“I’ll see you later,” I called out to my housemate as I slung my dingy yellow daypack over my shoulder and headed out the front door. The air was crisp and still as I cranked over my mini van’s ignition. I let it idle with the defrost blasting while I scraped the thin, grey ice off the windshield that had formed overnight. I pulled out of the driveway and headed west in silence. As I made my way towards the foothills and slowly gained elevation, passing through small mountain towns whose names I knew since childhood, I tried to recall the last time I had been to Rocky Mountain National Park, my destination for a day hike — years, six or seven.
When I reached the Fall River entrance to the Park, there was only one car that was just pulling away from the leftmost small wooden hut — the only attended hut out of four lined across the road. A green light blinked just below the roof peak. The young woman dressed in her official navy-grey shirt, olive-green pants and ubiquitous park hat with four large dents and wide brim, greeted me with a sweet smile as I handed her my pass. She checked the expiration date, returned the card to me and asked if I needed anything else.
“Have a good day then.”
“You too.” I pulled away from the entrance and into the Park in less than a minute — record for me and unheard of during the summer craze.
I reached the trail head just before 10AM. A single car stood in the parking area. Perfect! It would continue to be a very quiet day, which I desperately needed. I gauged the temperature. Not cold enough for a knit hat so just tucked my hair back into my ball cap. I adjusted my pack and waist belt for comfort and struck out on the well-worn path.
The trail was a mix of miniature puddles reflecting blue sky, icy patches, mud and stretches of dry gravel, signs of where the sun was able to reach through the trees and affect the snow that was slowly gathering this time of early winter. My steps were careful and precise over the slick spots since I had no special traction on my boots but on the other sections of trail my pace quickened and my stride widened. I hardly noticed my slightly labored breathing and looked forward to the workout ahead of me.
I was following the Roaring River in north-central part of the Park. The river is known for its 30-foot deep cut and fluvial fan, the results of the 1982 dam break on Lawn Lake near the headwaters of the stream. The water was gin-clear allowing the multi-colored stones beneath to shimmer and wave as the currents passed above them. Along the small eddies where the flow had slowed ice was forming foundations for snow bridges that would be created as winter continued to dress the landscape in a white coat.
The amount of snow on the trail increased in proportion to elevation gain as I continued to hike. My footfalls had different tones with the change of snow depth. At first came the sharp sound of breaking ice crystals, like snapping twigs. Paper-thin layers of frozen water were crusted over un-melted snow. Occasionally, my boot toes would catch the icy layer as I lifted out of the tracks they had just made, creating an echo to my breaking trail. As the snow became ankle deep my steps became more muted, softer, and it felt like I was walking on dry sand on a beach just above high tide giving me just enough resistance in my pace to cause me to lean into my stride further. When the snow reached calf height my footsteps were muffled to where it was difficult to hear individual steps, more of a steady swoosh, swoosh as if I were skiing.
After two and half hours of breaking trail I still had not reached Lawn Lake. My undershirt was soaked from sweat and my legs were feeling weighted by lead. Enough I thought. I stopped to rest on a log. I tipped my head back to fully catch the sun’s rays on my face and closed my eyes. A mountain chickadee was calling nearby but other than that the surrounding forest was silent.
I continued to enjoy the serenity with some hot tea from my thermos and homemade trail mix feeling my tired body revive. Resting there I recognized the stillness and beauty that surrounded me was even more rejuvenating than the sustenance. The wildness of the place was reaching my soul. It was a healing that only the spirit of such freedom can bring.
Returning to the van I shook my head at my luck of not seeing another human all day long in a landscape surrounded by people. There is something unspeakably valuable of experiencing such places without the presence of others. There are no distractions. The quiet allows the mind to wander and the spirit fly free. In a world that never seems to shut down or shut up, I would go mad without these quiet places to escape to even if just for a day.