An Alpine Stream of Consciousness (Part 3 of 3)

I’m awakened from slumber by the sound of footsteps heading up the trail outside. I listen after them for a time, but the rushing alpine stream has already washed away all traces with its omnipresent roar. Perhaps I’m merely imagining things. More likely, though, I’m not. Someone – or even a whole group of stealthy trekkers, for that matter – is likely making their way up to Belford in the predawn darkness in order to make it to the summit and back down before any storms have a chance to develop. I unzip my tent door and peer outside. Daylight has broken – somewhere on the other side of Oxford, anyway. I can tell by the way it lights up the bottom of the cloud cover billowing and rolling over the summit ridge of Mount Missouri. It’s still way too dark, however, for me to make out any sign of movement along the switchbacks zigzagging with staircase-like regularity up the shoulder of Mount Belford.

Looking East From Atop Elkhead Pass

I puff a few more breaths into my pillow and pull myself into a seated position atop it. My mind is racing with anticipation. I so want to start climbing! Let’s see…, I need to get my daypack together, and I need to fix some breakfast. Yes, and I’ll need to replenish all of the good St. Louis water that will be gone by the time I do. Oh, and before I can have any breakfast I need to unstring my bear bag. Hmmm, should I tie it back up when I’m done? Nah, I’ll just stow everything in the tent. The trail will be far too busy for all but the bravest of bears. Besides, I don’t want anyone calling me a backcountry slob for leaving my gear strung up beside the trail for all to see. Hmmph. Or maybe I just don’t want anyone chuckling at my pitifully ineffective rigging... Okay, breathe in…, breathe out…, breathe in…, breathe out…. Gosh, I wonder whether that cloud cover will just keep on growing thicker and thicker. I’d probably explode if had to sit here all day in the rain like that time I was up here with Stan. Maybe I should get a move-on. Yes, there will be plenty of time to meditate when I get back down.

It’s cold outside. I stroll around my campsite to keep warm as I spoon my way through a pot of Grapenuts cereal and raisins and rehydrated milk. Patches of blue are beginning to appear behind the clouds and the sun is beginning to set the top of Mount Missouri aglow.

“Hey, it looks like you’ve got yourself a sweet little campsite here.”

I turn around to see the Texans making their way up the trail.

“I’ve got no complaints,” I smile. “How was yours.”

“Good, good. Chilly, but good.”

“Yeah, it looks like we got a little frost last night.” I point to a patch of grass still covered in white at the base of the bushes.

“Well, I guess we’ll see you again up top.”

“That’s the plan. Have a good climb in the mean time.”

“Yeah, you, too.”

I set about boiling water for coffee in the same pot from which I was just eating cereal – warming my hands around the blue propane flame as I do. When it’s time I stir in some instant coffee and powdered milk. Particles of Grapenuts float on the surface, but I pay them no mind. Drinking gritty coffee is nothing compared to swallowing the toothpaste after brushing your teeth, but that’s what low-impact camping is all about! Besides, it virtually eliminates having to wash any dishes.

I drink half of the coffee and then take the remainder into the tent in order to finish it as I prepare my daypack. Let’s see…, hooded rain jacket, gloves, knit cap, a spare jersey, first-aid kit, sunglasses, sunscreen, survival candle, waterproof matches – I almost have to force myself to concentrate, my energy level is so high. I pack a sampling of all the trail food that I’ve brought. I never get all that hungry when I’m at altitude, and I never know what will be appealing when I do. Before wrapping up I scan the tent floor, rifle through my bear bag, and search the compartments of my backpack, trying to make certain that I’m not leaving anything behind. Okay, that’s it. I just need to filter some water and I’ll be on my way.

A woman and man are making their way up the trail as I head out to fetch water. They swing their hiking poles like metronomes and barely give me a perfunctory nod without breaking stride. They’re on a mission. I get that.

Even though the stream is right next to my tent, I have to walk some fifty meters up the trail before finding a break in the thicket that allows me access to it. I make my way down the steep embankment and begin assembling my filtration system. I let the intake nozzle float downstream until it catches on a cluster of rocks and sinks into still water. Then I slowly begin pumping water into my water bladder – the one that I’ll stow at the top of my daypack with a hose coming out that I can drink from unhindered as I climb. You’ve simply got to stay hydrated when you’re at altitude and losing prodigious amounts of water to the dry mountain air with each exhalation.

I notice little things around me as I’m slowly filling up the quart and a half capacity of my water bladder: the rippling water, clear and cold, moving quickly in places and slowly in others; the plump green leaves of the bushes that I’m nestled amongst; the way the sunlight slowly descends the craggy ridge on the other side of the stream; the way my boots settle deeper and deeper with each passing moment into the rocky streambed where I crouch. When my water bladder is full I drink deeply from it and then pump it full once again. I reach for my bottle and pour some powdered electrolyte mix into it. When it’s half full I shake the powder into solution and taste it. I add more mix and then top it off with water and taste it again. Okay, I’m ready to go.

My daypack is gloriously light compared to the one that I packed in with yesterday. I feel like I’m almost dancing as I make my way up to where the Belford trail branches off from the one heading up to Elkhead Pass. The switchbacks loom up ahead. Half a dozen people are already up there. I can see them slowly moving back and forth, higher and higher – like tiny dots. The Texans are surely up there. Maybe the man and woman with their hiking poles swinging like metronomes have made it that far, as well – yes, and whoever else might have passed by unbeknownst to me as I was getting myself together.

Another stream flows down from the vast couloir between Belford and Pecks Peak. A boulder the size of a delivery truck apparently tumbled down it once, coming to rest where the slope becomes shallower as it transitions to the valley floor. Maybe it happened twenty years ago – right before I first arrived on the scene in these parts. Or maybe it happened a hundred thousand years ago – before there were even any humans in this land that we now call the New World. At any rate, it now makes a perfect breakfast table for the couple who hiked past my campsite close to an hour ago. They’re a little bit more talkative now that they’ve got a little bit of breakfast in their bellies. We chat ever so briefly, and then I begin climbing the switchbacks just beyond.

I feel it in my left knee almost immediately. It’s kind of a loose-hinge sort of feeling, coupled with the subtlest of hitches somewhere in the middle of my range of motion. I shorten my stride and adjust my gate accordingly in order to let my hip take a little bit more of the weight. Yes, that does the trick. I bring my breath in tune with my footfalls, just like during kinhin – walking meditation – only with a somewhat different rhythm. I breathe in and take a step, and as I breathe out more slowly I take one step and then another. My lungs are like the cylinders of some pneumatic machine. Each inhalation and exhalation drives the machinery of my body – propelling it onward and upward. Breathe in, step…, breathe out, step, step... Breathe in, step…, breathe out, step, step...

My tent is now but a little aquamarine dot nestled amongst the succulent green along the valley bottom with the mountains rising steeply either side, dwarfing it, making it appear as but an inconsequential brush point amidst broad strokes on an unending canvas. But even though it appears so far away, I can still hear the stream that was my companion the whole night through. Its roaring reverberates up into the sky – amplified by the bowl-like valley walls.

The air is thin, and the effort required to keep on climbing is great. I step off the trail for a moment to shed a layer of clothing and allow the couple that I passed down below (but who have maintained a faster pace ever since) to pass me once again. At some point I notice that I’ve switched from taking two steps with each exhalation to one. It’s not like one has to deliberate such things, after all. What a simple rhythm it now is: breathe in, step, breathe out, step; breathe in, step, breathe out, step… I listen to the whistling and rustling of pikas and marmots as they scamper across the rocky slopes – communicating to their friends that another sojourner has arrived. I listen to the wind – whenever it can find something to blow against, that is. Occasionally the buzzing of a bee sets the air to vibrating in my vicinity. And always, always, the incredible vastness of the landscape is with me – a landscape that opens up to greater vastness with each step, and with each breath that I take.

Where did the roar of my alpine stream go? It was here a moment ago and now it’s not. We must have parted ways when the switchbacks finally crested that massive shoulder, and the trail continued here while the echoing stream went there. Breathe in, step, breath out, step. Each movement is my entire being. Each movement is the entire world. It is neither cliché nor hyperbole. It is a truth that hangs on the periphery of the field of vision of my being. Yes, the fire at the heart of the universe still roils beneath my feet, sending continents colliding and mountains rising. And since the mountains are not the plains, the plains are with me now. And since the mountains are not the ocean, the ocean is with me now. Because that which is with me is with me, and that which is not is still with me by very nature of its absence. Did you lead me to this place, or inspire me to seek its truth? If so, you are with me now. Did you run with me and help me gain the lungs to do this? Did you sit with me and help me learn to watch my breath as I do now? If so, you continue to be with me each and every step of the way? Did you build this trail, or perhaps inspire the ones who did? Did you help me in even the subtlest of ways in word or deed at any point along the way – this way – this journey toward wisdom? Did you give of your body, your mind, or your being? If so, you are with me now. Everyone and everything is with me now.

It’s so still up here, and quiet. I’ve crested the false summit and now the trail has leveled off considerably. Compared to the effort of before, it feels as though I’m merely strolling towards the summit. Its craggy outcropping is just ahead of me – solid and immovable – like the stillness all around me. There is no trail anymore. There is only solid rock. There is only that which remains after all else has fallen away. I clamor up to the summit with hand and foot, and then I rise up and look around. For as far as I can see are Mountain Buddhas sitting in solid, steadfast Samadhi – with clouds of incense wafting through their zendo and swirling about their heads.

It's difficult for me to wrap my head around this photo (or vice versa) and I took it! At the center is the trail leading up to Belford from Missouri Gulch. Far left and far right both reveal the trail heading over to Oxford, the peak that appears as a dark silhouette.

"Congratulations!” the more talkative of the Texans calls up to me from the other side of the summit.

“Would you like me to take your picture?” the other one asks.

“Sure.” I say, and hand him the camera after I’ve finished snapping a panorama of photos.

We talk for a bit longer – about the clouds streaming over Mount Missouri, and about the trail threading its way down the craggy ridge to then sweep across the saddle and on up to the summit of Mount Oxford. They’ve already decided that they’re going. They’re merely taking a break to eat some lunch and regain their strength. I study the clouds and recall for them the thunderstorm that rose so quickly on Bill and Linda and me as we were, oh, so close to the summit! I open my pack and fetch the bottle of electrolyte drink stowed at the bottom. I drink deeply from it and then start nibbling on a handful of trail mix.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you guys over there,” I finally say, while nodding in the direction of Oxford.

“Will do! You have a good one!”

“Yeah, you, too!” I say, and then I turn and begin making my way across the flat expanse to where the trail looks as though it drops off the edge of a precipice.

Along the way I pass a couple of gray-haired gentlemen making their way up to Belford from the valley on the other side of the mountain from where I’m camped. They’re walking slowly, with looks of wonder on their faces.

“Will you be going on to Oxford?” I ask.

“No…, no…, Belford will be enough for today,” one of them says. I nod in recognition.

The fact of the matter is that heading on to Oxford is an appreciable extra commitment in terms of time and energy. There’s close to a 700 foot loss of elevation as you descend from the summit of Belford to the saddle between the two peaks – a loss that you must earn back almost in its entirety in order to make it to the top of Oxford. But that’s not all. In order to get back down you’re pretty much required to retrace your steps – the most difficult ones being the 700 foot climb back up to Belford. That’s more than the height of the Gateway Arch, by the way! And if foul weather should arise along the way – like a lightning storm, for instance – there is little one can do but get as low as one can get amongst the rocks, there to wait until the worst has passed.

That is precisely the vulnerability that I open myself up to as slip down off of the summit plateau and begin picking my way down the trail. But that is precisely the vulnerability that cracks me open further to the wonder and beauty of my journey. If there is a final walk to heaven, this is it. If God is sitting upon a throne atop the summit of Mount Oxford, I’ve found the heart and mind to greet Him (or Her!). Methodically and deliberately, if not exactly slowly, I descend, keeping in mind that I must pass this way again. This is no proud march to my second peak of the day. This is a solemn procession of wonder and humility – breath by breath, and step by step. Can words convey this feeling – the absoluteness of this letting go? Can words describe such joy? No, this is no anthropocentric sentiment growing out of a belief that the universe exists to make me happy. This is a letting go of any claim to separate existence, whatsoever. For to be granted just one step along this long and wondrous journey is cause for infinite gratitude to arise – the type of gratitude that is the only gift worthy of bringing along on a journey into the Divine.

“You’ve not much farther to go!” a young man smiles at me, as he heads down from Oxford and I head up.

“Thanks,” is all I can manage to say.

The man and woman who passed my campsite so long ago are sitting on the summit, smiling, as I arrive. They’re eating lunch and gazing out at the clouds streaming toward us from out of the southwest. I settle in with them amongst the rocks and nibble on my snacks. To my left is Mount Harvard, looming over a vast valley all its own. As I gaze upon it I recall the woman I met on the way up the Missouri Gulch who said that the view from Elkhead Pass looking out across it is the most beautiful of any along the Colorado Trail. Straight ahead is the trail back over to Belford. The young man who greeted me earlier is now but a speck of movement receding into the distance – preparing to climb back up that craggy ridge. The Texans are approaching, with a good half mile between them. Indeed, this is a place of solitary journeys into a realm where nothing at all is separate. Oh, if only I could stay up here forever! I could watch and watch and watch the passage of time. No, I could be time – like the mountains. Alas, though, I know my time is short within this godly realm. I bid adieu to the man and woman, and the quickest of the Texans who has just arrived, and I head back over to Belford.

From Oxford Looking South to Belford

The other Texan smiles at me when we meet and keeps on walking, wordlessly. Shortly thereafter I meet a young man with so little gear that it’s almost as if he were teleported to the ridge from someplace else. And he’s looking wide-eyed enough to make me believe that he quite possibly was!

“Do you think that I can make it?” he asks in a vaguely European accent while pointing up at Oxford and then at his watch.

The question takes me by surprise. In fact, I have no idea, whatsoever! I neither want to encourage him unduly nor insinuate my fears into his journey. “Just keep an eye on those clouds,” I finally say, pointing at the sky to the southwest. “Belford is mostly hiding them from view right now, but you’ll soon be meeting people coming down who will be able to give you a better idea of how they’re developing.”

He smiles at this. Perhaps just knowing that there are others still up there is all the encouragement that he needs. He nods in appreciation and continues on his way.

Yes, I know what it means to be appreciative of the presence of others along the way. I thought I wanted to be alone in coming out here, and yet I’ve come to realize how very much these brief interactions along the way have meant to me. There is such great wealth contained within a smile, or a word of direction, in the knowledge of the presence of another, or in a little pile of stones marking the trail. No one can walk it for us, and often enough our next step must be taken in solitude, but we are never, ever alone.

The trail begins to ascend the narrow ridge back up to Belford, threading its way amongst and around the chunky rock formations poking out of the debris-fall either side. I’m lightheaded and weak, and each step seems now to require the full effort of everything I have left – always everything I have left. As vast as this world is there is no room anymore for any thinking. There is only room for just what is. There is only time for just what is. I breathe in and as I breathe out I take a step. I breathe in and as I breathe out I take a step. There are no questions anymore. Questions are needless embellishments on the masterpiece of this moment. There is no fear anymore, for what I was has already died to make room for only that which is: a boot skidding across the dusty trail to find its purchase…; a gloved hand reaching out for solid rock…; a vast couloir channeling skyward the yips and howls of coyotes down below…; a cap pulled low against the wind…; a patch of forest in the distance…; an entire mountain an arm’s length away…; a deep breath of air like cool water on a sweltering day…; and sunlight dancing with the clouds.


To see and read more of what has been described in these posts:
You may visit Mount Belford and Mount Oxford by activating their respective hotlinks here.
The pika and marmot photographs are from their Wikipedia pages.
Activate their respective hotlinks to learn more.
All other photographs were taken by the author and merged into panoramic images using Photoshop.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


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