Location: Pike National Forest,
west of Manitou Springs, Colorado
July 1, 2008
The trail contours into gullies, which are filled with ponderosa pines, Douglas fir and cool, fragrant air, and the rolls of earth between us and the highway blot out the traffic noise. There are more birds chirping and flitting in the shade of the great conifers than in the hot south slopes. It is tempting to sit and enjoy the coolness, but logic tells me the longer we tarry in the cool, the hotter it will be later on. I tarry a moment longer to apply more sunscreen to my neck and arms. Nothing makes me feel worse after a hike than a sunburn. Itís like a poison, and sends me to bed for the rest of the day to sleep like the dead.
Makenzie leads the way up the trail of crushed gravel. Unlike the trails in northern Colorado, almost all trails in this region are of crushed gravel. While seated on a large rock, resting, I feel the boulder crumble under my hand. A big chunk of marbled granite comes off, and I am able to pick it apart with my fingers into tiny chunks of gravel. Hence, all the gravel on the trail.
In the sun again, we walk on at a steady clip. The warmth brings my thoughts around to rattlesnakes, and I donít care to see one. The 5 cars in the parking lot let me know that at least a few people have already walked the trail today, so Iím likely not to run into one. A vet friend told me if a dog gets bit by a rattler, they are almost always alright, as long as they get the antidote within several hours, which is $500. So I ponder the question of whether it would be wise to jump in between Makenzie and a rattler and let the snake bite me, if it came to it, rather than Makenzie. For me, it would mean only a $20 copayment, and likely a lot less pain since I outweigh Makenzie 3:1. This makes me wonder why a worker can have 8 kids covered by their employee health insurance plan, but we canít put our two dogs on it. Are they not part of the family? I can tell you from recent experience that canine health care is every bit as expensive as human health care. Thatís what I need: a presidential candidate who will address the needs of the uninsured and underinsured pets of America. Thatís a problem I can get concerned about. How Ďbout it Barack?
While I am pondering lifeís great problems, we pass quietly over a ridge into Waldo Canyon, where short cliffs of horizontal red and tan bands break up the steady march of pines and spruces on the north face of the canyon wall. Here and there, large smooth granite boulders dot the hillsides, rising up like Easter Island monoliths from the verdant green Gambel oaks. The path leads into another gully where the moisture has grown trees and shrubs to a larger size. Viburnum, chokecherry, hawthorne, currant and oak all vie for sunlight under the conifers. I come across the wintergreen needles of a white fir, a tree Iíve never before seen growing wild in Colorado. Here they are everywhere.
After about an hour we arrive at a fork in the trail, the beginning of the loop. As usual, I take it counterclockwise, perhaps because thatís how one would drive it. We take it slowly through the shade, soaking it in, and walk briskly but efficiently in the heat, getting it over with. At least, thatís my approach. Dippity-dog takes everything at breakneck pace, panting madly. Unfortunately for her, there is no water around. I stop periodically and spray a small stream of cold water from my camelback, which she laps up mid air, spilling only a few drops. Sheís pretty good at this trick.
The trail leads on, gaining elevation with each short switchback. Pikes Peak comes into view on the southwest horizon, reddish and nearly snow free outside of the 4 deep coulees on the north face. It looks so simple to climb from here, just another walk. Maybe it is, Iíve never tried it. I might guess that the ubiquitous gravel would hamper the effort a bit on such a steep slope. Of all 14ers Iím familiar with, Pikes Peak presents the least-appealing challenge of climbing since there is a road to the top of it where anyone with $10 for toll can drive their vehicle up and snap pictures when they get there without taking more than 10 steps from the gas pedal. I want a reward that requires sacrifice. To the east, the plains come into view, with sprawling urbanity as far as the smog allows. The contrast between the hills I stand in, with chirping birds in the spruces and unseen rattlesnakes amongst the mahogany, and the endless ocean of concrete, tar, wood and steel out there is profound. How did we come to accept a world with such dichotomy, where most humans live in one reality that is diametrically opposite to the real world? When did flat, blank slates of green lawn become more desirable than the bouquet of flax, columbines and aster that grace the understory of an airy aspen grove?
Soon we reach the top of the canyon rim, and follow the ridgeline to a high point, the ďsummitĒ of the hike at 8150í. The trail is so hemmed in by oaks that my shoulders brush oak leaves on both sides as I walk. There are bike tracks in the sandy soil of the trail, and I ponder the collection of arm and leg scratches those riders mustíve shown for their efforts on such a narrow trail.
The trail begins a descent, and it is at this point that I begin to see others on the trail at frequent intervals, some jogging, some walking, some sitting. Pikes Peak again comes into view to the south. Wildflowers bloom everywhere. The sun is getting higher and I am getting hotter, but the trail increasingly winds through wooded draws that are cool and quiet. Fir, pine, spruce aspen and Douglas fir all intermingle in nicely-varied forest overhead. Columbines, wild rose and geranium all bloom in the cool shade. Makenzie draws great pleasure from a small pool of water, the first we have seen on the entire hike. She drinks deeply and lays down in it for good measure. Nicely soaked and dripping, she gets up and trots on.
The hike down the bottom of Waldo Canyon is the best of the entire loop. Deeply wooded and lush, it presents the most visual entertainment and is also the most temperate, at least on this warm July day. If I ever hike this trail again, I think I may just go up this segment, reach the summit, then return the same way. At about 10:00, I reach the fork again, completing the loop. The trail to the car from that point is simply backtracking, although the forest looks different in the mid-morning sun than it did 2 hours ago. The blue sky is more intense and big, white cumulous clouds have appeared to the southwest that will grow to slate-gray monsters, spewing lightening and hail in only a few hours time. The heat intensifies, and now I really start to sweat. I am amazed to see people heading up the slope, starting their hike at this late hour. Occasional large mountain mahogany bushes cast a blot of shade on the ground, and Makenzie darts from shade spot to shade spot, waiting for me at each spot and only moving on as I get up right next to her. I give her plenty of water, but it is pretty warm. We donít waste any time, and by 11:00 we are back at the car. I open all the doors and the tailgate to air it out, then we hop in and drive on.
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