Hiking My Life Path: Reflection and insight on the hiking trails in the Rocky Mountains
Hiking trails are like life paths. Some parts of them are steep inclines, while others are gradual descents. Some go through meadows, and others lead to barrens. They receive full sun and stretch in shadow.
I see my life in every hike. It is why I love it. Hiking gives me the opportunity to reflect on my path and gain new perspectives.
The discovery begins with deepening my awareness of myself and the environment. Feel the ground under my feet, be conscious of my breath, listen to birds and insects, and notice passing clouds and wildflowers. I constantly switch between the focus and panoramic view modes to take in all scenery. I practice staying in the present without getting caught in thoughts about the past or future. Through this process, I become one with nature, and a new realization surfaces. It is just like meditation.
I recently communed with Mother Nature while hiking in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, U.S.A. She blessed me with insights that I brought back home like treasured souvenirs.
Emerald Lake I started hiking in the dark to catch the sunrise at my destination. It takes 1.8 miles of an uphill hike to reach Emerald Lake, the end of the beloved trail that starts at the Bear Lake Trailhead in the Rocky Mountain National Park.
There is nothing like witnessing the early morning sunlight spreading in space. The landscape starts taking shape like a shadow theater. Moment by moment, the scenery collapses into more details. I hear birds’ morning calls overlaying the sound of a waterfall. Soon, a tinge of orange hue appears in the cobalt blue sky.
I don’t need my headlamp when I arrive at Emerald Lake, the crystal clear water surrounded by 12,000-foot+ Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain. I sit on the rock and watch the rising sun gradually coloring the gray walls of the mountains. The calm lake reflects the mountains and sky like a mirror.
My mind is like Emerald Lake right now: peaceful and clear. It is easy to be in such a state on a hiking trail. How can I maintain serenity and mental clarity when I’m busy or life throws a challenge at me?
The lake gracefully embraces the scenery as it is. I, too, want to tenderly embrace people I interact with as they are, free from judgment and preconception.
Glacier Gorge Trail The Rocky Mountain National Park is the abode for elk, moose, bears, bighorn sheep, deer, coyotes, and other creatures. Deer and foxes are frequent visitors to my home in the Texas Hill Country, but spotting elk, moose, or bears is special and exciting to me. I saw a herd of elks right after arriving at the park. Their large bodies and magnificent antlers made me feel I had entered the wild territory.
The early morning is a good time to encounter wild animals. I look for them as I hike alone on the Glacier Gorge Trail shortly after sunrise. The ascending trail dramatically drops on the left side over a creek running below. The right side is bouldered by big rocks and trees. The repeated switchbacks are taking me to the sites at higher elevations: Lock Vale and Sky Pond.
Switchbacks often trick me. When I’m absorbed in natural beauty, I easily miss a sharp turn and keep going straight until realizing I have gone off the trail. That’s what happened this morning too. I don’t like switchbacks!
I complain in my mind while returning to the trail. I get a little impatient about the zigzag path that has been going on longer than I like.
But I know switchbacks make steep inclines more accessible.
It is the same in life: when I set a high goal, achieving it in a straight line is overwhelming, even unrealistic sometimes.
I often walk toward my high goal only to realize my path is taking me in a different direction. I have to make a switch back to course-correct my journey. Soon, the time comes when I need to take another switchback. I feel disappointed and sometimes defeated when I must change the course of my path. But I continue to climb higher in this way. Although the whole process feels time-consuming and laborious, it is how I reach my high goal.
Suddenly, a couple of female elk appear on the trail, walking toward me.
We all recognize each other and stop.
STAY AWAY FROM WILD ANIMALS.
The warning sign posted at the trailhead flushes in my mind. But the trail is so narrow that I can’t create enough distance from the surprising wonderers. I climb the big rocks on the right to get off the path by several feet, hoping the commotion will scare them away.
But the elk took my move as a green signal. After surveying the area, they resumed their nonchalant walk and passed me. The whole thing happened without any hassle.
What did I learn from this experience? When something surprising or overwhelming appears on my way, stay calm, step aside, and let it pass by me.
Lock Vale It takes a strenuous 4 1/2 mile uphill hike to reach the Sky Pond, my final destination this morning. I’m mentally and physically ready for the vigorous workout and adjusting to the high altitude very well.
It’s not too bad!
I give myself a thumbs-up while looking down the mountains from 10,000 feet elevation. I’m confident about making it to Sky Pond — until I come to Timberline Falls and realize I need to scramble the boulders of the waterfall to continue my hike.
I see a muscular hiker struggling to find dry spots to place his hands and feet to climb the most challenging part of the 100 feet ascent. The wall of the waterfall is almost vertical. His foot slips over the rock and dangles in the air. I close my eyes.
“Stay away from the water as much as possible! You can do it!”
The hiker shouts at me after conquering the tricky scrambling. I smile back at him without nodding.
“Are you going?”
A young girl asks me from behind while rolling up her pants.
“I don’t know. I have to think about it.”
I have a fear of heights. It got much better after challenging myself on hiking trails, but the idea of scrambling the near-vertical wall so close to the waterfall (carrying a bulky backpack!) makes me nervous. Are my hiking shoes good enough for this adventure? Even if I manage the scrambling, can I get down safely? I see myself holding on to the vertical wall, paralyzed by fear.
Maybe I’m overthinking. Other hikers have done it without any accidents. Why can’t I?
I wonder if it’s worth taking the risk. Many hikers challenge themselves to gain a sense of achievement. I certainly enjoy reaching overlooks and finishing long hikes. It makes me proud of myself.
Well, I have already achieved so many things. I don’t have to accomplish every goal.
A decision is made.
I turn around and hike back on the trail.
After roughly a mile of descending, I return to Lock Vale, the peaceful lake at 10,190 feet. I had a light breakfast here before heading for Sky Pond. I didn’t take time to enjoy the lake then because I wanted to return to the trail before it got crowded.
Having done more than half of the hike, I feel more relaxed and want a break. I spread a vinyl sheet over the moist ground and lie down. Birds fly over the Azul blue sky. Winds caress my face. I’m the only one resting, ready for a nap. Other hikers are fast passing by to reach their next destination and conquer another challenge.
I didn’t make it to Sky Pond. But I feel so good dozing into this peaceful scenery.
Deer Mountain One of the gifts of Rocky Mountain hiking is gaining panoramic views of mountain ranges. Hiking on the Deer Mountain Trail, I marvel at the layered veils of the mountain slopes. The descending edge of the mountain becomes the ascending one and continues as far as my eyes can follow.
As I gaze at the sweeping lines that seamlessly connect the peaks, I realize how the elegance of the valleys highlights the magnificence of the summits. The crests can show off their grandeur only because of the existence of valleys.
We tend to focus on reaching the top while climbing a mountain or hiking on a steep uphill. A valley has its own beauty, but hiking through it is often just a means of getting to a summit or an overlook. We become occupied by anticipation of our destinations, and our journeys become a mere process rather than the accumulation of vivid experience in each moment.
I slow down my pace to feel each step, look at the changing colors of tree bark and leaves, smell the air, listen to crickets, and touch rocks.
I may not reach the top of the mountain today, and it is okay.
Ouzel Falls Wild Basin is the southeast section of the Rocky Mountain National Park. It is much less visited due to the distance from the Bear Lake Road Corridor, the busiest area in the park. Driving the 1-mile dirt road with potholes to the trailhead slows me down. It makes me feel like visiting my grandma’s village in the country. I’m already in love with this charming area.
The Wild Basin Trail runs along with the creek that connects three waterfalls: Copeland Falls, Calypso Cascades, and Ouzel Falls. The joyful sound of the flowing river leads my way. I make frequent stops to watch the dance of the river. It hits rocks, diverts its course, and merges back to the main body.
It is just like my life journey. I also encounter obstacles, course correct, and return to my purpose. It often feels like a struggle, but it can be a joyful dance.
A less than 3 miles of the idyllic hike takes me to Ouzel Falls, my final destination this morning. Here it is, a vigorous 40-foot waterfall right in front of me.
The gushing water emerges from the top. It lets go of any desire to control the flow, falls off, and merges the stream below. The water momentarily breaks into billions of dews, flashes in the air, and disappears into the stream.
I’m hypnotized by the act of total surrender. The plunging water has unshakable faith in nature’s work, called a waterfall: no hesitance, doubt, or fear for diving into the stream 40 feet below. It looks effortless. It brims with a sense of freedom.
I recall the times when I had to make tough decisions that would drastically change the course of my life. Closing my life chapter in Los Angeles and returning to my home country, Japan, was one of those times. Selling my beloved Florida home following my husband’s death was another one. After exploring all options and running through a pros-and-cons list, I just had to jump off to the unknown, taking only my faith in life with me. I stood in the present, shaking off my attachment to the past and worries for the future.
Three, two, one—fall!
Alpine Tundra Lovingly called the Highway to the Sky, the 48-mile long Trail Ridge Road connects Estes Park on the east and Grand Lake on the west, winding up and down over 4,000 feet of elevation gain. According to the U.S. National Park Service, it “is the highest continuously paved road in North America.” The sweeping views from the road are spectacular. I enjoy stopping at each overlook and marveling at nature’s wonder.
The Tundra Communities Trail starts at 12,110 feet elevation near the top of the Trail Ridge Road. The trail is less than a mile out and back, but I have to catch my breath while walking uphill. The high altitude reduces the oxygen level by about 35 percent.
In the Rocky Mountains, elevation above 11,000 feet is in the Alpine Tundra system. Trees don’t survive here due to freezing temperatures, high winds, and other environmental conditions. But it doesn’t mean there is no vegetation or wildlife. Dwarfed versions of flowers and shrubs grow close to the ground to absorb the heat in the earth and protect themselves from harsh winds. Elk, bighorn sheep, pikas, marmots, and other animals thrive in the Alpine Tundra.
Hiking in the Alpine Tundra is like walking on Mars. Occasional sites of plants show signs of life, but the area is generally barren. It’s so different from hiking through a forest or along a river, where nature invigorates and nurtures us.
After an easy scrambling, I reach the overlook. A park ranger with big binoculars looks over the mountain ranges with a couple of hikers.
“What’s out there?” I join the crowd.
“Some cows,” the ranger replies. “Take a look at them.”
I borrow his binoculars but don’t see any animals.
“Move the binoculars down,” the ranger guides me. “You should see the herd of cows.”
I slide down the binoculars and see some female elk. “Cows? They look like elk to me.”
“Female elk are called cows,” the ranger teaches me. “Male elk are called bulls.”
The herd of cows mingling with each other puts a smile on my face. In this vast Mars-like scenery, happy animals enjoy each other’s company.
There are inevitable times of loneliness and despair in life. It feels lifeless and hopeless to live through such times. The wondering cows in the Alpine Tundra remind me of the gifts from life we receive when we expect them least: friendship and love.
Manitou Incline and Barr Trail
It is the number of steps we must take to get to the top of the Manitou Incline, about a 3-hour drive south of the Rocky Mountain National park.
I added this destination to my Colorado hiking trip because of logistic reasons and my curiosity. It has been my weekly exercise regimen to climb the 220 steps near my home six times. I loved starting my ritual at dawn and witnessing the inky sky changing its color. The physical torture became a fun practice as weeks went by. I wondered how I would feel climbing the steps twice more than those I could walk up without overexertion.
It’s a damp and misty September afternoon. I feel a sprinkle of rain, but it doesn’t look like turning into a downpour. It’s better than the scorching sun. I say to myself and walk to the base of the Incline.
“WARNING: 2,744 STEPS IS NOT A WALK IN THE PARK”
The sign in red letters at the entrance catches my attention. “Hiking the Incline is comparable to climbing up:
The Empire State Building.
The Eiffel Tower. TWICE.
The Washington Monument. THREE TIMES.
The Statue of Liberty. SIX TIMES.
I look up at the steep stairs. Covered by fogs and mist, they look like ascending into the sky. It’s otherworldly.
The first several sets of stairs are not so hard. Each step is about a foot high, and I keep pace as I climb. When I start to feel shortness of breath, the steps get higher, about a couple of feet. Now I have to take one step at a time. The steps also get narrower. I stop to catch my breath and rest. After continuous climbing and resting, I see the sign that announces 1,000 more steps to the top. I sit on the bench, facing the steps I have conquered. I slowly breathe through my fast-beating heart and massage my legs over the pants that feel damp from the shower.
Most of the 1,700 steps I have taken are lost in the fog. I turn around and look up the 1,000 steps I’m about to take. But they are disappearing into the white veils too.
Both the past and future have dissolved.
“We are gonna be the only ones quitting.”
A young girl sitting next to me says to her friend. They are looking at the sign that points to the downhill trail available for the hikers who decide not to continue the Incline.
“It’s okay to quit.”
I say to the girls, “You did a good job climbing this far. Listen to your body. If it says, ‘quit,” you had better listen to it.”
I wave to the girls who are still debating whether to quit or not and continue my ascent.
1,900, 2,000, 2,100 — the step markers encourage hikers to keep climbing. At one point, I stop looking for them. I choose not to think about how many steps I have completed or how many more are waiting. I focus on taking one step at a time, not thinking about how long I have been climbing or how much more effort I have to make.
One step at a time.
“YAY, we made it!”
A group of hikers gives high-fives to each other. Joyful photo-taking follows. I join the excitement, take photos and chat with them, and walk down the Barr Trail toward the parking lot 4 miles away.
The shower turns to a drizzle. I put on my rain poncho and enjoy the easy downhill hike. The mountains and hills are shrouded by the fog, transforming the whole scenery into a Chinese black ink painting.
There is much beauty about what is not revealed.
Life is a mystery, and I find pleasure in participating in it.
. . .
The end of another beautiful day, another inspiring and nourishing trip.
As I say goodbye to the vermilion sun setting over the west of the mountains, I see the full moon rising from the east.
When coping with grief after losing my husband to cancer, I made a ritual of watching the sunrise and sunset every day. When everything was crumbling and nothing was certain, the regular rise and fall of the sun and moon gave me a sense of stability and assured me that I would be fine.
Now witnessing the glorious sunset and tender moonrise, the only word that comes to my mind is appreciation.