For the last twenty-one years I’ve had one dream: to hike every trail in and around Estes Park, Colorado, for which there is a trail tag. We go almost every year to the YMCA of the Rockies at Estes. So far I have twenty-three patches. I have seventeen poems about earning those patches. The joke is that I will put myself through great suffering for the joy of earning a $2 tag.
In 2007, when the kids were at camp, John and I were already hiking by 1 p.m. Deer Mountain the day we arrived. Then the kids outgrew camp, got busy with high school things and then college things. We grew older, got injured. We borrow a line from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, when a beat-up Indiana Jones says, “It’s not the years. It’s the mileage.”
When we went to Colorado last fall we tentatively planned some hikes, but a foot of snow meant we never ventured into Rocky Mountain National Park. We walked but never hiked.
Back again this summer, we decided to do one real hike. After consulting my trusty dusty hiking book, we chose to go with a guide from the Y. We signed up for Lake Dorothy in Indian Peaks Wilderness, just seven miles round-trip. We knew we’d chosen well when we learned our perky guide was also a first responder.
When you hike above treeline — which in this part of Colorado is around 11,500 feet — there is a rule: start early and get back below treeline by noon. Storms come from nowhere. They wind down the mountains, and every year hikers get struck by lightning.
The hike up was perfect, with the most wildflowers we’d seen all week — red and purple and blue and yellow and white. We successfully crossed a waterfall. We took pictures of gray peaks, still snowy.
Before we reached our alpine lake, two sets of hikers going down told us we might want to turn around. One set was two dudes with climbing ropes who had done unimaginable things on a sheer cliff face, and the other was a guy and his dog, who had camped overnight. Our guide consulted her weather app. Our group consulted with each other. We pressed on. Found our lake. Ate lunch.
As we started down, the sun went away. A young couple passed and warned us to step it up to get ahead of the coming storm.
Was that when the lightning started? We were technically below treeline, but trees were sparse in the open meadow. Our guide paused to go over lightning protocol and calmly told us to make our way down as quickly as possible but to stay safe. Rain came, obscuring the snowy peaks, the bright wildflowers.
It is hard, even with good boots and poles, to descend quickly in a thunderstorm. At least, it was for me. All rocks look the same when wet, the same color of slippery.
In college John read a book called The Goal, in which a youth hike goes awry because of one slow kid, named Herbie. The author had an epiphany about the manufacturing process during the outing, which caused him to make changes once he got back to work. That day I was our group’s Herbie. The guide put me in front, and I went faster than I thought I could, while still moving relatively slowly.
Every step was a killer, as every hurt and pain and nick and jab from the last six years stood up tall and said, simply, No.
I went on.
Finally we got down into the fir trees. By the time we reached the aspens, the storm had stopped. The sun peeked over our car, the last one in the lot.
“I was worried about you,” our guide said to me. “You were so quiet on the way down. Were you scared?”
“I was in pain,” I corrected. “But I’ll be fine.”
We hobbled home to our cabin. John was in all kinds of pain I didn’t even know about. We took Advil and hot, hot showers and went out for pizza. We agreed we might have overdone it. We debated whether to hike again. And it slowly dawned on me that there is no hiking patch for Lake Dorothy.
That’s because it’s not part of Rocky Mountain National Park, the third most-visited park in the country, with 4.5 million visitors per year. No patches for trails in Indian Peaks. This Herbie may never earn another trail tag.
But who am I without them?
I am the girl who, the day before lightning struck, rode a mountain bike down Trail Ridge Road and saw a herd of elk. I bought books and tea in downtown Estes and viewed The Muppet Movie on the big screen. I walked every morning and spotted a mama bear and two cubs. I did yoga beneath the ponderosa pines and played mini golf and Connect Four. I read a book on the cabin’s porch, pausing to look at Longs Peak, a 14er, the park’s tallest. The first time I came to the mountains, when my son was 2 years old and my daughter was in my womb, Longs seemed a possible summit, someday. Now I know it is a peak too far.
I left my hiking book in the cabin, for the next guest.
With thanks to Charity Singleton Craig’s newest book from TS Poetry Press, The Art of the Essay, which I read on the porch of the Heights cabin and which inspired me to try essaying again.
Stay tuned for information about an online book club we’ll do with the book in October!
Browse more writing about walking
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro