"What do you see?" Debbie Ackley asked the bundled-up group she was leading along a trail Monday morning.
The hikers stopped to look from their perch on a hillside.
At the cold start to the new year, during this tradition of First Day Hikes at Cheyenne Mountain State Park, they could see the prairie, the wavy expanse of the grass they had learned was called "eyelash grass." Ackley had earlier plucked a single stem for the 37 hikers to observe the resemblance. They could see thickets of Gambel oak and spots of ponderosa pine. They could see the plains in stark contrast with the mountain's craggy face behind them. They could see cars moving on Colorado 115, distant enough so that the sound was a soft hum.
"I see a hawk," Ackley said, following with her finger the trajectory of the low-gliding and teetering harrier. Not 50 yards on she would stop again, for everyone to envy the more graceful flight of the red-tailed hawk.
As a longtime volunteer at the park, First Day Hikes are her chance to sell the year-round sights of the park in Colorado Springs' southern countryside, the constant grandeur available close to home, waiting for anybody and everybody. At one point she paused near an interpretive sign that detailed the adaptability of species, from ladybugs and butterflies to coyotes and bears. "Being here in the different seasons, you see a lot of life happening, a lot of changes," she said.
Change is what Zach King came for. He's hoping to be at the end of a three-year battle against cancer, with plans to make his path forward on dirt, through the woods.
"I'm just getting back into life," he said, alone at the front of the group, without the friends who decided against the First Day Hike as they looked at the chilly forecast.
And so King thrived on the strangers behind him, letting them push him ahead. He met some during another stop along the trail.
"Do you know your neighbors?" Ackley asked the group before imploring them all to shake hands.
One was Rose DiCenso, alongside fellow retirees from her weekly hiking group. Recent years have come with losses, and 2017 was no different, with brain cancer claiming one group member.
"We miss him," said DiCenso, the group leader who subscribes to the philosophy of nature as healing, "centering," and also to the benefit of "counting blessings." "Everybody else has been doing well," she said.
Carisa Cipoletti marked up 2017 as "an interesting year," with plenty of challenges. But as the year ended she found joy in her 9-year-old son, Javy, whose newest interest is the violin. He happily came along for the hike as part of his mother's quest to instill in him "a respect for all that nature has," she said, "and a respect for living in such a beautiful place."
Jim and Kim Gustafson took Monday morning to discover the park, the place they'd never visited in their six years in the Springs.
"Ups and downs," he said of his 2017 assessment. "As for the politics," he said, "I don't care."
No, the contentious issues that defined the year for some were not discussed at length here. King read the headlines in the morning, one about the latest threat from North Korea - "scary," he admitted.
But he stepped out of the woods, into the warm sunlight, and declared confidently: "2018 is going to be success, stability and serenity."