An Alpine Stream of Consciousness (Part 2 of 3)

Hello everyone. I apologize for the delay in finishing this post. It ended up being a little bit more involved than I’d first anticipated; and that was before I became obsessive about its editing! Yes, it’s long; and, yes, it’s long in coming. But I do hope you enjoy it and find it to be a meaningful read. I've change the names of the individuals involved in order to protect their privacy

An Alpine Stream of Consciousness (Part 2 of 3)

I wake up when I wake up and without even leaving my bed I fold the pillows over onto themselves in order to fashion them into a passable meditation seat. It’s difficult to keep from thinking about the mountains as I sit, but eventually I do – allowing the overall ‘felt sense’ of my anticipation to come to the fore. In time, though, this too subsides and I settle into simply paying attention to the many sounds and sensations and wispy clouds of cognition as they arise and pass away.

After showering I pack away my cotton attire of the previous day. “Cotton kills,” it is said, and I’ve certainly come to believe how true that can be – in the mountains, anyway. It holds the sweat and moisture close to your skin where it drains you of your body heat. Instead, I don my trail garb: a pair of polyester trekking shorts, and the polypropylene t-shirt that has accompanied me on every cold-weather excursion that I’ve been on in the past fifteen years. Now, all I need to do once I get to the trailhead is slip into my wool socks and hiking boots, strap on my backpack, and set about putting one foot in front of the other. Even my water bottle and drinking system are already filled to the brim with St Louis water and ready to go.

The land in between Limon and Colorado Springs is mostly ranching country – rolling prairie with stands of cottonwood trees nestled in its draws and drainages. Stone silos and satellite dishes, gnarled fence posts and new four-wheel drive trucks exist at once in my mind as I slip on past; and with each mile that rolls beneath me the Front Range becomes more clearly defined, and Pikes Peak rises higher and higher. Long ago I stood with my friend Stan atop its windswept ridges, looking down upon the countryside that I now drive through. I remember the patchwork quilt of multihued gold and green and buff, and how I could almost see the curvature of the earth. And I remember how the earth and sky don’t so much meet as they become one another – merging miles and miles away somewhere that, even in its remoteness, seems almost close enough to touch. Funny how that happens with distances far beyond the human scale.

Yes, and I remember, as well, how strong and sharp-witted Stan was back then, and what good wilderness company he was, in spite of his being some twenty years my senior. These past few years have been somewhat less than kind, however – straining Stan and straining our relationship. I didn’t even tell him I was heading out here, and for that I feel just a little bit guilty. I suppose I didn’t want to be in a position of saying no in the event that he asked if I wanted company.

Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is playing once again on the stereo – music from another time and place that I’m allowing to be brand new. I’ve declared it to be perfect morning music – perfect for such daysas this when the sun is bright and each moment is tinged with equal measures of nostalgia and anticipation. And so the morning flows onward like a clear alpine stream, accepting as its own each drop that falls into its valley. Music and memory and emotion…, the blood and bone of being…, the earth and sky of seeing – they swirl together and keep on rushing onward. I breathe in and I breathe out. I breathe in and I breathe out. To be born again…

I get lost in Colorado Springs, as I always do, but soon enough I find my way again behind a column of motorcyclists wending their way up Highway 24 – past the Garden of the Gods and the turnoff to Pikes Peak, through the canyon carved by Fountain Creek, and on up to Woodland Park where they pull off and grant me passage into the highlands beyond. I crest Ute Pass and roll on through the high country between the Tarryall Mountains and the Rockies farther west. Trout Creek Pass serves as the entrance to the Arkansas River watershed, and as I sweep around its long downhill curve the Collegiate Peaks come into view. The land is vast and open – not so wide open as the Plains, mind you, but seeing one mountain from another lends an awesome perspective that the emptiness of the Plains cannot provide. Mount Princeton looms on the far side of the valley. Its summit rises like a bowed head above two shoulders wrapped in a cloak of dark forest. I find myself thinking of slumbering giants, ready to awaken without warning – perhaps like one from Francisco Goya’s imagination.

Of course, I realize that I’m painting the mountain in ominous shades of my own imagining, but the fact remains that there is danger enough up there for the unwary. Even on the warmest of days the temperature drops quickly as the sun begins to set. A badly sprained ankle that delays your descent can leave you exposed to hypothermia. Clouds can accumulate in a matter of minutes within a virtually empty sky, leaving you scrambling for shelter from icy rain and hailstorms. Lightning, too, need not be accompanied by any advance notice – save for the tingling sensation and the atmospheric crackling that precedes its deadly entrance onto an otherwise pleasant scene. Oh, and then there’s the quite mundane possibility of a fall from a precipice, or a tumble down some rocky couloir, or the unexpected appearance of a bear beside the trail. Ah, but would the mountains even be as beautiful without such danger? Would I even want to be up there unless there was at least some possibility of not ever coming down?

I spot Bongo Billy's up ahead as I’m closing in on the town of Buena Vista. It’s a pleasant surprise to see it open after so many years, and I find myself reminiscing about times spent there with friends sipping cappuccino and eating warm cobbler a la mode after coming down off the trail. Yes, everything is different, and yet nothing at all has changed. I pull in and switch off the engine. A line of customers snakes out through the screen door, down the steps of the wooden front porch, and out onto the gravel parking lot. I grab my trail map to peruse as I wait, and take my place behind the hikers and mountain-bikers and Arkansas River rafters that are fixing to reward themselves for a day well spent. I look at my watch. Wow, it’s already well past two o’clock and I still have an hour of bouncing along a gravel road in order to get to the trailhead. Hmmm…, do I really need that coffee, after all? My question is answered when it starts to rain. I hop back in the car and head through town and out the other side. Bongo Billy’s will have to await my return.

From Highway 24 I turn onto a gravel road that skirts the Clear Creek Reservoir and then follows its namesake up into the hinterlands beyond. The road is thoroughly washboarded from the water runoff and I barely maintain ten miles an hour as I maneuver from one side to another based on whichever looks marginally smoother. The temperature gauge on the dashboard creeps higher. Apparently my little engine doesn’t much care for being in such a low gear for so long. I think about the oil that I added this morning and I wonder whether it’s gotten low again already. My concern doesn’t rise to the level of making me stop in order to check it, though. It’s just the high RPMs, I assure myself. Everything is fine.

The rain has stopped by the time I make it to the trailhead, but the swift-moving clouds are thick and billowy and trailing gray streams of precipitation here and there. I’m pretty certain that I’m going to get rained on before I make it to my evening destination. I didn’t spend all that time freezer-bagging my gear for nothing, though. It’s time to go, rain or shine. I lace up my boots and strap on my pack and set about putting one foot in front of the other. A wooden footbridge takes me over Clear Creek – rushing and roaring about as loud as a mountain stream can roar. I stop and listen to it for a time. There’s no point in hurrying now.

I sign the trailhead registry on the other side of the bridge. Almost everyone else is from Colorado with the exception of someone from New Mexico and a couple of guys from Texas. Okay, well at least I’m not the only flatlander up here!

The trail wastes no time gaining altitude as it switchbacks steeply up the Missouri Gulch; and between the high-altitude air, and the steepness of the trail, and the fifty pounds of gear that I’m carrying I’m soon huffing and puffing as if I’ve just finished a 400 meter sprint. Notwithstanding my frequent rest stops, however, it’s not long at all before I’m high above Clear Creek. That’s how steep it is. Now the roaring sound that I hear is that of snowmelt and rainfall pouring down from the valley high above. When the switchback veers left the sound grows louder, and when the switchback veers right the sound subsides; but each time it switches at all I stop to rest – panting, drinking, and listening.

St. Louis is only about 500 feet about sea level. The trailhead, on the other hand, sits at around 9,700 feet. I know because I checked. A body needs time to adjust to the differences in atmospheric pressure and oxygen density that accompany such elevation changes – at least this body does. And that’s precisely why I’m packing in with the intention of sitting tight for the evening before attempting any of the peaks. It’s a lesson learned from experience over the years; but even the best-learned lessons cannot escape the scrutiny of a second-guessing mind.

That second-guessing mind returns each time I see a group of hikers loping down the trail with satisfied smiles on their faces and but a modicum of gear strapped to their backs. I know they’ve all been atop Belford, and maybe Oxford as well. I can see it in their eyes. They started out early this morning and they’ll be in a warm bed by this evening. I smile and nod to them in greeting, and then I take another drink and mop my brow yet again. And all the while a little voice in the back of my head is saying: “Perhaps you should have just set up camp down below. Perhaps a base camp high up in the alpine isn’t worth all this effort. Perhaps you should have chosen a less difficult route, or a different mountain altogether. Perhaps you should have gone someplace new. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps….” Of course, I’ve thought all of this through already, but that doesn’t matter one iota. After all, they wouldn’t be called second thoughts if they didn’t come, well…, second.

A father and his adult son make their way down the trail toward me. I can tell by how much they favor one another.
“How’s it going?” the father enquires as he slips on past.
“Slowly, but surely,” I reply, smiling, as the son slips by as well.
“Well, you’ve only got a couple more switchbacks to go before the trail gives you a bit of a breather,” the father calls out over his shoulder.
“Thanks for the good word!” I reply, not seeing much point in telling him that I’ve been up this trail before. I take a drink and watch as they continue down the trail. Then I listen once again to the roar of the water rushing down from on high.

Yes, I’ve been up this trail before – numerous times, actually. But the time that I’m thinking of is the very first time almost two decades ago. That was when my then girlfriend, Elaine – who’d gone to graduate school in Boulder and who had certainly done her share of climbing – first introduced me to the world of fourteeners. She was experienced and confidant. I was a risk-averse novice. She wanted us (she and I and her two dogs, Mikie and Gretchen) to set up camp down below and blaze our way up to the various summits on successive days – travelling lightly as we did. I thought it prudent to set up a base camp up above from which to stage our respective day-hikes. Our compromise was for me to carry enough gear to set up camp in the event that it was necessary, but then stash it beside the trail once we’d made it above the tree line. If we needed it, it would be there; if not, I would simply pack it back down. Needless to say, we didn’t need it, and so I ended up carrying all that extra gear for nothing – save for my own peace of mind, that is. Unfortunately, though, that peace of mind did not come without a cost, and it was on that trip that my eyes were first opened to the fact that an overly cautious approach can be just as much a hindrance as can hitting the trail with no sense whatsoever as to the risks that are involved. We did some great climbing, though! And I can’t even begin to sing the praises of those tough little alpine corgis. God, how I loved those dogs!

I still run into Elaine every once in a great while. She’s married and has a family and still travels to beautiful places. She seems pretty happy, and I’m glad for that. I don’t think she climbs much anymore, however. When last we met she was talking about her knees giving her trouble and how she might even need a replacement one day. “Yes, we’re all getting old, aren’t we?” I commiserated – having dealt with one running injury after another for years.

My second trip into this valley was to pass on the favor of an introduction to a couple of married friends of mine, Bill and Linda. We headed out from the trailhead early in the morning that time, and made camp high up in the valley. Without pause, we proceeded to the summit of Belford, and after Belford, we headed over to Oxford – another fourteener connected to Belford by a ridge referred to as a ‘saddle’. We’d have made it up Oxford, as well, if a lightning storm hadn’t materialized just as we were closing in on the summit. All in all, though, it was a pretty successful climb, and if I’d not ended up with such a wicked case of altitude sickness afterwards I’d have been as happy as I could be. It was on that trip that I learned the lesson that guides my present course of action: set up camp above the tree line, and then wait until the following day before heading to the summit. The extra time at high altitude allows one to better acclimate to the altitude before the additional exertion of heading to the peak.

I think about Bill and Linda all the time. We don’t see each other much anymore. They started a family and I started…, well, for now let’s just say that our lives have moved down different paths and leave it at that! Bill and I used to be training partners for everything from bicycle racing to running to adventure racing. Actually, it was Bill who kind of coaxed me out of “retirement” in order to be his teammate on the one and only adventure race that I ever did. For many years prior I’d veered away from all things competitive entirely. It just didn’t seem very… Zen, I suppose. Ah, but my competitiveness came back in that race, though! (Call it karma.) It had been a long, long day of running and canoe paddling and mountain biking and orienteering, and we knew that a few miscues had left us with barely a middle-of-the-pack standing. We also knew that there was little we could do to make up very much time along the miles and miles of trail-running and mountain-biking that remained. Oh, sure, we could have run faster or ridden harder, but that’s easier said than done. No, if we were to improve our standing at all we’d need to make a bold move – a maneuver that would either catapult us into competitiveness, or leave us thrashing around in the woods in last place. We decided to cut the trail. Mind you, this is perfectly legal in adventure racing, where navigation and orienteering skill are of primary importance. So, we dead-reckoned our way through the forest to the next checkpoint rather than following the serpentine trail, and (lo and behold!) we discovered that we’d leap-frogged into a top-ten position – well ahead of everyone who’d simply put their heads down and ground out those final miles along the trail.

That was the last competitive race that I ever did. Bill, on the other hand, went on to get a four-person adventure-racing team together, and they ended up getting into it in a very big way. And then one day I got a call from Linda saying that Bill had been out on a training ride and had apparently suffered a heart attack. He was in intensive care. Shit! We just don’t know, do we? We just don’t know.

The trail levels off just as the man said, and just as I remembered. The stream is now more of a swift-flowing brook than a rushing torrent, but I’ve got to cross it, and that presents its own special challenge. I unfasten my pack – as I’ve learned to do when crossing such a stream – and cautiously set one foot atop the loose pile of logs that serve as a bridge. My first steps are slow and deliberate, but by the time I’m halfway across I’m picking up speed. I suppose I’m counting on my momentum carrying me the rest of the way across should I happen to lose my balance. On the other side, I refasten my pack and take a drink – steeling myself for the next set of switchbacks up ahead.

And just why do I keep coming back to this place, anyway? That’s just one more thing to ponder as the trail becomes almost as steep as it was before – pushing me yet again to the limits of my endurance. This time, however, I slump down onto a large rock by the side of the trail and slip off my pack. Oh, how heavenly! I twist my torso to the left and then to the right, and then I freeze as a chipmunk scampers down the trail. He stops and studies me for a moment before darting into the cover of the undergrowth. I turn back around to face Quail Mountain, rising up like a wall on the other side of Clear Creek. It seems so close. That’s how steep these valley walls are. I watch as clouds not much higher than where I sit spill their rain into the valley below – their misty trails standing out against the backdrop of the forest across the way. I’ve gained nearly 1,200 feet of elevation since leaving the trailhead.

Yes, why do I keep on coming back to this place? I suppose I’ve been this way all of my life. When I was young and my parents took us to Baskin Robbins Ice Cream (home of the 31 flavors for those who may not be aware) I always wanted chocolate chip. “Don’t you want to try something new?” my parents would ask, clearly urging me to expand my horizons. “No.” I wanted chocolate chip. “I might not like rocky road or bubble gum, but I know I like chocolate chip.” And when I went backpacking in my younger years, I would often return to the same stretch of the Ozark Trail time and time again. It wasn’t like it was boring, after all. It wasn’t like I could predict what it would be like on any given visit. Conditions were different, after all. I was different. It was like visiting an old friend, a mentor, actually, one who taught me many a good lesson – like don’t count on finding that spring on the map in order to replenish your water, even if you have been there before. I recall becoming so dehydrated one time after not being able to boil enough drinking water in the few (now empty) V8 cans that I’d brought that I thought I was beginning to hallucinate. (I’d not bought any pots for cooking because there was actually a no fire order in place due to the dry conditions. I’d not brought any iodine tablets, either, because, of course, I was going to find that spring.) “What the hell is that glowing, pulsing light in the middle of the trail up ahead?” I wondered. “Am I starting to lose it?” It turned out that it was a pile of deer feces totally covered with colorful butterflies, all slowly opening and closing their wings in the bright sunlight. It was a sight that I’d never seen before, or since; and it is one that’s had me laughing at myself many a time since.

Oh and then there was the time that I set out with a pair of hiking boots that I’d not adequately broken in. I ended up getting blisters so bad that I decided to find a shortcut home by making my way down from the rugged bluff-top trail, wading across the swollen river, and then bushwhacking across the flat floodplain. Well, if you’ve ever hiked through the virgin bottomlands of Missouri you know that the riverbanks can be a tangle of brush and brambles that make passage without a machete in each hand almost impossible! And so it was for me that day. I wrestled my way down to the river only to find that it was far too swift to cross without my risking getting swept away by the current. By the time I wrestled my way back up to the bluff-tops it had grown too dark for me to find the trail once again; and so I bedded down, tentless, in the middle of the woods, where I spent a mostly sleepless night watching the moon slowly arc across the sky, and listening to the occasional truck engine whining into the lonesome night way on the other side of the valley. So close..., so close….

The alpine stream is now roaring on my right – rushing through a deep and rocky gorge. Yes, I’m close to breaking out of the tree line. After that the trail will level off substantially and there will be a number of soft, grassy patches on which to pitch a tent. I pass the ruins of an old log cabin sheltered by the last substantial stand of tall pines along the trail. What a paradise this must have been! What solitude! A little further on I break out of the tree line and come across the two Texans camping alongside the trail. We exchange pleasantries for a time and discover that – surprise, surprise – we’re all planning on heading up Belford in the morning.

“Hey, what’s that rope for that you’ve got strung across the ravine?” I enquire. It looks as though they’re using it to cross back and forth.
“That’s for our bear bag,” one of them responds. “You have to get a little bit creative up here above the tree line.”
“Oh, of course, of course,” I nod, recalling the length of rope that I’d brought for that very same purpose – the one that I’d almost forgotten. “Well, I hope to see you on the trail in the morning.”
“You bet, have a great evening!”

About a half mile up the trail I find a spot that I know is as good as any other I’ll find. I think it’s the very same spot where Stan and I spent a boring day sitting alone in our respective tents because the relentless rain just wouldn’t let us sneak in a summit bid. I slip off my pack and start contemplating precisely how I should position my tent, but before I can think much about it a cold rain begins to fall. I spring into action: throwing on my rain jacket, rolling out my tent, snapping the tent poles together. I fasten and stake, zip and tie. Then, unceremoniously, I throw all of my gear into my newly erected abode and dive in after it. It’s only then that I realize that my fingers are so cold that I can hardly move them. I blow warm air into my cupped hands, and when my fingers have loosened up once again I begin arranging a proper living space. Once I’ve got things reasonably organized I reach for my inflatable zafu. It’s a zafu shell sewn in the traditional manner, but instead of being stuffed with kapok it’s got a little beach ball inside! It’s a souvenir, if you will, from when my teacher attended the Parliament of World Religions in South Africa back in 1999. He needed to transport a supply of meditation cushions over there so that he could lead various meditation sessions, and so the sangha came up with the very practical and portable solution of inflatable zafus. After Yoshida roshi returned with them they were sold in order to raise funds for the Zen Center. I have certainly gotten my five dollar’s worth out of that investment over the years! I blow air into it until it’s firm enough to sit on and then I meditate to the sound of raindrops hitting the roof of the tent scant inches above the crown of my head.

When the rain subsides even a little bit I crawl back outside and set up my stove in order to cook some dinner. Thankfully, I’ve got a fairly streamlined operation planned out. I strike a waterproof match and hold it next to the hissing burner. The propane flame pops into existence and I set about boiling a pot of water to heat the foil packet of lentil stew that I’ve packed. When the lentils are done I add couscous to the water; and when the couscous is done I pour the lentils on top. I walk slowly around my campsite in the light rain, eating my dinner and taking stock of my surroundings. Of course I can’t miss the trail switchbacking up the base of Mount Belford like a zipper before snaking over a ridge and out of sight. Pecks Peak rises steeply on my left, a neglected thirteener in a valley of fourteeners. Hidden from view behind it is Mount Oxford, which most people summit only after reaching the peak of Mount Belford. On the other side of my campsite, across the roaring stream that’s been with me all afternoon, rises an unnamed ridge that extends all the way up the valley to Mount Missouri. Mount Missouri sits as if at the southernmost end of a throne room, with lines of snow still sliding down its couloirs even this late in the summer. Around the bend, hidden behind Mount Belford, is Elkhead Pass, entrance to a completely different valley with fourteeners all its own – Mount Harvard and Mount Columbia. I’m debating heading over there after I’ve had my fill of this valley. For now, though, for the next few days at least, this valley will be home.

Oh, yeah! I start looking around me for a way to string up a bear bag. The best solution that I can come up with is to climb up to where a single lightning-ravaged tree leans out over the steep hillside sloping up to Pecks Peak and string a line to another stunted specimen further down. The bag certainly doesn't hang high enough to keep a bear from getting into it if he should find it in such an unlikely place, but he has to find it first – and at least he won’t find it in my tent!

Daylight is quickly fading now. I crawl back into my tent and journal by the light of a flashlight for a while. Growing sleepy, I deflate my zafu until it’s soft enough to be a pillow, and then I lay back to go to sleep. It’s still raining just a little bit – blowing through in waves that patter against the tent roof and then subside. But, of course, the most prominent sound is that of the rushing of the alpine stream. It roars with uncanny constancy right next to me. As I listen to it further, though, my ears become more and more attuned to the subtleness of its composition. I hear deeper notes, like a bass line, rising up from the gorge below. I hear higher overtones flowing down from above that suggest a melody all of their own – disconnected from the larger musical composition even as they remain an integral part. And after a while I begin to notice individual splashes and plops and gurgles that I’d been deaf to up to that point.

Funny, this stream has been roaring like this every second of every day since the very first time that I heard it some twenty years ago. Through all of life’s twists and turns it has been here – clear and pure, always flowing. Everything is different, and yet nothing at all has changed.

I doze off for a bit and by the time my bladder stirs me back to wakefulness it’s well into the night. I stumble out of the tent into the darkness, but after getting my bearings I realize that it’s not really that dark at all. The moon is up behind the still-billowing clouds, and some stars are twinkling here and there amidst sparse swatches of deep, black sky. I can still make out the peaks, and especially the snow-filled couloirs of Missouri. It’s beautiful – more beautiful than my memory could have ever allowed me to recall. Any doubts and second-thoughts and idle ponderings about my coming here are now just so much mental waste pissed out along the trail far below. I stand now as open as I can be to all of the truth that the universe has to convey – truth in all of its immensity…, and vastness…, and depth. Yes, it is true that nothing is hidden, but there’s always more truth to be found. And so I keep watching. For a long time I stand watching. And then a cold wind blows down the valley and sets me shivering to my core. I crawl back into my tent and fall asleep.


Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. That was well worth the wait. Your writing never ceases to amaze me. It brought me back to my numerous hikes in the Austrian Alps. By far, some of my favorite experiences have been reaching various summits. Thank you for sharing your adventures. As always, I can't wait to read more.

  2. That was definitely worth the wait! I'm not exactly the outdoorsy type, but I really enjoyed reading your descriptions of the scenery. Last time I visited Colorado, there was five feet of snow on the ground - certainly different from what you experienced! ;D Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and adventures. I'm looking forward to reading Part 3!

  3. Thank you guys so much! By the time you read this, Part 3 will be out. I hope it is STILL worth the wait! Maku


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