The alarm wakes me at 2 am. It’s going to be a good day. Coffee and packs in hand, my daughter Charlotte and I are on the road shortly after 2:30. Our destination is Mt. Sherman, one of Colorado’s many fourteeners. I'm super excited to do this with Charlotte. It is considered “easy,” which is fine by both of us. It’s our first one, we’re short on seasoned navigational skills, and since it is right next to Mt. Sheridan (a peak just 250 feet short of being a fourteener), we’ll do both and call it a day.
Eyes gritty from lack of shuteye and peeled for deer on the periphery of the highway, maneuvering rain-slicked roads, and my copilot snoozing beside me, I’m driving through the Twilight Zone. Just west of Fairplay Charlotte regains consciousness as we hit washboard on the dirt road the last ten miles to the trailhead.
We are lucky to still find parking at the top, part of the reason for arriving so early. The other, more important motivation: to summit prior to any potential thunderstorms. Just before 6:00 we’re hoofing it up the trail, my pack loaded for bear with food, water, extra clothes, hand sanitizer, and first aid. I don’t like to be hungry, thirsty, or cold, or apparently, unprepared.
Right off the bat my breathing is embarrassingly noticeable. Perhaps starting our hike at 12,000 feet has something to do with that. Luckily Charlotte is both kind and patient, and refrains from making comments about waiting for her slow mom.
Looking toward the peak, we can see headlamps of groups making their way up the mountain. Looking back down the valley, a procession of cars dots the road to the trailhead like a string of fairy lights, dust softening the high beams to a warm glow.
Mt. Sherman is named for Union General William T. Sherman, who practiced a scorched earth policy on his march to Atlanta. Mt. Sheridan is named for Union General Philip Sheridan, who succeeded Sherman as general in chief of the US army in 1883. The slopes of Sherman and Sheridan bear evidence of their zinc, gold and silver mining history. With names like Dauntless, Hilltop and Last Chance, the mining ruins lay across this bleak landscape like ghost towns. Once stalwart structures are collapsed and scattered, giant steel cables strewn across the dirt, and mine entrances blocked by sturdy bars.
The sunrise takes its sweet time, gentle peachy pink light hovering over a quilt of dove-gray clouds. We keep stopping to take pictures, so enamored with the views we can’t restrain ourselves. Closer to the summit the trail morphs to footpaths through the talus, slopes with larger rocks and boulders, compared with scree which is smaller loose rock. The sections with steep drop offs demand singular focus on the trail, at least for a heights-challenged person such as myself.
Reaching the summit of Mt. Sherman is a little like walking into a party with stellar 360’ views. I’m initially inclined to wallflower it, but Charlotte suggests a more social policy, and I’m glad she did. Tail-wagging dogs say their hellos with cold noses and big tongue-lolling grins. Friendly people trade glad-we-made-it banter. My favorites are the family from Florida. From sea level to the top of Mt. Sherman: they are happy and proud, the life of the party. They let us borrow their cardboard sign and offer to take our picture. But what really wins me over is that they’d packed enough food to be up there for a week - my kind of people.
From the saddle between the two peaks we ascend Mt. Sheridan. Summiting Sheridan is more like stepping onto an island in a sea of mist. There to greet us is an apparent cairn gone rogue, which has transformed into low stone walls making up three sides of a square. It is other-worldly, and silent. It feels like we are the only people on earth.
As we descend, I think about the people we've seen making the trek to this summit, some fit and some struggling a bit, to see the world from a high place. I'm struck by how Charlotte takes in everything around us, and her fascination with the alpine plants, reds and greens growing low to the ground in little rock gardens. I love how we've conversed on many topics, and the smiles she gives me along the trail.
We take some time to explore the mining ruins - no thunderstorms threatening today. The sky is blue and the sun is warm. We look down the valley to see the tail ends of the cars driving away. It seems we are among the last to leave, which makes us laugh. We've turned this short, "easy" trip into a five-hour adventure.
We feel spent and satisfied. A day of new perspectives - a unique and fun experience for our first fourteener. Looking forward to the next one.
There is a dog in my life. Her name is Haven, also known as Princess Pretty Paws, and she’s a 14-year-old German Shepherd. She is not able to see or hear, but her sniffer still works great. Giving her opportunities to smell stuff is an excellent way to perk up her brain and body. Her primary place of residence is with my daughter’s dad, but recently I’ve been picking her up a few days a week to go on a sniffing jaunt. Parks, trails, and empty parking lots all work well. We like pungent grass and warm sunshine.
Haven wasn’t always blind. Five years ago when we unexpectedly lost her partner-in-crime, a male German Shepherd, Haven developed pannus (an autoimmune condition in which a membrane grows over the eye) that advanced so fast the medication did nothing to stop it. It is possible that the stress of her buddy dying contributed to the rapid progression. As dogs tend to do, she adapted to both the loss of her friend and the loss of her sight with grace. If I had a drop or two of Haven’s capacity for acceptance, well, suffering and negativity would occupy much less real estate in my brain.
She has learned to sit by the gate when I come, and she lets me know she is happy to see me. She greets me with a subtle wiggle of her body, ears bent in her particular way (another of her nicknames is “Bendy Ears”), and a nuzzle of her head. Then it’s right out the open gate, eager to go on our adventure. The way she welcomes me is the highlight of my day. I try to incorporate that extra warm welcome when I greet friends and clients, but I don’t always remember to do so. Haven never forgets.
The leash works as gentle guidance to stay away from walls and drop-offs, and when we are downtown, to keep her from plunging into her favorite, the Sulphur Spring. I don’t want you to get the idea that Haven is frail. When she decides she’s had enough of a particular area, she digs in her paws and we change direction. There is no arguing and she means business. I love that about her. Some day I hope to stand my ground as definitively as she does.
Our wanderings are sometimes circular, sometimes back and forth, and sometimes zig-zag. We take little breaks for doggie-massage and treats. Our unrushed pace means I get to look at her so that we are in communication, and I get to take in the blue sky, bright birdsong, and moving water. It is usually early enough that it is quiet, and we have lots of space to ourselves.
Being with Haven is precious time. It is a time of contentment, affection, and surprises - like when she gets a wild hair and takes off at a trot. I have to run to keep up. This time with her is easy, a respite with no demands, and a rare time to just be. Sometimes I look at her pretty face and she is smiling her sweet doggie smile. I think she likes this time too.
Have you ever noticed the way the October leaves of aspen trees seem to absorb the light of the sun and combust from within, an inner fire that glows in flames of orange-gold? Or the particular blue of the sky in fall, in which it seems every particle of the atmosphere is saturated with that indigo wavelength? Or how the autumn sunshine rests gently on your skin, warming you all the way through?
Light threads through our days, nights, and seasons in myriad ways. The full moon’s light on Pearl Lake is bright enough to see by, but is so different from the light of day. Stars shine through the black sky and reflect from the depths of the dark water. The light from the moon casts a glimmering silver over the lake surface and tree tops. The moonlight hints at the mystery of things unseen, unknown.
Candlelight paints a wall in flickering shadow, warms and calms. The on-going play of flame is a study in shifting reality. Fairy lights strung through trees are festive, enticing and a celebration of the night. Firelight, primally satisfying, provides comfort in winter and crackling fun on a summer camping trip. Fickle spring sun coaxes the first crocus blooms: purple, white and yellow popping open between slender emerald stems.
Starlight is a reminder of faraway places and times. The luminescence we see tonight has taken many years to reach our eyes, and the dreams of our childhood stargazing might be distant memories. The light of the moon, waxing, waning, new and full, is a paradox of consistent change. Sunlight means warmth, energy and life for everything on earth, except for those innovative organisms who’ve adapted to feed on thermal energy from vents in the ocean floor.
The light at dawn growing steadily brighter in the eastern sky is our signal for a fresh start.
The light at day’s end, as it settles into its western-sky palette of breath-taking color, is a time of gratitude and awe.
Jacqueline Denny, ACC, CHPC, LMT