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Snow & Shade

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

I woke up just before 6 am in Room 103 at Days Inn Cortez, Colorado. The white bed duvet read “Hello Sunshine,” but I already felt grumpy from only six hours of sleep. I gathered my things and poured the sand from my dusty hikes in Arizona and Utah into the trash: shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. I grabbed the COVID-safe breakfast: a packaged chocolate chip muffin, orange and sealed cup of apple juice from the lobby and drove to the Blue Lakes Trail a couple hours north, an 8-mile trail praised by some as one of Colorado's best hikes. I couldn't wait. I'd spent weeks in oven-hot sun and dust and I craved blue waters and alpine.

Fifteen elk crossed the two-lane highway near Dolores (Route 145) and then stared from the dry yellow-green before it turned white and the temperature tumbled to the 40s, 30s, 20s. As soon as I found snow, I wanted to touch it, to grab a handful of it like I had the sand at Spencer Trail, just the day before. But the snow was hard-packed into ice and I couldn't even kick it, so I enjoyed the view from my car, where I played CDs on repeat as a glistening river of melting water coursed through the solid white plains below.

The mountain villages reminded me of Mom, of Germany, of the trips Danielle and I took with Oma and Opa to high-altitude towns with chalets and rodelbahn. I'd craved these villas and pines for years, but now I was here, and everything seemed closed in and cold. I wanted to breathe in views, space, the kind of horizon infinity that lets sadness dissipate, instead of condense. I wanted to breathe in wildflower meadows and lakes.

I wound closer to the trail, passing a sign that read, "WE LOVE OUR VISITORS! BUT NOT NOW. NO VISITORS ALLOWED IN SAN MIGUEL COUNTY: Help Prevent COVID-19" and thought about the people in these mountain towns, these towns I'd often romanticized and fantasized about from my suburban Nashville home. I'd always thought I could live in the mountains, but the mountains felt suddenly claustrophobic, too far away. A lot felt different, nowadays: suddenly even the bears felt too close. Because now that I'd seen how disease and destruction indiscriminately invade, I'd gotten the sense that danger could, too. And I'd lived for so long in a bubble that everything would be okay, just because it always had been, that when I finally started my hike on the Blue Lakes Trail, I mistook a creaking tree for a groaning bear and turned quickly around, heart thumping.

It's funny now. But I've read all about the do's and don'ts of bear encounters, when to stand tall and when to back away, and I never can quite remember the answers, except that the highest recommendation is to never hike alone. I'd run into a momma bear and her cubs before, with Mike and Logan and Josh at Jenny Lakes Loop Trail in Wyoming; but this time, I was alone, the only human on this deserted alpine road, covered with snow as deep as my bare calves, without bear spray, and all I could do was fumble for music on my iPhone to warn the bears, hey, I'm here! 🎶 Don't go chasin' waterfalls! 🎶

I was still tired from a restless sleep and already tense from my drive up the miles-long gravel road, past "No Trespassing" gates and into the wilderness with no cell reception, no one to call if my Dad's six-speed Honda Accord blew a tire on a pothole or got stuck in the short but suspenseful frozen snow tracks. I'd already passed through two of them and stopped before the third (a trap that later forced a young Canadian-Bulgarian couple in a Dodge van to dig out their tires with a skillet), then executed a turnaround so tight I smelled burnt oil after all the gas-and-reverse.

The hike was supposed to be my reward for coming this far, a calming, peaceful venture, an exploration of mountains in spring. I tried to remember--I listened to the mild wind that gathered in the pines above the trickling creek, and I felt particularly, peculiarly alone.

And stupidly, frustratingly scared. What would I do, if I startled a bear, newly roused from hibernation, or a mother with hungry young cubs? "Death by black bear" no longer seemed like "a good way to go", because now that I'd watched Mom die, death no longer seemed irrational, or foreign, but totally, disturbingly eventual, and intimate.

Still, I moved forward, and crunched and crunched in the snow, and soaked my black Reeboks and the Western reptile socks I bought last time I was in Arizona. It'd already been 30 minutes, and I was still a ways from the trailhead. I felt like I needed to prove something--that I should at least get to the trailhead, because maybe the snow would dissipate if the trees cleared, and I didn’t drive eight hours to wonder.

But then I heard the Groaning Bear. And I felt the fear course through me, the fear that was muted before, because I'd always gotten the sense that I was safe, that I would be okay. I realized then that my newfound fear was going to stop me from doing something I'd always loved, because now that I had it, it felt smart, and moving on stupid. So I turned around, cursing the snow, the mountains, myself. Because fear felt like a smart thing, and moving on felt stupid, but moving on was what I wanted--it's all I'd ever done.

Frustrated and melancholic, I walked for five, ten minutes in the direction of my car when I saw two women, my age, heading my direction. I stopped and started taking photos while I waited, and when they passed I asked, "Do you guys know where the trailhead is?” and one of the girls pulled out her phone to show me the same blue GPS dot I had on mine. “Probably less than a mile!”

I asked them if they’d been there before, and they said no, and that someone down below told them the trail might not even be finishable, but they were going to try. They were wearing shorts and ankle-high shoes.

So I let them walk on—they seemed a bit anxious to get going—and then slowly followed them behind, just where I could see them in view. The closer I got to the trailhead, the deeper the snow, so much so that my lens cap fell off a few times from the force of the camera falling against me as I stumbled. Everywhere, the snow was collapsing, sometimes to the bottom of my thigh.

I was tired, and annoyed, but happy, too, with the mountain creek and the pine. “After this next curve,” I’d say to myself, thinking that surely the snow would be cleared and that’s how the girls hadn’t passed me by yet, saying “It’s just too much.” There were occasional patches of free trail, but after each curve was another uphill climb. Frozen footsteps made the path easy to tell, so I wasn’t worried about losing it—but I’d been wrestling each step and it’d been well over an hour since I'd started the journey. How was I supposed to hike eight miles, when one mile took me one long, drudgerous hour?

Finally, I turned around, my second and final defeat, and quickly realized that the path down was even harder than going up. On the way up, I fell often; but on the way down, I fell through to my thighs every single step, until it finally happened--I pulled out my leg from a snow-hold, but my shoe stayed, and now I had one shoe on and one bare, wet reptile sock hovering on the shaded sheet of ice. I panicked at first and pulled at the shoe, which made it sink in deeper. By the time I dug out my sneaker with a nearby stick, my foot and butt were ice cold, my heart was racing, my lungs burning.

My entire plan for Colorado was to do that day-long hike, but now I wanted the red-rock-warmth, the open sky and land, the cacti and the sun. I wanted an inviting land, because I felt shaken and cold, outcast. So I headed to Moab, first shuffling into a gas station with my yellow bandana around my mouth and frazzled hair, a swollen ankle and chafed calves and my dad's heavy flip flops, since my shoes were covered in ice.

I drove barefoot with the windows down, listened to Take it Easy, and found a Pickle Rick in the dirt at a scenic overview of Dolores Canyon.

I took I-70 West to Cisco and smiled at hand-painted "COWS ON HI-WAY" signs--and at the cows. Dad had handed me a pair of binoculars before I left for the weekend and asked me to promise that I'd find a place to see the Utah stars, so I lay on a cold metal park bench at Dewey Bridge Recreation Site and watched them unfold. Honking geese splashed on the moonlit Colorado River as frenetic bats disappeared into starlit navy sky, where Mom and Dad both felt close.

Around 10 pm I reached Moab, where I passed under swinging traffic lights on empty roads and read sign after sign on motel doors that they were either closed altogether or open only to essential travelers, like medical workers. I sat in the dark parking lot of a Days Inn, perusing for nearby alternatives, when I saw a man walk by on the sidewalk, one hand around a cup and another around a bag, looking my direction. When I glanced up from my phone again, he had turned around and was staring from a distance. "You looking for a place to stay?" he asked, his voice loud through my open windows.

I squeezed out an uncertain and exhausted "yeah", taking my chances as he approached, his scruffy face dirty with grease, his hand grasping a cup full of ice. He told me that all places in Moab were closed to thru-travelers and the nearest town was maybe an hour away, but "it'd be the same thing there." He offered me to stay in his mobile home--it was unoccupied, see, he had that mobile home there because he worked maintenance on the nearby hotels and was out tonight doing some welding work and metal got in his eye...but he lived in a house outside of town.

He walked away after I politely declined his offer and came back twice with more thoughts until he finally said, with hands in the air and a roguish, toothy grin, "I'll do you one better. I've got keys to all of these buildings and can sneak you into a room over there [at the dark motel next to us] eeh-lee-gully. I mean you won't go to jail or nuthin'!"

His eyes were bright and wide as I laughed and declined with gratitude, then drove off to a different dark lot a long ways down the road, doors and windows locked.

All of Moab was sleepy, and so was I, but I managed to book a last-minute room an hour south in Monticello on a friend's recommendation.

And I remember thinking on the long drive there: that man, though perfectly friendly and non-threatening, had a higher chance of hurting me than a bear, and I let him get closer. And these are the ways we deepen our sense of awareness and learn to work with fear, rather than let it burden us: we put everything into perspective, and we push on.

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