I often describe myself as an “outside dog”. I spent my childhood exploring the woods and swamps near mine and my grandparents’ homes in South Carolina. Even at an early age, I found tranquility among the shadows of towering Cypress trees; community alone in the out-of-doors; exhilaration in the peacefulness of nature.
As I moved to Louisiana in high school and eventually to college, my love for the outdoors moved with me: only now my range expanded. Camping and boating trips became more frequent as I progressed through college. I graduated in November and began an intensifying job search that, in April, garnered the offering of an entry-level position in Dallas, Texas starting the following October. With the security of having a job in place, I decided to get in as much “outside” as I could before heading off to the big, big city and moved to Winter Park, Colorado.
The morning I arrived, May 26th, I was awestruck. I had been to the Appalachian and Ozark mountains many times but this was the first time I had seen the Rockies in person. It had snowed three days prior to my arrival and snow was something I had seen only a handful of times in my life to that point. Wide-eyed, I began to venture into the woods on my days off. Before I knew it September had arrived and I started packing for my return to the South; to my new job and new life in Dallas. Later in September, just days before my departure for my parent’s house outside of New Orleans, it snowed. This was real snow: deep. Lots of it. Some eight inches. More snow than I had ever seen. And in September!
I stood in the middle of US Highway 40 in my little town of Fraser watching it come down. I watched and I thought, “I’m not done yet.” I walked back, slowly, to the little house I’d been renting with four other guys trying to find a reason why I shouldn’t stay. I couldn’t find one.
In the twenty-four years that have followed, “outside” has been central to my life. I’ve summited over 100 mountains– several of those multiple times– hiked and backpacked as well as mountain biked thousands of miles, rafted and kayaked river upon river, skied, snowboarded; anything outside. My free time has been exactly that: free; outside; wild.
In March, as COVID shutdowns reached even into my little corner of the Rocky Mountains, I retreated into the makeshift office I carved out of my basement. As the IT Director for my school district, my workload and hours on duty increased to swallow up even my coveted outside time. Early spring had melted cross country ski trails to the point that they were unskiable, both downhill ski areas in the county had closed early and I couldn’t have found the time to do either anyway.
I was eagerly; frantically; ferociously looking forward to the weeklong backpack trip that I take nearly every year to collect, center, and recharge myself. I woke early that morning: 4 am, with no aid from an alarm, just the excitement of getting back outside. I had decided to do the Four Passes loop in the Elks range again, this time with stops on Capitol and Snowmass Peaks along with the Maroon Bells if time allowed. It was late morning when I finally arrived at the Snowmass Creek trailhead. Minutes later, I was driving back the way I had come, unable to even find a space in the parking area. I figured, “If all these people are out there, I don’t want to be there anyway.”
I decided to look at the Sawatch range as a consolation. I followed the road toward the trailhead below Huron Peak and started out on the trail late in the afternoon. I set up my little tent on a ledge overlooking the world just at treeline: my trademark campsite. After filtering water and cooking dinner, I set up to watch the world roll over on itself when I heard a voice in the distance and getting closer. I knew this voice. I knew it well. This was the voice of an ill-prepared and inexperienced would-be “mountaineer” trying to convince himself to summit one of Colorado’s highest peaks– in the dark.
I threw my day pack together and followed just out of sight in the gathering dark at well over 12,000 feet. Sometime later, as the cold bite of night at elevation sank into him, he finally succumbed to good sense, or at least somewhat better sense and turned down the mountain. I quietly slipped away in front of him, kept aware of his location and physical and mental state by his constant conversation with himself.
Despite having stayed awake later than I would have liked, I was up and afoot by 4:30 am on track for a sunrise summit. These are my favorites: cold, sharp, crystal clear with the summit to myself– at least for a little while. I was not disappointed. I passed the first climber who was looking for the same experience as I just above 13,000 feet on my way down followed some twenty minutes later by the next group. And the next. And the next. And the next.
I sat out of sight to most but the most observant hikers at my tent and sipped my morning coffee watching countless groups make their way toward the summit, nearly 2,000 feet above. Post coffee, I packed my things and headed toward my home for the next night. I never made it.
Where I would have turned left and walked up the next draw I stumbled upon a hiker, clearly from the fast-and-light school of hiking. Fast, however, he was not. Not anymore at least. The duct tape that he had wrapped his knee in gave a clue as to why.
He had come from Texas to hike a loop of somewhere in the range of 200 miles in just one week and, to his credit, was on schedule to make that happen until his injury. Exhausted from a day of hiking at elevation and descending a high mountain pass while still trying to make time, he twisted his knee. His diagnosis was a torn ACL. I believed him. We slowly walked back to my truck and I shuttled him to his vehicle some 50 miles away. My backpack trip was over. My time outside was not, I still planned on some good, quality outside time anyway.
Back home, I ditched the multi-day pack for one of my collection of FAR-too-many daypacks and set off to day hike every day while sleeping in the comfort of my own bed each night in order to fulfill my requirement of outside time. I squeezed into parking areas and hiked crowded trails. I picked up trash dropped by inexperienced hikers. I hung my head as I walked past used toilet paper on the side of trails. I sighed at fresh footprints cutting switchbacks. I finally. . . gave up.
I was not finding the peace and tranquility I sought. I was not finding my center. I was not recharging. I got on my bike instead.
It’s not the same: head down, turning and churning uphill, white-knuckle as-fast-as-you-can downhill. There’s a certain separation from the outside in which I was still immersed. I was outside, but I had been pushed to the fringe where human-powered machines rattled along and kicked up dust and the natives there only ventured out at night. It was the best I could find and it was good, but it was not what I wanted nor was it what I needed.
The people that displaced me did it for all the right reasons: they were searching for the same things as I. Hopefully they found it. Many of them, however, were not equipped with the skills that I developed over a lifetime outside: not the skills of how to be outside, but how to be outside: how to be there whilst leaving little or no evidence of it; while allowing everyone after to feel as if they might be discovering it for the first time themselves.
The sheer number of people searching for whatever they may have been searching for outside was, in a way, refreshing. It was also indicative that we have not nearly the open space that we need in this country. The traces and evidence and trash left behind in that search was, for me, heartbreaking. Even as I type this, the smell and taste of smoke are ever-present from a pair of fires that bookend the valley. Both appear to have started in or near camping areas.
There is being outside and there is being outside. I hope that we can all learn to be outside.