The pick-up truck bounces awkwardly as we maneuver down the rocky, snow-covered jeep road. It's a Wednesday afternoon and after two straight days of clinics learning about skis and boots, where reps spoke of thermo-lined-this, carbon-reinforced-that and how their product is unquestionably better than the competitors…well, I need an escape into something a bit more organic. I ask Elaine if she is up for an adventure, and of course she is. We've got a couple hours to burn until darkness, and there is a dashed line I've been eying on the map since I first saw it back in July, something I had to check out before it got socked in for winter.
The mangled road of dirt continues on past deep mud ponds, through Aspens whose leaves have all now dropped to the ground and large patches of glorious white snow. We follow a set of tire tracks, most likely left by hunters. It's a little risky hiking in this area this time of year, as it's neither Wilderness, nor protected, meaning it's fair game for the men with guns. Fortunately Elaine has worn an orange shirt, so unless the hunter is drunk, blind or both, we should be OK.
We get to the trailhead and immediately find that there isn't one. More like a large wooden fence to hop and a stream to ford before an ancient track, barely indented into the sage and frosted-over grass appears. A crude, hand-painted sign gives it away: "Motor Vehicles Prohibited Beyond This Point – U.S. Forest Service." This is our path.
The trails slices through a valley surrounded by low hills, rock pinnacles and endless forest. I give a yelp and my sound reverberates through the land, piercing, haunting. This land has that haunted feeling of tragedy. It's inexplicable unless you have spent a lot of time in the woods – certain places have that feel. Perhaps an unsuccessful mining operation happened here, maybe somebody got lost and died, or maybe it's deeper than that…a history of episodes that happened throughout time…animal hardships, dating back to the ice ages, to early man, to a wilder time.
The trail begins to slant upward and we emerge into the forest. Our breathing increases with the hills steepness…this trail has no switchbacks. And the forest…the smells, the strongest, most pleasant pine odor I have experienced in years. Mixed with the cold air, our steaming breathe, the moist dirt and the patches of snow…the pine accentuates and delights, filling the nostrils and energizing the soul. Up, up, up we go through the forest, past little creeks, naked aspen groves and thick needled trees.
We're following two tracks, massive tracks, that of two humans with feet in the teens-realm size. We joke that we're following bigfoot, and of course the conversation turns to the question of if bigfoot is real. You can't help but be in the woods and wonder about such things, and it brings a quivver and a leap to the stomach to think that maybe, just maybe, there are creatures living in the hills who have escaped the microscope of the scientist, the cataloging of the professional biologist, the sighting of the common man or woman. It seems impossible in this day and age, but I want to believe, so I do.
We emerge into a large, slanted valley and I can't help but analyze it for backcountry skiing worthiness. When you are a skier and an explorer that's what you do in the fall…poke around for new lines, new delights in the forest. The trail has all but disappeared now, taken back by the land. We pick our way through thinned tree groves and more meadows, always up, towards timberline and the hulking, rounded and snow-covered mountain in front of us.
A few more steps and we are up there, on the tundra, the timberline mark into a world of wind, exposure and thin air. We've been climbing for an hour plus and the light grows dimmer, more orange. There is a lot more to do…we've only come a bit above timberline and there is a whole mountain to ascend, but not on this day. An adventure left for another day, perhaps this winter but more likely next spring or summer when the snows melt and the land turns back into sea of wildflowers – columbines, paintbrush, forget-me-nots – but that is a long way away, a winter away, and for this I am glad.
It's time to turn around, back home to the truck. This is not an epic excursion into the wilds, a soul-searching hike of the entire Appalachian Trail or a journey into the depths of the Himalayas. Nope, this is more like Walden…a walk into the woods followed by a foray back into our small town to grab some milk and cookie dough. A balance between the wild and the civilized. Elaine and I talk often about adventures to cross that realm into the more wild, and I have no doubts that someday we will, but not now.
We pick our way down the mountain, our trusty dog Stella at our side. She explores smells here and there, dropping to the creek for a sip of icy water and looping back around again. The dog is that link between the civilized and the wild, the wolf lured to the fire, but not totally transformed yet. It smells, it hears, and you realize that there is a whole world of wild that humans have lost, sucked out of us by generations of an easier, more cerebral life.
As is always the case on a hike, the descent allows for thinking, for conversation. For a couple, these are wonderful moments. We talk about various things and just enjoy each others company in this quiet place. The moon rises to the east, nearly full, though I know not whether it is waxing or waning…too many hours spent indoors in the tech room. The sky turns orange on the horizon, the woods grow thicker. It's time to head home.
As we reach the bottom, near the little creek, we spot something black 100 yards away. Elaine, in wonder, asks if that is a black bear, and then quickly corrects herself…"no, it's a moose." She is correct. A buck, big antlers and all, grazing on the fall grass. Stella comes closer to us and is peering the opposite direction, which is a dead give-away. Just fifty yards away, a mother moose and two babies. It's a privilege and a treasure to see this, but moose are not chipmunks. Stories of moose charging people abound, so we quickly head away from the scene so as not to disturb them. Stella is one smart dog – she sticks right by our side. She is no Buck, and this is not "Call of the Wild."
We amble on, filled with wonder of the world, invigorated by the smells and feelings of the woods, the mountains. Elaine breathes out, steam in the cold air, and smiles. A final foray into a land lying in wait before the snows blanket it for seven months. We hop back into the pick-up truck, dive into a loaf of fresh baked bread in the front seat and bounce down the road, headlights piercing the cold, late-fall night.