It’s a bright, worry-free Friday morning after a dark night. Getting in my frozen hiking trousers and cold wet shoes needs some overcoming, but turns out to be less uncomfortable than expected. I collect my Bearvault from where it landed, and look for a nice breakfast place.

A few meters up the stream is a large opening with a weather station. I will never forget the breakfast I had there, in the cold, under a clear sky and towering mountain cliff, beneath the setting moon. My breakfast consists of bread with peanut butter (no refrigeration needed, says the label on the jar), carrots and dried fruit. There is also some milk left, except that the tetrapack hasn’t survived the not-quite-seventy-steps-throw so well. Never mind…

Satellite image of Andrews Creek

Satellite image of Andrews Creek, from Google Maps. Does not really do justice to the beauty of this place, though.

Around eight o’clock, my bag is packed and I’m on my way again. Coming down to Icy Creek, I see two fresh footprints on the way to Sky Pond. Some people must have been up really early. This is the first sign of other people I’ve seen for 16 hours, and it will take two more hours until I meet the first humans.

The Loch lies motionless, its far end fading away in the clouds. A thin ice crust covers the parts near the shore. As I continue walking, I realize that my feet aren’t cold anymore. At nine, I take off my jacket. A song comes to my mind; we have sung it at a wedding this summer. I sing it as I continue, and it feels as if life couldn’t get any better at this moment.

Que la grâce et la paix du Seigneur
Soient déposées sur vous, sur vos cœurs
Et que sa lumière vienne éclairer vos vies
Par le nom de Jésus Christ.

As I overlook the valley, with snow-laden trees spreading away towards the cloudy horizon, I can feel some of the spirit that early pioneers must have felt, when they came here in search for gold, a better life, or just for a vague idea of freedom.

Soon, I arrive at Bear Lake. I leave my backpack in the forest, and walk around the perimeter of the lake. Rarely have I seen such beautiful reflections. The clouds have cleared away, and I see the mountains clearly, together with their perfect copies in the lake. It’s funny though, that one sees the reflection from a slightly different angle. Clouds for example are not in the same place.

Now I have definitely entered civilization again. One sign of this is the initials that people have carved into the otherwise-so-beautiful, bright stems of the Aspen trees. Here I feel the need for a digression: carving one’s initials in a tree is one of the stupidest things in the world. I guess people do it out of ignorance about how trees live, so let me take a paragraph to explain.

There are two systems of flows inside a tree. The core of the tree, despite being solid wood, contains microscopic channels where water moves upwards from the roots thanks to capillary action. Conversely, sugar is being produced in the leaves and flows downwards just underneath the bark, where it is used to grow the tree and its roots. Carving something in the bark effectively cuts off this flow of nutrients, preventing the tree from growing. Besides, the wound hardly heals, and becomes an attack vector for bacteria, fungi, and illnesses.

From Bear Lake, there is a free shuttle to the discovery center. Barry has assured me that there is a path from there to the visitor center, through the forest. This is the path I am searching, because I want to give back the Bearvault.

Sure enough, a narrow track starts at the visitor center, leading approximately in the right direction. From time to time, I see small round animal excrements on the way. I would soon find out which animals produced them. In fact, these last two miles of my Rocky Mountains Park trip would turn out to be most memorable.

I have not walked long when I hear the bird again:

I have heard it several times during the trip, and wondered what kind of bird it was. This time, I stop and see it – except it isn’t a bird. The sound is produced by a squirrel! I see the small thing as it races down a tree, and chases a competitor off another. The two of them disappear in the grass.

A few hundred steps later, I suddenly stop moving. Before me, across the trail, not even hundred meters away, stands a group of elk. It must be the herd that I saw yesterday from the car: 19 females, and a bit uphill, the bull.

Unmoving, we watch each other for a few minutes. After a while, the animals start trotting uphill, and I cautiously continue along the trail. As I am past the herd, I hear it for the first time: the cry of an elk bull. It’s a high-pitched sound, hard to describe… maybe a bit like an ungreased door being closed?

Rocky Mountain Elks

Rocky Mountain Elks – Picture by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The trail continues through meadows strewn with rocks and pine trees. The climate is warmer here than up in the mountains, and by now the sun is shining strongly. Around noon, I decide to pause and have lunch.

While I am sitting within a group of pines, chewing my bread with Wisconsin Apple-smoked Gruyere Cheese, two young elk bulls come out of the trees, about 150 meters away. They look at me, then lie down. The bulls start chewing their cud looking at me, and I chew my food staring back. This way, we stay until I’ve finished my meal and continue along the trail.

I pass one more herd of elk before I abruptly see a camping lot before me. Nature and civilization are close together indeed in this park. I feel like leaving a fantasy tale, and go looking for the street to the visitor center.

Once there, I return the Bearvault and tell my story to Barry. Then, it’s time to definitely re-enter civilization: have a shave in the visitor center restroom, and use their free wifi to my heart’s content to find out what has happened in Switzerland during my time in the wild.

The lady ranger at the visitor center kindly hands me an old cardboard box. I make a sign out of it:

Want to take me to BOULDER or DENVER?
By the way, I tell great stories :)

It turns out that this works fairly well. Soon, I’m in Mike’s car (Mike is also an ex-hitchhiker) and driving towards Estes Park. He drops me just outside the town, at the highway to Boulder. Only about thirty passing cars later (on a well-frequented road) I meet Nick. He’s a professional hockey player and fisherman with a degree in economics. Living in Denver, he takes me all the way to Broadway in Downtown Denver. From there, it’s a short walk until I put down my backpack where it all started, at the Melbourne Hostel.