The quasi-vision quest my dog Manchas and I were to attempt three weeks ago didn't happen. What begins below is my best recollection of what transpired instead.
As an over-60-year-old urban Chicano, I'd concluded my world needed an experience that would shake it up, since I've grown old in my ways, not all of which are conducive to living as one should. Habits, thinking, attitudes and approaches to life have turned as stale and predictable as the regularity with which my body loses hair on its head and deteriorates in places that functioned much better when younger. Those of you who've found yourselves not wanting to get up in the morning, for morning after morning in a row, know what I mean. I normally get up fine; it's plodding through the remainder of the day's reruns that's harder to stomach.
In any case, I wanted to do more than just get "away from it all" or "in tune with Mother Nature"; after all, either of these would have represented staid versions of the usual American Vacation. Taking a step into an otherworld, one not so Euro-American, seemed mandatory, notwithstanding the fact that I'm at best only one-fourth indigenous, supposedly of Yaqui and Tarahumara ancestry. I also recognized the limits of my body and resolve and wasn't about to attempt scaling a fourteener when I'd likely be forced to turn back before reaching its base.
For those unfamiliar with a real--not quasi--vision quest, Black Elk's The Sacred Pipe describes in detail what has been practiced for tens of thousands, on this continent, at least, by various tribes. Whether done as coming-of-age, finding one's animal or spirit, or as a cleansing one's soul, the end result is similar--to emerge changed. There's more to this than I can convey here; read the book.
A few days before we were to leave, I received word that our original scenario had to be postponed until fall, by which time I knew I'd get cold feet, literally and psychologically. So I looked for another mt. And found one. Where specifically is unimportant; what mattered was we would not have to postpone our adventure.
Like all canines, my companion Manchas bears his own mestizaje, in his case dingo via Australian cattle dog. His small red and blue spots are overshadowed by a huge black circle on his back, a part of the Dalmatian in him. (When he was a pup I could have sold him for big bucks as a "chick magnet.") But it's his less civilized parts that get twanged when we've trekked through the northeastern Colorado Comanche National Grasslands or followed the dinosaur tracks of Piñon Canyon in the southeast corner. This time, I opted for a more central location not far from Denver; couple of hours at the most, I thought.
Somewhat resembling the Blues Brothers, we hop into the truck with the bare minimum and head south, down I-25. I've got two packages of unsalted crackers, one sweatshirt, seven cigarettes and a light blanket requisitioned from an airline; Manchas has sufficient food to last him; we'll share a one-quart canteen of spring water and a bird feather wrapped in sprigs of sage, a send-off gift from a friend. Thyroid pills for me, and glucosamine to relieve his hip dysplasia, round out the provisions. The truck dash shines with "Check Engine", something I've ignored for weeks. The gas tank's half-full, but I totally filled the tires. And we're off on our adventure, somewhere without cars, people and the sound of civilization.
As I drive, I'm imagining what I'll need to search for once we reach the mountains, how that perfect mt. might be, possible dangers lurking. Manchas mostly peers out the windows, occasionally licking my elbow to indicate whatever that means in dog. I just finished rereading Wolf & Iron, and at least in wolfese, according to Gordon R. Dickson, an exchange of licks indicates peer acceptance. I'm not about to rise to Manchas's level, so I don't return the gesture. My head's still stuck in finances, job details and house upkeep.
On the opposite side of the highway a stranded motorist peers under his hood; I wonder if his "Check Engine" malfunctioned. Periodically, there's a road sign reading, "Remove all accident vehicles from highway. No exceptions." It reminds me that the last time I could get out of Denver in less than an hour was back in the 70s.
I step on the accelerator and push the four-cylinder, fifteen-year-old Ranger up to 62mph, given that the speed limit is now 75. Those passing me at 85 are unimpressed, I can tell from their sideways scowls. No matter I can get it up to even 68 on a down slope, I keep it steady; it's the most mileage-efficient the old truck will do.
It proves neither quicker nor easier to get away from civilization than to get my mind off it. A highway marquis emphasizes this in neon orange: "Accident at Lincoln exit. Alternate route suggested." Alternate route? There's no way to go south through Colorado unless you head far west into the mountains or a couple of hundred miles east into Nebraska; must be some highway workers' joke, of course. At the indicated exit, there's nada, except another of those signs about moving accident vehicles from the road. "No exceptions."
By now I've looked at the Check-Engine light more than ten times. What am I doing? Why? Sometimes when going faster than 62, it fades off. I try to see if it'll stay off if I keep it at 61 or 63, but I won't go above that. Sometimes it does, mostly it doesn't. But what am I thinking? That if it's off, there's actually nothing wrong with the truck? Duh. But why do I bother checking it at all. Its message won't change to "I was just kidding," or, "You'll be okay until you return home." And what good would it do if it suddenly said, "You have 14 minutes left." Hell--we're on an adventure; there's no turning back. Nevertheless, all during the trip I won't break the habit of peeking at it.
A few miles before Castle Rock, as I think we're maybe past it all and will soon reach our wilderness paradise, comes another marquis. "Accident 14 minutes ahead; keep to left lane." 14 minutes? Is that at 62mph or 85mph? And how do they know it's exactly 14? Ten minutes later, the four-lane superhighway morph-splits into two slow moving right lanes and two left ones choked with 85mph-ers who passed me earlier, now at a standstill. Seems most people followed the marquis' suggestion. Duh. Manchas and I breeze past them on the right.
According to the odometer, almost exactly at the 14-minute marker we do reach an accident site on the opposite side heading north. The first car has a quarter panel chewed up. The second car's whole front end is crushed. The third car, an SUV of course, sits upended, lying on its driver's side. A couple of patrol cars and likely witnesses' cars park at all angles behind the wreckage. Lines of vehicles behind all that move at no mile per hour.
Though I don't know the extent of injuries, I feel lucky and take the Ranger back up to 62, or probably more accurately, I feel smirky because I'm wondering why they're ignoring the "No exceptions" rule. Apparently, multiple-car devastation nullifies it. Conformity is a fleeting vanity; entropy, unavoidable. According to my speedometer, the six-mile lines of automobiles and trucks waiting for civilization to reimpose order will idly wait, long past the time Manchas and I have escaped. But I realize my attitude toward the personal calamity behind us means I haven't left it. Manchas licks the elbow, as if to absolve me.
We finally near Colo. Springs, home of "Focus on the (unborn) Family." I'm always creeped going through here, a place where conservative retirees constitute the local radicals. Books on immigrant rights, bilingual education and global warming are likely catalogued in the town library's fiction section. And home of the Air Force Academy, another bastion of the status quo.
I search for the exit listed in the park directions printout, but there's none. In total I will stop three times and it will take six people to repaint us in the right direction. But we're almost there; it won't be long now. But when we turn west, head into the mountains, we're last in queue for what looks to be a summer concert or something. Stopped at a light, I lean out my window and ask a cab driver why all the traffic. "Nope, no concert; it's always like this." This is the road to our quest?
Finally, finally, we reach a stretch of state highway with fewer cars. The remainder of the directions prove accurate. After turning onto a county dirt road, we pass a Mennonite camping compound where all kinds of Anglo kids romp around--a real vision quest?
In the parking lot at the trailhead, a sign out front of a trailer indicates the "camp host", Colorado's substitute for park rangers. I knock and a young woman with a dog twice the size of mine comes out.
"What's on the other side of this mt. on the left? Are there cabins or is it still park?"
"I have no idea."
"What about this one on the right? We're looking for a spot to get away from it all (sic)."
"I don't know."
"Is that way east?"
"I think so; the parks department didn't tell me a lot about this place."
It's like a comic episode from one of Ed Abbey's books, only not as funny and more pathetic. We've lost so much wealth in this country, we don't even know which way the compass points.
I decide we should check the regular trail first. Two and a half miles, moderately difficult, say the directions. It's fifteen degrees cooler here than down in the foothills, which at the moment sounds and feels great. I pump water for Manchas, to give him his last taste of civilization. We head up the trail. Fifteen minutes into the hike Manchas regurgitates the water and all of his breakfast, which takes several sweeps of my hiking stick to bury. I hope he's just got carsickness from my racing up the mountain curves at forty mph and not dog dysentery from the pump.
A river shadows the trail as we pass about a dozen people heading back. Two old ladies with cross-country ski poles, a family with youngsters--indicating the trail isn't that difficult--young and older couples toting light packs, an occasional loner, usually a fiftyish male, all of them Anglo. Most acknowledge us or at least say, "What a cute dog." I respond, "You should have seen him as a pup."
When the trail takes a hard, eastward curve, we've arrived. No one but us. And the rocks. Calling them rocks is an injustice, or at a minimum, an understatement. The crags have character, a quality of art, a powerfulness to them that almost intimidates, at least me. Manchas just gazes. Earlier, I'd thought scaling the crags might lead us to that perfect spot. I can see now that only a real vision quest would call for mounting these magnificent forms. It's not that they're unscalable, by someone more fit; they're too uncivilized. We will need to find a different spot. Besides, the better-fit probably do climb those crags, and we'd wind up with company we don't need.
Directly across the small valley, the other promontory appears not as intimidating, nor as picturesque, and thus less likely to draw visitors. Rather than trying to climb here, if we go back to the trailhead, I envision we can follow a much longer but less precipitous incline all the way to the top, until we get to where we can look across to the crags. Sounds perfect, and though it will be more strenuous, we should make it easily before nightfall.
Next time, up the mt.