"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” John Muir
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” Edward Abbey
My daughter Sarah, my ex-wife Jean, and I went for a four-day excursion to Silverton Colorado. Silverton only has about 500 residents, but swells with visitors in the summer because of its spectacular surroundings. It has been called “A gritty little mining town with Victorian pretensions.” The elevation, 9305 feet, makes it one of the highest towns in the United States. Originally it was founded during a gold rush, when silver and gold was being mined in the late nineteenth century.
Ice Lake, a climb of about 3.5 miles from an elevation of about 9,900 feet to 12,000. We started late, and about half way up, hikers were already descending to return to town. Some people are hard-core hikers and even ultra-fit enthusiasts—and its always amusing to find that we are huffing and puffing and stopping to get our breath, when one of these people casually jogs past us. Our efforts were rewarded by late summer colors, wildflowers, mushroom varieties and astonishing mountains, but we were quite sore when we got back.
Sarah is the last one up in the morning, and when we arrive at the Jeep rental the time is 10:30. Jim, the owner, is a rough-cut mountain man who begins gruff but warms up as we go along. He tells us we have to wait until 1 PM to contract a half-day rental and have to return at 5. We look a little disappointed and he says okay, he can give us a new jeep that seats four, with a hardtop (good for rain) and he doesn’t care if we get back late. He plots out a course for us that includes going over mountaintops, visiting Lake City and Colorado’s 2nd largest lake, and then looping back over Engineers Pass and back into Silverton. Clouds are gathering and I ask him if he thinks it will rain, and he looks out the window and says, “Yes, I am pretty good at guessing the weather.” In fact, it did not rain that day. Jim gives me a lesson operating the four-wheel drive gears, and the most difficult part is that I have to have the jeep in neutral and rolling slowly to get into 4 wheel drive low-gear for steep terrain. Well, how am I supposed to be in neutral and rolling up hill when I shift in the mountains? He seems satisfied I will figure it out and then we say good-bye.
We take off driving the Alpine Loop and arrive at our first steep ascent, called Cinnamon Pass. I manage to jam the gears into 4 wheel low and begin the slow treacherous crawl upward over boulders and ravines. For those of us used to driving on smooth roadways, off-road mountain climbing in a vehicle on old mule paths is an extreme adventure. At times, you find your heart in your throat. Jean kept both her hands grasped firmly on the handle jutting from the dashboard . . . a well-placed jeep accoutrement. Occasionally vehicles could be seen coming the other way, but the right-of-way belonged to the vehicle climbing. It could be difficult passing because few places are wide enough to allow it.
At the top of Cinnamon Pass we are astonished at the view from near 13,000 feet in the tundra setting. I get excited and sprint a short ways to a rocky knoll to take pictures but immediately become out of breath and gasp for air. Soon, as we continue the course, Sarah asks to drive . . . I agree and let her take the wheel—unless we come to extreme driving conditions. She does fine, and I am proud when other toughened drivers pass and notice a beautiful young woman at the wheel of the jeep on the hard mountain roads.
We are continually amazed at the settings we are in. Late summer wildflowers are in bloom and we see marmots, a furry mammal that looks like a prairie dog but is more related to squirrels.
After driving about 3 ½ hours, we arrive in Lake City and stop to rest and eat. Jean is told of a nearby hiking trail and we find it, then hike to a waterfall in the forest. I imagine that in a few weeks the Aspen trees will be golden and shimmering, and determine to come back then. Sarah and Jean take their shoes off and put their feet in the ice-cold mountain stream, giggling and laughing. We revel in the sound of the gushing, splashing water and pristine mountain surroundings. On the way back, Sarah collects wild raspberries. They taste very tart and fruity.
I am a bit concerned about time, and do not want to drive on off-road trails in the dark, so we forge onward along steep narrow passes that hug the mountain side with steep drop offs to oblivion. Switchbacks can be so severe that the jeep is barely able to make the sharp turn. The late afternoon light makes the mountains even more beautiful and we stop frequently to revel, despite the time. Near Engineers Pass we turn a corner and suddenly come to a big flock of grazing sheep. The scene is almost incongruous in such a harsh setting, but about 800 sheep are meandering over the mountain, grazing on the rich fauna. No shepherd is in sight, only two big Great Pyrenees dogs and their pup. The sound of “baaah, baaah” is everywhere.
When we come to Engineers Pass, at 12,800 feet the panorama is breathtaking. We can see mountains and valleys in almost every direction. The light seems to hang in the fresh, summit air. I feel like I am in heaven.
Eventually, we arrive back in Silverton at about 6:30. The owner’s wife checks in the vehicle and I tell her we had a great time.
“Come Fairies, take me out of this dull world, for I would ride with you upon the wind and dance upon the mountains like a flame!” William Butler Yeats
I'm glad you survived to tell and illustrate this thrilling adventure!
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