I stumble hard on a lip of concrete outside Pikes Peak Outfitters, narrowly avoiding the kind of face-plant that requires reconstructive dentistry and an extended diet of soft foods.
"I think I broke my toe," I say after I regain my balance, meaning: This is a sign. I clearly can't be expected to traverse extremely uneven mountainside when I'm unable to manage slightly uneven sidewalk.
"If you can walk, it's not broken," says The Gazette's R. Scott Rappold, meaning: You're not getting out of this camping trip that easily, Earls.
We are at Pikes Peak Outfitters on a Thursday to rent a backpack for me, because this weekend I am going on my first backpacking trip with Scott and his wife, Lynnea, expert backcountry campers who do this pretty much every summer weekend.
Two hours ago, when this plan coalesced, it seemed like a good idea. I'm perfectly capable of walking in the woods, even uphill if the occasion calls for it, and I have suitable footwear, more or less. Then I tried on a backpack and realized that my idea failed to account for a couple of key points, like the fact that I will be wearing a backpack.
But I'm tripping ahead of myself here.
Scott and I have a few important things in common, including a deep and abiding love of beer. Hiking/backpacking/camping (oh, holy Colorado trinity!) is not one of them. Don't get me wrong - nature and I go way back. I've spent a lot of time in it, especially on the way to and from school busses. I grew up in a small town in West Virginia and have lived my life more or less at the base of a mountain range, in Virginia, Oregon, Washington, New York. I ski. I've had outdoorsy boyfriends, which, using the transitive property of dating, gives me a little hill cred - at least it did back East.
None of that cuts it here, where the backcountry evokes a near-religious zeal among devotees.
"You can see many beautiful places on a day hike, scarf down a lunch and head back to civilization, or you can bring a tent and immerse yourself in the beauty for a night, in places no car can go," Scott says. "And if you get really ambitious, there are plenty of places you can only visit if you have your house and kitchen on your back."
I envy his passion. Perhaps an as-yet-untapped vein of that lies in me? On a simpler level, I want to be able to add something to my Colorado conversation repertoire. I feel left out and I want to play, too. So here goes.
Our destination: "A short, overnight trip" (Scott's words) to Mohawk Lakes, in the White River National Forest near Breckenridge. The Summit County Explorer ranks our planned trek as a mellow-sounding "intermediate, family hike," describing it as "a pleasant walk through the woods" - with a 1,700-foot elevation gain over 3.4 miles of trail, which means nothing to me.
"So, is it steep like this?" I ask Scott later over pre-trip beers, demonstrating an angle with my forearm.
"That's flat." He adjusts my arm until the slant is as steep as a run of stairs, ignoring my look of terror. He laughs. "You're going to love it."
Backpackers talk like this, front-loading with the horrors because the good parts are more abstract, hard to explain to someone who's green. They tell you to plan for ticks and mosquitoes, blisters and sunburn, sore muscles, exhaustion and general physiological misery. Then they go all misty and tell you you're going to have an awesome time.
It's all highly confusing.
The longest 1.8 miles ever
At the trailhead, Lynnea tells me it's OK, that there are tears in backpacking, if it must come to that. Then she demonstrates the best way to wrangle on a backpack fully loaded with tent (two-person, borrowed), sleeping bag (30-degree, borrowed), sleep pad (inflatable, borrowed), water, food (one breakfast, one lunch), baggy of dry dog food, clothes and other camping essentials (6-pack of beer). Lynnea helps me fasten and adjust the pack's countless clasps and buckles so that I'm properly off-balance and choking.
"Can you breathe?" Lynnea asks.
"Kind of ...?"
Which is apparently the correct answer because now we're moving; I'm lurching across the parking lot behind the Rappolds, my heart's pounding even though the ground is level, and I'm starting to get worried that I made a na?e and extremely bad decision.
"How do you like camping so far?" Scott asks jokingly, for not the first nor last time, then snaps a photo of me by the sign at Spruce Creek trailhead. It's pretty much the last time Lynnea and I see him or my dog, Stone, for the next three-ish hours, henceforth to be known as the longest 1.8 miles ever. Highlights of that trek to the Wheeler Trail Junction include:
- It starts raining.
- It stops raining.
- Lynnea counsels me to alternate my lead leg periodically while hiking, to spread the pain around.
- It starts raining.
- It stops raining ... no, wait - still raining.
- Lynnea sings a Bob Marley song, which will play in my head for nearly a week.
- I get hungry and eat ALL of my snacks and half of my breakfast for the next day (rookie mistake, as Scott later puts it).
- We pass scores of day-hikers heading in the opposite direction, who, upon hearing I am a first-timer, chuckle dryly and offer encouragement such as "Better you than me," "Seriously?" and "Good luck" with an eye-roll. Really, thanks guys.
When Lynnea and I catch up with Scott and Stone, they're chilling at a sweet campsite not far from the trail by a large beaver pond. Push through the trees and the panorama opens more; it's so vast and breathtaking anything I could possibly have to say about it has got to be some kind of backpacker cliche.
While Lynnea and I reconnoiter, Scott scouts ahead, along the route to the campsite we'd originally planned, and deems it too rigorous.
"You guys would kill me if I made you keep going," he says when he returns, which sounds altruistic but really means that my freshman jaunt has been child's play for him.
"I hate you," I say, propping my turtle-back against a big rock. For a micro-second, while my body is struggling to digest mockery (and the last of my snacks), I'm pretty sure I mean it. By the time we pitch the tents and start a fire (no burn bans in effect here, which is why Scott chose this area), I'm over it.
There might be crying in backpacking, but it's on the inside and it clears faster than a mountain rainstorm.
Making rookie mistakes
Over the ensuing 20 hours, I learn far too many things to list here, most due to rookie mistakes such as leaving my tent flap open (bugs!) and not drinking enough water.
Next time, I will need to pack a fleece for Stone, who shivered all night and couldn't seem to get comfortable. I later learn this is due to a repetitive strain injury to his tail. He was so happy with us in the woods, he sprained his wag.
Next time, I will remember to pack more snacks, or self-control.
Next time, I will be especially wary around lodgepole pines, which are the arboreal equivalent of an iron maiden.
The trip down to the car with full packs is long, periodically rainy and generally uneventful. Lynnea is chipper, saying hello to everyone we pass; I keep my head down and my eyes on my feet, willing my knees not to wobble and my brain not to think about the consequences of a badly-timed stumble.
As we near the parking lot, I pass a family - dad, mom, little girl - all looking as fresh as new ice cream cones.
"Hey, you've got a tent!" shrieks the girl when she sees me, only the last word comes out sounding like "tank."
"Bet that's what it feels like - a tank," says the dad, and I find myself smiling with him. Because, I guess, I realize this has been fun. I am gritty and stinky and tired, my shoulders are on fire and my calves feel like someone is jabbing pencils into them, but I had fun.
I suppose I can acknowledge and appreciate this now that our adventure is almost over, now that my Honda is just over yonder rise. And maybe that's the thing about backpacking: You probably should expect to sprain your wag a little, but it's a small price to pay.