Cooper Peak: South Buttress (Class 4) & North Couloir

TLDR: Incredibly fun Class 4 route on grippy rock. Over in 45 minutes if you’re moving slowly, and you avoid downclimbing any Class 3 or 4 sections by looping around via the Cooper Peak-Marten peak saddle. VERY long single day or great activity while camping at Gourd Lake. Bonus route (North Couloir) below. GoPro Footage of both routes below each trail description and again in the summary. Indian Peaks Wilderness-Northern Colorado (western side of the wilderness).

Table of Contents

Preface/Rating System

Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and mark-up some of my pictures for route clarification.

  • Black/white lines= general directions, landmarks and/or Class 1 sections.
  • Blue Lines=Class 2 sections.
  • Red= Class 3 sections.
  • Purple = Class 4 sections.
  • Orange = Class 5.

The class system is based on the YDS rating scale. Please note these colors are different than other sites. If you are unsure of what a color means, I usually leave a quick reminder in the picture caption.

CalTopo of the region and the various route up/down Cooper.

Introduction

Cooper Peak is a fairly unsightly lump in the western IPW. From most angles, it isn’t much to look at and gets lost beneath the size and height of its eastern neighbors, namely Ogallala and “Ooh-la-la.” Even the local peak that it’s taller than, Marten Peak, is more eye-catching and features some interesting routes of its own.

Cooper Peak from near the top of Buchanan Pass. I believe Hiamovi Mountain is back and to the left.

Yet, Cooper Peak is one of the more magical peaks in the IPW due to at least three interesting routes on it. In his IPW book. Gerry Roach describes Cooper Peak as epitomizing the joys of the lesser summits. After climbing up Cooper via each of its interesting routes, I gotta say I agree. The South Buttress is a particularly fun and exciting route.

If you camp at Gourd lake, you can stare right up at it from your tent and contemplate potential route strategies. A good zoom also helps capture some of the more interesting parts of the scramble.

Purple=Class 4, Red=Class 3

The Approach

The approach to this area is pretty straightforward. Park at the Monarch Lake Trailhead in Grand County and hike to Gourd Lake (~8.3 miles one way). If you’ve never been over Buchanan Pass or you feel like punishing yourself, you can also get to Gourd Lake from either Camp Dick or Beaver Reservoir on the eastern side of the divide.

The South Buttress is visible from Gourd Lake.

Once you’re at Gourd Lake, your first objective is to get out of the lakes drainage. Head north. You can ascend a number of ways. Since I camped by the lake, I circled the lake on its eastern side and just followed the stream that emptied into Gourd Lake uphill. It’ll take you up to a small unnamed lake. At this new lake, I hopped across the stream and headed for a notch to the left of some cliffs.

At the crest of this rise were two additional ponds with the towering South Buttress behind them. The challenge from here is getting onto the route.

You need to descend to the next stream, which is coming out of Island Lake to the northeast. There is a mini canyon that the stream goes through before entering the basin to the west between Marten Peak and Cooper. It’s best to cross either above or below the mini-canyon.

If you cross above the mini-canyon, orientation is fairly easy, but you will be bashing through some krummholz before the route begins. If you cross below the mini-canyon and then work your way up the ridge to the right (east), you should be able to find some gullies that lead up to the ridge line and the start of the scramble.

When the Krummholz ends, the scrambling begins.

The Route (Cooper Peak, South Buttress)

Beyond the krummholz, you have this rock step that you need to deal with. The scrambling starts there, and if you’re careful, you can pick a path through this rock step that doesn’t exceed Class 3.

For the next few parts, you’re right on the nose of the ridge. There are a few rocky steps like the first one, interspersed with grassy saddles.

One of your first looks toward the crux area as you begin scrambling.

This pattern continues for a minute until you get to the view below; then, you have an option.

You can stick to the ridge by heading initially right and then doubling back to get onto the crest. This appeared to be the sunnier and easier way (at least in the morning). If you want a quick Class 4 challenge on good rock, head to the left and follow an angling ramp to the side of a nice slab.

Get onto the slab and climb back to the ridgeline.

Between the top of the slab and the ridgeline is a little window that you need to climb through. The moves here are Class 4 but short.

Once you’re back on the ridgeline, scramble through a couple brief Class 3 sections before gettin up to the crux area, which looks like this from below.

Scary view but there is a way up.

After you’ve digested the view, walk up to the Class 4 slab and climb up it on its left (western) side.

Once you’re on top of this first slab, there’s a brief section right on the nose of the ridge with substantial exposure. The holds are good through this stretch, though.

After the brief part on the nose of the ridge, your path gets blocked by an overhung rock. You could climb it, but the overhung first few feet looked difficult. I found a Class 4 way by traversing to the right underneath the rock on a grippy slab and then climbing up and around the right side of the rock. This is likely the most exposed set of moves on the route.

Once you get through this part, the crux difficulties relent briefly.

The route isn’t over though and there are some more Class 3 sections and a surprising wall that you have to take care of to get to the top of the buttress.

Some of the moves on this wall felt very Class 3+/4

After you get above the last scrambling surprise, the terrain starts to mellow out pretty quickly.

One last look back before the ridge moderates. Gourd Lake is visible below.

Before a minute has passed, you’ll be standing on a wide-open arm of Cooper Peak with no signs of the ridge you just climbed.

The top of the South Buttress with Cooper Peaks summit nearby. “Ooh La La” is in the background, with part of Ogallala visible between Cooper and “Ooh La La.”

The flat finish can seem like a bit of a letdown, but the scrambling is awesome, and I’m sure there are more variations you can play around with on that route.

From here, head up to touch Cooper’s summit, or if you don’t care, head west and downhill to the saddle between you and Marten peak.

At the saddle, which you can get to with some loose Class 2+ terrain or sturdier Class 3 near the ridgeline, drop left (south) into the basin. Cross the basin, sneaking glances back at your ridge, which once again starts to look intimidating.

You can see the optional Class 4 slab from this perspective, the rest of the route is hidden.

Recross the stream, climb up to the top of the low ridge on the other side and pop down the other side to get back to Gourd lake.

Here are some reminders of what you just scrambled up.

Purple=Class 4, Red=Class 3

Here’s also a link to some GoPro Footage of the scramble. There is no audio, the only thing your missing is the blustery wind and me wheezing. If you expand the video caption it breaks down where I am on the ridge, which should correspond with the marked-up pics in this post.

Bonus: The North Couloir

In 2020 I climbed the North Ridge of Cooper and Marten Peak and wrote a trip report on it. Remembering how fun and surprising that route was, I committed to coming back and snow climbing the deeply inset North Couloir when it was filled. I climbed this route on July 18, 2022.

The North Couloir in Septemeber. An early July attempt worked well with the couloir filled in.

The North Couloir is ~55 degrees and is a fairly standard snow climb. You can mess around with the finish to create a nice mixed climb.

This weird side of Cooper is fairly rugged.

Here’s a video of how all of that looked.

Summary and Acknowledgements

Between Gerry Roach’s very brief description of the route in his book “Colorado’s Indian Peaks: Classic Hikes and Climbs,” the zoomed-in view of the route from Gourd Lake and a report by Lordhelmut on 14ers.com with a fantastic shot of the crux area, I felt good enough to give it a go. It was a very satisfying scramble. If I’m ever back in the area, I’d do it again. Super fun.

Here, again are the video links:

Part 9: Highlight and Lowlights

After what seemed destined to become a summer of increasingly escalating situations, my trail crew and I finally developed a routine. That isn’t to say things didn’t happen (and oh boy, did they), but we kind of just grew accustomed to the seemingly random nature of our situation. Adapt or die, I guess. Time seemed to pick up in the bigger sense, we still worked hard, and days certainly didn’t seem to pass any faster in the moment, but in hindsight, things just started to run together.

Table of Contents

Hitch #3

Hitch 3 was a rainy one. We were still down one member after picking up a replacement for Dusty. Her codename was String Chef, and she was from Crested Butte (or Crusty Butt as she called it). String Chef had a passion for cooking, and for going to String Cheese Incident shows (a jam band variety group), the codename felt appropriate. The hunt for the other replacement member was ongoing, so we relied on poor comedic timing, laughs, dogged work, and companionship to bulldoze ahead. Not a bad strategy altogether and our constantly improving work quality was a testament to that. There were two big developments during that third hitch: the hungry hungry bear, and Rico.

Despite our electric fence, during one of the first evenings of the hitch, a wind storm blew through and tossed some debris onto the wires, grounding them out. A medium-sized black bear took full advantage and left some messy paw-prints on our wall tent. Luckily, we’d roped and rocked down our food supplies but having the prints smeared on the tent we used every day sent a sharp reminder that this here be bear country. Beware the bear.

We set about improving the electric fence system and installed some old cans and metal drums around the supplies to help warn us if he ever came back. While nothing was taken, the bear did come back almost every night, prompting one of our crew leaders (Pennsylvania) to spend a night in the wall tent waiting for him. Apparently, the confrontation was quick and terrifying for both parties involved but allowed us a necessary reprieve from the bear. In the end, the black bear decided the effort wasn’t worth it and lumbered off to do bear things.

After the hitch, our group leaders realized we might need a pick me up; more than a week of rain every afternoon was taking a mental toll. So, before we headed back to off-load our gear, they took us to Rico. Now, Rico is a very small, very forgettable town with a local hot spring. My information is coming from 2015; lord knows what’s happened to it now, but at the time, there were two concrete baths created to hold the spring water, and it was free to the public. It became a kind of staple for us: complete a successful hitch, go hang out at Rico for a couple of hours. I think it was a great move on the part of our squad, realizing we needed a rallying point to keep morale up. Rico ended up being one of our most consistent highlights.

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Rico Hot Springs

Off-Hitch

After our work hitches, I went ahead and kept climbing things. With six days off, I decided to explore the area around Durango a little more, tackle some 14ers, and get into some beery shenanigans with the SWCC group at large, including my first and so far only successful dumpster dive adventure behind a bakery. Could not believe all the delicious bread they threw out lol.

Looking down to Durango and the Animas River.

The above photo peers down to Durango from a mesa edge trail near Fort-Lewis College. Fort-Lewis, aka Fort Fun, is, for the most part, a sleepy college in Southwest Colorado. It is also known as a stoner-friendly area and gave birth to this fantastic video of students very clearly hot-boxing a parachute and then scattering when the cops show up. Click here to watch. Wonderful.

The next day I clambered into my trusty Subaru and drove over Cinnamon Pass, venturing past the Handies Peak Trailhead and down to the trailhead for Redcloud and Sunshine. I got my butt up at 4 am, made a quick breakfast with my portable stove, and hit the ground walking. Not even remotely crowded compared to the Front Range, Redcloud and Sunshine do see their fair share of summer hikers because they really aren’t that hard to climb. The toughest part is probably just getting to the trailhead. Either way, I wasn’t super interested in waiting behind a string of hikers, so I committed to the alpine start. Between hiking and getting up early for work hitches, my body clock was beginning to naturally readjust anyway.

Climbing up the flank of Redcloud as the sun rises. The 14er Wetterhorn is clearly visible as the triangular peak on the right. The first couple hours of the hike were in the dark.
Redcloud and Sunshine are usually climbed together and are not difficult. It’s essentially a long walk uphill at elevation. Above is the final stretch up to Redcloud.
The rock on the summit and its coloration, which I’m assuming led to the name. The second high-point along the ridge is Sunshine, with an unnamed nubbin in-between.
The view from Redcloud summit with Wetterhorn (left) and Uncompahgre (right). Uncompahgre is the tallest mountain in the San Juans and 4th tallest in the state.

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That Time I Went Rafting

I can’t quite remember if it was during this off-hitch or not, but during one of them, I was invited to go rafting with our National Park friends from Mesa Verde. One of them had a boat, so why not, right? Well, turns out there were plenty of reasons why not. Being early June, and with a winter snowpack that put the whole region around 120% of average, the snowmelt had turned normally tame rivers into ragers, including the Animas, which flows through Durango. The first part of the adventure was very chill; we chatted, drank a couple of beers, and enjoyed the warm day. The finish was through a series of rapids known as Smelter. I started regretting my decision to raft when I began to hear the roar of the rapids. In my defense, not even commercial guides were running the river at the time because of the intense flow (measured in CFS or cubic feet per second), but there I was, in a situation I couldn’t really tap out of.

We made it over the first series of rapids ok, but after a sharp bump (I’m guessing a boulder in the river) my foot was wrenched out of its hold. Usually, you have your feet shoved underneath a part of the raft lining to better brace yourself, which had worked fine up until that point. But with my foot temporarily out of its hold, I became a projectile. Within two seconds, I was lifted off my seat and thrown forward across the raft, crashing into a couple of people along the way. The next thing I knew, I was way, way underwater.

Luckily, no one got hurt, and everyone managed to swim to shore. But there’s no two ways about it; that incident was pretty much entirely my fault. I did not hang out with the National Park boys after that haha, probably because they stopped talking to me. Sorry guys, don’t mind me, just over here burnin bridges.

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Hitch #4

Our fourth hitch started off good for about as long as it took us to hike back into our base camp, so roughly 2 hours.


In our absence, the bear came back, this time ripping a hole in the wall tent. While he didn’t manage to get into all the food, he knocked the tarp and some rocks off our supplies. From there, the damn rats got into the food. Found no less than four rat corpses in our cliff bar stash. After spending a few hours of day one organizing what could be salvaged, we kind of settled into an “oh, that’s how this hitch is going to go” mindset. Rolling with the punches.

The rain seemed to taper off this hitch, though each morning still had that damp, sick feeling to it. Plus, it got cold; waking up to the 30s in July just seems wrong. However, we were given some absolutely stunning mornings like the one below. Fantastic nature at its fantastic finest.

Towards the end of our hitch, our CFI partners left early to address some issues back at their headquarters. We absolutely crushed the worklist they left for us and decided to take off early as well. We made our way down to Rico, soaked in the springs, and set up a small roadside camp before driving back to Durango the following morning. Ended up finding a nifty contraption that I’m assuming was used to carry supplies across the river we were camping alongside. Naturally, we played on it.

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Off-Hitch and Diente-Wilson Traverse

After my usual off-hitch routine of working out and showering at the rec center, I began planning some more adventures. Chief among them? Climbing El Diente. Working for nine days at a time in its shadow had really worked up my appetite. It felt a bit strange, driving right back to our usual work trailhead and hiking in for fun, but having traveled the trail multiple times now, I knew I could crush the distance in no time. The sun didn’t poke its head above the horizon until I was well past our worksite and up above the spot where Indiana had his second altitude/asthma/seizure attack.

El Diente in the early morning sun.

The basin above our worksite, Kilpacker, was enormous. Our job was to secure the trail up to a certain point, but everything above that point was subject to seasonal changes, rockslides, and generally unpredictable alpine behavior, so it didn’t make sense to continue higher. I followed a smattering of Cairns into the basin, making sure to keep my eyes and ears open. For all their beauty, the rock quality in a large part of the San Juans is utter garbage. It’s mostly loose and oddly shaped, so it demanded a lot of my attention. I certainly didn’t want to twist anything out here. Eventually, the climbers trail began scaling up the slopes to the left.

Looking back down the way I came in.
I like the photo above because it really gives you a good sense of not only the steepness but the rock quality. Imagine an unstable Jenga tower of rocks between pebble and sedan-sized. The organ pipe-looking towers above it were interesting though.
After finally making it up to the ridge, I encountered my first solid rock of the day, hurray! I doubled back to the West, climbing a couple of hundred feet up until I touched the top of the farthest western 14er in the state!
This is the view westward. The clump of mountains across the valley consisted of two thirteeners and a twelver (Dolores, Middle, and Dunn). Beyond that was Lone Cone, all on its lonesome. The set of mountains to the right and farther back still are the La Sals (I think), a compact range in Eastern Utah.
After lounging around on the summit, I started looking at the traverse between El-Diente and Wilson. I waffled on traversing it until I saw a fellow climber scrambling up to the summit from that direction. Sensing an opportunity for a first-hand account, I asked him how the traverse was, and he proceeded to tell me. It sounded doable, so we combined forces and headed back over to Wilson.
The traverse is considered one of four classic 14er traverses. It was awesome. The guy I ended up following had come in from the Telluride side. He was an odd duck. He had a giant bandage wrapped around his head, which he told me he got from a fight at a String Cheese Incident show where someone accused him of stealing cigarettes. Then, after blacking out, he bandaged himself up, got into his car, and drove six hours down to the trailhead so he could climb the San Miguels. Right on my weird dude, right on.
Looking at one of the best profiles of Mt. Wilsons summit. The traverse to it from El Diente is majority Class 3 with one section of brief Class 4 and then the Class 4 block climb up to Wilson’s summit. We were trucking, and it took us a little more than an hour to cover the distance.
Looking back at El Diente and upper Kilpacker Basin (to the left) from the summit of Mt. Wilson.
Great view east with Gladstone (closest peak), Wilson Peak (off-center left, connected to Gladstone via a long ridge), and even Mt. Sneffels (the tallest lum in the back line of mountains, above Gladstone) visible. The town of Telluride is tucked into the mountains in front of the Sneffels area. Boom, just like that, I’d climbed El Diente and topped out on Mt. Wilson a second time. We parted ways East of Navajo Lake, and I made the longer journey back to the car. I didn’t really mind the extra distance; it had been an epic day already, and wandering around on new trails was a peaceful endeavor.
The other big thing I did was make my down to Telluride with a friend to watch a jazz fest. It was a fun time, but the weather turned on us, so we had to call the adventure short.

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Visiting Parents

Hitch 5 (our fourth on El-Diente) proceeded well. I kept a journal and an active picture log of most of my adventures and when I looked up the pics from this hitch I found none. Either my camera died or there wasn’t much to report. We came, we saw, we worked. The following off-hitch offered some fun memories though because my parents came out to visit!

Since this was their first time in the area, we had to grab a ride on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway. If you’ve been on it, you know what it’s like; if you haven’t, it’s worth an adventure. The train goes up to Silverton in the morning, lets you stroll around the old mining town for a few hours, and then takes you back. The scenery alone is worth the ride. The train is also used by various backpackers because it provides access to really remote areas of the Weminuche Wilderness.
Some of the cliff faces and gorges the train passed by were both beautiful and scary. Watching everyone else try to shove iPhones and iPads out windows to get the best picture was less memorable but fairly inevitable.
After spending an evening in Durango, we drove (parents in a rental, me in the Subaru) eastward, towards Pagosa Springs to spend a day soaking in the hot springs, which was fantastic. Even though they came to visit me, my parents also wanted to explore the state. My dad was particularly interested in hiking Elbert (the tallest peak in the state), and my mom wanted to stay in one of the mountain resort towns. After weeks of dirty trail work, all of it sounded good to me.
We stopped by one of our friend’s properties in the San Luis Valley, where I tried my hardest to be a cowboy: much to the amusement of my mom. Fun fact, I still have that cowboy hat, and it is entirely too small for my head.
On our way north towards the Elbert area, we passed through the mining town of Leadville. Leadville is the highest elevation incorporated town in the US (incorporated meaning it has a post office) at around 10,200 feet. The highest unincorporated town in the US is Alma (~10,500 feet), just south of Breckenridge. While that town doesn’t have a post office, it certainly has a pot shop, so you could get real high while being real high

Normally the Leadville area is pretty low-key, so we were surprised at the number of people we encountered. The town was popping! Of course, we realized quickly that it was because of the Leadville 100. Generally speaking, the higher you go, the harder it is to breathe. Colorado has long been used as a training area for athletes to increase their oxygen intake. So, there are people who come to places like Leadville to train for bike races, marathons, hikes, and what have you. Then, there are the real crazy ones, who somehow decided they wanted to bike or run 100 miles WITH A LOW-POINT ELEVATION OF 10,200 feet. These people are not normal and would probably delight in that description. Anyway, being curious tourists, we hung around and watched some of the bicyclists roll through the finish line of the highest bike race in the states.

Our destination for the evening was a little lower and a little fancier than ye olde Leadville. Leadville, while a cool place to visit, is also home to some hardcore Colorado mining history and a healthy amount of meth. My mom decided we would stay in Beaver Creek instead, which is much less meth-y.

In fact, after visiting the resort, I started thinking about trying to work there as a ski instructor for a few reasons. A) I needed to be employed after the trail season if I wanted to stay in Colorado. B) I wanted to stay in Colorado. C) I knew how to ski. D) Beaver Creek is a fancy resort, on the level with Vail and often less crowded, creating a sort of exclusive club feeling. After walking around the resort (even though it was off-season) and having a lovely dinner at the Met, I started thinking I could do really well there.

Beaver Creek, where the fur coats meet the slopes…when there are…slopes.

Beaver Creek ended up being a perfect place to stay because the following morning, my dad and I headed out to climb Elbert while my mom hung around the resort. Win/win. It was a bit of a drive to get back to the trailhead, but we started hiking at around seven am and made our way up the tallest pile-o-rocks in Colorado.


Look, I love mountains, they’re great. Some mountains are dramatic: some are not. Elbert is not. Yes, it’s the tallest, yes it’s a state highpoint, but it also starts from a high elevation plateau and isn’t scrambly or technical in any way. It is uber-popular because it’s a state highpoint, and because of its relatively gentle profile. We made little work of the climb. Having acclimated all summer and spending the last few days getting my parents acclimated, we tore up the trail and arrived on the windy summit before 11 am. Just like that, I was standing on top of Colorado.

My dad looking for the tallest rock on a mountain full of rocks. Looking Northeast.

Elbert has two summits. South Elbert does not have enough prominence to be considered a separate mountain, but since we were there and feeling good, we decided to include it anyway and made our hike a loop.

Me on a subsummit of South Elbert, Twin lakes in the background. Pikes Peak is the lump just above my head and waaaay in the back.

We drove back to Beaver Creek and settled in for a quiet evening. The following morning, my parent continued the drive to DIA and their flight home, while I drove the sixish hours back down to Durango to prep for another nine days of trail working action.

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Ups and Downs

Having my parents there was both amazing and bitter-sweet. I loved that they got to see where I was working, and squeezing in another hike is always a plus, but seeing them reminded me of how far I’d decided to go to chase my outdoor dreams. I was sadder to see them go than I realized but felt strangely at ease with my future because they’d seen my world and had a great time. I think that’s so crucial: having friends or family give you that nod of approval. It doesn’t have to be showy or dramatic, but having that acceptance can be the difference between rising to the top or spiraling to the bottom. Despite the uncertainty (and honestly, that stuff never goes away), I felt good because I was having a blast getting to know the wilds of my new personal frontier. My parents saw that and gave me two enthusiast thumbs up. After a year of putzing around after college, I’d managed to carve something out of adulthood for myself, and it filled me with something like purpose. I was proud to show it off.

Highlights, lowlights, regrets and successes, they’re all a part of who we are. When we’re young, we tend to want to hide the parts of us that we don’t like (especially in High School and College where impressions mean a lot) but spreading your wings and getting right with yourself helps you realize that ascribing to norms is EXHAUSTING. Embrace the strange, go hike that mountain, go read that book, play that sport, travel to that place, whatever, different strokes for different folks. Do your thing, stoke your internal fire, and try to surround yourself with people that get that. Not everyone needs to understand the 40000 reasons why you love something; all they need to know is that you do. If their reaction is positive, keep em; if they don’t understand or worse, refuse to understand that you may love something they don’t, cut em out. Life is hard enough as it is; the worst thing you can do is make it harder for someone else. I know my mom and dad didn’t understand exactly why I was doing what I was doing, but they saw I was happy doing it, and that was more than enough.

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Part 5: From SF to Durango (May 15-June 1, 2015)

Table of Contents

  • San Francisco by the Bay
  • Tahoe

San Francisco by the Bay

Ah, San Francisco, the iconic and prohibitively expensive city by the bay. As someone who has only visited, the common gripes of the locals haven’t really affected me. However, that isn’t to say there aren’t any, in fact, SF is often the poster child when it comes to modern urban problems.

Despite the fame brought to the city by its seismic history, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz prison, cable cars, and famously liberal mindset, San Francisco has developed some big issues as well. Some of the more notable ones include the almost unanimous notion that the tech industry has ruined SF, a rampant homeless population that has occasionally taken to defecating on streets, and the aforementioned prohibitively expensive real estate/rental market. These problems are not necessarily restricted to San Francisco, many large urban areas are dealing with similar situations, but because San Francisco is so synonymous with West Coast America, all of the city’s problems are put under a microscope. Whether or not that’s fair remains up to debate and I personally found the city to exude the same allure I imagined it would after watching George of the Jungle, Full House, Mrs. Doubtfire, and of course, the always charming, The Rock, as a kid.

In The Rock (1996), Nicholas Cage's character Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, says  "Vaporized. Blown out to sea." in regards to Sean Connery's character. This  is technically an incorrect statement as its physically impossible
Sean Connery in ‘The Rock’
Ahh, expensive.

It was strange being in such a densely populated area after framing a lot of my road trip around national parks, mountains, and sparsely populated coastlines. I knew I didn’t want to stay long, but there were a few people I wanted to see, namely my aunt, who I spent a few days with, in Noe Valley, and my brother’s friend Clint, who was working near the downtown core. I think I ended up blocking off four days to stay in the city and just so happened to be there during the famous Bay to Breakers race. Hm, how to describe it…uhm, a giant party masquerading as a running race? After finding out about it, I knew I had to get in on the festivities.

Many people do actually try to run the whole thing, but a whole lot more come to get weird alongside it. The city puts out yearly estimates on participation, and the last estimate put the numbers at 50,000 racers and 100,000 spectators. A lot of participants and spectators dress up in various costumes, with many also pre-gaming heavily for the event. Clint had Harold and Lloyd costumes from the 1994 Dumb and Dumber movie, so we basically looked like this for the whole thing. 

Relive "Dumb and Dumber" IRL with this insane, $10,000 Colorado hotel and  ski package — The Know

We didn’t register to run but partied alongside the event and walked a couple of miles of the course, traveling from house party to house party. Unfortunately, I didn’t take many pictures, and towards the end of it, was probably incapable of actually taking a photo at all.

Hold My Beer | Know Your Meme

The event was a fun experience but completely draining. After a few days decompressing and enjoying the company of my aunt, I felt the call of the road once more and drove East to Lake Tahoe in the Sierra.

Tahoe

As I mentioned in a previous post, the West Coast has a ton of mountain ranges, of which two reign supreme: the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada. The Sierra Nevada is almost entirely in California (a small part spills into Nevada) and contains the highest mountain in the lower 48 states, Mt. Whitney. It is also home to many excellent ski resorts and the massive Lake Tahoe. A buddy of mine had settled out near Tahoe, so I gave her a call and asked if I could stay for a couple of days. I ended up staying for nearly a week.

Like my SF days, the focus on taking pictures took a back seat to good company. The town I stayed in, South Lake Tahoe, had a lot of snowbums and outdoor jocks who were always ready to celebrate. We went hard, and after five days of nonstop partying, I was ready to accept sobriety as my lord and savior. The answer to the question, what happens when you get 8 young adults in the same house together for an extended period of time is…too much.

Terribly Hungover Animals

I did manage to grab the few pictures below, which do an ok job of showing the area.

Rainbows over Lake Tahoe.
Tahoe was a beautiful area and I hope one day to explore it more completely.

After another round of goodbyes, I was off. Driving East into Nevada, I realized I hadn’t done anything outdoorsy in the past week and a half. Thoroughly disappointed in myself, I made it a goal to seek out some more mountain solitude before finishing my trip. The first objective, after a long lonesome drive on Highway 50, was Great Basin National Park.

Oh, what’s that? You didn’t know there’s a national park named Great Basin in Nevada? Before my road trip, neither did I. The Park covers the spine of the Snake Range in a geologically significant region known as the Great Basin. Why a Great Basin? Because the rivers and streams originating in the linear ranges of the region don’t have an outflow. To the East, the Colorado River takes its time churning towards the Gulf of California, and to the west, everything flows into the Pacific. In the Great Basin, the few areas of water flow towards the lower points of the basin and then dry up or spill into lakes with nowhere to go. It’s essentially an enormous bathroom sink with no drain, pot-marked by thin mountains. Some of these ranges are far enough from the rain shadow cast by the Sierra that they support more of a mountain ecology, the Snake Range is one of them. 

The highest peak in the range, and in the national park, is called Wheeler Peak (same name as the state highpoint in New Mexico). It is one of only two peaks to break 13,000 feet in Nevada. In fact, the highest point in Nevada (Boundary Peak) is not actually a peak in the traditional sense, it’s a highpoint on a ridge that continues into California and eventually caps at a higher peak. Therefore, Wheeler Peak is the tallest mountain in Nevada that is entirely within the state…so there…fun fact for yah, tell everyone you know.

Anyway, I wanted to climb it.

Saw that coming - Tony Stark Eye Roll | Make a Meme

Now, usually, there’s a road up a lot of the mountain, which significantly cuts down the effort. However, since the high country was still snowy, the road was closed, and my hike ended up becoming more of a committed adventure. As was the case with St. Helens, I did some research beforehand and booked a campsite at Baker Creek Campground inside the park for two nights.

What struck me most about the hike up Wheeler was the contrast between the snowy upper slopes and the desert basins around the range. As I said, Nevada has a bunch of long, thin mountain ranges separated by desert floor. When I finally got to the top of Wheeler, it was in the low 20’s Fahrenheit, and I was looking down on a valley floor nearly 6,000 feet below me in the mid 70’s. Unreal.

The pic above is what the typical terrain at the foot of these ranges looks like, flat and dry.

Can you believe this is also Nevada? Just a few thousand feet higher. Wheeler is the summit in the cloud.

While the cirque framing Wheeler is beyond intimidating, the summit route takes a sleepy ridge to the west, keeping the trail itself at a Class 1 in the summer months and maybe a Class 2 when there’s snow. As the blog moves forward, I’ll get more into the Class rating system, but here is a hyperlink you can use to look at the criteria for the Yosemite Decimal System

In the above photo, you really get a sense of how prominent the peaks are when compared to the basin below. It’s quite the contrast.

Up the spine I go.

Well, I made it, and although the technical difficulties of the peak were nonexistent, the length of the climb and ultimate elevation (over 13,000 feet) had me feeling nauseous and short of breath, which meant I had a very mild form of altitude sickness. It is generally accepted that the likelihood of developing altitude sickness greatly increases above 8,000 feet in elevation. While this can manifest differently in people, for those without pre-existing conditions, altitude sickness usually involves shortness of breath, lack of hunger and thirst, nausea, and splitting headaches. If you’re curious about the mechanics of high altitude breathing, altitude sickness, and prevention, click on this link to get to a really nice report from APEX, which lays out exactly what happens to your body at high elevation. See? Learning is fun!

Learning Memes

To put it bluntly, tall mountains exist in a part of the world where humans were not meant to thrive. Every aspiring mountaineer needs to understand this and plan accordingly.

Ways to mitigate the effects of altitude sickness include slowing down your rate of ascent, drinking a TON of water, and taking NSAIDs (if you don’t react poorly to them) to reduce swelling and inflammation. However, if symptoms don’t go away, the best thing to do is descend. Many experienced mountaineers get in trouble when they think they can push through signs of trouble. This mental roadblock to descending can lead to rapidly deteriorating physical conditions and is often referred to as summit fever. Simply put, summit fever refers to a state of mind where a mountaineer will attempt a summit at any cost, even if that cost is injury or death. Listen to your body! Yeah, it’s disappointing if you can’t top out on a summit, but the mountain will be there tomorrow, make sure you are too! You can’t brag about your beautiful summit photos if you’re dead.

While nothing tragic happened to me on Wheeler Peak, I recognized the signs of altitude sickness when they began to affect me and only spent a few minutes on the summit before descending. Mountain climbing is already inherently dangerous, there’s really no need to add questionable oxygen-deprived decisions to that mix.

Beauteous! Looking south from the summit of Wheeler Pk.

All seriousness aside, I was very impressed by the mountain and the vistas from the top. Happy with my slice of the Great Basin, I retreated to camp, settled in for the evening, and enjoyed a well-deserved sleep under a blanket of stars, revealed once the clouds broke. Even if you don’t care for mountain climbing, Great Basin National Park has incredible stargazing, which is worth a trip all on its own.

The following morning, I saddled up my stuff and drove through the middle of Utah, stopping in Salt Lake to spend the night at a friend’s before continuing into western Colorado.

Western Colorado is very different from the Front Range and Eastern Colorado. Like parts of Nevada, Western Colorado is a system of basins and valleys buffered by broad swaths of uplifted earth, forming the core of the Southern Rocky Mountains. Parts of it are dry and desolate, and parts of it contain some of the most beautiful examples of mountain terrain I’ve ever seen.

Dry near Grant Junction. You can tell it rained recently because the usually yellow vegetation is actually green.

Broadly speaking, the Rockies are divided into three sections, Northern (Canada), Central (Montana, Idaho, and most of Wyoming), and Southern (Colorado, a small slice of southern Wyoming and the northern part of New Mexico). The broad overview of Colorado is that it’s the roof of the lower 48. While California has Mt. Whitney, which is higher than any peak in Colorado, Colorado has 53 official peaks over 14,000 feet to Californias 12. Only four states have mountains over 14,000 feet, Colorado (53), Alaska (29), California (12), and Washington (1). While the ranges of Colorado are numerous, and I’ll get into them as I keep writing, for 2015, I was focused on the largest range in the state, The San Juans.

The San Juans are not only the largest but arguably the wildest range in Colorado, with 13 14’ers, three national forests, and five wilderness areas, the largest of which (Weminuche) covers half a million acres of unspoiled land. Long in a short, it’s Colorado’s most extensive and beautiful range.

My new job as a trail crew member for Southwest Conservation Corp would have me operating from just outside of Durango, the largest town in the region. Durango sits to the south of the San Juans, and from the dingy hostel where I stayed in Grand Junction, I’d have to cross the majority of it to get into town. This presented another unique opportunity for me to get some mountain climbing in. What better way to kick off my new career than to climb my first 14er? As geographic happenstance would have it, Mt. Sneffels was right in my path. Coincidence? …No

Right, so from Junction, I headed south, marveling at the sights along the way and getting excited as the northern ramparts of the San Juans began to poke their heads above the hills.

Mt. Sneffels (center left, tallest peak visible) and the Dallas Divide (mountain wall going to the right) from near Ridgeway.

I secured a spot at the Ouray KOA (pronounced Yur-ray, not Ooooo-ray), scouted out the road to the trailhead for Mt. Sneffels, and got to bed early.

Anticipating the same level of snow I’d seen in Nevada, I immediately had to restructure my expectations when I began hiking. For the first mile, I was following a dirt road with the occasional snowdrift overtop that had blocked further driving. Once I finally got past the official trail sign and above the tree-line, it felt like I’d suddenly stepped onto a glacier in Greenland. It was May 30th, and EVERYTHING was blanketed by deep snow. I geared up with some snowshoes and climbed through a spring winter wonderland. The upper part of Yankee Boy Basin (which I can’t help but say in redneck twang) appeared stuck in the last ice age and offered me some stunning first impressions of the San Juan Mountains.

Arctic vibes.

The views only increased as I began to climb a wide couloir up the shoulder of Sneffels. Out came the crampons to better grip the slope.

Looking across the very top of Yankee Boy Basin to Gilpin Mountain. The cluster of peaks further back and to the right contains three fourteeners.
The tippy top. After two couloirs and a snowy kick step section to the summit, I finally summited my first fourteener. Shown looking North, the San Juans abruptly end.
Turning around and looking South, nothing but endless mountains! You can even see a part of the Telluride ski resort.
It’s hard to put into words how massive the San Juans are as a range. From this vantage point it truly did feel endless.

I was feeling good, had the summit all to myself, and spent a good 45 minutes trying to identify as many of the snow-covered peaks as I could. After all, this would become my backyard for the summer, and I was itching to get acquainted with it.

Unlike Wheeler and St. Helens, where I had cloudy skies on top, it was all sun on Sneffels. After lathering sunscreen on for the fourth time, I began to realize how easily you could get snow blindness in this type of environment. Snow reflects light, usually right into your face, and in the alpine, there’s less atmosphere to block UV light, so your skin can burn really quickly, and in some extreme cases, you may temporarily lose the ability to see. 

spongebob: Spongebob My Eyes Gif
Have no fear, the effects of snow blindness are usually temporary.

Pro-tip in sunny and snowy conditions: Lather on sunscreen at regular intervals and wear thick sunglasses with beefy handles to help shield from snow glare. Your eyes will thank you.

Cirque Mountain (left) and Teakettle

Descending took a little longer than expected because the sun was starting to melt the hard-packed snow from the morning. The lower I got, the more I began to sink through, despite having my snowshoes back on. It was a frustrating final hour but at least I wasn’t the guy at the trailhead, who had somehow convinced his girlfriend it’d be fun to go play in eight-foot snowbanks with no gear. She had fallen into a pile of snow up to her waist and was hysterically screaming, “I LOST MY SANDAAAAL!” while he shouted from the parking lot, “JUST MOVE!” to which she would respond “ITS COOOOLD!” and then the whole conversation would loop on itself. A+ communication skills, from context alone I’d learned that snow was cold, shocker, she’d worn sandals, not so swift, and her boyfriend was doing everything in his power to avoid actually helping her, opting for vague directives shouted from the safety net around his truck. It took everything in my power not to make this face as I passed by them.

Yikes GIFs | Tenor

The Sneffels area is usually a mecca for hikers, but because of a series of late-season snowstorms, I’d had the majority of the hike to myself, only passing two other summiters who were on their 20somethingth 14er. It was hard not to feel accomplished as I unloaded all my dirty and snowy gear into the trunk of the Subaru and drank a victory beer I’d picked up in town. With only an hour and a half drive left before I reached my destination and a lot of day left to kill, I took my time and breathed in the mountain air, envisioning all the wonderful adventures this summer was going to bring me.

The drive from Ouray to Durango is one of the more scenic drives in the whole state and takes you over three alpine passes (Red Mountain, Molas, and Coalbank), past numerous historical structures from Colorado’s mining days, and runs you by the ski and tourist town of Silverton. It was a beautiful and fitting way to end my road-trip, and I was caught between feeling sad about its end and excited about the future.

View from Molas Pass

June 1st would be my first day of training. I still had little to no idea what I was getting into, they didn’t exactly cover trail-building in my college humanities courses, but after the highs and lows of two solo months on the road, I was confident I could handle anything Southwest Conservation Corps (SWCC) threw at me. I spent the night of the 30th and 31st at a campground north of Durango, one suggested for corps members, and I even met a few of them. May 31st was fairly pedestrian, I went into town, gassed up, did my laundry, and counted the hours until my new job took off. Was I aware that I was about to embark on the most important multi-year odyssey of my young life? No, but I knew I was in the middle of an ambitious adventure summer, and after my post-college rut, that was more than enough for me.

Source: Google maps

Part 4: The Great West Coast (May 3-May 15, 2015)

I looked back at my friend and frowned, suddenly very aware of what I had been asking. Jumping into the frigid North Pacific SEEMED like a good idea when I’d first proposed it, but now, on a rock fifteen feet above the deep, I was encountering some internal resistance. What would motivate such a heinous assault on common sense, you may ask? Why the uncommon nature of the situation, of course! Where I was standing, in Smuggler Cove Marine Provincial Park on the Gold Coast of remote British Columbia, was the northernmost part of my entire road trip! Such a geographic achievement had to be celebrated, and what better way than to hurl myself into the ocean?

Looking at the maps below, you can see how far I’d gone, a sizable achievement on its own. Every subsequent destination on my trip after Smuggler Cove would be to the south and, eventually, back east to Colorado. There was still a lot of road left to drive, but I was feeling high on myself for getting this far and wanted to be dramatic about it.

Big overview.
Zoomed in. Way out there, eh?

Ok, Timo, you can do this, I tried telling myselfYou can’t let your fans down. And when I say “fans,” I mean my one bored friend and a few lumpy starfish ie. the adoring masses.

Janice, Harold and Lawrence, friends for life.

Finally, after some extensive confidence building, I managed to jump into the water, remembering to tuck my feet in, which seemed super important at the time.

Look at that form! IMMACULATE

The water was absolutely FREEZING, but I was glad I did something to mark the occasion, and after drying off, my friend and I headed back to her home. I had known she’d moved to this remote slice of Canada years before and had been interested in visiting, but living between Georgia and North Carolina never really gave me the excuse to go this far northwest. Once I began constructing my elaborate road trip, I knew I wanted the Gold Coast to be a part of it.

The Gold Coast is a gem of an area, secluded and wild. In true Canadian fashion, while I didn’t meet too many of the locals, the ones I did were overwhelmingly friendly. There was no polarizing political banter and no generational dumping, only a mild curiosity stemming mostly from sighting a Subaru with Georgia license plates, casually driving through remote Canada.

Typical scene in Smuggler Cove

I spent the evening after my ocean plunge at a party hosted by my friend at her house/hippy commune. The collection of people I met there was amazing. There were wailing, dreaded, half-naked people on the roof, while a butch squad sat by the fire, telling stories of their lumberjack lives. In the driveway were truck-people with decadent beards, standing next to their rigs all night with such discipline you’d think they were guarding the Pope himself. And back in the house, preppy, popped-collar university students were inhaling beer as if their existence depended on it. Thoroughly amused and intrigued by the spectacle of it all, I spent the better part of the evening engaged in colorful conversations and casually avoiding repeated calls for “free love.” It was like my own little Canadian Woodstock and obviously not representative of all the folks on the Gold Coast, just what I happened to observe. Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I grabbed lunch with the main group the following day, said my goodbyes, and pointed the Subaru south.

Western British Columbia, if you’re unaware, is like North American Norway. Once you travel north from Vancouver, the Coast Range comes down to the kiss the shoreline and splits into hundreds of fjords. Many secluded sections of land, hemmed in by steep, glaciated mountains on one side and the deep Pacific Ocean on the other, only have access to civilization via ferries. In order to get to/from the Gold Coast, you need to take one and not just any ferry, but one of the behemoths pictured below.

Standing on the top deck of the ferry as it took me across Howe Sound, it felt more like Scandinavia than Canada.

Coast Range
Looking northwest towards Squamish and eventually, Whistler

By midday, I was back off the ferry and driving towards Vancouver, stopping briefly by Cypress ski resort to grab some views of Western Canada’s largest city.

Looking south

I was a bit sad that I couldn’t spend more time in Vancouver, but I had an agenda and a budget to stick to, so I bid adieu to B.C. and reentered the States. As luck or fate would have it, over the next three years, I would end up spending more than three months in Vancouver and its surrounding environs. Many Canadian adventures were still to be had, I just didn’t know it at the time.

Impressed by my little slice of British Columbia, I began my southern drive down the West Coast, looking for exciting things to do and places to see along the way.

As you’ve hopefully picked up through my various blog posts, I LOVE hiking, so, naturally, my first goal was to get some hiking in. Knowing I was going to be climbing and trail building throughout the Colorado Rockies starting in June, I figured I should get a taste of one of the big West Coast ranges beforehand. While there are actually quite a few ranges and subranges between Washington, Oregon, and California (Trinity Alps, Wallowas, Olympic Mts. etc.), the two monster ones are the Cascades and the Sierra, both impressive and wildly different.

The Sierra is a young range with giant slabs of inspiring granite and rock-faces that defy gravity, such as El Cap or Half-dome in Yellowstone National Park. The Cascades, by contrast, consist of a series of lower parallel ridges augmented by a set of monstrous Volcanos, perhaps the most famous one being Mt. St. Helens, which blew its top in a widely analyzed eruption in 1980 (click here for a quick video on it). Perhaps predictably, St. Helens was the one I ended up climbing. Now, it wasn’t because I had a date with death, but St. Helens is quite close to the I-5 highway corridor I was blasting down, very visible from the Portland suburbs, and doesn’t require advanced mountaineering gear to climb. Okie Dokie then. The one requirement, however, was to obtain a permit ahead of time, which I had done during my initial road trip planning phase.

Before I climbed, I figured I would need to get some better gear, so I stopped in Portland at an outdoor gear shop, asked for the cheapest, crappiest pair of crampons, and 50$ later, walked away with an old pair of Stubai’s the shop wasn’t initially aware they even had in stock. 

These old clunkers are not at all like the ones gear shops usually push on potential clients, but I must’ve smelled like cheap college kid because the guy in the shop took one look at me and figured I couldn’t possibly afford anything nicer. I mean…he wasn’t wrong, but I sure got my money’s worth because as I’m typing this years later, I still have and still use the same pair of crampons. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Thanks for coming to my TED talk, follow me for more financial advice.

Think About It Reaction GIF by Identity

Armed with a vague knowledge of what to do and an eagerness to prove myself, I armored up and headed for the trailhead. My first impression of St. Helens was that it looked like a cute frosted covered gumdrop.

Aw

My second impression when I left the trailhead and began climbing was a wee bit different. St. Helens and the Cascade volcanos are BIG!

Mhm, big.

And while the climb was really quite tame compared to future endeavors, it demanded my full attention and respect throughout.

During the climb, I discovered a few things.

1) I was very out of shape

Noob.

2) Cascade Volcanos are not just tall, but very girthy as well.

Looking towards Mt. Adams.

3) A more accurate measure of effort is not total elevation, but prominence, as in, how high is the thing from its base as opposed to sea level. St. Helens is over 8000 feet tall from sea level, but you climb 4500 feet of it, which is substantial as far as single day efforts go.

Getting up to the rim.

4) I could very clearly see evidence of where Lahars ran down the slope due to the 1980 eruption, which was quite cool.

Just imagine water and mud absolutely sprinting down the side of this thing!

5) The mountain caldera is still smoking and gave me the distinct impression of being “alive.”

The “not cloud” is, in fact, smoke. So…there’s that.
Expert Artist Rendition of where the full Caldera rim used to be. As you can see, a TON of mountain was destroyed in the blast, the entire north side is gone.

6) NEVER step to the edge of a Cornice, many people die every year from doing that. A cornice is an overhung piece of snow that forms during winter. In the spring, the warming temperature destabilizes the Cornice. Any excess pressure on the top and the whole thing breaks off, taking everything down with it. Big no no.

The top of the Volcano rim with a dangerous Cornice.
Me and my Stubais, a safe 10 feet from the edge because death was not on my agenda for the day.

Thoroughly licked by the effort, I limped back down to safety, catching glimpses of a crazy mountain dude who damn near ran up the whole thing with a pair of skis on his back and skied down ahead of me. At the time, I chuckled to myself, thinking he was out of his mind. Little did I know that only two years later, I’d be doing the same thing down some mountains in Colorado.

…Hindsight is very strange. In my opinion, the more of declarative statements you make (I will NEVER, or I will ALWAY etc.) the harder circumstance seems to laugh at you in the end. Don’t tempt the gods with a good time, they are always down for a laugh.

While not even close to the top of the Cascade range, St. Helens was a great test piece and gave me the confidence to try other mountains that I may have otherwise been unwilling to try. Box checked, stoke level high.

YES Hockey GIF - YES Hockey Baby GIFs

That evening, I stopped back in Portland to stay at my dad’s best friend’s house.

Portland, Oregon…has a reputation. Not all of the city embraces the reputation, just like not ALL of the people at the hippy commune on the Gold Coast were eating drugs off of a plate a la carte, but many were, and in Portland, many embrace the reputation. A substantial part of the Portland appeal is counterculture. Another northwest city, Seattle, was the center of counterculture in the early ’90s with the Grunge movement, so it isn’t like counterculture is a one-off idea for the region. However, to compare Seattle to Portland would be a serious, serious mistake. To illustrate the Portland stereotype, please watch the following video (click here).

Again, this is NOT a universal truth, but hilarious and applicable in a lot of ways. That stereotype was evident on my wanderings through the city. However, the family I stayed with had been in Portland for decades, predating the current hipster craze, so I didn’t really catch the vibe until the day after I arrived. 

Something else I noticed about Portland was that the homeless population is substantial, and a lot of them are MEAN. I gave a homeless guy 5$, and he looked at me angrily and yelled, “THAT IT?!” I was…surprised, and also out of pocket change, so I told him I didn’t have anymore and…well, he didn’t like that and started coming at me. Luckily, as soon as he stood up, he tripped over an untied shoelace, allowing me to fade behind a large group of people, but I was very unprepared for that kind of encounter. Now, don’t read too much into it, I always give when I am able and have a lot of qualms with how capitalism treats the downtrodden, but I guess I just wasn’t expecting to be the target of ire AFTER I’d given what I had, just a weird situation all around.

Despite the hipsters and angry homeless guys, I had a blast in Portland and was hosted by wonderful people, so all in all, I still say the city came out on top in the impression category (I particularly enjoyed Deschutes Brewery and Mt. Tabor Park). I’ve been back a few times, and it is entirely charming in its own way, just do a little research before you show up and figure out which areas you need to avoid.

During one of my days in Portland, I took a quick detour to the Columbia River Gorge, another impressive geographic area. The Columbia River originates in Canada, runs through the state of Washington, and eventually forms the border between Washington and Oregon on its way to the Pacific. What’s fascinating about it is that the river runs right through the formidable Cascades, creating miles upon miles of outdoor beauty. I ended up climbing Beacon Rock, a pinnacle on the edge of the river with a path built into the side of it. The whole gorge area is quite pretty and worth multiple exploration days.

Excellent day, excellent views.

I stayed in Portland one more night before packing it in and heading out to the famed Oregon Coast. I had previously driven along the Southern California coastline with my family a few years prior, but Oregon’s shoreline remained a mystery, so off I went.

Along the way to Cannon Beach, the closest stretch of sand to Portland, I hiked up Saddle Mountain in the fog and rain. While I wasn’t afforded many views once I hiked into the cloud, it still offered a glimpse into the type of ecosystem common along the northwestern part of the US, between the Cascades and the coast.

After finally attaining the coast, I decided to once again wander into the water. It was just as cold as it felt in Canada. I…I don’t know what I was expecting.

From Cannon Beach, I once again turned the Subaru south and drove a long, uninterrupted stretch of the dramatic Oregon Coast Highway. Like the Gold Coast, many of the coastal areas here felt as if they existed entirely in their own world. While Oregon isn’t necessarily known as a populous state, even the relatively bustling cities of Portland, Salem, and Eugene felt as far away as the dark side of the moon. One of the highlights was taking a stroll through Oswald State Park, where a series of showy bluffs rose dramatically from the reaches of the Pacific, offering fantastic views.

Gorgeous!
Magnificent

It was hard not to fall in love with the coast. It felt unrestrained and ancient, with people still living in harmony with the land. While a lot of the American West still abides by that rule, it is steadily disappearing as cities increase in size and once untouched slices of paradise become the next “must-own” destination.

After driving along as much coast as I could handle, I reluctantly headed back east to Eugene to stay in a cheap hostel. The rain returned with a vengeance, but the hostel was warm, friendly, and close to a few breweries. Craving a beer after the visual overload of the coast, I slogged through the rain and into an empty Ninkasi Brewing, had an hour-long chat with one of the head brewers, and left with free beer and an arm full of merchandise. It was the second time this trip a brewery had taken it upon themselves to reach out to me, which I thought was very cool. Ninkasi and Lagunitas, good places, good people; check them out!

Instead of heading back to the coast right away, I decided to go check out Crater Lake National Park. Continuing the Cascade Volcano theme, the centerpiece of the park is a picturesque high-elevation lake formed by the collapse of an old volcano. What remains is a beautiful and pristine sub-alpine environment. Crater Lake is also disturbingly deep, “cascading” down to a depth of 1949 feet, making it the deepest lake in the US. 

The rain that had started on my drive from Eugene, quickly turned to snow when I reached the edge of the lake. Although I managed to hike around for a few hours, the iconic views were mostly hidden by a thick wall of clouds. I did manage to snag a few shots, and despite the clouds, could see the shape of the lake. While it wasn’t the best day to be out, any chance to experience iconic locations is a chance worth taking. Sometimes, you just have to work with what the weather gives you.

Crater Lake and it’s mesmerizing blue water.

After Crater Lake, I floored it south into California, having booked a tent site from a camper-van-living-couple near the second tallest Cascade Volcano (behind Ranier) Mt. Shasta. The environment became steadily drier as I drove to within sight of the volcano and set up shop.

Shasta, and a much drier climate than Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

As eager as ever to keep climbing, I gave Lassen Pk. a go (the southernmost Cascade Volcano) but had to turn around as the entrance to the area was closed due to avalanche danger. Resolving to return to the coast, I made my way to the Northern California shore while listening to the always excellent podcast Hardcore History by Dan Carlin

Like the Oregon Coast, the Northern California Coast (as in between Oregon and SF) has a lost world type feeling, cemented by crisp natural beauty and sleepy seaside towns like Arcata, where I spent an evening. I was also reintroduced to the Marine Layer, a drunken piece of fog that stumbles into the California shoreline almost every morning to say howdy doody before retreating back to its oceanic staging area.

Go home Marine Layer

Oh, here’s a bird.

The further south I drove, the less the Marine Layer seemed to be impacting the land until I finally burst out of the fog in Sonoma County and enjoyed the last bit of the windy road before settling into my campsite at Wrights Beach Campground. The last leg of the drive was wonderful, the temperature soared back up into the 70’s, the smell of salty seawater wafted through the Subaru, the sun was out, and I drove at my own pace, free of traffic and inclement weather. Utter bliss.

Of all the airbnb’s, campsites, and friends I stayed with, that evening on the sand in Sonoma County was the only beachside overnight I’d managed to snag, and it was a special one. Once my tent was set up, I walked all of twenty feet to the start of the beach and claimed a spot for myself, watching the surf smash against the sand and the sun dip towards the horizon. Having already jumped into the ocean in Canada and Oregon, I knew I’d have to wade in here as well. As they say, third times the charm, right? Nope, not even close; it was still freezing. However, unlike the previous two jumps, I had a warm evening, a six-pack of beer, and time to relax.

Ah, the ocean.

I spent the sunset hours staring over the ocean’s expanse and thinking back on the past two weeks of my trip. From Canada down to my campsite (and with all my mountain side-trips counted) I’d logged another 1880 miles. To date, my total distance driven for the trip was just shy of 6,000 miles. That is a ton of driving! Feeling quite accomplished, I lay against some driftwood and watched the sun go down while sipping my beer. With three Pacific coast plunges under my belt, I felt like I’d given this section of the trip some poetic continuity. Next up was a stay in San Francisco with my aunt, a swing by Lake Tahoe, a lonesome drive through Nevada to Great Basin National Park, a dry haul through Utah, and eventually a hike up my first 14,000 foot mountain outside of Ouray, Colorado. But at the moment, all I could do was stare at the ocean, and let the sound of the waves clear the remaining cobwebs from my brain.

Since the start of the road trip, despite all of the wonderful things I’d seen and done, a nagging voice in my head kept questioning whether or not this was a good idea. I had completely abandoned my former life in order to go on a two month road trip to “find myself” and pursue a career in trail building. Saying it out loud didn’t really help, what if I had made a mistake? What if I couldn’t sustain a new career in Colorado? While these had always been risks, every day I spent driving closer to my ultimate destination brought those risks more into focus. Would I finally be able to make something out of myself at the end of the trip? What I really needed was a moment of clarity. A moment where the angel on my shoulder finally took down the devil on the other one, and I could fully embrace the situation I’d put myself in. On the beach in Sonoma, sipping my Lagunitas, I finally got it.

It isn’t like the movies. Clarity isn’t Clark Kent walking into a phone booth and emerging as Superman, knowing without a doubt who he is and what he needs to do. For me, it was subtle. There was a comfortable fuzzy feeling in my stomach, a happy bubbling, which may have been the beer or the sun warming my body; the difference was, I stopped analyzing it. I felt good and sitting there watching the waves, I kind of forgot to question it. I just knew that of all the places in the world I could’ve been, this one was pretty nice and I was lucky to be there. To be calm inside your own skin is rare, especially for those of us riddled with anxiety, which is probably why I remember that evening so well. I was calm. When this trip finished, I would be starting a brand new life, and it was finally starting to feel like a really good decision. Inhale possibility, exhale anxiety. Cheers.

Part 2: Modern Manifest Destiny

Don’t let the title fool you. The old Manifest destiny, if you are unfamiliar, was a widely held belief in the 19th century that westward expansion of American interests throughout the North American continent was not only justified but inevitable. What ended up happening was nothing short of terrifying and involved lawlessness, greed, murder, and the forced removal of thousands upon thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands.

            In contrast, my modern version of manifest destiny was highly personal, completely peaceful, and had almost nothing in common with the old one, save one word: inevitable. Like the original doctrine, I knew my journey west was inevitable. Justified? maybe not, it was pretty self-indulgent but definitely inevitable. It wasn’t just a dream that was nice to think about, this was going to happen…it had to happen. I couldn’t tell you when I knew it for sure, but for years I had flirted with the idea of going the way of the setting sun, and with each passing year, the feeling had grown. Eventually, I couldn’t stifle it anymore and the result was spectacular.

            2014 was, for the most part, a very challenging year. I had graduated from UNC-Asheville the previous fall, and while I was thrilled to have earned an undergraduate degree in four years, I had spent far too little time figuring out what my next steps were going to be. So, with panic setting in and a flimsy piece of paper that said “Bachelor of Liberal Arts,” I looked at the adult world looming in front of me and thought, “oh shiiiiiiit.”

            Consequently, I grabbed the first stable gig I could find and moved to Northern Virginia, where I worked through the end of 2013 as a counselor at an adventure camp.

            Once 2014 kicked in, I moved right back to my college town. Two wrongs don’t make a right, in case anyone was counting, but at the time, I thought I had solid reasons for moving back. I was in a pretty serious relationship with a woman in her senior year at UNC-Asheville, my job in Virginia wasn’t pushing me in a direction I felt was worth pursuing, and most of my friends were still in Asheville. Perhaps the most powerful reason was that I was still subservient to the siren song of the Blue Ridge. If you’ve been there, you know, it grabs you hard. I guess I thought I’d be able to tread water for the duration until opportunity fell into my lap.

            Well, you can imagine how that went.

            As 2014 dragged on, I began dragging myself down. The two highlights I had were hiking and working for a zip line company north of town. If you’ve never zipped through the canopy at upwards of 60 mph. I would highly recommend it. Through that experience, I began to open up the possibility in my head that somehow, I could combine my intense desire for outdoor recreation with something that resembled a decent paying job. The big question I needed to answer was, could I do it in Asheville?

            Asheville had, and always will have, a special place in my heart, but moving back to your college town is risky. I didn’t realize it immediately, but I was stuck. For me, Asheville, like TV shows that run too long, needed to end. The good seasons were gone, the most relatable characters had left and everything else was filler. I had to give Asheville a dignified death and move on or risk sinking along with it.

            So, I divorced my college town, broke up with my girlfriend, and planned to move out west, buoyed by a fairly comprehensive set of outdoor skills. Having spent the better part of four years hiking everything I could in North Carolina, I was comfortable with the outdoors and figured the easiest way to transition was through an outdoor-oriented job. It didn’t take me long to stumble upon Conservation Corp.

            As I poured through the history of the organization, from its humble beginnings as the Civilian Conservation Corp during the great depression to the present, I found myself attracted to this concept of trails. I guess I’d never considered how much effort went into maintaining our access to the outdoors, not only for our enjoyment, but to limit human damage to sensitive areas. I knew I was in shape, and of *relatively sound mind, so I gave it a go. Then, before I could hit apply on the website, I found the prerequisite section and stumbled onto this word, WFR…what the hell was that?

            WFR (Wilderness First Responder): An individual who has been trained to deal with emergency situations in remote areas, thanks Wikipedia.

            It was a seven days course that covered everything you could possibly encounter in a wilderness setting, and as I was researching it, a few things hit me. This was real. If I took this course and got the job, then I could be in situations that might require serious medical mediation in isolated and remote places. I think to some, that might’ve been a deal-breaker, but to me? I got excited. I thought fondly of the life-changing Outward Bound experience I’d been in for 14 days in the Gore Range of Colorado back in high school. Really being out there, and having your finger on the pulse of the land was freeing in a way that I hadn’t been able to replicate since. My mind was made up. I signed up for the nearest WFR course and applied to be a crew leader for Conservation Corp in Colorado. The branch I ended up choosing was Southwest Conservation Corp, out of Durango. Why? Location, location, location.

            Within an hour of Durango was the San Juan Mountains, Colorado’s most extensive mountain range with wilderness areas up to half a million acres. Half a million?? Y’all, the biggest wilderness area in the Southern Blue Ridge was the Cohutta at a little over 37-grand (up to 40-grand if you add the Big Frog just across the border in TN). The Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juans? Almost 500,000. The difference in scale was enormous. Plus, the San Juans had 13 of Colorado’s famed 14,000-foot peaks, which I’d wanted to climb ever since I’d found out about them. To sweeten the pot, Durango was only 40 minutes from Mesa Verde National Park, 5 hours from the Grand Canyon, 2.75 from Canyonlands and Moab, 2 from Telluride, 3 from the Great Sand Dunes, and only an hour from the hot springs in Pagosa. Appropriately, I began frothing at the mouth.

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            In the meantime, I moved back to my parent’s place in North Georgia to gear up for what I was certain would be an exquisite next chapter of adulthood. If I got the leadership position, I could begin as early as March, which would limit my time pretending I wasn’t a college graduate living at home again.

            Silly Timo.

            I didn’t get the leadership position.

            Admittedly I was a bit hurt, I mean, why wouldn’t they take a gamble on someone with no leadership or trailwork experience? RUDE.

            I guess zipline guide, camp counselor and Outward-Bound participant weren’t exactly confidence inspiring resume highlights. But, they did offer me a position to join as a crew member for a 26-week program starting June first. I felt a little crushed by the leadership rub, but there was no way I was staying at home. Seeing no realistic alternative, I made the best of it and accepted. That was late February 2015.

            I have a confession to make, I’m not a very patient man.

            I knew that if I sat on my butt for four months, my motivation would be shot, and I wouldn’t have the strength to marshal it back. So, I adjusted. I’m not super with money, but I knew enough to save, and because of graduation, I had received a bit of a bonus from family members that I hadn’t used. Armed with my wilderness certification, a little cash, and facing down the possibility of a demanding summer working for Conservation Corp, I made a plan to stay in shape.

            I was highly motivated in this department. While in Asheville, I’d completed hiking all the peaks in North Carolina and Tennessee that broke 6,000 feet. I was also 11 wilderness hikes into a 12-wilderness hike challenge called the Dirty Dozen, created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. More ambitiously, I had done a 50 mile, 4-day loop of the AT and Bartram Long trails with my friend David Greene, and that previous winter had done a demanding three-day trek in the snow, through the northern section of the Great Smokey’s. I was seasoned, but how could I keep the physical activity up? Well, Georgia had 78.6 miles of the Appalachian Trail…ok then.

            In order to keep it interesting, I had my dad drop me off on the North Carolina side, I’d then hike south into Georgia, ending at the southern terminus in about a week. With all side trails and approach trails counted, the total mileage was more like 97 and change. So, one morning, my dad drove me out to the North Carolina side and dropped me off at the Chunky Gal approach trail, a voluptuous stretch of path that let me know right away how demanding this adventure would be. A week later, as I lay half-collapsed on a sunny rock at Amicalola Falls, with every single muscle screaming for mercy, I thought about the things that my week in the woods had taught me.

            1. You can never have enough moleskin for blisters

            2. Make sure your tent is WATERPROOF

            3. Stretch every day, make it a habit

           4. Trail people are weird, but ‘weird’ is more of a spectrum than a blanket statement: good weird, weird-weird, bad weird etc.

            5. BUY A SLEEPING PAD

            6. Clear sticks from underneath where you set up your tent

            7. Softshell tortillas are cheap and take up no space in a backpack

            8. Trail-runners and ultra-light hikers make everyone else feel bad about themselves

            9. Trekking poles=knee savers

            10. North Georgia has a surprising amount of what I would consider to be wild places

            11. Your nostrils give up around day 3, after that, you don’t smell so bad anymore

            12. Dry wet clothing on the outside of your backpack, especially socks

            13. ALL SMELLY ITEMS NEED TO BE IN A BEAR HANG OR BEAR BOX

            14. Every meal is DELICIOUS

            15. Even though my body hurt, I woke up every day with a smile. The outdoors were my slice of Nirvana.

            That adventure and subsequent hikes took me to the tail end of March, but I still had time. One night, I took out the maps, got the computer, and began to plan a road trip. I’d been across the country a couple of times, but they were usually pretty fast trips with a set destination and time frame in mind. With two months to kill and my money calculator telling me I’d have just enough to limp back into Durango at the end of it, I decided to go big. As I suspected, the planning stage took some time because the undertaking was immense, but things came together, and on April 13, I knew it was time to go.

            So, after a tearful goodbye with my mama, and on a rainy North Georgia morning, I packed up the Subaru and headed out into the world. Timo had been released.

            I decided to divide the cross-country drive into three sections. There was so much to see and do that I had to break it up, or it would all blur together. Seeing as I was on a tight budget, a lot of the drive would involve hopscotching between locations that had people with whom I could stay. It also meant that certain parts of the trip looked completely schizophrenic on the map. Regardless, I was ready.

            The start of the trip could’ve had some better weather, but since the rain and fog had socked in everything east of the Mississippi, I had to make do. Three hours and a little extra after I started, I found myself in the cold gray woods of Southwestern Tennessee. SW TN is moonshine country, lots of little hollers tucked up in the folds of the hills where you don’t venture unless it’s very clearly marked public land. It’s one of those regions where you might hear the dueling banjos start to play, and if you get that reference, you may understand how I felt in the moment. (Dueling Banjos).

            I had to come this way because I had one wilderness left to hike before I completed the Dirty Dozen Hiking Challenge and Big Frog Wilderness was one I’d never been to. All in all, it was a cold, wet hike, but it reminded me about some of the things I’d be leaving behind in the Southeast: the humidity, the sound of leaves underfoot, the roaring creeks and moss, and the insane biological diversity of the region. In fact, according to the USNP website, the Smokies and the surrounding mountains may have somewhere between 80,000-100,000 individual species within them, which is bananas! It’s a part of the world that is brimming with biological life, a naturalist’s paradise.

           I finished the hike in good time, no views to speak of on account of the weather, but no run-ins with moonshiners either, so we’ll call it a win. The last part of the day I spent driving towards Asheville NC, to put a final lid on my history there.

            In many ways, the city and the surrounding environs belong out west. The outdoor recreation opportunities, fairly progressive mindset, and craft beer craze would put it right at home along the Colorado Front Range, or the Pacific Northwest. People were very proud of the weird things that made the town hum. At one point, it was called a ‘cesspool of sin’ by conservative North Carolina senator James Forrester, and those Blue Ridge hippies just turned it around and made it an unofficial slogan. I loved its connection to the outdoors and the mentality it fostered but, for me, after a total of five years there, the town had become small.

            When you first move to an area as beautiful as Asheville, you fall under its spell. When the spell wears off, you notice small things that bug you, and eventually, those small things become too large to ignore. But I owed it one last visit, this time as a tourist, to rekindle the magic that it had given me when I first arrived.

            After a night sipping beer at Wicked Weed and reconnecting with friends, I ended up spending the night at my friend Steven Whites’ house. He was a direct connection to my college years and we had an absolute blast recalling all the ridiculous episodes in that four-year series. It was a night that did exactly what it was supposed to: remind me of the good times.

            The following day, I got a quick reminder of what I was escaping…

            Another friend I’d known had recently overdosed. They’d woken up 8 hours later, after having collapsed on top of their arm. The blood hadn’t been able to flow to the arm so it was essentially a dead appendage, and their kidneys had failed, trying to keep the rest of the body working. In order to save the arm, doctors had to cut out dead tissue, and graft a chunk of skin and tissue from the leg back onto the arm. I went to go see them in the recovery center, and while their attitude was as bright and cheery as I’d ever seen, to be with them really hit home because I had partied HARD with them in college. Were it not for a handful of different choices, friends, and circumstances, I could’ve been in their situation, or worse.

            I’m sure people have all sorts of theories on happiness and success, but mine have always centered on geography and location. After moving so much as a child, I STRONGLY feel there is a time limit on the places you live. Once you exceed your time limit, bad things tend to happen, and if you go past it too far, there is no reset button. At the end of the day, you need to have that honest conversation with yourself, is this still working for me? I knew in my heart that going west was the best move for me, and in a strange way, seeing my friend in their condition helped validate it. After some heartfelt goodbyes and a few “see you arounds”, I set out for my next stop, Boone, NC.

            My time in Boone was brief, but just long enough to reconnect with Chloe, an old study abroad friend I’d met in New Zealand. She is/was/will always be a wonderful person, and although she wasn’t at her place when I arrived, there was a key for me, a fully made bed and a note that said “So excited to see you! Help yourself to anything, mi casa es su casa! You can use the IPad (wifi on the fridge) or take a snooze on the bed. See you tonight!”

            It was only a small, simple note, but the effect on me was profound.

            The drive from Asheville to Boone was only three hours, but from here on out, it was all unfamiliar. I had left the last vestiges of my world behind and was into uncharted lands. To have that beautiful note, open and ready to be smiled upon, constituted a precious moment for me. I knew I was welcome, and there is no finer feeling.

With a big smile, I fell right asleep. That evening, Chloe, her friends, and I went out, played some pool at Appalachian Mountain Brewery, listened to some live southern rock, had a great conversation, and turned in. When the morning came I was off again, to more uncharted territory, content with how the adventure was shaping up.

            The drive down into Tennessee was interesting because it was new! My years in Asheville had me chasing mountains all over the place, and every time I hit a new summit or traveled on a new road, a new piece of my mental puzzle fill in. For RPG gamers, this should sound familiar, your map is a fog until you explore it. Once explored, the knowledge stays with your character, and they can easily navigate that part of the game world. I was just filling in my map. I felt I knew the Southern Blue Ridge better than many of my college friends because I’d stood on top of most of it, and it gave me a strong sense of place. New roads added to that understanding.

            The Appalachian Trail crossed the road I was descending, and when I pulled over to take a photo of the sign, I found a thru-hiker taking a break on the shore of Watauga Lake. Recalling my week on the trail in North Georgia and how hungry I had been, I made sure to throw as much food as I could at him…which was probably very startling at first. I don’t think I even introduced myself before hurling instant ramen at the poor guy. But, once the initial fright subsided, he gratefully accepted and I offered to haul some of his trash out for him. Leave no trace! After a couple of quick words of encouragement, I was off and he was packing up to head out again.

             My destination for the evening was Bloomington, Indiana, via a stop at Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. One of my best friends growing up, Chris Schreiber, lived in Bloomington, and I hadn’t seen him in a while. I just had to get there first. From Boone to Bloomington (sounds like the name of a country album) and was also a total of 8 hours, my longest driving segment yet. After blasting through Kentucky coal country and down towards Lexington, the clouds that had lingered for the last three days finally parted, and I saw a brilliant sunset over the horse pastures of Northern Kentucky. By the time I got to Bloomington, it was late, and I was tired, but Chris helped me grab my stuff, set me up on a bed, and I was out almost immediately.

             Bloomington is like a mini Asheville, a college town in its own right and far more personable and friendly than I had anticipated. We spent the following day walking around and exploring the kooky ins and outs that really only exist in the forgotten corners of college towns. In the evening, we had dinner with some of his friends from the University of Indiana, one of whom worked in the anatomy department. They were working on dissecting cadavers and had been for the majority of their semester. When we expressed interest in what they were doing, they offered to let us see some dead people, so, naturally, we agreed.

            The next morning, I was standing with Chris in a whitewashed room with a couple of corpses on some metal tables. At first, it didn’t seem real because the heads had been removed, and most of the guts scooped out. What was left were the circulatory and musculoskeletal systems. Fighting the urge to pretend I was on some procedural crime drama, I watched with fascination as the students explained what they were doing. Their explanations and the way the students presented the information was so clinical that I forgot for a moment that these used to be people. That naiveté came crashing down when one of the students offered to show me something cool and pushed down on some of the veins and arteries near the wrist. Almost immediately the fingers of the cadaver began to curl in slowly like they were trying to grab something. Seeing the fingers move, seemingly independently, was enough to remind me that this was all very, very real. There was only one thought bouncing around in my head, but it wasn’t shock or horror as I had expected. All I could think was, “Oh my god, how cool is this???”  

            Admittedly, it was nice to breathe the fresh air again after being in a room that smelled like formaldehyde for a good half an hour. After that unique experience, we grabbed a last lunch together on the patio of a downtown establishment. Then, I parted ways with Chris and got into the Subaru, bound for the next destination, Chicago.

            The southern part of Indiana around Bloomington had been hilly, and at least mildly interesting. Northern Indiana was flat. That’s it, just flat. While it was only a four-hour drive to Chi-town from Bloomington it felt at least twice as long, and I was thrilled to get towards the metro area and finally have some things to stare at.

            The lady I was to stay with in Chicago, was named Kate. I had met her in the Wilderness First Responder class I’d taken and we’d learned how to create traction splints together. Unfortunately, the last time I’d seen her was a little embarrassing for me.

            I’d invited her and about six friends over to my place in Asheville to celebrate the completion of our WFR certification and to have a couple of drinks. Well, it had snowed that evening and we all got this brilliant idea to go sledding. Mind you this was fresh snow on top of nothing, there was no base layer, nothing had settled, just a few inches of white on cold hard ground, or in my case asphalt.

            To make things interesting, I had decided to launch my little plastic sled in front of me and was then going to dive on top of it and slide down this side road in flawless fashion. I launched the sled according to my brilliant plan but was a little overenthusiastic about the dive and ended up overshooting my landing zone. I crashed into the snow, chin first, and sunk right through to the asphalt underneath. What I had created for myself in medical speak was called an avulsion, or a ‘flapper’ in laymen’s terms. A part of my chin skin was just kind of flapping about, a deep cut separating its previous bond with the rest of my face.

Schitts Creek No GIF by CBC

            Initially, I was mortified, but since everyone else was pretty tipsy I managed to retreat back to the house and look at the damage without arousing too much suspicion. Being a newly certified wilderness first responder and all-around excellent decision-maker, I decided to skip the hospital visit and fix it myself. So, I put a bandage clumsily over the wound, and then, realizing I didn’t have any medical adhesive, used an excessive amount of Blue Painter’s tape to cinch everything down. With the mission seemingly accomplished, I went to sleep. Needless to say, when I did finally go to the doctor the next day, everyone in the hospital was thoroughly disappointed in me.

nailed it the office GIF

            The point is that Kate had seen the whole thing unfold. I had conveniently forgotten about this episode until I was driving towards her apartment in Chicago and then promptly realized that I might need to craft a better impression of myself. Maybe by some miracle, she had forgotten too…either way, the bar was set pretty low.

            After what seemed like years of trying to find street parking, I finally stopped the Subaru and made it to the apartment. She and her boyfriend were just west of downtown in a “hip” neighborhood with a great atmosphere. Turns out, she did remember my night of idiocy because unlike my friends and me, she hadn’t been drinking. Ten points to Timo.

            After a solid round of laughing at my expense, we took off walking into the city. Her boyfriend was working at the time, so we picked up one of her friends and strolled through the city towards the downtown area. At this point, the light of the day was fading, but we soldiered on and made it all the way to the shore of Lake Michigan. There, I got to stare at the famous Chicago skyline. The Hancock tower was glowing ominously, and the lights of the city were bouncing off the fairly violent surf, it had a real Dark Knight kinda vibe going on. Having made it this far in my journey, I figured it was time for a celebration, so I ran into Lake Michigan…and then ran right the f_8C* back out. It was only April, and that lake is COLD.

            The city was such a contrast from my mountain living for the past few years that I really enjoyed being out amongst people. There’s obviously a huge difference between visiting a city and living there, but I liked the way Chicago presented itself to me. Once we had retreated back to the apartment and met up with Kate’s boyfriend, we all set off to go see What We Do in the Shadows, a vampire mockumentary courtesy of soon to be super famous director Taika Waititi, that had me in stitches from the opening scene right up to the end. The movie was showing at the Logan Theater, a great older venue built in 1915 and chock full of hipsters. The building and atmosphere were impressive, and perhaps the most exciting part for me was the commute to it via the local elevated train line. After living in the South, where public transportation is more of a joke than an alternate mode of travel, it was nice to be able to get to somewhere via train.

           The following day Kate took me to the ‘bean’. It’s art, it’s weird, and it’s in Chicago, tell your friends? Actually, check this story out, apparently, the history of the statue and its wackadoodle creator is an adventure in its own right, enjoy.

After waltzing through downtown, Kate and I were picked up by her boyfriend and taken out to Lagunitas Brewing near the shore of Lake Michigan and just south of the main parts of downtown. Originally, the Brewing company was based out of Petaluma, California but the state had been in a crippling drought since 2011, and by 2015 it hadn’t gotten better. Fearing that the conditions would continue to impact production, and since beer production is so water-heavy, the company opened a second location in Chicago. With Lake Michigan so close by and with a huge beer drinking population available in the immediate area, it seemed like a good move.

            We took a brewery tour, and the facilities were enormous, set up in a gigantic old warehouse. Our tour guide’s official title was Raconteur, and he had what can only be described as a…unique accent. He had a microphone, which he held so close to his face that every time he opened his mouth I thought he was going to eat and/or make out with it. When he said Chicago, he would swallow the back half of the word until all that was left were some strange gurgling sounds. Phonetically, what we heard sounded like “Shi-Kawwwhrghhhlo…” I guess he kind of liked us though, because, after the tour, he took us back to an employee part of the brewery and loaded us up with a 24 case of beer from his personal fridge, and sent us out into the world. Thanks guy.

            After a final night in the windy city, spent enjoying our beer and trading stories, I said another round of farewells and headed out towards the great plains. The next phase would take me across the mighty Mississip, following the way of the ancient covered wagons during that first Manifest Destiny. Yeehaw!

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.