As I waited for Jeff to pick me up outside baggage claim at the Denver airport, I imagined my reaction to seeing his lifted, cardinal Toyota 4Runner was similar to what my dog feels when I grab the leash: Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy we’re going on an adventure! With one big difference: Jeff’s arrival signaled the removal of my “leash,” as for the next several days – there would be no contact with anyone in my outside world and all responsibilities – beyond getting home safely – were gone.
I have this huge, ugly black suitcase that hid the gear necessary for this trip. As I heaved the nearly 50-pound bag into the back of Jeff’s truck, I was greeted by our travel companion, Roxy. At the time, I thought Roxy was just a beautiful white shepherd/husky mix. I would quickly learn that she’s much more than that. I would also quickly learn that Roxy sheds with the best of ‘em. (And, as I now sit back in the Denver Airport waiting to fly home, I can only hope the person sitting next to me isn’t allergic to dogs.)
It’s a good thing that I had learned to minimize my expectations for this trip…because the plans changed almost before I could buckle my seat belt and exhale. Without so much as a hello, Jeff started in with, So we have some options. Of course we do. Our original plan to hike 4.5 miles on the first day was quickly scrapped. Instead, we opted for a nine-plus mile hike to a lake so pristine that it’s called just that, Pristine Lake. And, we reasoned that we’d figure out the rest from there. We’d also learn that nothing was as it seemed and from the very start of this adventure, everything had the caveat of give or take. It could take that long, less or more. Give or take.
But first, a four-hour drive (give or take) beyond Steamboat and a night of car camping awaited. We stopped for burgers, fries and a shake, filled up our water supply and made our way to the trailhead. Car camping brings a slew of luxuries not otherwise available on these trips. Key things. Important things. Beer things. We made a fire, feasted on sausage with peppers and onions, drank our beers, enjoyed a little bourbon and went to sleep – fully expecting to get on trail by 9:00AM the following morning. Which is exactly what we did. Except it was 10:00AM (give or take).
The nine-mile hike (give or take) to Pristine Lake took just under seven hours. We weren’t exactly marching up the trail. It was a long, slow slog with 3500 feet (give or take) of elevation gain (1000 of which we’d give up getting down to the lake after cresting the pass at Lost Ranger Peak). Roxy started out carrying her own food and water, but Jeff took off her pack when she had some trouble navigating a relatively difficult descent over loose rocks and big boulders. It wasn’t an easy day, but it was a great day. A perfect “welcome back to the backcountry.” And just to add the exclamation point to the day – we saw a black bear running through the trees above us as we climbed up the pass. Suffice to say – pretty cool. But this trip wasn’t about the first day’s climb to Pristine Lake. We didn’t know it at the time, but this trip would be all about day two (give or take).
The feasts continued that night, as we camped on the side of a smaller lake next to the bigger Pristine Lake. Jeff served up green-chile chicken served over taco-seasoned ramen with avocado. For dessert, we had a buffet of chocolate choices. Despite the fact that we were trying to pack ultra-light for this trip, we weren’t going to be ultra-starving. Dinners would always be filling.
After a restless night that included a magical hour (give or take) where I was wide awake, gazing at the millions of little points of light in the sky and counting shooting stars, I woke up for good around 6:30AM. Roxy also watched me get up and use the facilities (nearby tree) a couple of times, but she mostly sat watch the entire night. I don’t think she got much sleep either. She seemed thrilled when Jeff and I were both up. Someone to play with!
Roxy loves to chase sticks. Doesn’t matter how big they are or where you throw them. She’ll go get them. Despite the grueling hike the day before that left Jeff and me sore early in the morning, Roxy seemed ready for more. Throw the stick, throw the stick, throw the stick, throw the stick. Roxy doesn’t bring the sticks back. So, we quickly ran out of sticks.
Jeff and I reviewed our itinerary for the day over a hard-boiled egg, strip of bacon and green tea. Sunrise side up. Our plan was to hike back to the car, off-trail, through the forest using Jeff’s GPS mapping app. According to the app, the car was only two miles away (as the crow flies); we figured it was about six or six-and-a-half miles via the forest (give or take). We figured wrong. We also figured that because we basically hiked straight up to get to Pristine Lake, that we’d basically be heading downhill the whole way back. We figured wrong. And finally, our thought was that after getting back to the car, we’d drive to another trailhead and hike four more miles to a lake where we’d camp. Strike three. We thought wrong.
I think this day may have been the most physically challenging day of my life – and that includes the near-death day(s) on our first trek two years ago. I never feared for my life, but I did, at times, fear for Jeff’s. Because on more than one occasion during our almost eight-hour fight with the mountain, I wanted to kill him. Bushwhacking will be fun, he said. It’ll be cool, he said. Look how fun it is to walk on all these falling trees, he said. For the second day in a row, Roxy’s pack came off. I wondered when and how it would end. Give or take.
As we made our way through the forest, we were faced with conditions like I’d never seen. It was one thing not to have a trail to follow, but our feet were either off the ground, as we had to climb over miles and miles of deadfall (a word that I had never heard before this day – and would be happy never to discuss again). In short, deadfall is just that – fallen, dead trees, branches, trees and more trees. We were in the Zirkel Wilderness. It was more like the Zirkel Tree Morgue.
Even in her amazing athleticism, Roxy struggled. She would jump onto a tree and whimper, as she felt stuck. Jeff led the way. I followed Roxy. I tried to help her find less treacherous ways between point A and point B, but I usually failed. Roxy could do things I couldn’t do. She would jump over two logs, as I struggled to get over the first one. Jeff trudged on. Give or take.
When we weren’t in the deadfall, we found ourselves waist or even head deep in meadows. Still without trails. And, even if we’d find something that looked like one, it would disappear. Just end. Every now and again, we’d find ourselves following some kind of animal trail and then be standing in a spot where this apparently huge animal took a break and enjoyed a nap. Since we couldn’t see ahead of us through the weeds, I wondered silently if we were going to stumble on the bear from the day before. I thought about how much that might really, really suck.
As horrible as the meadows were – especially for Jeff because the ground was like swampland and he was wearing the lightest, smallest shoes imaginable – it was a welcome reprieve from the deadfall. It didn’t last. And back into the deadfall we went.
And then, about four hours in (give or take), I twisted my knee trying to get over a fallen tree. It wasn’t like we could stop, but I didn’t know how far I could go. According to the app, the car was still two miles away. We had been hiking for four hours, going in the right direction (we knew that much), but were weren’t any closer to the f*cking car? How was that even possible? I asked. Jeff didn’t answer.
Two hours later, I ran out of water. Roxy sat down every chance she got (give or take). I was frustrated. Jeff was frustrated. The app wasn’t telling us anything we wanted to know and we weren’t anywhere near the car. But there wasn’t any fear. We had food. We could find water. We had shelter. More than anything, this day was just a giant pain in the ass (and knee). More than anything, this day just wasn’t any fun. It was simply grueling. It was simply never-ending. We saw a moose. Not sure we cared.
My knee hurting and after zig-zagging up and down the side of the mountain in search of a trail – I had finally had enough. I needed water. We sat on the bank of what should have been a beautiful creek and pumped water. The beauty was lost. It had been six or more hours since we left Pristine Lake. Normally, we’d pose for a picture, but this creek was needed to serve a purpose far more important than a picture. No doubt we’d both remember it vividly without the click of the camera.
After another hour-and-a-half of silence (give or take), we made it to the car. We dropped our packs. We drank lots of water. And our plan changed yet again. There’s no way I can take another step today, but I’m not sure I can even take one tomorrow. We agreed to see how we felt in the morning. I was certain that the hiking portion of the trip was over. Disappointed. Bummed. My knee throbbed. My head ached. We ate well, drank more bourbon, had one last beer and at 8:00, I told Jeff goodnight. I never sleep in the wilderness. I slept nearly 12 hours. Uninterrupted.
I opened my eyes and Jeff asked how I felt about a four-mile hike to a “nice, little lake.” I told him that my knee had felt worse. Sure, let’s do it. We packed up, drove to the Mica Lake Basin trailhead and again started up. We were aching. It was incredibly hot. After nearly three hours and 2,000 feet, we made it to the lake.
Breathtaking. Stunning. Silent. Perfect.
We found a spot right next to the lake, threw sticks to Roxy and then the rain came. The thunder roared. Jeff retreated to his bivy to take a nap while Roxy and I parked under a tree and watched the rain. Our spot gave us a perfect view of perhaps the most epic cairn I’d ever seen. It was statuesque. Glorious.
As big drops fell and with Roxy at my feet, I thought a lot about the previous day. It wasn’t fun. In fact, it genuinely sucked. But, it was such an accomplishment (give or take). And although I was deeply in the moment when it was happening, I was in a moment of discomfort. Nearly eight hours of those moments. I asked the cairn (yes, I’m not above talking to cairns) how I could move beyond the discomfort in those times? I was, after all, still backpacking in Colorado. What a gift that was. I’d rather hurt my knee in the Zirkel deadfall than slipping down the stairs in my house. Maybe I was oversimplifying it. Maybe I was just trying too hard to find some big positive (as I’ve been accused of doing!) message. Maybe being in the moment sometimes means being uncomfortable (give or take).
When Jeff woke up from his nap, I asked him what he thought. He said it was too soon for him to process it. He did know, however, that he didn’t want to do it again. More than anything, I think the lesson from that day is about redrawing the lines of our capabilities. We put up most of the blocks we face ourselves and if we’d only just keep going, we find that we can do more than we think. I realize the cliché, but it still turns out to be true. Fear stops us from experiencing our best. From experiencing what it perhaps really feels like to be free. I wasn’t scared in the deadfall, but I didn’t trust my abilities. I couldn’t cop to the fact that I was in good enough shape to do it. Why? Why couldn’t I let myself enjoy the pain? What does that take? What do I have to give?
It felt a little like a scene from the movie SAY ANYTHING, I can’t figure it all out right now, sir. Right now, I just want to hang with your daughter. In short, it is what it is for now, shut up and put more wood on the fire. As the fire roared, the sun started to set on the high peaks across the lake. The clouds were gone, the dog slept, our stomachs were (again) full. We just stared at the moving light for hours. In total silence. And then Jeff said it. This is Zirkel’s Redemption.
Everything we had gone through in the last few days was to get us to this moment. We had to climb over obstacles, get hurt, cut up, bruised and crushed. We had to stomp through mud and fall repeatedly on slippery rocks and fallen trees. All of which was redeemed in this moment. And isn’t that just like life? We get pretty chewed up, but usually find our way out to some other side. Some kind of redemption. We make our mistakes. We fall down. And we get back up.
The following day, our packs lighter, as we didn’t need much water and had eaten all of our food, we enjoyed an easy walk out of the woods. We had completed another trek. This one so different from the other two. New lessons learned. New ideas discovered. And a whole new set of limits pushed to the side. And that’s what Zirkel’s Redemption is all about. Give or take.