The sign for Woodland Park said “the city above the clouds.” Today it is in the clouds. I drove up from Colorado Springs to find some backcountry camping for a couple nights on the west side of Pike’s Peak. As I approached Woodland Park it started raining, and soon I found myself in a thick fog. Fortunately I got my GPS working the other day, so it was counting down the miles until my turnoff at Divide. From Divide I tracked south in behind the Mountain. I found a Forest Service road toward The Crags and headed up. Fresh snow must have accumulated in the last couple nights, because the national forest looked like Christmas. Wet heavy snow clung to the branches of Fir and Pinion trees. I passed the Mennonite camp and waved to the sizable groups working outside. Everybody wore a poncho and carried a shovel.
I pulled off, checked my map, and decided this would be a good spot to park. After a few minutes of tussling around inside the car to trade my boxers for running shorts, I got out of the car and into the cold rain. I swapped my light nylon shell for my hooded Mountain Hardwear jacket. My plan was to run out for an hour, taking it very easy, turn and come back. It was a reconnaissance mission. Today is supposed to be a recovery day.
Yesterday I ran 70 minutes at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. After 45 minutes I ran an uphill stretch of road hard for 1 minute with a jog back down 5 times. It felt good to run fast, but it did burn a little by the time I finished numbers 4 and 5. It took a lot longer than usual to catch my breath. I had been feeling good about my acclimatization. The first 45 minutes I felt like the altitude wasn’t a factor. I like the idea of pushing upward for at least a few periods of time while I am here. The snow is constraining my upward runs, though. It has been making a late-season resurgence. The longer days of Spring have apparently set up a storm pattern that has been dropping afternoon rain on the lower elevations and snow above about 10,000 feet. Last night the rain continued into the wee hours. I think that accounts for the fresh snow I am seeing today.
The Forest Service road is very runnable so I followed it out toward the Crags campground. I continued past and found signs for the Ring around the Peak trail so I followed that trail north and west. It was covered with about 3 inches of snow. I took my time and figured time on my feet was good for both recovery and acclimatization. It was odd to do winter running again, with it being almost June, but I quickly lost myself in the day’s adventure. It may have helped that I had to pay constant attention to my footing and the route.
When I was on my way back, and popped back out onto the road, a vivid recollection came to me:
When I was 15 I spent the summer at Camp Piomingo, working as a counselor in training. There were 16 of us, led by Ann Helm. She had narrow sloping shoulders and big hips. Most everybody at camp thought she was funny. I thought of her as a camp refugee – popular at camp but probably not anywhere else. I developed a bad attitude toward many of the other CITs. I had a full year of strong running behind me, and I had determined to continue my training over the summer. The summer of 1983 was the hottest of any Kentucky summer since I have been alive. We lived in typical camp cabins. The best time to run, by far, was early in the morning. Well, fifteen-year-old kids away from home for the summer are not known for their disciplined sleeping habits. I was an exception, partly because I’ve never been swayed by what most people around me are doing.
My desire to turn in early was not well received. In hindsight this had mostly to do with all the ways I separated myself from most of the group. I remember waking up in a total daze one night, hearing footsteps running from the cabin and suppressed laughter. I felt something unusual around my head and in my bunk, but I went back to sleep anyway. In the morning I found that I had been “powdered” with flour after I went to sleep.
I wasn’t alone, though. Scott Davis and I were united in our opposition to the group-ness that so appealed to everyone else. We were the fringe element, plotting together and talking behind others’ backs. Ironically, our non-compliance came in the form of going to sleep early and getting up for a run before breakfast. When time permitted we would do evening workouts as well. We played hard, and we embraced our role, once it was given, to work with the regular counselors and their groups of younger kids. I had always said that I wanted to be a counselor. Every summer growing up I went to camp – and loved it. I loved the physicality, the variety, and the freedom. I know now that the bonding that occurs between staff members brings them back every year – but that was never what attracted me. I never did go back to camp as a counselor.
The culmination of the bonding that had been designed into our program as CITs was a backpacking trip to the Red River Gorge in Eastern Kentucky. We were dropped off. Two vans loaded with 16 of us, Anne Helm, a second older counselor, and our gear were driven the 3 ½ hours east. The vans were not air conditioned. I remember slouching in my seat, the sweat dripping from the tips of my fingers and nose like I was melting. There was no way to fight it, so I just relented. Like a wilting flower all my muscles just went limp for the ride.
We were, fortunately, well acclimatized by that time. I had already experienced severe heat exhaustion earlier in the summer. The CITs were assigned to sweep out the quarry where the final camp bonfires were held. So on a blazing summer afternoon, there we were, sweeping in the middle of a heat sink. The temperature was probably 115 in the quarry. By then Scott and I were well known for vocally opposing irrational activities. Probably because we were expected to resist, and maybe because the rest of the group was struggling with the task, Scott and I stepped it up and swept for all we were worth. We looked like we had jumped in a pool, because Kentucky humidity precludes evaporation of sweat. We worked defiantly.
Later that afternoon I collapsed in my cabin. I had to lay still, with a fan blowing directly on me, through dinnertime and for the rest of the night. Fortunately, I was better by morning. And though I didn’t think about it at the time, heat trained.
When we got out of the van and found ourselves in the woods we actually felt cool. The 90+ degree temperatures were totally manageable. We said goodbye to the vans and hiked with our gear to Princess Arch, where we would find natural shelter and water; would have found, that is, in years when there hasn’t been a record heat wave and drought. We arrived at our home for the next 5 days to find the stream had run dry. We had water for at least a day though, so Scott and I set to exploring in a way befitting athletic boys. We played commando. Scott introduced me to several games in the time that I knew him. They seemed like good sport at the time. Only gradually did I become aware of the sinister motivation behind many of Scott’s activities. Commando was simple enough – one person ran and the other chased. We ran wide open; over, under, around, through all obstacles. Red River Gorge provided plenty of obstacles: rhododendron bushes are the toughest vegetation, that doesn’t have thorns, to fight through. We had plenty of interesting terrain features as well: hills, knobs, arches, natural gateways, and cliffs. When you’re being chased you find you can do things you would not have thought possible. Only later would Scott introduce still more “motivating” elements into this basic war game.
When we returned to camp we found that the water situation had generated much discussion. Because of the extreme heat, we would be out of water after dinner. The counselors had studied the map, and located an area, somewhat lower, where several streams ran together. The route to this alternative site was several miles down a gravel road and then off on another trail. It was suggested that Scott and I run to the site that afternoon with two gallon water jugs each, and if we found water return with the 4 gallons. The whole group could then make the hike the next day. The task seemed entirely befitting our heroic, if troubled, stature, so we readily agreed.
One of the girls [I’ll call her Connie because I can’t remember her name], who I think had an un-requited crush on Scott, was eager to join us. She followed us for a time but couldn’t keep up, so we took the jugs and went on without her. We ran the route – it may have taken an hour – and found the new site and a running stream. We filled the jugs and began the run back, considerably loaded down (two gallons of water weighs 16 pounds). We were in our element, though, and quite up to the task. It didn’t hurt that we looked forward to a hero’s welcome.
When we had almost made it back – we had only to run from the trailhead down to the campsite, Connie was waiting and begged us to let her carry some of the water into camp. We would have none of it. We had done the work and were certainly entitled to all the glory. We ran down the trail so that Connie couldn’t keep up.
We were indeed welcomed back warmly. The potential consequences of 16 young people in the backcountry for 5 days with no water had probably begun to sink in. We brought water and the knowledge that we had an alternative site within a ½ day’s walk. Connie gimped in behind us. We didn’t pay her any mind.
We had large pots for boiling water. We drank the stream water untreated, but we needed the pots for cooking. The counselors used backpacking stoves, and perched the large pots on top of them. While the group scurried around the center of camp fussing over dinner, Scott and I made considerable progress on the huge bag of GORP each of us had prepared before leaving. The salty peanuts, chocolate M&Ms, granola cereal, and raisins made for an addictive mix. The next thing we knew, our attention was riveted by screaming and commotion where the pots had been cooking.
Connie had tripped over a pot of boiling water. The counselors were gently pulling the shoe and sock off her soaked foot. She was burned, and in extreme pain. I felt badly for her. I’m sure it occurred to me that I need not have added to her misfortunes by denying her the chance to have helped out earlier. In retrospect, of course, I am ashamed at my meanness – regardless of her subsequent accident. Maybe Scott felt the same way. Much later, long after we had returned to camp Piomingo, out of the blue one day Scott threw his arms around Connie, dipped her, and planted a huge kiss on her lips. He let her go. She fanned her face with her hand and said, “wow!”
Camp gives us the excuse we need to let go. We let go of parents, of expectations, of civility. Every trip I make away from the daily conveniences we all take for granted reminds me of that state of mind. Even the brief foray of a daily run is a reminder to let go. A multi-day trip on Pike’s Peak is that much better.