Sunday, February 14, 2010

Across the Great Divide

The reason we decided to move to Colorado can be summed up in four words: Rocky Mountain National Park. It was on a sunset drive over the spine of the Continental Divide - which bisects the Park - with elk grazing indifferently beside the road in the shadow of 14,000 foot mountains last June that we realized this was the place for us. A few months later we moved to Boulder, and a couple of recent trips back into that giant playground have reinforced to us that moving to within one CD's drive of Rocky Mountain National Park was probably a good idea. One such trip took place yesterday afternoon, when we threw the cross-country skis in the back of the car (alright, they were still in there from the last trip) and headed for the mountains.

The drive from Boulder to the town of Estes Park and the eastern entrance to RMNP is a pretty one, as a traveler gains elevation (around 2,000 feet) and loses population. Our late start yesterday meant that we had the pleasure of enjoying the drive in the bright afternoon sunshine., and spirits were high as we stopped in Estes Park for some water and granola bars.

After passing through town and approaching the park itself, we we noticed several cars pulled over to the side of the road about a quarter-mile shy of the entry station. When dealing with Americans in national parks, this means one of two things: snack bars or wildlife. To our delight, the attraction in this case was not 700-calorie ice cream sandwiches served up by a disenchanted local sophomore with acne and a hair net, but a herd of elk numbering in the triple digits grazing by the roadside.

We encountered a similar site when we pulled into the park last week as well. In that instance we stood dumbfounded beside the car, speaking in hushed, revered tones and listening only to the percussion of hooves crunching the dried vegetation. Wanting to be closer to the animals but knowing that physically approaching would be an affront both to their right to enjoy their meal and my right not to be trampled, I opted to experience the animals using my soles. Off came the hiking boots and socks as I inched my way from the paved shoulder onto the same meadow grasses where the herd was grazing a few meters away. It is a most spiritual thing to stand barefoot on the same grass as creatures so simultaneously gentle and imposing, and my senses of connectedness and humility ran deep from the ground up.

Photo by Fitzpatrick

New snow had fallen since that previous encounter, however, so a similar scene would not be recreated yesterday. After sitting silently on the hood and watching a few calves approach within two car lengths, I jumped back in the car and we headed up Trail Ridge Road, towards our skiing. Trail Ridge Road is the section of highway 34 that climbs to some of the Park's highest elevations, and is the same one that we drove last summer when we realized we needed to move here. In winter, however, the road is closed at its highest elevations for the obvious safety reasons. Fortunately, it turns out that a closed winter road in the Rockies can make for an ideal skiing and snowshoeing trail, and we snaked our way up the road until the barricades, at which point we traded wheels for skis and kept heading up.

The road-turned-trail starts off wide and heavily traveled, with skis being largely unnecessary for the first kilometer or so as one crunches over snow that has been well trampled not just by backcountry adventurers, but also curious tourists who may not advance more than a couple of hundred meters from their cars (but good on them for exploring what lies beyond the end of the road). Eventually, the trail starts to narrow. Sure, it is still almost as wide as a two-lane road, but the two-to-three feet of fresh powder that covers it make it nearly impossible to ski upward, unless you stay in the tracks that have been carved down the center by previous skiers. I have to admit to feeling a little bit hard core as the trail continually narrowed, funneling me into the middle as I skied past road signs that were buried up to their necks, and took in top-of-the world views that I had to earn by pumping the legs, rather than sitting on a lift.

Photo by Shouldice

We skied steadily upward for a couple of hours, gradually gaining elevation until we were probably somewhere around 11,000 feet. Our turning point was above a clearing that allowed us to look back down the mountain which we had just skirted, to the meandering river on the valley floor and the naked, jagged peaks in the distance. The sunset was just finishing its (weather permitting) daily spectacle, with its final pinks and oranges playing out in narrow strips slicing the very tops of the mountains at the far end of the valley. A chill was setting in as we started our descent.

To take a trip into the Colorado backcountry in February is to journey into a muted magnificence as the land holds its frozen breath and waits for spring. There is a powerful silence brought on by the cloaking of snow, and the rumblings and echoes that permeate the hillsides and valleys during the rest of the year are dampened, with only the occasional nearby rustle managing to reach the visitor's ear.

And yet, with this silence can come a stark amplification of other senses. Skiing back down the road in the post-sunset alpenglow of the early evening, there was a rare and sacred intensity in the colours of the Park. An intensity that seemed to swell as the daylight faded. The golds of the dead and stunted grasses were as bright as under the Prairie sun. The brown bark of the deciduous trees was as rich as the finest mahogany. And the purple wedge of sky that we were descending towards was woven of a fabric fit for the artist currently known as Prince.

And then during our last kilometer or so the glow subsided. Where the afternoon snow had sparkled hours earlier, and the yellow rocks had glistened like buttered pancakes just moments before, we were now gliding through a tunnel of dusky and unsettling shadows, arriving back at the car just as headlamps (which we did not have) became a necessity. We drove down the rest of the road largely in silence as the faint outlines of elk, barely visible under the evening's first stars, dotted the meadowed landscape.

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