“Is that a road, or a trail?”
“Ah, we’ll see,” says the Jeep driver, Moe. He shifts the gear into four-wheel drive and sets off down a trench. The car is sideways now. The brush from the trees is rubbing both sides of the car. I quickly move my face from the window before getting accosted by bristles. The music blasts for no one but us and nature. It is unclear exactly where we are; it’s somewhere in the Rocky Mountains about two hours from Colorado Springs. The GPS stopped working an hour ago. Moe consults the compass instead that is pinned to his gear module.
The JEEP seems to be handling this off-road challenge just fine. I know to worry if Moe furrows his brow for longer than ten seconds. The furrowed brow means he is figuring it out; longer than that, and we might be in some trouble.
The reason we are driving through the brush at this current moment is because we are looking for a spectacular view. The only way to find one of the many in these mountains is to one, hike; or two, get off the main roads and find it for yourself. The clouds are beginning to condense, making the cheery green mountains turn to black darkness signaling that nightfall is drastically approaching. Still, the mission is set, and the JEEP crawls on. All along the way now are pull-offs for camping. They are clear by the little patch of dirt and rock rings signaling a campfire was once here. All these spots are densely covered beneath the trees, and they may be nice for some; but as I said previously, our mission is a site with a view.
The sun drops fast in the mountains, and the dirt road seems to condense before my eyes. The trees press in closer still. After an unidentifiable amount of time, some light shines through the darkness. Moe jerks the car violently towards it. This road trundles on to… what? A dead-end or a victorious view? Are we going to be able to turn around? These are the questions crashing through my brain as the car rocks back and forth, carrying us forward to...an opening. The trees disperse to reveal a drop-off and a view right in front of Pike’s Peak. Front and center, surrounded by breathtaking peaks and ridges. A small toy car amidst giants.
“Yup, this is the spot,” Moe says decisively. He rolls the car into an opportune location to see the 360-degree amazing view.
Out there, exposed, and precariously balanced atop our peak, we stand and take it all in. But there is no time for a reprieve. The sun is a ticking clock, and it is quickly setting. We set out to collect firewood. It had clearly rained here earlier because all the wood we find is soaking wet. “Finally,” I think to myself, “something I can contribute to the trip.”
I have experience lighting fires with wet wood and the only advice I can give anyone in this predicament is PATIENCE.
There is always a false start, you get the fire going, it’s burning all chipper...and then, it nearly goes out. This is because your first burn becomes your coals. It is important to not let it go out. The next surprising fact about making a fire for beginners is it needs a lot of air to keep going. This is why it usually goes out, people assume it needs more fuel to burn. No, it needs to breathe. You must tire yourself out fanning those flames into existence. You must not quit or you will have to start all over again. No matter how many times I make a fire, it never fails to surprise and frustrate me. With our combined effort, however, we got it started with the soaked wood. Sitting there, drained but rather pleased with ourselves, we smoked and watched the flames dance in the night. This is RAMPART RANGE.
It’s easy to naturally rise with the sun when you are camping. So, at a time way earlier than I would dream possible for my lazy soul, I woke up with the sun peaking over the ridge-line of the mountains. The Bialetti hissed out the morning coffee, then we set out for Devil’s Point. According to Alltrails.com, it was originally used as a lookout tower for forest fires. It is a hike that takes you into the sky, you can see 100 miles in every direction. Why it is called Devil’s Point is beyond me. It made me want to go even more because of the dichotomy of the ominous title paired with a place of beauty. The hike up felt like a journey, challenging at points and scenic in others. It winds and wraps and you wonder if you are ever going to get to your destination. There were strong winds during our climb and the ominous promise of rain that I was beginning to expect every afternoon in a Colorado summer. Finally, the winded breathing of two heavy smokers settled, we reached the top of a steep staircase that leads to a lookout cottage in the sky. Chipmunks darted along the rocks as we breathed in the high altitude and looked out at the world and its vastness. Mountain, rolling hills and clouds floating lower than we stood in the sky surrounded us. I imagined what it must feel like to be a fire patrol, alone in this massive expanse. It felt both overwhelming and beautiful beyond belief. After a few harsh raindrops hit my cheek, I knew it was time to descend. Cold mountain rain with no coverage on a rocky peak? No thanks. We started back down the trails, telling people along the way not to quit, that the view was worth it at the top. Hoping secretly that they would get there before a thunderstorm.
Moe and I were back in the JEEP and his phone was out, surveying the maps of the tiny roads we were foraging through in these colossal mountains. This time, as Moe shifted gears and we sped off, I don’t think he had a destination in mind. He was simply driving, hoping something would inspire him to jerk the wheel onto another weaving terrain. The trails snaked through the gashes that created their existence. Being in the mountains, you start to forget that there is anything else in the world that exists outside of them. They are so formidable and you can go on driving for days and days without a break in the ridge-line. The rest of the world feels like a myth; the mountains, your calling. I’m sure it got irritating, me gasping every once in a while because of a beautiful cliff-side, or rock defying gravity touching the clouds, but every new mile there was a new visually breathtaking wonder. Without a goal as to where to camp but no desire to return to reality, Moe stopped into a small lodge-like diner. These places you are happy to find, and you wonder how they got there, they are so far removed from civilization. But you are happy to have found them and very happy that they are there. We had some burritos and bought a pack of beer for the next campsite that we did not know yet. Taking a random turn after the third attempt to follow a trail on Google maps and it turned out to be a private or gated off road in reality. I could see Moe’s irritation. So when he turned off to look at a Park Map I knew we would need to find something promising, or else turn back. And we NEVER turned back, that was the rule.
“I don’t like going back or turning around. We only go forward,” Moe said.
A sound principle I like to live by in life, so why not in adventuring tactics too? As I stood in front of the map, an old limping man in a park ranger hat approached me. “I have some maps inside too if you need them,” he spoke.
“Sure that would be nice,” I said.
“Where ya’all heading?” he asked.
“Just trying to find a good place to camp for the night.”
The park ranger gave us some verbal descriptions of nearby roads to take up into the park to find campsites. It is always obscure, these types of directions, but luckily, there were not many roads to choose from. So when the Park Ranger says, make a left at the blue mailbox, and there is only one blue mailbox for the next 20 miles, you are pretty safe in making the right turn off.
Tiredly, we pulled off into a campsite that overlooked forest of black charred trees and expansive valleys.
“Be careful, there is a moose and her baby around. There have also been some bear sightings.”
Torn between wanting to see these amazing animals and wanting to give them their space, I prepared the Bialetti, and we had ourselves an afternoon coffee before pressing on. This was not the spot, there were more sites up the road.
As we drove a lightning bolt hit the mountains in front of us. It was sharp, clear and uncomfortably close. We were in the valley, surrounded by the mountains. We were sitting ducks, and the lighting was all around us. Moe parked the JEEP by a Park Sign and we waited, hoping for the storm to pass and not strike the car. The rain was torrential, there was no way to see a thing except for the lightning when it appeared to take over the skies. We waited for what felt like a long time. Eventually, the weather began to let up. Moe turned on the ignition and drove the JEEP through the mud up to the high point on the range. When he parked and got out of the JEEP there was the clearest, most vibrant rainbow I have ever seen. And there were two of them besides one another. They touched down, stretching to the Earth right before us. My childhood training asked, “Where’s the pot of gold?” It was a joke, but the answer could not have been more obvious: it was the moment of beauty that was surrounding us. The eeriness of a dull gray sky after a storm, the bright colors of a rainbow, and a desert sparkling from the wetness. Wet wood, time to start a fire. We were pros at this point, and we got it started easily despite the wet woods and high winds. We sat around that blazing fire and drank those beers, revealing in our unexpected day.
This is PIKES PEAK NATIONAL FOREST.
The last day of our off-roading journey was a case of not wanting to leave. Moe said there were some old train tunnels through the mountains we could go and find. This entire trip I was enjoying not being in the driver’s seat. So I said, “Let’s go!” and away we roared. We came upon a tunnel that only fit one car at a time and had very limited visibility. Quickly, Moe drove his JEEP into the tunnel and jumped out. This is GOLD CAMP RD.
“Quick, take my picture!” He threw me his phone and jumped onto the hood of the car. What a maniac. But these things are commonplace when there is never anyone around. It’s a test of fate because usually without fail that is the one time someone comes bumbling along. But we were lucky, the photo-shoot was rushed yet successful. On we go, without a break in stride. Now we are farther into the mountain, and the paths no longer match what is being shown on the map. They have grown in, the forest has taken the land back, our roads do not exist. We keep on going, with the intention of seeing where it will come out. But the worry now is, will we run out of gas?
This road was supposed to come out on the other side of the mountain. Meaning there would be a town we could refuel in. Now, however, there was nothing but mountains before us, and no sign there would be a town...anywhere. We continued on trepidatiously, Moe getting very quiet, on a quarter tank of gas. I knew better than to speak at this point. I could feel the tension in the car. What was the right decision? Keep on and run out of gas, or turn around while we still had the chance? I could see Moe grappling with this choice as we inched forward on the slick muddy roads.
Then we hit a fork in the road. Glancing at the map, we recognized none of the numbers on the signs. Truly and definitely lost. I thought that there would be more contemplating but abruptly, Moe turned us back the way we came without ceremony. You have to know when you are beat. Moe took the defeat with humility. It didn’t seem to phase him. Instead, he was intent on getting to the closest gas station. Out of the mountains and crashing back onto a colorless highway filled with cars I felt like I had literally just crash-landed from outer space. The majesty was gone like a spell being lifted. And the JEEP, a crucial character to this plot, seamlessly immersed itself into the traffic. Speeding us to a Chevron like a hungry lion. The trip was over, and we were back to rushing to the hostel where we worked.
Where no doubt some drama was playing out, where something needed to be cleaned, the car would need to be unpacked, there was always something new to do. But the serenity of nature and those awe-inspiring mountains remained in my mind like a slow melodious hummmm that made all the noise and chatter of the real world dialed down. I was thinking of the humm of the motor and it climbing into the peaks and ridges that I could now look upon like a distant dream. They were visible from every spot in Colorado Springs, and now I knew what it meant to be in them. Lost and vulnerable in them. They were transporting when near and from afar. A constant reminder of the wild as we drove down the highway tired and in need of sleep. We were both already talking about how we needed a shower and a home-cooked meal. When we pulled in, our co-workers asked us how it was. We didn’t say much, “Amazing, incredible, breathtaking;” the usual adjectives that describe beauty but fail to capture it. I think when they saw how covered in mud and dirt the car, our belongings and we ourselves were, they understood that we had just returned from a place of the wild.
“That was fun,” I said lamely to Moe.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “We should go again sometime.”
over & out. ANgr