The Odessa–Fern Lake circuit in Rocky Mountain National Park is a trail-lover’s trail. It links a half-dozen alpine trout ponds with 18 miles of well crafted paths and crazily diverse terrain: rocky ice ledges at 11,000 feet to soft elk meadows at under 9,000. I’m at a loss trying to take it all in: yellow aspen bling-bling peppers steep conifer carpets; greenback cutthroats flicker under glass; dawns, dusks, dawns; gold medallion leaves raining down and underfoot… You get the picture. A three-day solo walkabout, clockwise from the Bear Lake trailhead. Two-mile-high October-cusp air is crisp and cold and the weather is dry enough not to have to use a tent fly. Temperatures range from blustery sun and seventy to yak-wool cool in the mornings, so both warm clothes and hats and sun protection are required.
As I settle into my heavy stride, or as I dangle my feet above another lake or stream, there are thoughts of writing the “Side-of-the-Trail, Breath-Catchin’ Blues,” a part deux, if you will, to “Good Hiking” (my one-hit wonder from the summer of ’00).
Sumpin’ ’bout dem mashed-toe, knee-poppin’, thirty-three-somethin’ blues, from my red-and-brown (and, um, gray-peppered) whiskers to the bottom of my old firefightin’ shoes. But the song doesn’t come. Instead a bull elk in yonder grass, fifty feet from my tent door, distracts me with his bugling and I’m lost again.
Of course, hiking out and coming down is always a shocker, but you have to do it. A wise man once said, you cannot stay on the mountain forever. Of course, you don’t want a situation where you get stuck on the mountain… If you’re not the most experienced hiker, ensure you invest in a tour guide. The transition from wilderness to humanity however, is especially on a fall Sunday afternoon in Estes Park during the 2006 Elk Festival. There is an elk calling contest, a wolf-petting area, and oil-dipped turkey legs. There are T-Shirt shops named Moosely T’s and Rocky Mountain Tops. There is a Dairy Queen, a Starbucks, and more people wearing black leather chaps than I’ve ever seen in one place, with hoardes of Denver biker clubs prowling the crowded streets.
I’m happy to get behind the wheel again, this time on the Peak to Peak Highway, south along the mountains to Nederland, where Buddhist prayer flags, rice wine, and a plate of steamed momos and jalapeño chutney greets me in the Kathmandu Restaurant.
Then I ride the last of the sunset back down to the plains. Yes, the aspen-splashed Continental Divide just behind the Hogback is a constant reminder of why, after traveling the world, we came to Colorado.