[Third installment of what I call a quasi-vision quest. Read first installment here and the previous one here.]
Except for Manchas's taking a crap on the way back down to the trailhead, our descent's uneventful. I wonder how he managed to take one, since he'd barfed up a stomach-full earlier. At least whatever he might have gotten from the pump water hasn't plugged him up. I assume he's tougher than me and certainly don't want our adventure cut short because of my dog's possibly daintier constitution; friends might say I used him as an excuse.
Repeatedly, as we retraced our steps down the trail, in the back and sometimes the front of my mind is one thing: bears. I'd been told they and the rarer cougar had been sighted in the area, but some of that might have been tourist-luring hearsay. Yes, bears make it even into Denver suburbs, and every few years a cougar wanders down our I-70 greenbelt, but we're to blame for pushing them out of their native habitat, which is where Manchas and I now walk. So, they probably won't be mauling us cause they've left to go malling.
I don't know if others "suffer" similarly, if it's just "racial memory" homo sapiens carries that surfaces in our bear-dreams, but over the years bear dreams always disturb my sleep more than my falling-dreams, no matter I've never seen one outside a zoo or circus, the kinds of places I no longer frequent. In any event, as we enter a heavily canopied trail sector, I find myself looking into the forest depths for bear. During the remainder of the trip, I'll continue doing this.
Park literature and my readings swear that bears are not aggressive unless provoked or accompanied by cubs, I assure myself, so I only need worry about the latter case, right? But in fact what worries me is that I keep reassuring myself. Where's that come from? As a sapient--and a relatively emotionally stable one--I should be capable of setting worry aside, given I've at least read considerable amounts about bear. I'm not ignorant. However, my head fails to function accordingly.
When I'm not searching forest shadow for momma and baby bear, I scan for scat, even though I can't differentiate between bear, cougar or velociraptor poop, other than possibly by size. More "racial memory" from millions of years prior to evolving into the sapiens species? Or do bears from past dreams represent more than introspection about my emotions, my personality? These cute questions keep entering my head, keep pushing other thoughts aside, making me question whether I can guide my thinking toward revelations that will indeed lead to, if not a real vision, at least considerable relief from my muddled, too familiar ways of thinking. When I ask Manchas if he's afraid of bears, I realize I ask the ridiculous; bears normally fear and avoid his type.
On the other hand, cougars don't; Manchas's type is traditional cougar cuisine. They're known to lure a dog away from others to where they ambush them. A friend of mine from Boulder raises Australian cattle dogs, and earlier this year the rest of his hounds brought him all that was left of one a cougar had cornered: its rolling head came to a stop at his feet. This is why I keep Manchas leashed all our time here. Despite his high intelligence--for a dog--he would run off after a big cat, thinking nothing about the difference in size from our pet felines back home. And I don't want him winding up like my friend's dog. After all, it was Manchas's mom.
Blogger Alice left a comment on my first installment of this venture: "Make sure your location is known." I take her advice and write a note I leave on the truck floorboard concerning where we're headed. I can't help leaving a potential last joke, though not my best ever: "If anything happens to me, I assume the dog will drag back my remains."
As prepared as we can get, the two of us veer off the trail, making our way up. Passersby below, peer up, possibly wondering what the hell we're doing. I try not to think the same. Despite not being as steep as a direct climb, the hill's pitch promises to be a challenge. The backpack's relatively light, the heaviest contents, the quart and a half of water. Crackers don't weigh much. Manchas's food does, which reminds me of La Bloga readers who advised not to put him on restricted intake; they're not here to carry it. It's mostly soil underfoot here and pine needles galore, but navigable, nevertheless. At least for the first few hundred feet and first half hour. Until it steepens.
We're not quite alone yet. Chatter from the trail below fades, with an occasional barking dog or revving truck motor dimly reaching us. Manchas's paws point uphill, and he manages it easily. I have to switch to stepping diagonally to keep solid footing and not slide from loose soil and ground rock underfoot.
Perhaps an hour later we've got into a rhythm, if you want to call twenty-minute stretches of climb separated by five-minute rests a rhythm. Real climbers, nonsmokers and fit, young people could do it better, but we don't care because they're not here. Our hearts beat strong, or maybe are being beaten, and I nearly forget the bears. I do forget about the lower level of oxygen we're taking in.
Manchas's tongue hangs low enough to lap at the pine needles, so we stop for a drink; he wipes his up, I take a swallow, which will be my regular portion throughout. The word stamina pops into my head, something to get us to the top, I think. I assume the dog's got it, and I need to somehow magically find it in myself. It's there, it's what always gets me through my day, my job, larger home-maintenance I take on. I will not forget that word.
Another hour later our goal appears no closer than when we began. We've been in the midst of thin forest. My walking stick serves like someone stronger alongside to assist old me through trickier parts of the path. Actually, the paths I expected we'd follow never appear. Nothing large like deer have left markings about, at least that I can see. No matter we're only a few hundred feet from where thousands of tourists tread, the dog and I are the disturbers of nature here, the space between the pines untrammeled until we mar its pristineness.
One other evidence of disruption is a cave-niche where fires charred three large rocks to warm the rare visitor. The soot makes me realize we've passed many blackened trees bare of leaves. Lightening, I finally realize. We're high up the type of terrain where Colorado's electrical storms leave loving evidence of their might. Might they while we're here? Right now it's cloudless above. Wind's constant, though never howling or rocking us.
In our third hour, a different word pops up: deprivation, though I don't know why. The climb hasn't been so demanding as to consider quitting. And I don't feel "deprived." So whence the thought? We don't deprive ourselves of rest; if anything, we stop more frequently and longer each time. I'm not tempted to crack open the crackers; going without food for even twenty-four hours is no biggie. Workaholics, of which I am one, do it often, simply out of negligence. Deprivation. Will have to think about that more.
We're high enough that we begin to see the tops of other mountains, even though the pinnacle of ours still lies distant. Breathtaking--at least when I can manage to draw one. Panoramic--though Manchas might be unimpressed. Solitude--turns out there are no cabins or homes visible from here. A great quiet--what I least expect--no sound of teeming wildlife, except for one or two small birds at a time.
I don't know if it's the fourth hour or what. Have no watch. Wife Carmen "made me" bring her cell, to keep her apprised of our safety. I'd tried it below, but no service. I'll use it at the top because she "made me" promise. She didn't realize how the out-of-touch factor heightens one's sense of . . . danger? Word doesn't fit. But something like that. Anyway, the phone likely can tell me the time, but I don't want to know; would mar the "primitiveness" of our walkabout.
Trees thin even more. Now they make their hold between large and larger rocks that increase in numbers, sometimes blocking our way. Ten feet, fifteen in size, they become obstructions that make travel harder and harder. Again, unexpected. Our pace slackens, sometimes having to backtrack to find better route.
Manchas's short four legs no longer rate superior to my longer two. And where before he helped pull me, I now lead, although it's futile to tow him. Eighty pounds of him don't come up easily, especially where a step of rock measures a couple of feet. He's starting to enjoy this less, I can see.
No hawks, though one soars in the distance, few flying insects, just some really big ants that I'll need to make sure don't nest under our spot come nightfall. Gotta keep away from ticks as well, for his sake.
Whatever time it is, however long we've gone, the boulders wear at my stamina. They're almost all we walk on and over; dirt, gravel and needles have become more dangerous, when we do cross them. Manchas likes this even less. A couple of times he resists following or jumps when I'm not ready, and I barely save myself from falling by ramming my forearms against or over a rock. Both are soon well scratched and painful, though not enough to matter. Pain is our word here. Muscles ache, head's throbbing somewhat. Maybe it's the altitude, too.
My brain's superior to his in finding passable trail. His vision seeks paths within a few feet in front of him. Mine peers further, anticipating, calculating, better planning which to take. We two have been this for tens of thousands of years. I do better at it; it's one reason I don't wear the leash.
Twice, Manchas gives me a "no" look, determined. He will not attempt to climb this rock or that path I'm trying to convince him is the best available. I'm tempted to give in to picking him up, but know he does too well at learning new routines. If I do it once, I'm dead; he will make me do it even when not required. Both times I'm forced to invent a totally different path or tweak one into finer and finer increments that he'll accept.
When we reach the edge of a rise that's drained us for I don't know how long, the relief from seeing there's only one mountain above us--ours--feels as if we've emerged from hours in a lightless cavern. We're beat. The top of our mt. is almost in sight, just a few more hundred feet. But the boulders in front of us will definitely not let Manchas pass. The two of us have come as far as we'll get, today or any day, unless I carry him, somehow. Fat chance.
There's service here, so I call the wife to let her know we're here, and exclude any negative information, like about my forearms. We probably have a couple of hours to prepare for nightfall.
The dog eats, wipes out the water I give him. A good swallow for me; the larger canteen's half empty. Maybe we don't have enough. But at least stamina's no longer required; we simply have to sit. Danger seems irrelevant; nothing about. Deprivation remains a possibility.
The crags we came for aren't visible unless we reach the top. That may have to wait for another time. Their majesty below almost frightened, and I admit relief at not having to learn if I can stand watch with them for an entire night. That might test more than a vision suddenly facing me.
We gaze, we stare, and breathe. The opposing mountain's nearly covered with pine. Essentially, we stand above tree line. It's too quiet to believe. Questing for a vision will start in a while, I suppose. For now, some rest, a smoke, a break.
[This series ends in the next installment.]