A Night In The Rockies

I’d been feeling kind’a low and running a fever, but I only get to see Bob once each year, and he was already on his way up from Denver. Bob is a former Air Force buddy of mine who’s outdoor intersts back then were to get from the office to his car. Now, 20 years later, Bob is an avid back packer, hiker and camper, so we were planning a pack trip up over the Keyser Divide and camping Saturday night at Lake Evelyn. My previous camping trip was 26 ago and contained a different set of unpleasant circumstances which I had temporarily forgotten about -- but that is another story which I refer to as "The Mojave Incident."

Bob arrived at the ranch just in time for lunch, as he has a way of doing, and it was then I made my second mistake. My first one was not telling Bob to stay home. Gus, the ranch cook, had fixed his "special" spaghetti sauce. Now some folks refer to Gus as the "chef", but I’m not one for gilding the lily. Calling Gus a "chef" is, to quote Baxter Black, " puttin’ croutons on a cow pie." Anyway, Bob and I both ate too much of that special sauce and walked away feeling like we were already packed -- which we weren’t.

It took us about an hour to get my horse, B.J., packed and loaded in the horse trailer. It was 2 PM by the time we set off along the gravel road to the trail head 15 miles up the valley. The last four miles were steep with many switch-backs, and just wide enough to pass a bicycle if one should have happened along -- which it couldn’t, because the rocks in the road were too big and too numerous.

Now it was hot and hadn’t rained since May, so two and a half months of dust had accumulated on that road, and it got quite disturbed by our passing. It didn’t bother us much up front in the truck unless you wanted to look back, which I tend not to do on steep, narrow mountain roads. However, when we went to unload B.J. from the trailer, she was covered with dust and looked like a big bunch of pocket lint with legs. There is no good way to brush dust off of a sweaty horse, so it was another 40 minutes before we got started on the "fun" portion of our trip -- if you consider hiking from 9,000 feet up to 11,500 feet fun. Bob did, but B.J. and I didn’t. However, I hadn’t seen Bob in a year, and it seemed like a good opportunity to talk.

It took us about two hours of heavy breathing to reach the divide, so the talking was minimal. The trail was steep and rocky, and lined heavily with lodge-pole pines, which gave us the illusion of being very small in a very large place, although we couldn’t see far except for up. In that sense it brought back memories of the first time I walked down Wall Street in New York City, although there is something sinful about that analogy. A stream, fed by the snow melt, paralleled the trail and, for a short while, it was almost a pleasant trip. However, the thunder storm we encountered on the way did nothing to enhanced the afternoon, and the thunder and lightening added an unexpected dimension -- fear. The three of us finally stumbled down the very steep trail on the East side of the divide and arrived at Lake Evelyn, where we were immediately greeted by millions of mosquitoes. It was 6 PM and they were all looking for dinner.

I tied B.J. to a tree and gave her the half-bail of hay that she had carried over the mountain. By the time I unpacked the other things she had carried and untacked her, there were hundreds of mosquitoes sucking away on her. Bob had a bottle of 100% Deet repellent oil which I proceeded to rub all over B.J. and myself. I made the mistake of putting it on her nose which made everything smell bad to her, and she didn’t eat or drink a thing until early the following morning.

Bob and I set up the tent and unpacked our things. He then went to work setting up his camp stove and preparing dinner. I went exploring. About 50 feet from the tent was a large patch of snow with large, fresh mountain lion tracks. I called Bob over to have a look, and we both gave some quiet contemplation to the possibilities. I set about rigging up a pole high between two trees so that our food, and anything that smelled like food, could be hung above the ground at least 10 feet. By then Bob had dinner prepared -- or what Bob called dinner. Freeze-dried pasta and filtered lake water were not exactly what I wanted -- especially after Gus’ special sauce. I was beginning to think Gus was a chef after all.

By the time we completed dinner and cleaned up it was getting dark, and the wind was starting to blow. The temperature was now down to the upper 40s from an earlier high in the 80’s, so I could only imagine what it would be by morning. I already had on everything warm that I had brought with me, including my rain slicker. My fever was more noticeable now, and my nose was stopped up in spite of the Contact I had taken. I was nervous about having B.J. tied to a tree all night with bear and a mountain lion around, but I had no alternatives. I retied her in such a way that if she panicked, she would be able to break lose and escape. Then I got into the tent and began wondering how I would escape.

Bob had brought a mummy sleeping bag for me, and it felt good. I quickly fell asleep and slept soundly for about one hour. That first hour was all the sleep I got that night. I’m not sure what it was that awakened me. It may have been the gale force winds which were threatening to blow the tent down, or the fact that I was feverish and freezing. However, on reflection, I think it was the dirt and grit in my mouth and eyes. Bob’s tent had no bottom, and I was sleeping on the up-wind side where a two inch gap between the tent wall and the ground allowed just about everything that moves in a windstorm to blow into my face and into my sleeping bag. The need to empty my sleeping bag and my full bladder, plus my concerns about B.J., got me up and out of the tent.

Finding a black horse in a windstorm with the absence of any light whatsoever was a challenge I had not anticipated. In fact there had been many unanticipated challenges so far on this trip, and the night was young. B.J. was either cold, bored, or scared, but for whatever reason, she was stomping her foot, and I was able to locate her. She was still where I tied her, and the mosquitoes had probably all been blown to Kansas by now. After taking care of my needs I stood and hugged her for about 20 minutes until I was warmer and then got back in my sleeping bag.

Mummy sleeping bags are extremely narrow and tapered. They might be good if you sleep like a mummy or only have one leg, but I have two legs, and they tend to operate independent of each another at night when I’m sleeping. They don’t take kindly to being hobbled for eight hours and were now close to a panic. Being cold, feverish, claustrophobic, and worried were not prerequisites for falling asleep. If that were not bad enough, about every 15 minutes I had to brush newly arrived dirt and grit from my face and sleeping bag. It is the only time in my life that I can recall being frantic and desperate, and without options. I would have packed B.J. and gone back over the divide right there and then had I thought we could find our way in absolute darkness without falling or being blown off the mountain.

I had no clue as to the passing of time, so I can not even begin to estimate what hour it was when I came down with the scours. My subsequent activities in dealing with that setback are beyond the possibilities of tasteful literary description except to say that they got me out of the tent on more than one occasion and gave new meaning to a sleepless night

Daylight finally arrived, the wind stopped, and a new batch of mosquitoes had blown in from Utah and were frantically searching for their breakfast. B.J.s hay was gone, but I think the wind took it. The sun awoke Bob from a sound night’s sleep, and I alternated between envying and hating him for being well rested. For breakfast Bob fixed wallpaper paste and insisted on calling it oatmeal. My father always said oatmeal was a good cold-weather breakfast because "... it sticks to your ribs," so I ate some, although I don’t normally eat oatmeal and certainly didn’t feel like eating it this time. I don’t know if it stuck to my ribs or not, but it stuck to my teeth, the pot, and everything else it came in contact with. Bob tried adding some almonds to it, which only made it look less like wallpaper paste and more like wet concrete. My scours did ease up after eating it, so perhaps it had some redeeming characteristics.

We packed up all of our belongings after brushing off lots of dirt and headed up the steep trail to the top of the divide. It was an unbelievable view. It seemed that we could see about one forth of the state of Colorado. However, a good view only goes so far toward making a bad situations better -- like looking at a Playboy magazine when you got the cramps. What I saw was beautiful, but not inspirational. I don’t think B.J. was overcome with awe either, so we did not loiter or allow the esthetics of the situation to interfere with more immediate physical concerns.

The trip down was considerably quicker than the trip up, although the level of physical and mental discomfort was much greater. I was in a semi-state of awareness of things happening around me, so I don’t recall much about that portion of the trip. I guess nothing significant happened. We didn’t talk much, as we focused on our own problems.

When we arrived back at the ranch, I unloaded B.J. and got her settled. We then headed for the bunkhouse where Bob loaded his stuff into his antique Suburban and we said our good-byes. It had been good to see Bob again, although "memorable" is probably a more appropriate word. I love the Rocky Mountains. I really do. It’s just that intimacy can be a dangerous thing -- especially with a mountain. You have to know your limitations.

Bob and I agreed to see each other again next Summer. However, next Summer I will drive down to Denver and suggest a nice restaurant where they don’t serve pasta or have outdoor seating. If Bob starts longing for the great outdoors, I will suggest renting the movie "Man in the Wilderness" or "Deliverance." And as far as camping goes, I have promised myself and BJ to never do it again -- anywhere, anytime.

• • •