The Price of Looking to the Sky

We take to the mountains because something is different up there.  The air is crisp, civilization slogs and slaves below you, and you’re theoretically closer to whatever higher power you subscribe to.  However, this feeling proved elusive a few weeks ago.

We awoke early, 2:30 to be exact.  My roommate and I drove to meet a few members of his church group.  We piled into a sturdy SUV and headed for Grey’s Peak, one of the “14ers” so many Coloradans covet.  I gradually awakened as the 1994 Toyota Landcruiser groaned with each elevation increase.

We hit the trail at dawn.  The group fell into a rhythm and eventually broke into smaller clusters.  I began walking with one of the faster group members.  Quickly, I was swept up by his desire to reach the top.  Soon a great distance between us and the larger group formed.

At first glance, it seemed advantageous to be ahead pushing the pace.  We felt good that we were likely to have ample time to summit not just Grey’s Peak, but Torrey’s as well.

At last, we reached the top and took a breather.  The view was expansive and would have been breathtaking in most circumstances.  However, I couldn’t forget the choice we made to break from the group.  A choice that undoubtedly was beneficial in regards to the goal of making both summits before the notorious afternoon storms and murderous lightning bolts emerged.  Still, something felt missing.

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What had I sacrificed in pursuit of this goal?  Why did this feel different that the majesty and freedom I have felt atop much more modest peaks?

I had missed nature’s subtleties.  I hadn’t stopped to feel the cool mountain air on my skin and hadn’t gathered the fresh smell of alpine trees in my nose.  I hadn’t stopped to fear escalating winds or even to ponder how much longer we had to go.

Reaching a goal does not guarantee satisfaction.  Perhaps the feeling of satisfaction is simple sum of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations experienced in pursuit of that goal.  If the only experience is dogged persistence and focus, the achievement is empty.

This phenomenon does not just occur atop mountains.  Recently, a social experiment was staged in a DC metro station.  A world-renowned violinist volunteered to play a free set littered with beautiful, albeit somewhat obscure, compositions in the middle of a busy station.  Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post noted that, “Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston’s stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100.”¹  The entertainment value of this man’s work was not a question.

Despite this, Bell was shocked to watch as, “1,097 people passed by.  Almost all of them were on the way to work…”.¹  However, a segment of the population noted Bell’s brilliance.  Weingarten noted that, “Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch.  And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”¹  Somewhere along the way these adults became blind to beauty.

After being informed of what they had missed, many pedestrians asked when he would be playing again.  They were informed that this was a one-time experience.

Fortunately, we had a descent to look forward to.  I saw what I had missed.  The flowers, the green hillsides, the blue skies, the radiant sunshine.  Unfortunately, life does not always offer us simple redemption.

“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Perhaps the path matters more than the goal itself.  We must remain aware or our great capacity to become blind to a rich and varied world.

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¹Weingarten, Gene. “Pearls Before Breakfast.” Washington Post 8 April 2007: <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html&gt;

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Big Bend Day 3- Just Don’t Collapse

After 24 draining miles, we still had 8 miles and 1,800 meters to climb.  Blue Creek Path, a winding trail through a dry creek bed, would be our path out.

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After two miles and multiple thoughts of collapsing, my little brother spotted massive caves adorning the rock walls above.  His initial request to scale the wall was not effective.  A combination of thirst and lack of oxygen flow to the brain resulted in an emphatic “hell no”.  After some hankering and a slow restoration of our senses, we agreed to fight the underbrush and make our way up the canyon.  While my older brother prudently hung back, Max and I climbed slippery sediment to a large, dark cave.

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Potential Bear Hibernaculum

We were uneasy as we imagined the animals inhabiting the dark shelter.  In a dim-witted last effort, we pressed on.

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Dark cave, why not?

We found a sprawling empty cave.  The enormity and dark shadows of the ancient room mesmerized us.  We basked in the shade and echoes of the immense caves and then headed back towards the trail.  Max taught me how to slide down slippery rock using my left foot as a rudder and we scooted right down the mountain.

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Hey Max

The next five miles nearly brought all of us to our breaking point.  In a moment of weakness and spite towards the unending upward terrain, I shouted something to the effect of, “make it stop!” and kicked a powerless shrub.  Heat, rocks, and elevation will change a man.

Still, the great expanse of this place captured our imaginations.  The scale and distance of Big Bend alters the way you think about limitations.  Land, rocks unending.  Sky floats forever.  Time stands still at the altar of infinite space.

As we reached the downhill portion of our journey, we reflected on an amazing test of our resolve and the unmatched beauty we witnessed.  We even appreciated the ten-mile section of the hike through the barren desert flats.  We will always grasp the effect of pervasive dirt, wind, and sun on life.  We now fathom the great oppression and beauty of miles of nothing.

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Big Bend Day 2- Sand, sand, cactus, cactus

“It has been said, and truly, that everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks.  You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry, and fierce as the animals.  Something about the desert inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity.” Edward Abbey, The Great American Desert 1977

Fast-moving low clouds filled the canyon.  Any fog from our angst-ridden sleep dissipated as we soaked in the mystical display.

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Low clouds over the valley

Around mid morning we reached the basin and entered ten miles of sand and desert that would erode our willpower step by step, grain by grain.

The sun beat down on us for hours and the weight of our water and food began to take its toll on our shoulders and feet.  Eventually, I focused in on my brother’s paws, watching them trample rock after rock.  I hardly looked up and when I did I was dejected by the slow-moving vista.  Miles of harsh flora stood between us and Homer-Wilson Ranch, our resting place for the night.

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I’ll always be a Texan

The only signs of life were an occasional deer track, some baked horse turds, and a large tarantula.  We felt frivolous for worrying about monsters of the forest when we saw so few critters.

By late afternoon, the drudgery of the desert had us disenchanted, openly questioning the use of this thirty-two mile trek.  In travel, and often life, you must pass the point of initial frustration to gather new experience.  We pushed onward for a few miles until we reached Homer-Wilson Ranch.

A spectacular red and orange sunset glistened off the towering canyon walls.  Behind us we saw the distant peaks of the Chisos Mountains stretching far into Mexican territory.  We headed up a hill and watched daylight slowly pale.  We scanned upward and saw the black silhouette of a man with a Cowboy hat striking a contemplative pose atop the cliff.  A perfect caricature of the American West made the long walk worth it, even if the man turned out to be somebody’s humdrum grandpa and not John Wayne.

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Here’s the payoff

Big Bend Part 2- A Dark, Starry Night

We arrived around 3 pm.  My older brother walked to the Park Ranger office to secure a park permit.

Shortly thereafter, I wandered in and stared at an ominous life-sized mountain lion replica.  I read the facts: 139 sightings this year.  I moved over to the book section where my paranoia feasted on a book entitled “Death in Big Bend.”  I read an unfortunate excerpt of a man who caught a mountain lion stalking his campsite.  The man threw rocks in the cat’s direction and shouted profanities.  Why they felt the need to inform us of the man’s profane language was beyond me.  As if rugged pumas have tender sensibilities easily offended by coarse language.

Long story short, the man survived only to strand himself on a lonely icy peak with no way down the following year.  Yes, Big Bend is perilous.  Thirst, mountain lions, and bears are just a sample of the fates that may befall a man.

We drove a few water jugs and some food to a stash point that we aimed to reach the following night.  The stash point was just a bear box atop a canyon gazing over an ocean of desert terrain.

We hit the trail at four pm, well aware that daylight was fast evaporating.  Our joking references to savage puma attacks did not seem as funny when a glance at the map revealed that we would be searching for a safe plot of land in complete darkness, guided only by headlamps and whatever crude judgment we had acquired over a handful of other wilderness hikes.

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Darkness fast approaching

Around six pm we were enshrouded by black and more stars than I cared to count.  Darkness is a different entity here.  The closest full-sized town is at least one hundred miles and Ft. Stockton barely qualifies as a human inhabitation.

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And….curtains

We lurched forward through a canyon bestriding a dry creek bed.  The moon lit the canyon just enough for us to realize that our surroundings looked nearly identical to the big cat exhibits at the zoo.  Giant rocks, light shrubbery, and taller trees dotted the bowl-like enclosure we stubbornly trekked.

Another check of the map revealed that we would need to settle for the first flat spot we found or risk several miles through a shoddily marked desert trail starting at the basin below.  We flailed around the brush until we found an even piece of ground.  We pitched our tent and tied our food to trees some 400 meters away so as to avoid collateral damage from opportunistic creatures.

I hardly slept.  Each rustle, each broken twig, awakened me.  All throughout, my little brother slumbered away.  After what seemed like days, morning light arrived.  We survived and, just as importantly, our food and water stood intact.

Big Bend- The Drive

Despite an ambitious plan to leave at five am, we stumbled out of my Aunt’s house in Boerne around eight am.  The drive to Big Bend is a seven hour drive west into the desolate confines of the Chihuahua Desert.  The park runs across the U.S.-Mexican border for over one hundred miles.  Soaring peaks abruptly jut from a lonesome bed of dirt, cactus, and scrubby grass.

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Stunning

Driving through this vast expanse of nothingness made the world seem so big.  One stoplight towns, abandoned taquerias, and the rubble of once elegant Spanish style brick homes reminded me that some, just hundreds of miles away, endure in a very different reality.

Little things on a road trip stand out.  I pressed scan on the radio dial and the numbers kept moving until they stopped on the only station in range, an abhorrent frequency wave of battered country troubadours who nearly drove us all to insanity.  We settled for my little brother’s iPhone spitting out Bob Dylan tracks in soft whispers because my Mom’s 200,000 mile warrior of a Sequoia did not have the right inputs.

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Road trip!

I saw nothing but open road, desert, and a couple of sleeping brothers.  This was the solitude I needed after surviving the cacophony of a middle school science room for months.  We all tried on my Mom’s sunglasses and we looked equally asinine.  A road trip with just the brothers is as close to childhood as I can get.

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Look at those clouds

The Portland of the East

Writers Note:  This is the sixth part and final part in a multi-part series detailing a 3 day trip to Mt. Washington, Acadia National Park, and Portland, Maine.  If you want the rest, here’s Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Slow, steady rain.  The kind that evokes no emotion or panic, it’s just there.  A well-worn pooch naps peacefully on the porch as the calm, beaten down crow of Bog Seger’s “Down on Main Street” completes the grey, somber scene.  Draped in dirty hiking pants and ensconced in an unmistakable post-camping stench, I wander into Gilbert’s Chowder House hoping to get a taste of the revered chowder and quickly hit the road.

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Bob Seger puts me to sleep too

I wait, still a bit on the impatient side for this sleepy section of the Coast, and eventually am greeted by a haggard, old waitress.  “What can I get for you, honey?”.  She insists on hovering close to my smelly beard and face, even slightly brushing my hand.  I scramble to pick something, the pressure mounts.  Her close physical proximity and labored breathing is not entirely unlike those inquisitive animals sniffing my tent the night before.  I settle on a clam chowder bread bowl.  Not the most original choice but a litmus test for seafood quality, no doubt.

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A nap would be kind of nice right about now

My appetite grows.  I take a quick panoramic view.  Weathered, old wooden buildings on my left.  To my center, a sleepy harbor, the source of boat horns periodically piercing the damp, coastal fog.  To my right, two short-haired lesbians casually chat as their attentive terrier stares longingly at their juicy, fried platter.  All of this complemented by the distinctive aroma of seaweed and salt emanating from the bay.

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The mural says it all

Finally, the moment arrives.  A steaming pool of clam chowder wrapped in a soft, sourdough bread bowl.  The food is no disappointment.  I eagerly devour the soup and most of the bread bowl, ready to get back on the road.  I pay and head out the swinging doors, fully intending to get in my car and drive south to Hartford.

To my right, I spot rusting railroad tracks leading through a cluster of industrial, red-brick buildings.  Wanderlust takes hold, even still I promise myself that I will walk for a few minutes then turn back.

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We’ll just walk for a few minutes, right?

A few minutes turns into a few hours as I stumble upon an eclectic yet predictable cluster of shops and restaurants.  Hipster vibes abound as I walk through shops with everything from wood-carved Buddha statues to organic hemp sweaters.  Indian food, Mexi-Cali food.  Everything so uniformly different.  Grey-bearded old men and tattooed young free-spirits dot the cobble-stoned streets.  I leave entirely confused.  Portland, Maine has every bit as many hippies per capita1as Portland, Oregon.  Add to the mix that Portland, Oregon was actually named for Portland, Maine and we now have a legitimate debate.  Who should carry the flag of righteous separation from societal conventions, man?

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There’s no Waldo but I do spot a “Freak Street Smoke Shop”

1  Every blogger has to include at least one completely unsubstantiated statistic, right?

Part 1: Mount Washington

Writers note:  This is the first part of a multi-part series detailing a 3 day trip to Mt. Washington, Acadia National Park, and Portland, Maine.

The Drive

With ambitions of scaling the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, I woke up at 3:45 AM and headed for Mt. Washington, New Hampshire.  Once darkness passed, I was greeted with a pleasant New Hampshire sunrise.  Eventually, I took a back road for about 15 minutes in search of a gas station.  The hunt was well worth it.  I ended up in the picturesque town of Milton, NH.  The service station was sitting alongside a quiet lake.  A mist was visibly rising from the water.  I spotted a lone fisherman, undoubtedly enjoying the quiet of morning just as I was.

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Just enjoying the good life

I continued through to the White Mountains.  It was one of those drives where you have to resist the urge to stop at every scenic vantage point.  Most likely your destination will be just as beautiful, if not more beautiful, as these stops along the way.  The small towns of New Hampshire appeared just as I’d imagined the Northeast.  Old cottages, bed and breakfast inns, beautifully adorned brick facades beckoning you to stay.  Out my windows I was surrounded by rolling hills with periodic views of the rugged White Mountains, the northern section of the more well-known Appalachian Mountains.

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Even still, I couldn’t resist

The Climb

I arrived for what I thought would be a relatively easy 9 mile roundtrip hike to the summit and back down.  Everything started as expected with a well-formed, albeit a bit rocky, path.  Verdant low-lands, the sound of water rushing down through glistening streams.  This easier portion of the climb allowed me to take in more cultural aspects of the park.  I heard a number of foreign languages.  German, French, Chinese.  I haven’t yet decided if the propensity to see so many foreigners in national parks is an indicator of nature’s power as a great unifier or a sign that foreigners spend entirely more time outside than the notoriously sedentary American population.

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The gentle rush of flowing water

The luscious low-lands transitioned into a steeper climb, made much more difficult by rocks covered in wet moss.  Thankfully the path was equipped with wooden ladders to aid with some of the more impassable terrain.  I kept moving and eventually eclipsed the tree-line, catching a glimpse of what was ahead.  I stared up at a quarter mile of a highly inclined jumble of rocks with no clearly marked path.  This daunting task conjured up a scene from the movie “300”, where Leonidas meets Ephors.  An unrealistic and greatly exaggerated analogy that made complete sense at the time.  For a refresher, take a look at the clip through the 1 minute mark.

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What up clouds?

After scaling infinite rocks and successfully conquering Ephors, I made it to the summit.  At the summit, the weather was flipped upon its head.  The temperature was in the low 40s with a rippling wind of around 30 miles per hour.  The entire area was quite literally in the clouds and visibility was reduced to almost nothing.  I hid behind a sturdy rock and devoured my gourmet lunch of PB&J, trail mix, and water.  The stifling clouds combined with the strong winds created an eerie celestial atmosphere.   Kind of like if you got to heaven and there was no God or any visible change in lifestyle.  Just a hang-out spot draped in a white cloud.

It was windy, here's proof.

It was windy, here’s proof.

 The Descent

After a few more hours of hiking, I made it down around 4 pm.  The 7 hour hike had me exhausted so I decided to make some progress towards the ultimate prize, Acadia National Park in Maine.  I drove for a few hours and settled on resting my head for the night in Augusta, ME.  For dinner, I chose gluttony and devoured a whole pizza in my hotel room, passing out before 9 pm.

Photo Gallery: The Best of the Rest

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Life lessons from Bear Mountain, CT

“So you’re sort of going through a mid-life crisis too, huh?”  I paused for a second, peering out over the picturesque Connecticut Valley from my perch atop Bear Mountain, and casually responded, “Yep, ahead of schedule too.”  Sarah had gotten divorced four years earlier, spurring a “mid-life crisis” that took her to the summit of 5, count em 5, 14 thousand foot peaks in Colorado and the entire Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail (53 miles) in a day.  Quite literally, a monumental life-shift had taken her to heights she’d never seen before.

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A weighty chance encounter at the peak of Bear Mountain, CT

This epic chance encounter, happening so metaphorically on a rock overlooking the whole state, had me thinking the entire way down.  The term “mid-life crisis” had been thrown my way more than a few times.  Typically, I would dismiss it or lay out the painstaking logic that led me from accountant in Houston to teacher in Hartford.  Similar to a modern-day scarlet letter, admitting to such a thing would be tantamount to agreeing that my recent life decisions were a result of immaturity or,even worse, insecurity.  The sight of this fit, ambitious 30-something helped me realize that mid-life crisis is an overly broad term.  How could a balding, disgruntled businessman buying red sports cars he can’t afford be equivalent to this woman fiercely dedicated to a mission of personal growth and exploration?

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Not all highs are created equal

Mid-life crisis, used in the traditional sense, implies a rapid, unsustainable euphoric high followed by a slow and steady descent down to the lowlands from which you came.  But what do we call a successful reassessment of what matters in life?  A period of sustainable personal growth?  The present use of the term, through the use of the undeniably negative word “crisis”, implies a lack of control and a negative outcome.  “Mid-life opportunity” more positively and accurately frames the situation.  It assumes neither success nor failure while still acknowledging an important juncture in an adult’s life.  Shiny red sports cars and marital infidelity or an empowering burst of personal growth, the choice is ours.

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Back to the lowlands or to previously unseen heights?

Sometimes your hike turns into a float trip…

We woke up to the howl of the wind and cackle of the rain on the tin roof of the hut.  We knew we had an especially brutal 9 km ahead until we reached the legendary hot pools of the Welcome Flat Hut.  We began our trek through the steep and stony forest on the now soaked path that served more as a stream.  We were already soaked but determined to make it to the welcome confines of the next hut.  We marched along until we reached a raging waterfall that rivaled anything we’ve seen on our numerous white-water rafting trips.

A vigorous debate began about whether we should traverse the treacherous waterfall or turn back and walk the 10 km back to safety.  Eventually we reached the consensus that we would head back and try to beat the rising river that now resembled something you’d find in the rain forests of Brazil (or at least I think).  Little did we know that the adventure was just beginning…

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There appears to be rain in the forecast

The hike back was one of the most physically and mentally draining stretches I have endured.  We encountered several impassable streams and waterfalls that we either had to cross together in partner groups with arms linked or go over and around the river, fighting through endless underbrush without a trail.  All of this occurred under some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever experienced.  (Being from the Texas Gulf Coast, this is a strong statement).

The end of the journey back to the safety of the car served as a culmination of everything we had made it through to that point.  We faced a raging, over-flowing river filled with countless rapids and drop offs.  We could see our car but had no choice but to cross this fortress of fast-moving, icy, glacier water.  After a multitude of alternatives were discussed, we decided that the four of us would link together and cross.  We linked up, not without plenty of fear and doubt, and plunged into the icy water.  The four of us were able to withstand the force of the rapid and make it safely to shore.  I had never been more relieved.  We sat by the car in our soaking wet clothes and recounted our incredible escape.

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We made it back alive..and smiling

Copland Track

Alarm clocks went off early Friday morning and somehow we were able to stumble out the door.  We met our friendly Kiwi friend Paul and headed for the rainy West Coast of New Zealand.  The drive was beautiful and included a jaunt through snowy, beautiful Arthur’s Pass.  We also passed rain forests and fields full of grazing sheep.  Quite the ecological buffet.

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Snow-capped mountains

After a roughly six hour drive, we finally arrived at Copland Track with reasonably clear skies.  We all counted our blessings and headed for the hut, where we would be staying for the night.  Huts are man-made shacks placed at intervals along well-established tracks.  Most of the major “tracks” or hiking trails are equipped with these lodgings.  Fitting convenience for such an active country.

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Self-incriminating, I know

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Not all those who wander are lost…yet.

The trek was beautiful but was not without wrong turns and tough choices.  At one point, we thought that the first hut had been removed and that we would have to trek 20 km that night to get to the second hut.  We eventually found the first hut while under the threat of enveloping darkness and heavy rain.  We cooked a very basic meal over an open flame and played some cards that night.

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Not exactly encouraging weather