Part 1: Various Methods of Escape

(Sept. 2017)

            Without context, memories are just words and images floating in space. Context wrestles them down and tethers them to meaning. But, in my opinion, there is a crucial third ingredient: time. In order to publish complete memories, you need to let them mature, let them wander, and then let them come back to you in time. We often don’t see the context surrounding a situation until time has passed, and reflection takes hold. You can capture the moment as it occurs, or shortly after, but then let it age. Maybe not for too long, lest we forget entirely, but enough to see why those memories were worth remembering. When enough time has passed and the memories ferment, you allow yourself to really see how it all fits. Once the process concludes, the words and images are free to take on a life of their own and what you’re left with is something much more powerful than just memories… 

            The rain was still coming down, had been for the past hour, but it might change over soon, I could feel it getting colder. Tonight could bring snow, the first of the season. September was always an odd month for me, really an odd month for Colorado as well. Conditions were highly dependent on what part of the state you were in. For most people, living in the Front Range or the lower areas of the western slope, September was synonymous with Colorado’s brief version of autumn. These were the precious few weeks of fall when the aspens all turned bright yellow and the sky revealed a radiant blue, deep enough to fall into. But for me, September meant the beginning of the end. You couldn’t build trail when the ground was buried under snow. So, while some parts of the state were reveling in the crisp air and brilliant sunshine, I was standing in a cloud, on the forgotten side of Mt. Quandary, dreading the possibility of snow.

            Don’t misread, I do love winter, but the transition to it is rough. This was the third year I had been living off the seasons. In the winter, I was a ski instructor at a fancy resort. In the summer, I was a dirtbag, building trail in the alpine. I loved both my lives, but the contrast between the two was heavy. I wasn’t sure if I could keep them both anymore, in fact, I knew I couldn’t, but I wasn’t ready to admit it just yet.

            The company I worked for was called Colorado Fourteeners Initiative or CFI for short. They built sustainable trails up the 14ers; the 54 peaks in Colorado that broke 14,000 feet in elevation. To this day, working for them has been the best job I’ve ever had. But manual labor at high elevation is taxing, if you don’t end up getting hurt, it slowly starts to wear your body down. So inside, I knew that this was the last September I’d be out amongst it, so to speak.

            The reality of the transition away from dirtbag life had been hovering around my head for a while, but it was this night that it really sunk in. Soon, I would have to give up my escape and rejoin society in some capacity. Ugh. The weather wasn’t helping either, but it did solidify the dreary mood with which I approached this particular evening.

            “Heading into town tonight?” Margaret asked, emerging from the wall tent behind me. I nodded silently.

            Margaret had been on Quandary for two seasons and had worked in the trail world for nearly thrice as long. She had spent countless hours shaping trails into formidable ribbons of foot traffic that would last for decades. For all intents and purposes, Quandary was her project, and when she spoke about it, you could feel the attachment to it. I understood that feeling well because I felt it too, we all did. It was more than a project, it was happiness. The emotional attachment was strong, and the resistance to change formidable in its own right. Yet, I knew change was inevitable, and I needed to find some way to accept that.

            Part of accepting change is understanding why it’s necessary. For me, I knew that I needed to break away from my seasonal job because I was getting married in less than a year, and my future wife was not a dirtbag like yours truly. Trailwork is a hard life to empathize with unless you are living it, and the challenges to maintaining a healthy relationship when I worked out of cell range for days at a time were numerous. Not surprisingly, having ski instructor and trail builder as my resume backstops didn’t really add all that much to my portfolio. I needed a bit more. So, I applied to graduate school; which, naturally, created more problems.

            Trail work requires you to be all in for the duration of the season, usually June through the first week of October. My graduate program started in August. Determined to make it work, I convinced the program to let me take the first couple of months online. Somehow, I would be able to manage the coursework around a 10-hour workday that started at 4 AM. In hindsight, that may have been a little enthusiastic, but so far, I had stubbornly found a way to force it to work. It just meant my days were a lot longer than my coworkers.

            “Well, we’ll wake at five tomorrow, it’s the last day of the hitch anyway,” Margaret said with a smile, understanding my day wasn’t over yet. That extra hour of sleep would honestly do a lot for me. “The propane is off, so you just have to close the wall tent.”

            “Will do,” I said back.

            She nodded and turned to walk to her personal tent to escape the cold. Jack, our intern with Rocky Mountain Youth Corp. was already in his tent, probably cocooned in sleeping bags and a full set of clothes, a Nalgene filled with hot water at his feet…this was high living. It was only 4:15 PM, but when you wake up early to work, the day ends early.

          I waited a few more minutes in the cold and silence, appreciating the simplicity of it all. I loved it up here, away from the noise. It was nice to be able to breathe. But, I had homework tonight, an essay response to an article I hadn’t read yet, so, I knew I had to go. With a deep sigh of acceptance, I closed the wall tent, zipped up my layers of clothing, and walked away from camp, towards the dirt road.

            We had a work truck with us, an F-250, parked on an old logging road behind a forest service fence. Its name was Headache, and I hated it. Some people can handle trucks well; I am NOT one of them. It was clunky, loud, and enormous. Aside from an abysmal turning radius and Manhattan-sized blind spot, it’s rusted frame and beat up demeanor served as another visual reminder that I was not bringing class back to Breckenridge.

            That was my destination, another Colorado resort town, and the closest one with reliable wifi: a prerequisite for online classes. After struggling to climb into the elevated cab like it was the top of a 5.12 rock wall, I turned the key and started it up. The drive from camp wasn’t long once I got off the dirt road and back on route 9. There weren’t many cars around at first, but by the time I approached the town limits and was passed by a couple of Teslas and BMW’s, I began to feel out of place. Breckenridge was pop, and I was all grunge.

            The whole situation I was in was pretty absurd, dirtbag by day, student by night. I definitely felt absurd, walking towards the coffee shop after parking the truck out of sight and off the main street. I’d pass the occasional couple with brand new designer clothes and fancy smelling fragrances. They took wide paths around me, I guess I couldn’t blame them. I looked like a vagabond, crusty, and gross after a week of alpine work; but, instead of letting it work on my mood, I embraced the absurdity of the moment and escaped along with it. Allowing myself to smile, I thought about a runway fashion announcer, trying his best to introduce me and my get up…

    “Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome back to dirtbag fashion night, and boy do we have a special treat for you! Our model tonight is donning a ratty 7-year-old backpack, Carhartt knock-offs with dirt and sweat soaked completely into the fabric, and covering up that greasy head of hair is an Avalanche beanie with what appears to be either ketchup or a bloodstain over one side. Delicious.”

    “Covering his beleaguered frame is a disgusting green t-shirt, expertly hidden by a red fleece with a zipper that won’t zip. On top of that is a hideous gray rain shell held together by little more than duct tape. To complete this bizarre ensemble, our model is showing off a pair of what used to be hikers, with blown-out seems in no less than four places and rubber traction on the soles as featureless as a bald set of tires…wow.”

            It was called the Crown, the coffee shop I ended up at, and still one of the best coffee shops I’ve been to. No, it didn’t have one drink that blew my mind, and no, it wasn’t the only coffee shop in town, but it had exactly what I was looking for: warmth. The lighting was soft, the people respectful, and there was this Kiwi behind the bar tonight, hearing his accent was always satisfying. There were your usual choices of coffees and teas, and a handful of local beers to really tap into that Colorado feeling. I knew that because the seasons were transitioning, I would find an emptier shop, with more room to grab a table and get to work.

            So, once I found an empty table, I opened my laptop, grabbed my notebook, and prepared to get some schoolwork done. Then, when I had finally psyched myself up enough to try to read my assignment, I pulled up the essay prompt, noticing immediately that the due date for the assignment was next Thursday, not today. There was no homework for me to do.

            Well done Timo, 10/10.

            Dumfounded, I sat for a moment, thinking on how idiotic I was to waste time, gas, and energy to come all the way down here for nothing. What a classic fool.

             Logically, I should’ve returned to camp, my primary purpose in being here was no longer relevant, but something kept me seated. Could’ve been the fact that it was freezing outside, and I was finally warm, or that the smell of hot cider and tea was making me deliriously happy. But I think I wanted to salvage something from the moment I created by coming here. Yeah, I mucked up the due date of my assignment, but I was here now, so what could I make of it? If it had been a schoolwork night, I’d have a little more than four hours to do work before the shop closed. So, I had created a couple of hours that I didn’t have before, I had a fat computer full of memories at my disposal, and was mentally wrestling with the idea that my life was going to change dramatically after this trail season. I think deep down I knew that the Crown coffee shop was calm enough, and quiet enough, to reflect. So, I began to reflect on the end…not of life or anything too dramatic, but the end of a phase.

            I’d been working in trails for three years, and that time was winding down, graduate school was proof of that. In my constant state of planning for the future, I’d forgotten to realize that I was charging towards a new uncertainty with gleeful abandon. Had I really given the last few years an adequate ending in my mind? The second I asked that question of myself I knew the answer was no, and suddenly felt cheated. I’d forgotten to package up those dirtbag years, and for some reason, this coffee shop was going to be the place that I would do it.

            Of course, that thought led to an obvious question, why here? Usually, I was repulsed by the idea of people, why did I want to start my mental farewell to trail work here, as opposed to my tent? Did these coffee-shop dwellers deserve to occupy the space within which I would barrel down memory highway? Well, yes, because as I looked at the people around me, I realized that they were all doing the same thing I was. They just had different ways of expressing it.

            The young lady by the window, watching her show on her computer with headphones on and shooting glances out at the rain coming down; the old man and his grandkid, sitting on the couches playing cards; the middle-aged man with his pencil flying to paper, sketching out his thoughts as he hummed along to whatever song was playing inside his head; the table of three ladies, each consumed by the open books in front of them; and the staff behind the bar, chatting quietly amongst themselves: we were all doing the same thing, diving head first into our various methods of escape.

           Coffee shops are like culturally approved mental escape areas. You can have a conversation, or you can ignore the world, and it’s all totally fine. The Crown was one of those places where you could have the comfort of knowing others were around, without having to actually speak to anyone. And while I can’t heap that kind of praise on every coffee shop or bookstore, those are the kind of places where you can find that strange balance between those that have no interest in society and those that can’t live without it.

            After I looked around at all the people, I ordered a warm cider from the bar, sat back down at my computer, and began looking at the notes, scribbles, and thousands upon thousands of pictures I’d taken since coming to Colorado. While I hadn’t ever given proper thought to the ridiculous set of circumstances that brought me out here, I had taken pictures, and I began to use them like mental bread crumbs, following the memories as they flooded in.

            Three years is a long time, especially when you pack it full of adventures. Road trips, summers of trail work, winters of ski instructing, hikes and summits, hot springs, sand dunes, canyons, concerts, a proposal, and plenty of ups and downs. It felt odd, to be sitting there in my state at the ripe old age of almost 27, and thinking back on three years as if they contained a whole lifetime of activities within them. But they did, and while I had no plans to stop immersing myself in whatever bits of nature I could find after this evening, I knew it would be different going forward because it would be without trailwork.

            Trailwork had been the key that made my move out west possible, the gateway to my love for, and appreciation of, the high country. It was like saying goodbye to an old friend. So, while I had come to escape the weather and do schoolwork, I began instead to drift and found myself escaping back to the stories that had taken me away from my previous life, and brought me all the way to this moment.

            It was a beautiful meditation and a fitting tribute, a poignant farewell to trails.

            Now, years later, the thoughts from that night have fermented, aged and matured, and I think I’ve finally found the words to match the meditation I had, that cold night at the Crown. 

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