Trails can lead to introspection, inner peace
This is the ninth in a series of weekly columns about Colorado National Monument in honor of the park’s centennial anniversary on May 24.
No Thoroughfare Canyon, the wettest place to hike in Colorado National Monument, has a reputation for attracting amphibians to its pools in spring and ice climbers to its frozen waterfalls in winter. For many visitors to this high-desert climate, it’s surprising to discover lush, green vegetation deep inside canyon walls.
When flash floods occur, No Thoroughfare can quickly morph into a natural bowling alley. Boulders go bounding down the canyon in deep rapids with the power to level cottonwood trees like tenpins.
But on this particular day, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. No worries in No Thoroughfare today. Almost.
People sometimes bring their own cloudy skies into the backcountry. That’s what happened when a friendly stranger asked to join me for a canyon hike.
He was a spry 75-year-old who moved nimbly up No Thoroughfare’s rocky trail. He expressed his affection for the canyon’s challenging terrain, and also mentioned his painful divorce from a woman he’d lost contact with years ago.
The farther we hiked, the more his ex-wife seemed to monopolize his thoughts and our conversation. It was evident, as he leaned on hiking poles, that he still hurt after more than a decade of living alone.
Many people carry their troubles in their backpacks. At the monument, we’re accustomed to seeing happy visitors every day of the year because they’re on vacation, they’re with their families or just awestruck by so much beauty around every bend in Rim Rock Drive.
But not always. Some of America’s most famous naturalists have more or less defined Mother Nature as part therapist.
One of them was John Burroughs, an American conservationist who wrote essays about his wilderness experiences, which included a memorable camping trip with President Teddy Roosevelt in Yellowstone. He wrote about himself, too.
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order,” Burroughs wrote.
If you’ve ever watched a cottontail nibble on wild grass or felt snowflakes hit your tongue or heard an elk bugle, you know such moments work better than a narcotic.
“Let us first be as simple and well as Nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our brows, and take up a little life into our pores,” Henry David Thoreau wrote. This 19th century, Harvard-educated philosopher lived for a time in a cabin by Walden Pond, forsaking the trappings of urban life for the simplicity of the woods.
Wallace Stegner, a 20th century novelist, shared Thoreau’s vision.
In his “Wilderness Letter” to a California researcher, Stegner argued for the protection of certain wide-open spaces so that Americans can get away from “the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste.”
His letter, written in 1960, concluded: “These are some of the things wilderness can do for us … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
That is how one middle-aged Grand Junction couple spent an afternoon last week — hiking through Lower Monument Canyon. They noticed a nest of golden eagles high on the canyon wall.
Miles from the noise and exhaust of highway traffic, they observed the nest through binoculars. Only the “eek-eek” of one eagle landing and another taking flight split the air. With exuberance, they described the eagles’ behavior.
“We just saw the changing of the guard!”
They stood only 10 minutes from the very spot that John Otto, the monument’s first custodian, married Beatrice Farnham on June 20, 1911. Beatrice, a Boston art school graduate, wore a beautiful white satin dress and a rather forlorn expression. Otto wore a white shirt and blue tie.
Otto’s best man described the weather in his journal: “A bad, cloudy day.” After their honeymoon on Pinyon Mesa, clouds lingered. A few months later, they divorced. “I tried hard to live his way,” Beatrice wrote, “But I could not do it, I could not live with a man to whom even a cabin was an encumbrance.”
Otto stayed on, unable to leave his true love — the monument. He later wrote about his brief marriage in his trademark philosophical manner.
“Our trails have crossed; then for awhile we traveled it together until now we come to the place where our trail is divided again, she desiring to travel hers separately, leaving me to travel mine separately.”
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Eric Sandstrom teaches at Mesa State College and is a seasonal park ranger at Colorado National Monument.