*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on August 27, 2017. It can also be found online here.
If value is that which is unique and useful, then the Rockies are Colorado’s rarest riches.
I learned this the hard way over the past week while part of a long distance trail running event. Along with 400 other athletes from 17 countries, six Canadian provinces, and 38 U.S. states, I participated in the TransRockies Run, a six-day, 120-mile footrace that featured 20,000 feet of climbing over the Rockies, traveling alongside US. 24 from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek.
While a race like this isn’t exactly for everyone, it does provide an exceptional view into what makes Colorado such a breathtaking place.
We started in Buena Vista, and the serpentine trail leading out of town overlooked a state prison, only reinforcing the sense we were on a jail break from the grind of normal life. The path followed the Arkansas River and adjacent railroad tracks with the Collegiate Peaks to our west. This glimpse of Mounts Harvard, Yale, and Princeton was a subtle reminder of the tough self-education to come. For some it would be getting through the long miles ahead. For myself, it was more psychological: my running times have crept upward, along with age and responsibilities. While the race courses and mountain trails remain the same, I’ve slowed down. You learn a lot about yourself when you willfully engage in something you’re getting worse at.
The second day began in Vicksburg, a ghost mining town, a reminder that Colorado’s Gold Rush isn’t really over. Most of the shiny stuff is gone, but people from all over the globe still descend on this landscape for the chance to ascend into these mountains to find their fortunes. In this case, it was over Hope’s Pass and on to Leadville, which in 1882, Oscar Wilde wrote was the “richest” and “roughest” city in the world.
One hundred thirty five years later, the rough part is still easy to spot. Everything, including breath, seems hard in Leadville. At over 10,000 feet, the double-mile-high city has become an endurance sports mecca, a notable characteristic for a town that seems to enjoy holding on by its fingernails.
Somewhat inappropriately, we started the third day with AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” blasting on the start line next to a main street funeral home (of course, there were no vocal objectors). We left Leadville for the Continental Divide Trail and headed to a picturesque fly fishing camp. On the way, we passed the rifle ranges, concrete bunkers, and remnants of Camp Hale-where, 75 years ago, the Army’s 10th Mountain Division trained to fight across the European Alps during World War II.
The still, reflective waters near camp provided the perfect pause to think through the rules of moving through these mountains. On high elevation trails, two-thirds equals half way; use twice as much sunscreen as you think you need; even when you’re sure you’ve made it, there’s always one more peak; uphill is harder but downhill is tougher; and, when it comes to clothes, think layers, layers, layers.
Our next stop was in Red Cliff, a place which proves that while the one-horse town is indeed extinct, one-restaurant towns still exist. From there we launched over ski area back bowls to arrive in Vail and then on to the final finish line at the bottom of a ski gondola in Beaver Creek.
The juxtaposition of modest mountain towns and the resort luxury of Vail and Beaver Creek is a helpful way to think through Colorado’s mountainous gifts. The Rockies are for everyone, whether one is wealthy or not so much. Beachfront can be bought, but mountains aren’t so easily tamed. A travel brochure picked up over the week touted Chaffee County (including Buena Vista and Salida) as a “natural playground” because 82 percent of the county is public land. So while the race required an entry fee, the trails don’t charge. They only ask for effort.
In a country with far too many suffering obesity, and a generation of children saddled with what writer Richard Louv has called “nature deficit disorder,” these mountains are Colorado’s most precious resource because they supply so much of what we need today. Inspiration beyond the cubicle. Activity for nearly everyone. Scenery that can’t be bought. Experiences “Colorado” to the core.
So head west, and then up. Colorado’s mountains will enrich your life, if you give them a chance. They have for me. Like all long mountain hikes, the journey itself is the reward.