“There’s a couple of spots right in front of the trailhead,” the campground host said as she pointed in the general direction of the trail. “You can park there or up by the road out here and I won’t have to charge you. Park anywhere else, though, and it’ll cost you five bucks.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it,” I nodded, and headed off in the direction that she’d pointed.
“You didn’t find it?” she greeted me with incredulity after I’d circled back around to where she still stood talking to one of the campers.
“No,” I smiled meekly, hiding my own aggravation.
“Alright, the road’s going to veer to the left and start heading back this way. That’s when you need to be looking to the right because the trailhead kind of sits back a ways.” She bent her wrist to the right just in case I had trouble telling my right from my left.
“Gotcha,” I said. “Thanks again.”
After I’d circled back around yet again, however, she was standing there with her hands on her hips as if she were fixing to give me a good scolding.
“Don’t tell me you still didn’t find it,” she said in mock exasperation.
“No, I found it,” I shook my head. “It’s just that a couple of horse trailers were pulling in just as I arrived. I’ll just park up by the road.”
“Like I said, you’ll be fine up there.”
As I parked the car up by the main road the thought occurred to me to just put it back in gear and keep on going – back to Buena Vista to retrieve my stuff from the motel, and then on to Limon for the night. The fact of the matter was I was tired. My four days and three nights climbing up and down and around on the fourteeners in the vicinity had taken it out of me – that and the fact that after finishing my exploratory hike up La Plata Peak that morning I’d suddenly encountered a severe case of directional illiteracy. For the life of me I couldn’t manage to find the trailhead for one of the lesser-used routes up to the top of Mount Elbert. I’d driven up and down the road multiple times before finding anything that matched the description in my guidebook. Unfortunately, though, even after hiking part of the way into the woods I couldn’t convince myself that I’d found anything more noteworthy than a telephone line access trail. Forget it, I finally said to myself. Just head back to that campground down below and finish up with a little jaunt up above Twin Lakes.
“Now don’t you make me call out the rangers looking for you,” the campground host said as I walked past her on my way to the trailhead.
“No, no, I’ll try not to make that necessary. Thanks again!” I called out over my shoulder.
By the time I’d hiked all the way back to the trailhead there was a string of ten or so pack llamas all loaded up and ready to head out. Their three human handlers were scurrying about checking that all the loads were balanced and the cinches were tightened. A wave of skittishness shuddered through them like a gust of wind through a grove of aspen trees as I walked on past. Strange, I thought, somehow believing that llamas were much more sedate creatures than that.
“Where’re you headed?” I asked the man tending to the lead animal.
“Hope Pass,” he replied. “We’re stocking an aid station there.
“Cool,” I replied, thinking of Jack Kerouac’s description in The Dharma Bums of packing up to a remote mountain lookout to spend the winter there alone.
I sloshed around for a bit through the boggy lowlands where stream gradually transitions into lake, and then I settled into a slow and steady pace climbing up out of the valley. Occasional openings in the dense pine forest provided sweeping views of the Twin Lakes reservoir down below and the valley beyond through which I’d driven on the way up that morning. It was so, so quiet – almost eerily so – and I couldn’t help but think about the fact that I was deep in the heart of bear country. This was no well-travelled trail, after all, and I could no longer take comfort in being up above the timberline and away from any habitat in which a bear would normally like to forage. No, I was precisely where a bear would like to forage.
That’s always an interesting place to be – that physical place where bears like to forage, and that metaphorical place where ideas regarding the primacy of man are seen once again as the mere grandiose delusions that they are; that metaphorical place where comforting thoughts regarding how God will be there to keep anything bad from happening to you give way to the realization that, yes, your becoming bear food fits entirely within the grand scheme of the universe. In the past I’ve often wondered how it is that we modern beings have gotten so far removed from nature, but now I realize that we’re not. Recent headlines and just plain living have hammered home the reality that, in the time it takes for a pair of tectonic plates to slide across each other, in the time it takes a funnel cloud to dive down out of a supercell, in the time it takes for a fleeting twinge of pain to become the knowledge of disease, in the time it takes a wild animal to decide not to recede further into the depths of the forest we fall from our imagined pedestal of primacy and land back where we’ve been all along – smack dab in the middle of nature.
I take a break where a nice footbridge crosses a roaring whitewater stream, letting the sound engulf me so completely that not a shadow of my previous pondering or deliberation remains. There is only me and nature. No, there is only nature.
I watch as a cashew falls out of my cupped hand and bounces on the rocks before settling on a tiny bed of jewel-green moss. Yes, I’m aware of low-impact camping, but somehow I doubt that any chipmunk will end up going hungry waiting for cashews to appear on the trail after having enjoyed this one. I leave it and continue on up the trail. I’ve only just arrived at the intersection of the Willis Gulch and Colorado trails when I hear the sound of voices approaching from behind. I turn around to see a couple of young people tying fluorescent pink ribbons every few meters along the trail.
“What’s up?” I enquire as they make it up to where I stand watching them.
“The Leadville 100 is this weekend. We’re marking the trail,” one of them says as he peels off a few meters of ribbon and lays it across where the Willis Gulch Trail intersects with the Colorado Trail, securing it with rocks.
“Do you think everybody will see that?” he asks his partner.
“Yeah, I think so,” she says.
“We don’t want anybody taking a wrong turn!”
Wow, I’d always felt a certain sense of awe whenever I’d read about the legendary hundred mile running race. I’ve done a few traditional marathons, which were difficult enough, so the prospect of doing four times that distance – up in the mountains, no less – struck me as nearing the realm of the impossible. And yet it was always something that I’d fantasized about doing one day. Now, on one level such athletic endeavors have an element of ego about them – the ‘I am strong, I am powerful, I will prevail’ element. But there is also a spiritual element that cannot be denied – an absolute and total awareness and unification of body and mind, earth and sky. And at that perfect intersection of body and mind and earth and sky is stillness as profound as almost any I’ve ever experienced while sitting on a meditation cushion. As I turn around and head back down the trail I can’t help but think what a grand coincidence it is that my hike is coinciding even just a little bit with preparation for the event.
The llamas and their handlers are making their way up the trail now. Our meeting place is a narrow section of trail barely wide enough for one, with the forest sloping steeply down below – steep enough that a slip could have you tumbling for fifty meters or more. I step up on a rock on the uphill side to let them pass.
“Are these your llamas?” I asked the lead handler trailing a string of five as he stops to check the progress of those behind.
“No,” he says, “they belong to the woman pulling up the rear.”
“So, I hear you’re setting up an aid station for the race?”
“Yup, the Leadville 100 is this weekend.”
“Very cool!” I nod as he gets underway once more. “Good luck,” I add before settling into a more statuesque pose as the llamas, one by one, pause ever-so-briefly when they meet me and then quicken their pace to hasten past.
“So, these are your llamas?” I greet the woman pulling a string of four.
“No, they belong to the woman right behind me.”
I step off my rock and walk a little bit farther down the trail before stepping aside a couple of hundred meters down the way when I see a woman pulling a single recalcitrant llama up the trail.
“So, these are your llamas?”
“Well, this one’s not. He’s having a bad day for some reason. All it takes is one skittish animal to get a whole team of them riled up. I figured I’d best lead this one all by myself before he caused any further trouble.”
I’d only been walking another few minutes when a ruckus back up the trail had me spinning around in my tracks to see what was happening. Of course, I was thinking of bears; and even after I saw, not a bear, but a lone recalcitrant llama careening around the bend so fast that his pack-cinches came undone and the packs went flying I was still thinking of bears – bears chasing llamas, that is. Before I could worry about any bear, however, I had to worry about a llama running full-tilt straight at me on a trail only wide enough for one at a time. I hopped behind a tree and let him gallop past. Then I peered back up the trail looking for the bear that I thought must surely be in hot pursuit. Nope, no bear…, just a couple of packs lying in the trail and a question mark hovering in the air. Hmmm…, I quickly determined that I should check on the woman who’d been leading him. Bears were still not entirely out of mind, but equally plausible was that she’d taken a tumble down the hillside when the llama pulled free. And I would be the only one that knew anything had happened.
“Well, I’m glad you’re alright!” I called out to her when I saw her approaching looking none too happy about this turn of events.
“I don’t know what got into that rascal,” she scowled. “He reared up and yanked the rope right out of my hand.”
I followed her down the trail, walking faster than I had all day. This woman’s tough as nails, I thought. I couldn’t really tell how old she was, but I figured that she was closing in on sixty. She had that healthy but weathered look that people get when they’ve been outdoors most of their lives.
“Do you think he’ll stay on the trail?”
“Probably,” she sighed.
“Will he be able to survive up here on his own?”
“Well, he is a prey animal.”
Um, yeah, I thought to myself, feeling as though I could easily relate. But they did originate in the mountains of Peru, didn’t they?
“I’m more worried about him making his way out to the main road. He won’t know the first thing about staying out of the way of any traffic.”
“Yeah,” I nodded glumly.
“Will you help me catch him?”
“Oh, sure. I assumed you’d need a hand.”
“My name’s Donna, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you Donna. I’m Mark.”
We walked back down the mountain mostly in silence. Donna didn’t seem like a very talkative person, at least not at the present time anyway, and I didn’t want to annoy her with a bunch of questions – like how the heck you catch a llama running free up in the mountains! I did learn, however, that she was a teacher and exercise physiology researcher who’d kind of fallen into raising llamas by accident – an accident that grew into a packing operation over the years. We did have a nice conversation, though, about distance running, the Leadville 100, the new “barefoot running” phenomenon, and Born to Run – a book about ultra-marathoning and the Tarahumara Indians, among other things. It wasn’t until we’d almost gotten back down to the boggy section of the trail that we saw the llama once again, standing beside a puddle of water with a shaft of sunlight falling across his vigilant eyes. He looked kind of pitiful standing there – thirsty, tired, lonely, with a saddle strap dangling down from his midsection.
“What’s his name?”
“I don’t know,” Donna said, “Like I said, he’s not mine.”
“So, how’re we going to catch him?” I figured that wasn’t too stupid of a question.
“Well, if I can sneak around to the other side of him we can probably corral him between us. If he stays on the trail – that is. If he tries to run by you just hold out your arms. They’re very visually sensitive that way.”
“Okay.” This was beginning to seem more daunting than I’d thought – not that I’d really thought very much at all about how we were going to track down and catch a wayward llama.
“Alright, you stay here.”
I stayed put while Donna slowly made her way down the trail and off into the woods where she hoped to sneak around to the other side of our quarry. Of course, the llama was too smart for that and simply trotted off down the trail. Hmmm. We walked on in silence.
“Hey, is that your llama back there?” A young couple asked as they made their way up the trail toward us.
“Well, he’s not my llama,” Donna said, “but he is in my care.”
“Do you need some help catching him?”
“I’d love some help,” Donna replied. She was beginning to sound weary.
We next spied the llama standing in the middle of the gravel road almost all the way back at the trailhead. We were running out of room to catch him before driving him back out to the road – the prospect that Donna most feared.
“Okay, how about you pick your way through the woods and get on the other side of him,” Donna said to the young man. “When you make it to the other side I’ll start approaching him. If I get him, great, but if I miss him, you all will be in position to block him from getting away.”
And so we waited, quietly, as Jason made his way stealthily through the dense woods. The llama looked confused. He looked at us and then off into the woods and then back at us and then off into the woods. Jason moved quickly, though, and in no time at all he was on the other side. The llama started toward us when he saw Jason appear in the road, but then he started back as Donna approached. He was like a base-runner caught in a rundown in a baseball game. Donna reached for the rope but missed and now the llama was running toward Lisa and me. We held our arms out and blocked the road as best we could. The llama turned to go the other way but by now Donna was in position to grab at the rope a second time. This time she got it! I closed in quickly before the llama could pull away and added my weight to the end of the rope. Success!
Smiling with satisfaction that the adventure had ended well, Donna and I said thank you and goodbye to Lisa and Jason and continued with our wayward friend back to the trailhead.
“Can I borrow your services for just a little bit longer?” Donna turned to me. “I’d really appreciate it if you could wait with this guy while I go back up to the road to get the trailer.”
“Sure, I’d love to.”
“Thank you. And to show my appreciation I’d like to have you down to our base camp for a beer and a complimentary Leadville 100 t-shirt.”
And so the llama and I got to know each other just a little bit better as we waited by the side of the gravel road – him tied to an aspen tree and me holding onto his rope to keep him from jerking it loose. We listened to the wind together and we watched the sunlight flash through the aspen leaves. We looked into each other’s eyes and whenever he got just a little bit skittish I talked to him and put my arm around him. “I’m glad you didn’t make it out to the road, big guy,” I whispered to him and stroked his coarse fur. That seemed to settle him down. “We’re all in this together, aren’t we?”
“I am so exhausted,” Donna said as we settled back with our beers in the shade of a tarp back at the staging area. “I was so afraid he was going to get out onto the road.” She glanced over at the llama now tied securely to a stout tree. Her eyes had grown misty and I could tell that she really, really loved these animals. As it turned out she’d lost a very good friend to ALS over the winter. The year before that she’d lost her mother, and the year before that she’d lost her father. I suddenly realized the weight that she’d been carrying as we made our way down the mountain. She couldn’t bear another loss, not so soon, and certainly not one that she would feel in the least bit responsible for. Wow, I suddenly saw this tough old Colorado mountain woman in an entirely different light. She cared deeply, she loved deeply, and life and a rambunctious llama had yanked her back to staring into the abyss of great loss – an abyss that she realized all too well that she wasn’t ready to face – not so soon, anyway. Not so soon.
And I thought about how it came to pass that I was even sitting there sipping a cold beer with her. I thought about my pondering to even come out here, and how my hike up the Willis Gulch Trail had been nothing if not fortuitous. If I were inclined to believe in God I might even think that I’d been put on that mountain for a reason somehow – to help ease just a little bit of the world’s suffering by helping a llama back to safety. And Jason and Lisa were put there, too. Why was it that the only hikers within a mile of that spot had all converged on the same place right at the moment that they were needed? I don’t necessarily think in such terms, however. What I think about is the fact that spiritual practice is all about coming back down off of the mountain to be of service – that even as we’re embracing solitude we must be ready to be there for another. It’s all too easy to forget how deeply each of us feels and what trials we’ve each had to face along our respective paths. Yes, this is what our spiritual practice is all about – simply being what we need to be for each other in each and every moment that arises.
As I finish my beer and thank Donna for her hospitality she reaches for a box of Leadville 100 t-shirts and tells me to pick out one that looks to be my size. It’s funny, I think, after all of my marathons and adventure races, triathlons and bicycle races…, after all of those years spent chasing after the great truth that resides in that place where the body is pushed to the limit and the mind is forced to follow into the realm on the other side of words – that place where stillness exists in the midst of roaring physicality; and after all these years of loving the mountains and loving endurance events and thinking that the epitome would be to run in the Leadville 100 where that truth must surely exist every step of the way (or at least past mile ten or so); and after letting all of that go and finding a more direct path to that stillness…, it’s funny how from that stillness I now come back to this place and realize in no uncertain terms that the only reason to even bother seeking after it at all is to be prepared to be of assistance – to be prepared to ease just a little bit of the pain of this life for another. It’s funny that all of that searching should come together in this very moment, with Donna filled with gratitude for my assistance, and me filled with gratitude just to be able to be of assistance.
I pluck a t-shirt out of the box and pull it over my head.
“Perfect!” I exclaim.
“Yes, perfect.” Donna smiles.
Portrait of an anonymous llama courtesy of Microsoft.
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank