I don’t think Mitch understood how I could be laughing and crying all at once.
He looked at me with some concern, and asked me if I was alright.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s euphoria, I think. It’s too much feeling for either laughing or crying, so they both happen at the same time. Like the last part of that movie Kill Bill, after she kills Bill and he gave her a drug that made her euphoric so she wouldn’t feel bad.”
“I’ve not ever had that happen,” Mitch answered.
Frankly, I hadn’t either, until this moment. It shocked me at first, until I realized what was happening, and why.
“I’m not surprised,” I answered. “I think you have to be older, maybe, or at a certain place in your life.”
“Well, it seems pretty cool,” he said as we continued driving home.
I told him that it is.
I’m slow in writing this. Our trip happened on Aug. 5-9, and today is Sept. 27, Mitch’s 19th birthday. Maybe I needed time to process it all.
Mitch and I planned a trip to Colorado to spend a little time together and do some hiking – which we both enjoy, particularly in the mountains. The plan was to summit Mt. Yale, a 14,199 foot mountain near Buena Vista that I had hiked 15 years earlier. At the time, I was horribly out of shape, overweight and not at all equipped to reach the top. Nevertheless, I came within maybe 100-yards of the summit. I was determined to reach the top, even if it happened three steps at a time with space between to pull oxygen from the thin mountain air. But I didn’t make it – all the hikers at the summit came running down past me. Then I saw it – a thunderstorm on the other side of the peak. It rolled over the mountain, and it was clear that anything above the tree line was in danger. I used whatever energy I had in reserve to get my way back down to safety.
For all those years, that failure haunted me. An unfinished thing. Another example of the things I’d come close to reaching, but just quite couldn’t. Someday, I told myself, I will go back and finish what I didn’t before.
That was the plan for this trip. And I would do it with my son, which felt all the better.
The new plan
Instead of staying in Buena Vista, we stayed with my brother in Avon. That put us about two hours from Mt. Yale, but it was still our plan to summit. But we wanted to take a practice run after spending several days at high altitude, to see how well we had acclimated. We both decided to hike up to the Missouri Lakes – a roughly 4 mile hike through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on. Mitch remembered it, too, from a trip from years ago, and said he wanted to hike it.
So we set out, loaded with enough food and water to get us to the lakes and back without any trouble. The hike was beautiful, and just as we had remembered. It moves through a thick forest, along a mountain stream that opens into a wide meadow that was blooming with wildflowers, before returning to a climb toward the alpine bowl near the top that is home to a handful of lakes filled with the clearest water imaginable. Words don’t adequately describe its beauty, nor do my photos.
We climbed and climbed. Took breaks if we needed to and stopped to take plenty of photos. Mitch paid careful attention to his blood sugar – his Type 1 diabetes requires that he frequently check his blood sugar and, if it is low, eat some food.
One of the reasons I enjoy Missouri Lakes so much is the payoff at the top. There’s a small ridge, where you emerge from the forest, and in front of you and below rest the lakes. Natural. Untainted and untouched, surrounded by light green growth and framed by mountain peaks. We made our way down to the lake, where we sat down for a while, ate a little food and drank some more water before heading back. Somewhere in there, we joined a conversation about doing the “loop.”
“It’s about 8.8 miles to do the whole thing,” this stranger said.
That didn’t seem too bad. The route up and back to Missouri Lakes was around 8 miles.
“You have to cross a pass, well two actually, but they’re just right there,” he pointed to the rocky peak of Missouri Pass. “And the other one is not bad and it’s just on the other side.”
After exploring around the lakes for probably an hour, Mitch and I decided that we’d tackle the whole loop – into the mountains via Missouri Pass, out via Fancy Pass.
At some point we realized we were alone.
Where the Missouri Lakes trail was spotted with other hikers, the trail beyond the lakes was empty. But we kept on. Missouri Pass is steep, and nothing but loose rock. As we made our way up, the trail grew hard to see, our hearts beat fast and our lungs struggled to pull in enough air. The altitude – 11,986 isn’t a 14er, but it’s high enough for someone who lives near sea level.
We reached the top of the pass and looked around us. On one side, the lakes we had just visited, only more beautiful than before from this vantage point. On the other, a bowl of sorts, with a new lake and a trail that meandered through a rocky valley with short grass and a handful of wildflowers, but no trees. We moved on, following the trail that we believed would sort of just work it’s way around to the second pass, before heading down to the trail head.
The altitude of Fancy Trail pass is 11,816, which is misleading on paper, because that makes it sound like we went downhill from Missouri Pass. That is only partly true: We went down into the bowl, then had to climb back up to reach Fancy Pass. Here’s a “highlight” from the trail guide: “From the (Fancy) lake, it is a steep climb and descent over Fancy Pass to Treasure Vault lake.”
It works the same way in reverse. Even though the altitude was slightly lower, the grade was more, not less, than what we encountered on Missouri Pass. It is perhaps more rocky and unstable, and it was much harder on our legs, lungs and heart.
But I need to tell you about what happened between Missouri Pass and Fancy Pass.
A thunderstorm. That’s what f#$%^@ng happened.
While we were stuck between two mountain passes in an area that was entirely above tree-line, clouds with lightning moved in on the next mountain over.
For those of you who have even less experience hiking in the mountains than me, here’s a quick primer: Thunderstorms happen almost everyday in the mountains during the summer. Locals know this, and they caution people to plan their hikes to be back to their cars by early afternoon. That’s because you don’t want to be out in a thunderstorm. You especially don’t want to be out in an area where you are the tallest conductor of electricity – which is exactly what you are above mountain tree lines. Which is exactly where Mitch and I were when this particular thunderstorm rolled in.
There was no choice but to go on. Heading back toward Missouri pass didn’t make sense; we had already begun our ascent up Fancy Pass. Regardless of which way we went, it was imperative that we get up and over the pass and back down to the forested area that might offer protection. The complication, however, was that it wasn’t easy. Thanks to the altitude, and probably inadequate hydration, our legs had started cramping. The path was steep, rocky and somewhat unstable. At one point, Mitch’s legs all but stopped working, little more than two meaty, twitchy masses of muscle that wouldn’t do what they were designed to do.
I told him that despite the pain in our legs, we had to keep moving. We wouldn’t feel any better if we got struck by lightning. So we pushed on, and finally reached the top of Fancy Pass. You’d have thought we’d be happy, but that wasn’t the case. What we saw was a steep, slippery descent along a trail of loose rock, interrupted once by a swell of leftover snow that we had to cross, and a tree line that seemed so very far away. Even below tree line, Fancy Pass wasn’t very fancy to us. We lost the trail once and had to back track. It was filled with switchbacks, which might be helpful on the steep climb up, but felt like a cruel joke on the way down.
But we made it. Sans electrocution, bone breakage, major head injury, and death. Instead of trying Mt. Yale the next day, we enjoyed an easier, but equally beautiful hike at Booth Falls outside of Vail.
The point of all this and back to that whole euphoria thing
Let me talk to you about Mitch for a minute. He turns 19 today, and I’m sometimes amazed at what he can do. I won’t go into all the reasons and gush on and on like I did during his graduation, but I will talk about this hike and what I saw there.
Twice on this hike Mitch’s blood sugar dropped to uncomfortable levels – both times in the 50 mg/dl range, which can be dangerous if you’re just sitting around the house. (He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 7th grade). More so if you’re trying to scale a mountain pass. Not once did he consider not finishing this hike, nor did he pause at the thought of crossing two passes. He simply ate to restore his blood sugar and made some adjustments on his pump to prevent future lows, and carried on. His legs cramped badly near the top of Fancy Pass, to the point that walking was really difficult and painful. He didn’t stop. He understood why we had to keep moving, and he did. It was pained, but he pushed on. By the time we reached the trail head – including a loop around the Missouri lakes a roughly 10 mile hike – he bounced back and had far more energy than I did. I was incredibly impressed and proud of him and the way he pushed through a lot of uncomfortable things that day. This would’ve been a challenging hike for anyone; for someone with a chronic disease that affects energy levels even more so.
Now that whole euphoria thing back in the car. I was exhausted and somewhat dehydrated because I thought we were nearly out of water. Turned out we had a full bottle in a backpack I had forgotten about. I was driving out of the national forest when all these thoughts and feelings started flooding my mind. It was overwhelming. So I started laughing, and crying, and it was weird and awkward and maybe a little uncomfortable for Mitch, who was just stuck in the seat next to me probably wondering what the hell was wrong with his seemingly basket case father.
But here’s what I latched onto during that time: I had a plan that Mitch and I would hike Mt. Yale together, and we’d conquer this thing that had been over my head for the past 15 years. This failure, of sorts. This mountain, or goal, that I had almost reached, but fallen just short of. It might have been better had I failed early on, but I didn’t; I nearly reached the peak, but I was too slow. So I got close enough to see the finish line, but not close enough to cross it. And I’ve always gnawed on that failure. So I set out to beat it, to erase that failure from my life.
But sitting there weirdly displaying two competing emotions at once, I realized I didn’t care that I didn’t summit that peak. I now possessed something new and better.
Had I been so focused on this failure from my past, on this Mt. Yale, this whole experience with Mitch on Missouri/Fancy Pass couldn’t have happened. And what happened there was better and unique. It was our experience, our story. It wasn’t a forced attempt to undo the past or conquer some demon. It was a new experience that grew in the space created by letting the failure of Mt. Yale fade away into its own memory. Had I kept my eyes centered on Mt. Yale, we wouldn’t have exhausted ourselves on Missouri/Fancy. And there’s a good chance the Mt. Yale experience would’ve been forced, and probably not as fun, because for me it would’ve been this intense desire to overcome the past rather than an opportunity to create something new, with my son.
A bonus, for me, was that this was the second time I’ve hiked Missouri with Mitch. We took a family trip here years before and both the kids hiked up to the lakes, but they were too young to handle the passes – and frankly I wouldn’t have been able to handle it then, either. But now this place is part of his story. Once as a young child and once as an adult. I’m sure we’ll hike it again. Maybe someday with my granddaughter Lila, and then we’ll get to start this entire experience all over again with another generation.
I was happy to not do what I had set out to do. I was euphoric because my body and mind had been broken down and exhausted, and in that moment I realized that this life is not so much about the things I’ve failed to do, but about the experiences that emerge when I am willing to let go of those thorns and open up to whatever experience lies on the path that’s in front of me.