When I was an active member of the Colorado Mountain Club, hiking steep trails and bagging peaks, it was tempting to pooh-pooh people who “cheated” and drove to the tops of mountains. At times, some of my fellow hikers demeaned folks who were not in good shape or were too “lazy” to spend time in nature. It was hard not to feel a bit smug when contemplating how others spent their weekends; after all, we had risen before dawn to ascend a half mile or more. Moreover, often I resented the intrusion of motor vehicles in the vicinity of wilderness areas. It was frustrating to be clambering skyward, surrounded by nothing but the trail and distant ridges, and to have one’s meditation interrupted by the gunning of motorcycles or to glance down and see traffic snaking below. It’s challenging, when one is passionate about an activity, to always feel kindly towards people who, knowingly or not, disturb or don’t “get” it.
I thought about all this when driving to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) the other day, just an hour from where I’m living. Since I’m not yet able to hike, I decided to visit my old stomping grounds the way most people do: by car. I carried a cooler rather than a backpack and wore a ribboned straw hat instead of a wicking, khaki cap. I wondered if I could enjoy the mountains even if I hadn’t “earned” the views by busting my lungs to arrive at 12,000′ or higher.
To help adjust to the altitude, I pulled over frequently throughout the winding ascent along Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine Visitor Center (11,796′). Last year, a bunch of us had stopped here to use the restrooms upon completing a multi-peak hike. This time, I studied the park map to find out where I might picnic, a bit strange for someone used to parking herself on a log or rock and eating on the trail, carrying out any trash. At Hidden Valley, in the crook of one of the hairpin turns, I found a shaded picnic table by a stream. Next to it stood an information plaque, inviting visitors to consider the ancient native peoples who had blazed these trails thousands of years before, carrying all their possessions and leaving little trace of what their lives had been like. The history of the paths underfoot often gets trampled when one’s focus is on the summit or on how many hours to go before lunch. It was powerful to imagine having to cross these ridges and peaks out of necessity, rather than for recreation, with no destination in sight and death a constant presence. When I finished eating I deposited my sandwich wrap in a bear-proof canister and continued uphill.
The road, built between 1929 and 1932 during the four months of the year when construction was possible, has many places to pull over and enjoy the views, as varied as the mountains themselves. At each stop, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. By the time I was on the approach to the visitor center, the mercury had dipped to the low 60s and the winds whipped at probably 30 miles per hour. The cool, bracing weather exhilarated. At the higher elevation, my pulse accelerated. And my old companions, headache and dizziness, returned, reminding me that witnessing and absorbing the mountains’ fierce beauty had often come at a price.
At the Alpine Center, I refilled my water jug to stay hydrated on the way down. A group of men in leather Harley jackets laughed and took photographs as one carved “I Love U Mort” into the crusty snowfield that, even in June, was more than 10 feet high. That the snow made them so giddy made me smile. I entered the gift shop and walked through a forest of kitsch to the café to buy a hot tea. While in line, I watched as a mother plunked some change into a hand crank machine that transformed pennies into park mementos by flattening and embossing them. It’s the kind of gimmick I would have dismissed or overlooked had I been with a group, not to mention that I normally don’t carry change on the trail. But I had one penny in my purse and decided to get one, too, a souvenir of being a tourist. I took my tea and memento and sat at a counter overlooking another glorious view…through a pane of glass. Not long ago, that would have been anathema. To my right, a white haired fellow had his watch set to an hour ahead of Mountain time.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Alabama,” he said, glancing over. “We ain’t got nothing like this at home. Just little hills.” He stared out the window as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The lingering snow was like a layer of frosting on a bumpy green cake. “This is a whole other world.”
On the return trip, I pulled over to enjoy views on the other side. Antlered elk grazed at 11,000′, creating a bit of a traffic jam. The animals remained unfazed by the paparazzi. Further down I spotted a marmot, fur blowing but otherwise holding its own on a rock. I snapped many pictures, hoping that my camera’s ability to stabilize images would outwit the powerful wind (amazingly, my hat stayed put). I met an older couple from Michigan who laughed as gusts slapped their faces and turned their jackets into flapping flags. It’s joyful to feel, even for a few minutes, that we’re not in control. Their unabashed glee amplified my own thrill at seeing the mountains, close up, again. That’s what tourists can bring, the freshness of beginner’s mind, and the appreciation that, for locals, might fade.
Before leaving, I went into the Beaver Meadows visitor center to ask about a trail I had spotted on the map, whose distance wasn’t labeled. It was high up and relatively flat; it’s a place I could do a short walk, weather permitting, surrounded by stunning peaks. While the ranger went to find the answer, I noticed an ink pad and a stamp for people to put in their passports. That reminded me of the Camino and my heavily inked Pilgrim credential that marked each day along the journey. I took a small notebook out of my bag, opened it to a blank page and stamped it with what turned out to be olive green ink. The image was a circle: “Rocky Mountain Nat’l Park” bent across the top and “Beaver Meadows Visitor Ctr.” around the bottom. In the middle was the date. It seemed a fitting way to mark the end of my jaunt, a reminder that no matter how many times I return, whether alone or with others, I can always choose to be a tourist. There is no shame in it and, in some ways, it’s more freeing and fun.