I stood on the side of the road with my thumb sticking out. The huge monster of a mountain range towered off in the distance. The mountain mists were pouring off the peaks in a threatening puff of grandeur. I stood there worrying about the cold, my next supper, my next bed, the next few hours of daylight, my next encounter with whomever it was that was willing to pick me up.
I was dropped off from a bus in the thriving old mining town of Leadville, Colorado. I had the desire to the climb the highest mountain in Colorado, Mt. Elbert. Not to mention the highest mountain of the actual Rockies range in the lower 48 states. I asked the bus driver how far it was to the base campgrounds of Mt. Elbert and what's the easiest way of getting there from her drop off spot. She said in short huffs that it was a good 5 miles to the base camp. She said that the easiest way to get there was to hitchhike. So I stood on the side of the road with my thumb sticking out, glaring at the stalwart beast of solid rock with its slight mane of snow and ice.
Several cars zipped by on this main road in Leadville, when finally this ford bronco truck, slowed with his brakes. I walk up with my backpack bearing into my shoulders. I got a quick glance at the license plate. New York
. "This shall be interesting" I thought to myself. I opened his passenger door and this average looking man in his mid-thirties asked me where I was going. I told him Mt. Elbert. I looked around inside his vehicle. He had junk thrown all over the back. No seats in the back...just junk. "Interesting." I surmised. He had this cat with him. "So he can't be a serial killer."I reassured myself. Serial killers were known to torture and kill animals before they progressed to humans. Then I noticed the shards of collected rock on the dash. "And he's into science. This guy's harmless."my final thoughts sounded as I sat down in the passenger seat.
The man's name was Mike. He was doing exactly what I was doing. Hiking around the Rockies. Although his truck enabled him to cover the whole west. He had been doing this for a couple of months. He lived the last 10 years of his life tinkering with computers at a cubicle in Manhattan. When he decided that he had had enough. He quit his job and drove out west to go climb some mountains. -To reconcile his life to nature. -To reacquiant himself to the horizon. The stubble on his face showed his grin bolder than it would have had he shaved, as he rambled 90 mph about everything. I could tell he had been alone for awhile.
He was on his way to hike the collegiate peaks a couple of hours south. And that's when he saw me whom he thought was a European that was in Leadville for some sort of marathon. We talked on and on as he told me about Mt. Elbert which he climbed a few weeks ago. The truck bounded into the forest park of my much wanted campsite. Here the campsites were all assembled, not crowded however, with other hikers. Then he asked me the question. Since it was getting late, and since he hadn't climbed, Elbert's also huge neighbor, Mt. Massive, would it be alright if we were to split a campground for the night. He said that he didn't want to freak me out or anything and that if I wasn't at all comfortable with it then he would understand. We each had our own tents and the other campers were only a stone's throw away. I should probably also mention that there is this persistent belief among hikers, I saw the logo on a T-shirt at Pike's Peak which read, "Never trust anyone below 10,000 ft." I remember reading that and thinking about the principle behind it. When you are up in the mountains away from the city, a certain trust and friendliness takes place between people. Crime and corruption..these things take place all below 10,000ft. High in the mountains that's where the friendliest people throng.
I said it was alright. So we diligently set up camp. My tent was within hearshot of a beautiful, shallow stream that gushed over rocks. I could hear the sound at night as it soothed me to sleep. That first night we sat up a little after dark, which was late for me during this time period, eating and talking. I told him stories about hiking in Tibet and Greece. He told me of his adventures out here in the Great American West. I entered my tent, read a little bit more and laughed at myself for making sure I knew where my pocket knife was just in case he tried anything, as I drifted off asleep.
The next morning I awoke with legs that were still sore from my Pike's Peak hike only 2 days ago. Mike was up eating breakfast. That's when he asked me if it would be alright if he hiked up the same mountain as I. He said that he's hiked up dozens of mountains by himself but rarely with another person. It was only going to be day hike. A couple of hours to the top and a couple of hours down. I said okay. I understood why he wanted to join me so much. He did, indeed, have an ulterior motive. The wilderness will do that to you. I noticed only after a few days of being out there. While in society, a man begans to get suffocated and long for a time when he can return to nature. However, a man who is swallowed in nature for awhile, longs for companionship. He misses talking to someone and having someone talk to him. Man cannot be happy with one extreme. He must have both. Mike was lonely. And I could see it in his speech and hear it in his laughter. (Two actions which he did often for he had probably gone without them for a long while). I myself could feel this loneliness pinching at me. So I was not at all opposed to the idea.
We left our tents and luggage behind at the campground and started up. He locked his cat, Jezebel inside the car to keep it away from bears, coyotes, and any other creature that might find cat a delicacy. We carried water, a few snacks, and our cameras with us. The hike up was rough. I will not lie. However, I was doing well for someone that just hiked a 14,000 peak a couple of days before. I was even tiring out Mike, although he was a good 10 years older than me, he did have a pair of fresh legs conditioned by a couple of months of climbing. Youth and litheness will sometimes win over experience and training. I don't think I would have been that much more ahead of him, if he conserved his breath instead of spending it talking to me. I only wasted my oxygen to put in the occassional "uh huh", whenever he paused in between his discourse.
It seemed that everyone we met coming down had given up saying that the climb was too rough. Most of these hikers were old men or hikers with their children, so it wasn't too threatening. One of these old men we met carried a walking stick with the state of "Texas" carved on it. This started a whole conversation when I found out that he lives in Lubbock. The same Texan city that I lived in. In fact, his partner who had not given up on the hike so easily was an instructor at the same small Bible college that I went to for my AIM experience. So I went curiously up the mountain seeking for this old white-haired man that was described to me. We found him right above the tree line. He had given up also and was coming down. We met and I must admit that I didn't recognize him though he claimed that I looked familiar. We departed ways, he seeming only wanting to get to the end of his misery. Myself and Mike yearning to reach the summit.
The last half above the treeline was excrutiating. The sun bore down on my already sunburnt face. I used an undershirt as a bandana to keep my forehead from getting blistered. You could look off at the awesome land that spread all around us. The last stretch Mike was still yakking on and on, but now only when we stopped for a break and that's when he began to tell me the story of 9-11 from his own eyes. He was there in Manhattan when it all occurred. After the first plane had hit, he walked out into the street astounded at the catastrophe when the 2nd plane crashed into the other tower. As we stood on the side of this huge mountain embedded within one of nature's most brilliant paintings he told me about the crashing of great towers and all the New Yorker's reactions to it.
As we neared the top well enough to see the last of the snow, the wind lashed down on us. It grew colder. -And the solemnity of the moment was lost by the strangest occurance. Two young girls each about 16 were coming down the same path that we were going up. They had no equipment with them. They were dressed as they had just got back from a shopping spree at the mall. They both were very skinny, something of them reminded me of Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson. All that I remember was that one of them was wearing this sort of pink jogging suit. As Mike and I, looking like we were rugged mountaineers, heaving with every step, took note of them through our sweaty eyes; they were nonchalantly coming down the mountain with their prissy walk. All we heard from their conversation was one of them say to the other very sassily, "You suck." At which the other responded while flicking her wrist, "No, you suck!" Still the first one returned, "No! you suck." This talk kept going back and forth between the two as they descended down. Mike and I were taken aback at this phenomenon until we both busted out laughing.
We both reached the top. All 14, 433 ft. We stood at the highest point of Colorado in meditation. We signed the log book up at the top. We took a few pictures and Mike helped other people with their cameras. After a good rest we made the descent. And this is always more fun than going up. Mike and I talked freely now being no longer restricted with our breath. We had an excellent conversation on everything ranging from Shakespeare to church, from Bob Dylan to Mark Twain. I'm sure we were both glad that we had each's company. Being tired and fatigued we made it down and still had plenty of hours of sunlight.
We decided to treat ourselves to some real cuisine. So we got in his bronco and went towards town. We ate Mexican in celebration. That night after the sun went down. We sat at camp and had a very deep conversation. I told him my reasons for coming out to Colorado. Mike was curious. I told him that I had had some doubts about some things. He asked what kind of doubts. I talked about all sorts of things that had been going around in my head for the past year or so. I basically told him that I had to find out if the God of the entire universe, one that I believed in as a christian was really all that concerned about little me as much as my religion makes him out to be. Sometimes I wonder how come the skies are so silent. How come if He's there, how come He seems so distant. Such simple questions a child could ask and yet they are some of the most profound questions that any person has had to wrestle with. I told him that if I put my faith in this God...will everything be alright? Will he really take care of me? I grinned and as the light from the lantern hit my face, I told him what I had found out. So far on this trip everything pointed to the fact that God is concerned about me. I broke out my Bible and flipped opened to one of my favorite passages. Where Paul is in Athens. And I spoke by the moonlight, and by the fir trees swaying above us, pointing to everything that one's eyes could see and admire and love, and said that, indeed, there is evidence of something out there wanting to commune with us. It's greater than these forests and older than these mountains, and its at once the grandest thing and the most beautiful thing. I pointed to this passage where Paul is quoting some Greek Literature. Poets of long ago have felt this to be true. -And our full picture of this comes through in the person of Christ. Though I cannot understand how that works, and that can kill one's faith if focused on too much, however, it is the fullest expression of this great thing or person wanting to meet with us. Mike was not a christian. He had studied a little bit of Buddhism. I could tell that he was really searching. As was I. I gave him the names of a bunch of books he should read. "Blue Like Jazz" and "The Divine Conspiracy" to name a few. And he seemed geniunely interested.
The next day we left after he almost lost his cat. Mike told me that he would drive me anywhere north for he was going to meet his father in Cheyenne. I told him Breckenridge. We took off whipping in between mountains on the highway singing to the Beatles. He dropped me off at a hostel in Breckenridge. I gave him the list of those books and we departed. And I continually think back to him and I hope that he's doing alright.