As I leave the little stream, the sunrise paints the eastern sky in beautiful orange. The weather service has announced rain for today, but at least for now, nothing like it is to be seen.
I reach the main road and head north. A sign tells me I’m at mile 35. Ward is eight miles from here, Allenspark is twenty, and to the national park it’s about 45 miles. I decide to hitchhike for real this time, with thumb out and everything. I wonder if it will work.
The first few cars pass by me. Many drivers greet me, and I smile back, but none of them stops. I wonder what the probability of getting a ride would be, and start counting cars. An hour later, I pass the mile 38 sign and I’m still on the road. It’s a road with very little traffic, though; only about a dozen cars have overtaken me so far.
Walking on, I consider the beauty of my situation. The road being above 9000 feet, this is excellent elevation training in thin air. The air is fresh and filled with the morning sun and the occasional chirp of a bird. Once I see a squirrel crossing the road before me. I repack my backpack to shift the weight downwards and closer to my body, and continue with a song on my lips.
When hitchhiking, I think it is important to keep a positive attitude. Remember that no driver has to pick you up. It’s pure grace if somebody does. The best thing to do is smile friendly at any car, greet people when they drive on, and continue walking until the next car comes.
The people who do pick up hitchhikers, though, are often unusually friendly. It’s car number twenty that stops, a light-brown truck with a tall, blond man and a dog puppy. She’s nine weeks old, the driver explains, and interested in everything. The young dog has tiny sharp teeth, and uses them to (gently) byte anything in reach, including my hand and seatbelt. The driver hands me a thick leather glove for my left hand; it keeps the puppy busy as we drive on.
I’m ashamed to say that I forgot this driver’s name; I have yet to become a better hitchhiker and pay closer attention. He was a tall, handsome guy with long blond hair, leather trousers, a fur hat… not unlike a trapper from a western movie. He had hitchhiked himself through the entire nation, and also traveled to many other countries. Now he was working in Ward as a blacksmith, making all sorts of knives. I consider asking him whether I could buy a replacement for my Swiss army knife. I should have, in hindsight. But then we arrive at ward, he lets me out of the car and wishes a good onward journey.
A sense of solitude marks the next parts of the road. I notice several signs on the way, warning trespassers to not leave the road into private property. From time to time, I can see the ranch to which the signs belong. People who live here don’t have much company, I think. Walking past the School bus stop ahead signs, I wonder how it must be to live twenty miles from the next town or school.
Lunch break is on a small rock next to the road, not far from one of these little streams that crisscross the Colorado highlands. I try the coconut-peanut-butter that I bought at the Co-op, and some delicious dried apples. Before I continue, I examine my feet and put a preventive band-aid on a small wound.
This time, I don’t have to walk long before a car stops. I immediately like and trust the driver, a man in his sixties. As we drive on, he tells me his name’s John, he recently retired, and how has a day off. He loves the national park and is on his way there. John knows the road well and explains to me many a landmark. As we pass by a famous chapel, he tells me about the floods that have caused much damage a year ago, and points out that the bridge linking the chapel to the main road still hasn’t been rebuilt. We continue chatting about travels that we did (John recently came back from Israel, where he followed the traces of Jesus in order to better understand all those stories he reads), about fishing, and about the places we pass along the way.
With John’s help, I arrive right at the park entrance, before noon. Who would have expected this travel to go so smoothly? Not me…
John and I both get a park map and the latest news at the visitor center. Then, we go have lunch together in Estes Park (the tourist town that emerged in front of the park’s entrance). John insists on paying, and I promise that if he ever comes to Switzerland, I will do the same for him. He has my address (so, John, if you ever read this, don’t hesitate).
After lunch, John even accompanies me to the backcountry office of the park. There we meet Barry S. He’s a full-blood ranger, full of smiles and knowledge about the park. I ask him whether it would be possible to sleep somewhere in the park. Yes, there are places, but the weather forecast is announcing an inch of snow tonight. Camping outdoors, without a proper tent, might not be such a good idea…
Thus informed, I decide to look for accommodation at the nearby YMCA center. John kindly drives me there, saying that he had stayed there once with his wife, and wanted to see their rates for another stay next summer. The center is gigantic, with plenty of little lodges and sports fields.
Speaking of YMCA: it’s an organization that is completely different depending on the country you’re in. In Switzerland, YMCA means boyscouts, activities out in the nature, camping… In the US, the YMCA operates huge sport and convention centers. In Switzerland, there would always be a dorm bed for a hiker and his backpack. In the US, the receptionist hands me a sheet with room rates (lots of three-digit numbers) and tells me that, sorry, they don’t do walk-ins these days.
I’m a bit disappointed, but also determined not to look in any other hostel. Instead, I finally bid farewell to John, and head back to the backcountry office. Barry is as friendly as ever, asks me about the grade of my sleeping bag, and lets me choose one of their official campsites. We decide that my sleeping bag is good enough to choose a place a bit higher up, called Andrew’s Creek. If the clouds clear up tomorrow, I’ll have a fantastic view on the mountains up there.
I feel extremely thankful for all the help, advice and material I received at the backcountry office. Barry hands me a Bearvault, a large container to store all my food (“We don’t usually lend these, but…”) Over night, I have to ensure all edible things are in there, and place the container seventy steps away from where I sleep. When I’m all set, Barry asks his officemate to excuse him for a twenty minutes; he would drive me up all the way to the trailhead. “This will get you there faster, and in my car you’ll save the park entrance fee,” he says with a smile.
On the way, we talk about Barry’s travel to Switzerland next summer. He loves the mountains, and so he chose to stay in Lauterbrunnen, Mürren and the Kleine Scheidegg. I hand him my address as well. On the way, we stop twice to watch a herd of deer. “You see the big one with the antlers? That’s the strongest of them all. The others are all his girlfriends.”
At 14:30, Barry drops me off at Glacier Gorge trailhead. Its drizzling, and fairly cold. I take out gloves, cap, and jacket. Then I fill the Bearvault with food and carefully put it on top of my pack. I shoulder my backpack, and am on my own.
A wide and comfortable path winds up into the mountains. I can hear the stream rushing in the valley below. At times, the path gets so close to the water that I can see it splashing over the rocks and down small waterfalls. I’m trying to keep a steady pace. Walking uphill with a rather heavy backpack, I estimate that I make just above two miles an hour.
Around 17:00, I reach the Loch. The small lake lies calmly in the mist. It’s at this point that the first snowflakes mix between the raindrops. The path becomes more narrow and rocky from here onwards, but is still very well maintained and easy to find. I continue past streams of glacier water and arching rocks. Soon I cross Icy Creek, and follow it upstream to the Andrew Creek campground.
At 17:30, I arrive at the campground. It’s a clearing in the forest, with some solid ground to put on tents. Apart from a metal arrow indicating the location, and a few fallen logs, there is no trace of civilization. It’s snowing steadily now, and the ground has turned white. I have about one and a half hours till nightfall. At this time I wonder whether this adventure really has been a good idea.
I decide that the two most urgent things I need are shelter and a soft, dry place to sleep on. Walking around the clearing, I spot four fir trees that are standing close together. One of them is leaning towards the others, but still firmly rooted and full of thick needled branches. This is going to be my shelter for tonight. During the next thirty minutes, I collect logs and dead branches all around the clearing, and install them at the windward side of my shelter. My goal is to build a wall that is thick and high enough to protect against snowflakes being blown into my shelter. After a while, there is a respectable heap/wall of wood next to my bed-to-be, and I start being more hopeful about the coming night.
I spend the next hour collecting dry pine needles and soft forest floor. In a hundred little walks, I bring them to my shelter. One place that contains particularly many soft dry needles must have been a squirrels favorite; I see many small pine cones, some of them showing traces of nagging animals. At some point, I see a squirrel running away and hope that it’s not too angry at me for building my bed.
It’s almost seven o’clock when I decide that the small, anthill-like heap of soft material is large enough. I place my backpack next to it; it will serve as a footrest during the night. Then I take out my bivouac bag, sleeping bag, food, clothes, and everything I might need during the night. I put on a few dry layers of clothing, and snuggle shiveringly into my sleeping bag.
Darkness arrives quickly, and so my supper is shorter than anticipated. When I’ve eaten, I put the food back in the Bearvault, and throw it away from me with all my might. Not seventy steps… but not even the thought of bears would make me leave my warm sleeping bag now.
Inside the waterproof and windproof bivouac bag, it’s surprisingly warm. I shift into a comfortable position, say a prayer, and fall asleep.
The first time I wake up, it’s past ten. I had been sleeping for almost three hours. I’m still warm, and notice I’m breathing heavily. The air must be quite thin… Suddenly I realize the reason. In my quest for warmth, I had left only a small opening in my bivouac bag. As I slid deeper into the bag, my face had gotten away from the opening, and I started breathing the same air over and over again. I open up the bivouac a bit, and start breathing chill mountain air.
During the rest of the night, I sleep surprisingly well. My bed is warm and dry, except for some vapor that condensates at the inside of my bivouac bag.
I wake up again at five to a most beautiful sight. The sky has cleared. An almost full moon shines through the snow-laden fir branches and fills the clearing with a magically white light. It feels outlandish, a dream world. I close my eyes again, and sleep through till seven.