Wander Log

Synonyms for Joy: Odessa Lake

I challenged myself to hike 150 miles this summer. I counted 16 weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The summer would begin in Utah with Arches and Canyonlands; it would culminate at the Tetons and Yellowstone in Wyoming. Doable, I reasoned.

I turned a blank Excel workbook into my summer adventure planner. I coordinated with friends on bucket-list expeditions, plugging them into the little printed cells. After a week or so, the three sheets of 8.5-by-11 inch paper were scattered with multi-colored ink: pink arrows, green scribbles, blue ballpoint symbols and icons. They were in poor condition, clinging listless to one another only by the parallel grooves of their wrinkles. The pages drooped from their staple holes. The packet wasn’t much to look at, but each time I tucked it back into my purse, it felt sacred—like the roadmap to dreams.

I started the summer at a brisk pace, charting over 65 miles in June. I felt capable, confident—like I could even hike 200 miles over the summer. Then I met July. In its 31 days, I hiked less than 20 miles. There were reasons (excuses)! I traveled to California, moved to a different town, hosted out-of-state visitors, and I worked at a music festival. With so many competing priorities for precious weekend moments, mileage became a low priority. I still spent time outside to climb, swim or walk the dogs. But, it was impossible to get a Saturday to myself (or with an ambitious hiking buddy) to log any real distance.

By mid-August the chaos seemed to subside, for the most part. I settled into my new home, and my friends and family started to talk about going back to school. Once more, I was free to seek refuge in the mountains. After a refreshing excursion to Ouzel Lake, I found a renewed confidence in meeting the goal.

I surround myself with a small group of loyal friends whom I cherish…but my favorite way to hike is alone. It is my meditation.

Humans are social creatures; as such, we spend a lot of time negotiating, compromising. In cities, we are like pet birds: we can live a happy life, but ultimately, the cage defines us. Spending time in nature allows us to be free. Hiking alone is a natural extension to the practice of exercising one’s sovereign rights as a sentient being.

My favorite way to hike is alone. It is my meditation.

When I went to bed on Friday, August 18, I expected to wake early the next morning. My friends were driving up from Denver to spend the day hiking with me in Rocky Mountain National Park (“the” Park, I usually say, as if there is only one). When I am jarred awake at 5:15 a.m. by my cell phone alarm, I fumble for a button, any button, to silence it. The LED screen illuminates, and I am greeted by a summary of what happened while I was asleep. An exchange between Lauren and Isabel catches my attention. One of them is not feeling well and the other agrees to skip the hike and regroup later in the day. My pillow immediately doubles in softness; my bedding embraces me as though we are lovers. My eyelids flutter closed—but not before my brain steps in.

The goal, I remember. A montage of memory swirls through my awareness, an assault of nature scenes from the summer. I sit up, alert. I’m sorry you’re not feeling well! I tap on my iPhone screen. I’m still going to go, I add.

I have these Contigo to-go mugs from Costco, which are like spill-proof sippy cups for adults. One thing I like about them is their ability to keep my coffee hot even after a day on the trail; I look forward to warm sip of caffeine once I return to my car. One thing I do not like about them is that the impenetrable seal is too effective: when first poured, I am unable to drink without burning my tongue. Unfortunately, the latter coincides with the earliest part of the morning. This is when I am cold and tired and want coffee the most.

I try nonetheless, holding the cup’s drinking hole near my lips, timid. I successfully inhale a few droplets. The Park feels deserted, even though it is summer and past sunrise (this is rare).

I slide into a parking spot along a dirt road, leaving my car on accessory mode. The Band warbles through the speakers as I don layers and lace up my hiking boots. Maybe everything that dies someday comes back. Two men not much older than myself stand outside a Subaru parked next to me. I watch them step into fishing waders, stuffing the pockets of their utility vests with gear. They introduce themselves and one of them, Mark, hands me a business card. “If you ever want to go fly-fishing,” he offers, “I lead tours!” I thank him and tuck the card into my pack, shutting my car door and setting off toward the trail.

There are only a few hours before I need to be back in Lyons; I am scheduled to work an afternoon shift at the Folks Festival box office. I move at a brisk pace, following a snowmelt creek west as it babbles with joy a few paces to my left. As I gain elevation, the landscape shifts from lush summer greenery to blackened forest fire scar. The charred arboreal skeletons remain upright, an eerie reminder that we are all guests in this world. Delicate grasses have begun to spring up in the nitrogen-rich soil. They sway with the breeze in unison.

An elderly couple emerges from a blind curve in the trail. He looks up in earnest, fixing his attention on me. She uses a trekking pole to navigate gingerly across a smattering of loose rock. “Keep an eye out,” he warns. “There’s a pile of fresh scat right on the trail up by the lake. A trail runner told us she saw the bear, but we never saw him.” He looks disappointed; I’m sure my expression more closely resembles alarm. Wondering wanly what happened to the steel whistle that used to hang from my pack, I consider turning back and finishing my mileage on another trail. Noting the pace of the couple, I realize the amplitude of time the bear has had to make a getaway. I decide to forge on.

Shortly, I crest a rocky ridge and reach a sunken clearing with a lake. Typically when one reaches the apex of their hike, they experience a mixture of elation and accomplishment. I met only confusion. This lake was much more open than the pictures I had seen online. Unlike the pristine clarity of the photographed body of water, a sickly green film coated this one. It was too bright to be lily pads. Algae? I wonder, disoriented. I call up the AllTrails app on my iPhone, where I have been tracking my position along the trail. The LED screen indicates that I am near an unlabeled body of water. I zoom out, pinching my right forefinger and thumb together several times, looking for the name. My heart sinks as a series of facts become evident. First, is that an unsteady red line marks the steps I have taken to my current location, a pulsating blue dot on the map. The second fact is that the nearest label to me on the map says, “Cub Lake.” The third is that a thick gray line branches out from the red path in a Y shape. It travels north along the same trajectory I have followed to the south. In short, I am not where I intended to go

I glance up and across the lake, a lively oasis amid the scorched hillside. A thin dirt path traces its rim. Sure enough, a dark pile of what looks to be wet soil dotted with red chokecherries lies in the dirt a few yards to my left. Bear scat. With a final look at the shadeless path ahead, I return to the direction from whence I came. I pass a wooden sign not far away – “CUB LAKE” it reads. How did I miss that?

The phone remains accessible as I retrace my footsteps downward. I try not to think about how these are the switchbacks of the mountain I just ascended. The blue emblem flickers on my phone, moving closer to the fork between the red and gray routes. I grow dismayed the closer I get – how had I tracked two whole miles off course? The salt to this wound comes by way of a second sign. It is large and not easily missed, directing hikers toward a half dozen locations with arrows. Fern Lake, my destination, is at the top. I had missed it, of course.

The “right” trail begins carrying me northward, and my calves protest as we climb. What should have been the two-mile marker in my adventure now falls at six. Ignoring the tightness in my muscles, I pick up the pace. Passing a not-unimpressive set of falls, I tell myself to look up the name later (Marguerite). It seems as if no time has passed at all when I break into a clearing. It is quite obviously the place I had seen in photographs when selecting the trail last night. The lake is nestled in a wooded basin; a modest cabin stands guard along the shore.

A quick glance at the lock screen of my phone tells me that I have arrived with time to spare. I pick my way along the banks of the lake, acutely aware that I am in mosquito territory. I search for a secluded spot to take a break. I find a dry, felled tree at the northern end of the lake and pull a snack out of my pack.

Munching on cheese, nuts and dried fruit, I scroll idly through the trail map, surveying my surroundings. I see another, larger body of water slightly west of my location. I zoom in, then out, searching for its name. Seeing none, my intrigue piques. Using my pinky nail as a unit of measurement, I try to estimate the distance to this mysterious reservoir. I look at the time once more, and decide that I have time to explore – if I move quickly. I shove the remnants of my minimalist lunch back into my bag and sling it over my shoulders. I am already walking away as I fasten its plastic buckles across my torso.

The path upward hugs the lake on its western edge—the shore opposite from my current position. A time-consuming, roundabout path leads to the other side of Fern Lake. I do not register the inconvenience. I scale the next ridge, the ascent mounting quickly until it overlooks Fern Lake from above. The dense forest gives way precipitously to a vast boulder field devoid of vegetation. The trail meets a stand of pines in the distance once again. Mid-morning light passes through their upper boughs, refracted as a full spectrum of color. If there had ever been a stairway to Heaven, this must be it. I wonder about the magnitude of the glacier that wreaked havoc on this space: boulders the size of suburban homes are flung inconsequentially across the hillside like marbles.

This is the steepest swath of trail yet. Maybe I have made a mistake by continuing past Fern Lake. My progress is slow and labored, unsteady. I feel tentatively for loose stones before trusting each step and shifting my weight forward. I sweat in the exposed heat, obsessing over the time and regretting my decision. Abruptly, a cool sheet befalls the blistered ground. I realize that I have stepped into the shadow of forest once more. Verdure follows water: I must be approaching the second lake (well, third – if you count my accidental foray to Cub). The conifers to my right end in a steep embankment; a crystalline stream winds its way in an arbitrary path along the bottom. The slope is flecked with wildflowers, bright red Indian Paintbrush and gold Black-Eyed Susan, purple Lupine and white Everlasting. I look up toward the alpine sky, searching for the line of demarcation where forest ends and rock begins. It is not very high above me; I estimate my current position to be over 10,000 feet in elevation—close to treeline. My heart sings with joy seeing the flowers. It feels like June rather than August—like summer is still an abstract concept stretching forth indefinitely.

Turning a corner, the view elicits a gasp and I stop. An exquisite peak fills my vision, illuminated by the sun and framed by dark tree silhouettes in the foreground. It is a distinguished sheet of violet granite lunging authoritatively upward in a twisted spire. The mountain is crowned with a lingering white sheet of snow. It is like I am gazing through a portal to another world. To Narnia.

A giant log, hewn along its diameter lengthwise, forms a bridge across Fern Creek. Darting across, I wave my outstretched arms in harmony with my footsteps to keep balance. The wildflower joy surges into exaltation when I reach the lake. I list synonyms for Joy: a suite of brass instruments playing a triumphant major scale; cut grass scent wafting in through the window on a spring day; the first sip of coffee on a crisp morning. There is a sign: Odessa Lake.

Cursing the misguided detour to Cub Lake, I contemplate not returning to Lyons. What if I stayed here? A furious wanderlust roils in my gut, but the thought is fleeting. I don’t have enough food or water, or an overnight shelter—and I would like to be invited back to the festival. I am in awe of the stolid wisdom emanating from the violet mountain. This must be the most beautiful place I have ever seen.

Before spending too much time analyzing, I shake my head: Nature does not need to be compared to itself. All Nature is beautiful, even Cub Lake snug in its blackened bed. A smile creeps onto my lips with the realization that I, too, am a part of Nature. I bask in this “God-feeling,” the impression that I am a piece of a miraculous whole. A fleeting, bigger-than-myself sensation: I am complete, sated, void of want. Whether this is God, Nirvana, Heaven, the Universe, or something Else…this is the very reason why humans seek experience in Nature. In this moment, all that exists in the world is before me.

Eventually, it is time to leave. Heart overflowing with gratitude, I inhale my lungs full of the magic air from this otherworldly place. I vow to return soon for a longer trip. Now, I have a festival to get to.