategy), dug out some Folger's Crystals and got back to pump, pump, pumping the camp stove, which only burned my pruned hands upon ignition this round. Progress.
Steve emerged shortly after and joined me for morning coffee, as Tyler headed off with his dwindling roll of TP. A brief break in the clouds provided a glimmer of hope and we quickly downed more oatmeal before hanging various articles of clothing and gear out to dry, then heading out to do a little exploration.
But the granola-bar lunches lasted about as long as the fair weather, and grumbling stomachs and rumbling clouds eventually chased us back to our lake, where we huddled in the claustrophobic canopy until the storm passed.
As the rain lightened, we climbed out of the tent like clowns out of a circus car or sailors released from a trapped submarine. Tyler running to the hills with my roll of TP now, while Steve and I made our way over to the lake that was teeming with trout. Mosquitos be damned, the mountain men needed some protein. And I was just the angler for the job.
Several frustrating hours later, I came to realize that my fishing skills very closely matched my map-reading skills, and I was forced to down another round of the abominable oatmeal for dinner. I sat down on a wet rock near the tent and it began to rain, again.
I finished my food, pitched the rope-rock over the branch, hauled the piñata up to about eye level, stripped out of my wet clothes, pulled on some shorts, and wadded up my damp jacket to endure another insufferable night in the damned three-man tent.
By afternoon of the third day we were soaked to the bone, could count our collective hours of sleep on one hand, sick to death of the God-forsaken oatmeal, out of TP, bug-bitten, blistered, chapped, chaffed, fishless, frustrated, and fast running out of love for the interior of the tent, and each other. And it looked like more weather was rolling in. We made the call to pull up stakes early. To pack up and push out of this angry country that seemed intent on killing us, or at least cause us to contemplate killing each other. Little did we know.
After briefly considered burning it to the ground with the damn camp stove, I disassembled the tent, packed my gloppy gear, and wrestled on the only remaining dry clothing in my possession: a pair of blue jeans and a cotton Gus Macker t-shirt. Covering it with my slighty-torn rain shell, I threw the pack over my shoulders and hustled my way up the side of the mountain to the divide. Tyler and Steve followed in close pursuit, with the angry weather giving chase like a recently robbed convenience store clerk.
We hit the top of the divide, moving with intention, in hopes of outrunning the gun-toting store clerk who had taken the form of ominous black clouds. We just needed to beat the weather back to the truck.
But we had made one final and fateful underestimation of the mountain, and the storm slammed into us with a ferocity none of us could have ever imagined. The sky opened up and doused us like a firehose before quickly turning to quarter-sized hail that pelted our bodies and slapped our exposed faces. The wind threatened to send us sideways off the precarious precipice, first one direction and then the other, if the lightning didn't find the fishing rods first. Thunder bellowed above, among, and inside us, as clouds clashed together like ancient warriors. We were completely exposed, utterly helpless, and scared shitless–thinking for the first time in our short lives that this might actually be it.
We scurried a little lower to at least avoid the lightning and tucked as closely to the ground as we could manage, cinched our hoods up, dropped our heads down, and waited for the eventual end; either ours or the storm's.
The time passed in a blurred frenzy. And then, it was over. Or at least the worst of it. We stood up, checked ourselves over, celebrated for a short second, and got the fuck down that mountain as fast as our bodies and waterlogged boots and clothing could move.
Making it to the truck we chucked our packs in the back, loaded ourselves, soaking wet, three wide across the bench seat, and drove like hell for the closest motel we could find. Forget food, we stripped out of wet clothes, pulled on anything dry, and crashed into the deepest sleep I have ever known.
I don't even remember what time it was, but I awoke to a bright room. Stumbling over to the door, I threw it open. Unbelievable, Impossible really; a virtually cloudless, bluebird day. No furious weather or biting bugs. No oatmeal or chaffing blue jeans. No claustrophobic tent or picky fish. Just perfection. A lovely day for a hike. The mountain backdrop again beckoning like that undressed girl.
It's an almost-perfect metaphor for what we now call"Type Two Fun." That strange Goldilocks in-between space linking the easy, safe, and boring mediocrity of Type One Fun, and the miserable, evacuated by professionals, hacking off your own limbs, or eating shoe-leather of Type Three. It isn’t actually fun at the moment. In fact, it feels a hell of a lot like suffering. It’s only after the event, sometimes days or weeks later, that you even come to the realization you actually enjoyed it.
Time, for me, seems to have washed all but the glow of adventure away from this trip, and I'm half tempted to pull together a reunion tour, provided I don't get stuck in the damn middle seat. The photos are now dull and yellowed, but the memory lives as bright and beautiful as that last, glorious morning.