9 walks to Willow Lake

2018

It’s Sophie’s last weekend in town and she wants to go backpacking. I know immediately what to suggest.

Have you been there before? she asks.

I push up my left sleeve and point to the tattoo on my shoulder. It’s a topographical map, with such steep grades that the tattoo artist swore under his breath as he traced them. Over time, some of the black lines have started to bleed into each other. The turquoise color has faded too – it runs unevenly along the bottom, where it collects in a large teardrop. Willow Lake.

The trail starts just east of Crestone. It’s a strange town, even by Colorado standards: with just over 100 actual residents, it is home to fifteen religious groups, mostly Hindu and Buddhist with some new age-y Mother Gaia stuff too. They were all granted land in the 1970s by billionaire Maurice Strong, a Canadian oil tycoon-turned-United Nations visionary who is credited with globalizing environmentalism. (The rest of his 100,000-acre ranch is now the Baca National Wildlife Refuge in between Crestone and the Great Sand Dunes National Park.)

So Crestone has become a haven for those on spiritual journeys, particularly those who believe that energy can accumulate and vibrate in a manner defying physics. They call it a Vortex, like Sedona or Mt. Shasta. Magnets and compasses aren’t supposed to work here (but they do).

We camp at the trailhead and linger in the morning, waiting for the light to creep over the mountains and touch our skin. I am the only experienced backpacker in the group, and I describe the route as we go along. Cross the creek on the giant log. It’s sandy, just for a bit. Don’t turn right on the side trail that’s marked with a spiral; it means Vortex and it just leads you back to Crestone.

Then the switchbacks start. It’s a 4.5-mile hike to the lake with 2,752 feet of elevation gain, and I can tell that everyone else is nervous. They’re slower than me but they aren’t slow, so it doesn’t take us long to reach the first and only plateau. It overlooks a sprawling alpine meadow, ringed with gray, leafless aspen and pine groves that have been sorely drained by beetle-kill. From here we can see the intimidating approach to Willow Lake towering ahead. The whole Sangre de Cristo range is like a singular knife’s edge, with fault lines on either side that thrust the rock upwards so many million years ago. Like the equally dramatic Tetons in Wyoming, the Sangres do not have foothills.

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Koda in the meadow with the approach to Willow Lake in the background.
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From 11,000′ you can see the meadow (center), the San Luis Valley, and (in the distance) the Continental Divide.

We set up our tents in the meadow and leave them behind. The trail flattens out for a bit, then begins the real climb. We start to see fresh snow and footprints. The trail so far has been dry, but suddenly there is water cascading down the mountain, crossing the trail as it zig-zags its way up the shear rock. Eventually the trees disappear and we can see the meadow below and the San Luis Valley beyond it. The San Luis Valley is known for alien sightings and potatoes.

Dana asks when the climbing will be over. I hesitate to say, because I don’t want to give her false hope. The final ascent to the lake always seems like the longest, where the trees get thick again and you think you’re close but you don’t really know.

I reach the lake first and stake out a sunny spot on a rock. It never fails to overwhelm me, the scale of this place, something so impossible to capture on film. The frozen waterfall runs the length of the basin, 800 feet across and 100 feet high. The lake is mostly frozen, but there is a broken patch of ice where someone jumped in.

When the others catch up, they seem to agree that the climb was worth it.

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Dana at Willow Lake.

2017

I tuck my snowshoes into the pockets of my pack at the trailhead, taking care not to let their jagged teeth snag the mesh. It is February and the sun is shining; the sky is a lush cloudless blue.

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The Crestone Conglomerate shines through the snow.

The snow starts in the pines beyond the meadow. I take out my microspikes, which I have also packed, and slip the rubber casings on over my shoes. After years of snowy talus fields, I sometimes worry that their little metal teeth are no longer sharp, but they cut through the snow’s crust just fine.

By the time I reach the lake I am post-holing, but not badly enough to bother with the snowshoes. The rocks are covered in snow and there is nowhere to sit, so I stand for a while and stare at the frozen waterfall. I reach into my bag and pull out a Kind bar. I have made it all the way up without taking a break.

2016

It has been almost two months since I finished the CDT, and I am restless. The city feels once removed, like I can reach out my hand to touch it but find nothing there. What am I supposed to do here? I download Tinder.

On my first and only Tinder date, we eat dinner at my favorite place, Ethiopian Restaurant. It is a small square storefront on the side of Colfax, painted to look like the Ethiopian flag.

He asks about my tattoo and I tell him. I’ve been back every year, I say, except for this one.

He pauses a moment and I study his face in the harsh restaurant light. Let’s go, he says.

He drives. We stop at my house and then his apartment to grab a tent, sleeping bags, day packs and layers, and our dogs. I scrawl a note for my roommates on the kitchen chalkboard, telling them to call the police if I’m not back in a few days. It is 10:45pm when we leave for Salida, laughing nervously as the SUV makes its way over the front range. We have not even kissed.

We kiss in the tent at the Chaffee County fairgrounds, stacking three Mexican blankets on the floor for insulation. I’m not sure I like him, but I like this.

He has already bragged about his pace, but I find myself waiting for him at the end of switchbacks. He cannot believe how fast I hike, but I shrug and tell him it will be gone soon enough. I can feel the CDT leaving my body.

I have never seen the waterfall frozen before. Spirals of ice cascade down the rock like spiky feathers. I thought they might be clear, but they are a luminous white.

There is daylight left, so we follow the Challenger/Kit Carson trail up the scree field and around to the top of the waterfall. The rocks are mostly ice-free and I scramble out as far as I can, gazing across the valley at the Continental Divide. The La Garitas are unrecognizable covered in snow. Five months ago they were so, so green.

Come back! he calls, an edge of panic in his voice. You’re making me nervous!

I turn and look at him, bemused. The rock beneath me is solid. It has been months since I felt this calm.

2015

My mom comes to visit in August. This time will be different, I tell her. No tears or hospital rooms.

I pull my 75-liter Osprey pack out of the closet and stuff it with both sleeping bags and a two-person tent. You carry your clothes and some snacks, I tell her. My mom has been camping once, thirty years ago. I want her to have a good time.

She is a runner, though, and she makes it to the lake without succumbing to exhaustion or elevation. If she hates it, she doesn’t let on.

18423856_10154938872007025_4756129626684699198_nWe sing songs around the campfire. My mom loves to sing in a high gentle voice, and once a year she pulls her guitar out of its dusty old case for Christmas carols. But we have no guitar tonight, just our voices rising and fading into the night like the flames that lick the air. We sing our favorite non-Christmas song, Country Roads.

Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains
Flowing like the breeze

2014

Josh flies in from Baltimore. He has decided he doesn’t like Colorado (too high, too dry) and I tell him that Willow Lake might change that.

We get a late start. Traffic has come to a standstill in the San Luis Valley, something that has never happened before or since. When we make it to the trailhead, it’s well into the afternoon. Come on, I tell Josh, who does not know how to hurry.

Not until I call Isobel, he replies.

Finally we cross the creek, climb up through the pines and past the meadow. By the time we reach the switchbacks below the lake, the sun is setting. The west is wide open. All the emptiness looks hazy, glowing orange and purple, and the clouds over the La Garitas light up ruby red. We should stop and watch, I say. Then I correct myself: we should keep going. We plod up the rocks as they change color too.

It’s pitch black and we’re still hiking. I tell Josh over and over, Almost there. We take the first campsite we find, and I make my very first campfire.

The next day I suggest that we go to the Sand Dunes. Josh says he wants to go back to Denver. He misses Isobel.

Much later, Josh and Isobel will get married in a garden, and in their vows they will count the years that have passed since they first loved each other. I will walk back to Willow Lake and count the same thing.

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Eight years.

2013

Willow Lake in July! The wildflowers have burst from the earth and exploded like fireworks across the tundra. The stream crossings near the top are fast, white, and deep. We hop across rocks since the log bridge has been washed away.

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Cloud somewhere above the waterfall on the trail up to Challenger.

I point out the Crestone Conglomerate to my friends. The Sangres are the youngest range in Rockies, I say, not 100% sure that they are listening. Look how many different kinds of rocks make up these mountains. Look at those colors and tell me you’ve ever seen anything like this before.

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The geologically unique Crestone Conglomerate. A coworker tells me it is evidence of alien life, and also that Willow Lake is his favorite place to trip on shrooms.
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The descent from Challenger with the Great Sand Dunes in the distance.

In camp I call a safety meeting. Among my out-of-state friends, I am the expert. Who knows the top three causes of death on 14ers? I ask. Rockslides, lightning, and shortcuts. If we see a dark cloud, we’re turning around.

But the clouds stay soft and gauzy. I touch the top of Challenger for the third time.

In September, Ben comes to visit. I’m living in Salida, working on a trail crew, the only way I could think to escape our life together. But neither of us can stay away for long.

On the hike up, just past the meadow, Ben says he still loves me. Of course. He wants us to be together, for real this time and this time for real.

I don’t know, I respond. The wounds that drove me out here are still fresh.

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Ben and a young Koda.

We take the canoe out to the waterfall and sit on the rocks below. We are just outside the spray zone, and the water pours in a billowing column above us. Ben stretches out his arms, grinning broadly, and the coldness that I had run from is gone. He is free, pure, truly alive, and in this moment there is nothing to keep us from each other.

Okay, I tell Ben. At Willow Lake, the wounds don’t matter. At Willow Lake, the only past is a long-dead glacier, and the only future is the water that winds its way down the mountainside into the Rio Grande and then the Atlantic. The only question is what the Sangres will look like 27 million years from now.

2012

We are back for Kit Carson. 14,170′, Class 3, accessed via an exposed scramble from its neighbor, Challenger Point. Named for a man who is celebrated as a legend, a true mountain man and conqueror of the brutal West. Named for a man who indiscriminately murdered Native Americans in a gleeful genocidal rage, spanning decades and thousands of miles. Named for a man who used a knife to tear scalps from people’s heads, who ordered that his fellow human beings be shot on sight.

We will rechristen this mountain, we decide, if we make it to the top.

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Cloud and NoDay do rename the mountain, but today neither of them can remember what.

2011

The month I graduate from college is the month I admit to myself that I don’t want to be an artist. My hopes and dreams no longer pave a path to a dingy sixth-floor apartment in New York. I see injustice mounting in the world around me and I want to attack it, but I have no weapons. I have no tools. I write cover letters and nothing happens. I write love letters and stuff them in a desk drawer. One night I come home and tear apart my closet – I take the colorful, flowy dresses that I used to love and rip them with my hands until they lie in tatters on the floor. Whoever wore them is someone I want to destroy.

I start to sense that something is wrong.

So I go to visit NoDay in Colorado. (This is before she is NoDay and long before I am Cloud.) But even the sunshine and friendly faces and happy hour tapas in Boulder are no good for me. There is a constant trembling beneath the surface and a darkness beginning to color the days. I will refuse to address it for the next three years.

It’s 2011, so NoDay uses books to plan her hikes, and she reads about Willow Lake in one called Colorado Fourteeners. I am coming from sea level, and the hike up is exhausting and terrible. We make it a few miles and stop to camp in the meadow.

My body hurts, and NoDay’s boyfriend won’t shut up about bears. I lie prone on a rock, because that’s all I can do. I open my eyes and look at the sky.

For the first time, I see the Milky Way.

My sense of who I am vanishes right there in the meadow. I stare harder into the black and more stars appear. I know there is life out there. There has to be.

I am so, so small. It is the most comforting thing I have ever known. The trembling subsides and I am good, I am whole, I am here right now and that is all that matters.

I could choose this, I realize. I could move to Colorado. I laugh. Out here it feels possible.

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NoDay doesn’t wear a life jacket, since this is the summer before someone drowns at the lake.

It takes us most of the morning to reach the lake. There are two middle-aged ladies skinny dipping and they alert us to the canoe, tucked on a rock at water level. Someone hiked it up a while ago and it’s called The People’s Canoe. We spend a sunlit afternoon exploring and cook a group dinner at night.

We set the alarm for 5:00am the following morning. NoDay has lent me something called a headlamp and we scramble over rocks in the dark.

The trail up to Challenger is not very good, not then, and we get lost on the ascent. NoDay’s boyfriend cries a little. I can’t really breathe, can’t really focus, and I’m not sure why we’re doing this.

At the top, there is a large metal plaque: In memory of the crew of Shuttle Challenger. Seven who died accepting the risk, expanding Mankind’s horizons. 

Beyond it is the literal horizon, stretching farther into the distance than I can begin to calculate.

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Challenger Point, Cloud’s first 14er. To the left is Crestone Needle, Cloud’s most challenging 14er.

But the monsoons are on their way and we need to leave. On the way down, each step feels like I’m being stabbed in the knee. I am much slower than NoDay and her boyfriend, and I keep falling down in my efforts to keep up.

They wait for me on the side of the slope, pulling cheese and GORP out of their bags and chugging water. I stumble towards them, suddenly spiteful.

Tearfully, I say: I am never doing this again.

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