All that mountain fun comes with a cost

A conversation starter.

Dawn was just breaking as we approached treeline, revealing the towering peaks that surround South Colony Lakes. The uphill march at 12,000 feet is never easy for me, and even for the guys who are more used to this sort of thing, it’s work.

The payoff, of course, is the scenery. It gets more dramatic and memorable the higher you go. The effort it takes to climb a mountain, the skills that some of these peaks demand, and the conclusion of a successful ascent demands repeat performances. It’s easy to get hooked on this stuff.

But it comes with a cost.

I’ve hiked with Mike a couple of times. We were part of a big backpacking group that marched into Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness a few years back. We bagged Mount Eolus and North Eolus on a brilliant August day, but more memorable than the mountain was the man. Bright, funny, irreverent and fun. We swore we’d get together again.

Years later, it was Mike, me and Bill, our eyes on summits surrounding South Colony Lakes in the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In between the jokes and general banter about the peaks that were on our minds was a bit of honesty. Mike was feeling a little guilt.

It takes time to do these things. If you’re an occasional peak-bagger like myself, it’s not as severe. But for those trying to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers, or something more ambitious (the Centennials, the Bi-Centennials, and for the super-obsessed, maybe all of the Colorado 13ers), the pursuit of mountains consumes precious time. The drive time to get to trailheads is measured in hours. Approach hikes can be lengthy. If multiple peaks are sought in one outing, you could be out there for a few days. Each trip consumes weekends, vacations and other free time that might be filled with other things that involve other people.

When we see views like this, we often don’t see it with those closest to us.

The fact is a lot of us dive into these endeavors without our loved ones. Even if there is a shared passion here, there are times when schedules or goals are mismatched from time to time. Risk tolerances may differ. So do skill levels, fitness and a ton of other variables that will have one person heading into the hills while another stays home, left to watch the kids, feed the dogs or figure out what to do on consecutive nights when we’re out there getting our altitude fix.

These were the things Mike had on his mind. His wife Maggie enjoys the high country, too, but isn’t always up for yet another weekend of thin air, dirt, sweat and soreness. Not as often as he is, anyway.

And there is also the presence of objective risk in the mountains. I’ve been lucky that my family doesn’t give me too much grief about this stuff, but there was one instance when I’d planned to climb a more difficult mountain at the same time my eldest brother was in need of a bone marrow transplant. I heard loud and clear that I should hold off on any climbs until we knew if I was donor match. Translation: If you die on that mountain and could have saved your brother’s life, it would be a double tragedy.

I stayed home from that one. But I’m sure the worries from loved ones are still there with every trip. They’re just not voiced, or at least not as urgently.

Grand beauty, but with objective risks.

In the back of my mind, I know that I’ll probably be safe on the mountains I like to hike and climb. But I also know that nothing is guaranteed. A couple of weeks back, a man died on one of the easier 14er hikes out there, the east ridge of Quandary Peak. He died of a heart attack. Other fatalities have nothing to do with the climber. Rockfall happens at random, and can kill. Entire sections of a mountain have been known to slide off, carrying unlucky climbers with them. When these thing happen, people get hurt. Or die. Most injuries and deaths are caused by bad judgment (not reading the weather, stumbling into avalanche zones, or inexperience/overconfidence on difficult terrain), but sometimes bad things happen randomly when people are in the way. It’s way safer to not go, and spare our loved ones the worry or, when the worst happens, picking up the pieces when we suffer serious injury or death.

These are costs. Costs of time, angst, money and grief. All for an activity that has only selfish value. So why do we bother, given the steepness of the price?

A few years back, I wrote a piece titled “Five reasons why you should climb a mountain.” Looking back on it, I still agree with every word I wrote. But I would simplify it.

We do it because it makes us feel more alive. The mountain experience is visceral. The commitment to go there, the physical hardship, those objective risks — all of those combine to make your blood pump a little harder, altitude notwithstanding. Pushing yourself to do something you doubt you could do is a rush. The joke is that you hate yourself for getting into these adventures and the difficulties and pain they bring, but by the time you’re back at the trailhead, the gears in your mind are already turning, wondering what new mountain outing you can dream up. Get bit by this bug and you might just develop a feverish obsession.

By the end of the day, Mike, Bill and I got what we came for. We got to tick off a few more summits from whatever list we were pursuing, snagged some incredible summit photos and spent ourselves physically in ways that don’t happen anywhere else. We eventually made our way home, back to the people we care about and the everyday obligations of life. We’ll end up taking care of the routine business, spend time with others doing non-mountain stuff and do so in ways that don’t worry our families. But we ask for some patience. Sooner or later, we’ll be back in the mountains. It’s not something we have to do, but damn close to it.

Hate to break it to ya, but we’ll probably go back. A lot.

Bob Doucette

Advertisements

Brewery-hopping, a hike, a book launch and a homecoming

A common thread from last weekend: A bunch of people connected by a common love of the outdoors going back many years.

Ever have one of those jam-packed weekends that left you trashed, but grateful?

Sunday afternoon I dragged myself to work after a non-stop weekend of, well, a little of everything that didn’t end until just before my shift started.

Friday evening, I had one last run with a fella named Donald who has been part of my run group since it started in November. Back then, he came in bigger than he’d like and slow. We had to stop every half-mile or so. He changed that in a hurry, and by now is running a 27:45 5K. I’ve never seen anyone make such a quick turnaround – he was running under a 30-minute 5K within two months.

The run group after a fun few miles on the trails a couple of months back. Donald is the guy second from the left.

Anyway, he’s moving to Oregon. It was going to be just the two of us running that evening, so we decided to go out with a bang by hitting the trails instead of the streets. It was a fitting way to send him off, seeing he’s about to head into trail nirvana soon.

That night, a friend of mine, Matt, was flying in from California on his annual trip to see family and friends. This time, he brought five of his Cali buddies with him.

Anywhere Matt goes, there’s a throng. Some people have that humble, fun charisma about them that draws people. That’s Matt. So I got to meet his buds and reconnect with his Oklahoma friends all in one night of pub-crawling.

Interesting aside: One of his California friends, Kelly, has read the book I just put out. It was fun listening to what she had to say about it. It’s rare I get face-to-face reader interactions on anything I write, not to mention from some who was, to that point, a complete stranger. Very cool stuff. Matt and his entourage would spend the next few days crisscrossing northeastern Oklahoma, Northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri while the rest of us bade them well.

Saturday was going to be a big day. That night I was doing an “Outsider” book launch shindig at a downtown bar. Nothing fancy, just show up, hang out, eat, have a drink and gather with friends. I made it low-key because I’m not good at this party stuff.

So as I’m getting ready to head over to a friend’s house to do some fence repair that afternoon, I get this message:

“Meant to turn right at Walsenburg, got a bit lost.”

And he sends me these two photos.

Hmmm… this looks familiar.

Wait a minute. This is like a mile from my house. Dude…

So here’s the deal. Walsenburg is in southern Colorado. Bill is from Denver. Prairie Artisan Ales’ taproom is in downtown Tulsa.

You get the picture. The dude flew in that morning from Denver just to hang out and be at that night’s party.

Bill (left) and Mike on their 13er rampage a couple of weeks ago. (Bill Wood photo)

Man, that’s a friend. I did something similar for him back in 2012, driving to Colorado to hike with him as he climbed Mount of the Holy Cross, his final peak to finish the 14ers. He said he figured he owed me one.

On the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross for Bill’s 14er finisher in 2012. I’m second from left, Bill is second from right.

I met him at Prairie, had a couple of pours, and we moved on to a couple more taprooms (American Solera and Cabin Boys, in this instance) and grabbed some grub. Bill knows his beer, so it was good to take him around and get his take on some of our local breweries. He gave us a thumbs up.

With a belly full of beer and burritos, I headed home to nap it off before the launch. Eventually I made my way to the venue, and as I’m getting ready to go in, another surprise – I watched as my parents walked in the door ahead of me. It’s always good to see them, but this was a particularly pleasant surprise. I didn’t expect them to be there. They’ve been supportive of me through good times and bad, so I shouldn’t be shocked that they made the trip from Dallas to be there. That’s just who they are.

The launch itself was like a homecoming. I had a bunch of my Tulsa friends there, people who have let me into their circles since I moved here seven years ago. Buddies from my college days showed up. A dear friend from Arkansas and her daughter. Hiking friends from the Oklahoma City area. Folks I met through advocacy efforts on behalf of Turkey Mountain. It was a dizzying array of people from many strata of my life. My only regret was not being able to spend more time with all of them. You’d think it would be all about the book, and I’d do something like a reading or whatever, but no. We just hung out for a few hours and caught up. I like it better that way, mostly because I’m not entirely comfortable with being the center of attention. (Thanks for all the party pics, Steph!)

Needless to say, that went pretty late, followed by an early breakfast and then picking up Bill for one last outing. He’s heard me talk about Turkey Mountain (as have you all) quite a bit, so I figured I owed him a hike out there. We put in seven hot miles through the woods and talked about life. The book came up, too, and he had some observations that I felt were deep. Like I said earlier, I get a kick out of hearing people’s thoughts on what they’ve read. Often they’ll have conclusions that I didn’t see, and I wrote the dang thing.

Not exactly the Rockies, but I figured Bill could use some trail time at Turkey Mountain.

We followed that up with some post-hike pizza, then one last brewery stop (Heirloom Rustic Ales) before he had to head to the airport and home. Like the three other taprooms we visited, Heirloom does great work. It was also a hipster hangout, complete with not one, but two dudes (one sporting one of those ironic mustaches) spinning vinyl on a turntable.

After all that, I was whipped. But in a good way. There are a lot of people I met last weekend I’d like to get to know better. Folks I want to visit again soon. People I know I’ll see again, if for no other reason than to climb a mountain. The bulk of these folks I know through hiking, climbing or running. And those who aren’t directly tied to those experiences share a common love of the outdoors. Good people all. And I’m blessed to know all of them.

If you’re curious about the book “Outsider,” you can order it (print or Kindle) here.

Bob Doucette

South Colony Lakes, Humboldt Peak and a bunch of Colorado 13ers

Dawn on the hike up to South Colony Lakes.

One thing I’ve learned about the mountains is that you must be prepared to change your plans.

Weather is often the main factor. I’ve been chased off a few peaks because of approaching storms. It’s not a hard decision to turn around when the weather is threatening.

Other times, it’s something else. Maybe you’re not feeling it that day. That happened to me last summer in La Plata Peak. Or maybe it’s something as basic as you’re running out of food, low on water, or there’s a gear failure.

But a change in plans doesn’t have to be something that points to failure. There are those days when you have options, and given your desire, energy level or something else, you chose Plan B over Plan A and it works out OK. That’s sort of how it went for me the last time I was in the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Most of the things I listed above were factors in how things played out, but at the end of the day, there was satisfaction earned on a high summit on what turned out to be a fine day in the hills.

THE PLAN

Going back a couple of months, me and my friend Bill had been doing some planning on what would make for a decent mountain adventure. Bill is on his second lap of Colorado’s 14ers, and he’s also trying to knock out the Centennials – the 100 highest mountains in the state.

We originally looked at doing Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak in the San Juan Mountains. I love the San Juans, and these peaks intrigued me. But deep drought and wildfires scuttled that plan. Instead, he came up with a wild plan to climb Kit Carson Peak’s north ridge, then tag Columbia Point and Challenger Point as a bonus. Some stout climbers were recruited for this one. It looked to be one heck of a weekend in the Sangres.

But weather forecasts scared most folks away. So that idea vanished.

One of the guys Bill talked to, a funny and seasoned climber named Mike, circled back, however, and a third plan was hatched: Hike up to South Colony Lakes, then tag the high 13ers at Obstruction Peak, Columbia Point, and another high point on Kit Carson Mountain dubbed “Kitty Kat.” (Kit Carson Mountain being a large massif that includes Kit Carson Peak, Columbia Point, “Kitty Kat” and other high points)

So I signed on for that.

I’d been to South Colony Lakes before on an ill-fated attempt at Crestone Peak and Humboldt Peak. The area is easily one of the most stunning places I’d ever seen. I’m not fixated on 14ers – 13ers are good, too. A return trip here seemed great to me.

OFF WE GO

The drive to Westcliffe took a detour in Florence, one of the more famous prison towns in the country. The federal supermax lockup is there, housing the likes of Djokar Tsarnaev, Terry Nichols and Ted Kaczynski. Real swell guys. But there’s also Florence Brewing, a microbrew with a taproom and some pretty good offerings. We caught it on a good night: The place was packed, a barbecue cook was serving up pulled pork sandwiches, and a trivia match was going on. The three of us obnoxiously bullied our way to a second-place finish, but I made sure everyone knew we were “CHAMPIONS” over and over again. Why not? These folks would never see us again and some fun was needed. Our weakness was guessing the country artists. Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and a bunch of other auto-tuned country crooners all sounded the same to us. Whatever. We took our hard-earned mini-mugs and headed to Westcliffe.

We opted to forgo backpacking and camping in South Colony Lakes. We took a few hours of sleep at a motel and went for an alpine start. The good: We got to sleep in a bed. The bad: We’d be getting up super early (3:15 a.m.) and adding some mileage to the day.

Loading up in Bill’s Jeep, we took off. I hijacked the stereo and gave them a taste of early morning metal, hip-hop and punk. Bill and Mike weren’t amused. But I was, so that made it worth it.

Going up the dirt road leading to the lakes, you have a couple of options. If your vehicle is not four-wheel drive with good clearance, you’ll be banished to the two-wheel drive trailhead. That adds a bunch of miles to your hike. With the right rig, you can crawl your way up to the four-wheel drive trailhead. To get any of the peaks, you’re still in for a hefty day, somewhere between 10 to 14 miles round-trip, depending on where you go.

The guys hiking up the trail with Crestone Needle in the background.

We saw a few people trudging up the rougher part of the road and picked one of them up, an Evergreen resident named Roger. He was going for Humboldt Peak that day. He was a pretty cool dude who’d bagged a good number of peaks in his day.

And that got us all thinking. I’d missed my chance at Humboldt two years earlier. And being a flatlander, I was concerned I’d be slowing Bill and Mike down. As we got out of the car and started up the trail, we all concluded it would be a good idea for me to tag Humboldt with Roger while Bill and Mike chased 13er summits past Bear’s Playground.

This turned out to be a really good decision.

GETTING UP THERE

Lower South Colony Lake, Broken Hand Peak, and Music Mountain in the background.

I found the initial part of the hike OK. We were in the dark, hiking by headlamp, seeing the dawn break just as we got into the basin where South Colony Lakes are located. Dawn here is nothing short of spectacular. Jerry Roach’s Fourteener guidebook is adorned with a sunrise alpenglow shot of Crestone Needle, and seeing it in person for the second time is no less spectacular than what’s seen on the book.

Bill, Mike and Roger kept a good pace, and one that was fine by me until we got to the headwall leading up to the saddle at the base of Humboldt’s ridge. It seems 12,000 feet is my red line, the place where things start to get tough. Blame my flatlander lungs for that. I stopped to eat a little, grab a sip and trudged up the switchbacks to the saddle. By then, Mike and Bill had taken their left turn toward Bear’s Playground and the 13er fest they planned to hold. Roger and I started making our way up the ridge.

If the headwall was my reality check, the ridge was a slap in the face. It was tough sledding for me, and the route was different than what I thought it would be. My understanding was some extensive trail work had been done here, and indeed, I saw evidence of that. Fine work has been done here. But there were plenty of sections where I was boulder-hopping and scrambling, looking up at various, well-placed cairns to keep me going the right direction. I’m usually a little wary of cairns, mostly because some people make a sport of rock-stacking in miscellaneous places that have nothing to do with the route. Thankfully that was not the case on Humboldt.

At the saddle, looking at an unnamed 13,000-foot point.

The ridge is somewhat steep. And the jumbled nature of some sections of the route made it tedious. Then again, all I had to do was stop, take a rest, and look behind me. Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle were there for the viewing, and they are downright jaw-dropping. From time to time, I’d hear climbers on the Needle’s Ellingwood Arete: “On belay!” “Belay on!” That climb is above my pay grade, but it’s cool to see people doing it.

Weather-wise, I couldn’t have asked for a better day. All we had were a few high clouds and a lot of blue sky. It was also curiously warm. Some people were dressed in long-sleeve tech shirts, soft shells or even puffy jackets. Me? Short sleeves all the way. I’d be burning up with anything more on me.

Roger was one patient dude. I told him he could dust me any time he wanted to, and I’m sure he could have. But he stopped to check on me every few minutes, seemingly coaxing me up the mountain. It seemed to take forever to get past Humboldt’s false summit, but once there, it was an easy walk across the remainder of the ridge and one last scramble to the top.

Colony Baldy Mountain, as seen from Humboldt Peak’s west ridge.

Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak, as seen from the side of Humboldt’s false summit.

The final, easy walk to Humboldt’s summit.

I blew a lot of energy getting there. It reminded me of last year’s failure on La Plata Peak, only this time, I was on fresher legs. Good thing, too. Otherwise, I might have pooped out here, too. But it was nice to finally get a Sangre 14er summit after being denied twice two years ago.

Summit view, looking south at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Roger noticed he was about out of water, so I offered him some of mine. He declined, saying instead he’d hustle down the ridge and filter some at the lakes below. And hustle he did. Once he got to the steep part below the false summit, I never saw him again (we did get a note left on Bill’s Jeep saying when he got there, and a thank-you for the company).

As for me, well, getting down the ridge proved as tedious as it was going up.

One of the key things about hiking and climbing mountains is to make sure you don’t blow yourself out getting to the summit. Sure, part of mountain climbing is dealing with fatigue and pushing through it. But if your legs are gone and you’re out of steam when bad weather rolls in, having some gas in the tank is critical. Admittedly, I was on dead legs on the way down. Fortunately, the weather held up nicely. I picked my way down the ridge, then down the headwall and finally to the trail (which went on forever) and the road (which also went on forever) until I saw the blessed bridge that signified the end of the hike.

Mighty Crestone Needle, as seen on the hike down.

Easier trail hiking below treeline.

Despite a really dry winter and spring, there were plenty of opportunities for wildflower peeping.

Even though it was a slog, it wasn’t without its charms. Clouds cast shadows into the valley, which played games on the flanks of the Crestones. Whenever I grew weary of the walk, I stopped to take a look around and marveled. Few places in the Rockies are as dramatic as the skyline of the Crestones and the surrounding, lower peaks of South Colony Lakes. I’d come back here in a heartbeat.

Given my slow progress down the mountain, I half expected Mike and Bill to be waiting on me at the Jeep. Nope. They were still up there, somewhere.

SO WHAT ABOUT THOSE GUYS?

I’d love to give you a detailed description of the peaks and ridges Bill and Mike scaled. But I wasn’t there. What I can tell you, however, is this: The views of the Crestones from Bear’s Playground are ridiculous. The distance they hiked was somewhere around 14 miles. And the total vert was well over a mile.

And yes, they tagged all their target summits. It’s exactly the type of performance you’d expect from guys who’ve finished the 14ers, and also have summits like Rainier, Hood and Pico de Orizaba under their belts. While the plebes like me are tagging walk-ups and popular Class 3 14ers, they’re busy chasing more obscure, less traveled 13ers and making good work out of ambitious projects.

I can’t tell you much more about it, but I can show you because they gave me permission to swipe some of their photos. Have a look.

Bill and Mike on their 13er rampage. (Bill Wood photo)

Looking south toward the Crestones and Humboldt Peak. (Bill Wood photo)

Bear’s Playground view of the Crestones. (Mike Zee photo)

Way above treeline here. This part of the hike was mostly over 13,000 feet for Bill and Mike, with lots of gain and loss. (Mike Zee photo)

Lots of ridge hiking, with Humboldt Peak in the background. (Mike Zee photo)

BACK TO FLORENCE

About 45 minutes after I stumbled back to the trailhead, so did Mike and Bill. We were all worked over pretty good, but decided a return trip to Florence Brewing was needed.

When we arrived, no barbecue guy or trivia night crowd was there. It was a quieter place until we got there. The bartender was good, patient company as we peppered her with questions about the federal supermax prison and any other general nonsense we were blathering about. I guess that’s her job, but I tipped her well nonetheless. We drank brews and ate cheap fast-food burgers that tasted like Michelin-starred cuisine at that moment.

Such is the way of these mountain trips. You get pumped up by a plan. You dread the alpine start alarm clock. You hike in the dark, see a brilliant sunrise and embrace the slog. You feel like quitting, because it’s easier to lounge by the pool than climb a mountain. You revel in the summit views, grind away at the downclimb and spend yourself utterly on a peak’s slopes. You throw down vast quantities of food, get a beer buzz and strike up lengthy, boisterous conversations with people you don’t know and may never see again. You might even make a new friend on the trail.

And then new plans get made.

The Crestones. Couldn’t stop taking pics of them.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the four-wheel-drive trailhead, hike up the road past the gate and over a foot bridge until you reach a trail junction turnoff to your right. Follow easy trail hiking through the woods and past some campsites. You’ll be hiking the trail east of and above South Colony Lakes. From here, you’ll begin hiking up long switchbacks on a headwall leading to a saddle that goes right to Humboldt’s west ridge, or left toward Bear’s Playground. The trail steepens as you gain the ridge, and as you ascend, you’ll end up doing some rock-hopping and light scrambling. The route is well-cairned, and the cairns seem to be accurate. At times, the trail will disappear into jumbled rocks, then reappear when the terrain eases. It will take you up to Humboldt’s false summit, but once you reach that, the ascent is almost done. Past the false summit, the steepness eases with only a few hundred yards of easy hiking left to the summit. Class 2, 11 miles round trip with 4,200 feet of elevation gain. NOTE: If your car/truck does not have four-wheel drive and good clearance, you’ll need to park at the two-wheel drive trailhead. This will add 5.4 miles and another 1,100 feet of elevation gain to your route.

EXTRA CREDIT: There are tons of options. From the Humboldt saddle, go north and explore Bear’s Playground. Spend more time camping in South Colony Lakes and climb Crestone Peak (class 3) or Crestone Needle (class 4). Experienced climbers might also look to climb both peaks and traverse the ridge between them. This is one of Colorado’s four Grand Traverses of the 14ers, and includes high exposure and a class 5 section. Also nearby are Class 3 routes up Broken Hand Peak and Music Mountain. Like I said, tons of options.

Bob Doucette

An ode to roadtripping in the West

NOTE: The following is an excerpt from the book “Outsider: Tales from the road, the trail and the run.” The book is available here.

I have a personal philosophy when it comes to road trips: They should always begin by getting in your car/truck/rig, and pointing that sucker west. Let me explain…

Not long ago, I was sitting around with a bunch of co-workers as we wished a colleague well during his last days with us. He was leaving to take a job in Pittsburgh, which to me seems like a far-off place in a totally different world from my current home in Tulsa.

Someone asked him if he’d be driving straight through or stopping overnight. He chose the latter, but said the trip can be made in about fifteen or sixteen hours.

That shocked me. So many states away, and it’s just sixteen hours from here?

That’s only two hours longer than my last trip to western Colorado, that big rectangular mass that actually borders my home state.

It got me thinking about the vastness of the West, the wonderful, weird, wide open expanse of what I think is best in America.

A few hours earlier, I was home watching a re-run of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations program. It was one of my favorite episodes, the one where he hangs out with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme in the high desert of California. In addition to the coolest soundtrack of any show on TV, it showed more of what makes the West so alluring to me: Desperate scenes of civilization clinging to life on the shores of the Salton Sea, a dude who painted a mountain (literally painted on the whole mountain) and long stretches of open highway slicing through arid wastelands most people would assume avoid.

Vast, wonderful, weird and wide-open.

Where I live, in my opinion, is sort of the dividing line between east and west. Tulsa is right on the edge of the Ozarks, which I see as being Appalachia lite. Drive a few hours west and you’re in the high plains. At the edge of that, you hit the Rockies.

That’s where things get interesting.

I was born in Illinois and have lived most of my life in Oklahoma, but I grew up in Colorado. Despite this pesky accent I’ve picked up I consider myself a westerner. To this day, I still envision sunsets over the Rockies and associate pines with the high country.

This had an effect on me. I live here in T-town, but feel compelled to return to what in my mind is my homeland. It’s sort of a salmon-spawning-grounds story, but without the whole breeding/dying/getting-eaten-by-bears thing. Money (or a lack thereof) keeps me from going more often. To be honest, I’ve got a serious road trip itch working right now.

My pilgrimages there have often been with friends and family. A couple of times, they’ve been blessedly solo. However it works, the one thing that is true is that I feel a little more free when I go. Sometimes dangerously so, or at least that’s how it seems – on your own, the comforts of home farther and farther away, but the promise of seeing something new and possibly transformative pulling you down the road. Road-tripping is the best form of American escapism there is, and the West is a magnet for dreams of freedom.

And it always has been. Since the founding of the nation, people have looked west to find their destiny or otherwise flee the confines of the lives into which they were born.

That’s one of the most interesting aspects of the West. Free spirits, non-conformists, weirdos and outlaws all looked to the wilderness beyond the Mississippi. The profound impact this has had on the American cultural landscape can’t be understated.

I’ve often told people that the farther west in America you go, the weirder it gets. Boulder is pretty weird. All those little mountain towns from Montana to New Mexico are pretty weird (even the smallest Montana villages have at least one church and one bar). Roswell is weird. In Nevada, you get the weirdness of Las Vegas, Burning Man and Area 51 within its odd confines. Once you hit the coast, you reach the gleaming metropolises of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. The farther you make your way west and north, the stranger it gets.

And then there’s Alaska. For those fleeing conformity, broken relationships, the law or any other demons, there is no farther place you can go, at least not in the U.S. You have to be committed to go that far, and even more so to stay. And that makes for a place with some truly colorful personalities – real frontiersmen and women who could actually live libertarian ideals of self-sufficiency, and ex-governors who say they can see Russia all the way from suburban Anchorage.

People go to these places, and invariably, those places change them. A person who has lived in the mountains or the desert for any length of time won’t look, talk, think or act like those who have spent their existence in a suburb of Cincinnati or in a borough of New York. Harsher climes and sweeping landscapes alter people in that way, building up quiet strength and self-reliance while stripping away pretense. Scratching out a living out West will humble and toughen you in ways few other places can. Many folks envy that, which explains why people pay for the privilege of spending a week on dude ranches and will even shell out thousands to outfitters who give them “authentic” backpacking experiences. Guns are scary to many Americans; they’re just tools to the people of the rural West.

And let’s revisit that landscape. America is filled with gorgeous places. I’ve been out east quite a bit. Tennessee, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are knockout beautiful. Closer to home, northwest Arkansas has the same feel. All throughout the east you have these wonderful hills and mountains, thick woods and meandering rivers.

But it’s also stable. It feels old. Established. And that makes sense, seeing that the communities in the east date back to the 1600s or even earlier, and the Appalachians are some of the most ancient mountains on Earth.

Not so much in the West. While some Spanish settlements there are quite old, most cities and towns out West are pretty new, historically speaking. The mountains themselves are younger. Their rise is more dramatic, and in the case of the Tetons, startlingly so. The West has volcanoes. One of them famously blew up back in 1980, and we know that some of its Cascadian neighbors could well do the same. The West has glaciers. In one section of Colorado, deep in the San Juans, you can see the confluence of geologic uplift, volcanism and ice-age glacial carving, sculpting a landscape so wild that it boggles the mind.

Wind gives us the carefully crafted arches and towers of Utah and Arizona. A tiny alpine trickle gathers itself and plummets downhill, gaining strength and size and speed until it slices a gash so long, wide and deep that it can be seen from space.

Towering heights.

Deep canyons.

Deserts and rain forests. Grizzly bears, wolves, eagles and whales.

Is there any wonder as to why I don’t take off right now?

I envision a future trip unfolding like so many others have in the past: I’m in my car, cruising at seventy-five miles per hour on a two-lane highway with endless vistas of the Oklahoma Panhandle prairie all around. The stereo is up loud, cranking out tunes from U2’s The Joshua Tree. In the back, with the seats down, my belongings – a pack, a tent, food, mountaineering gear and campsite tools – jostle with the contours of the road.

Then I spot it. Rabbit Ear Mountain, a small peak in the far northeastern corner of New Mexico, a marker of what I see as the easternmost outpost of the Rockies.

I grin a bit. Adventure is close. And I keep driving.

West.

Bob Doucette

So I wrote a book… and you can read ‘Outsider’ now

In this post, a little bit of news.

I’ve been writing on this site since 2011. That, in itself, is hard for me to believe. Nearly eight years of writing about the outdoors, running, fitness and whatever else strikes me, I suppose. Before that, there were a couple more years on the blogosphere at the new-defunct Out There blog on newsok.com.

In the midst of all of this, I’ve been working on another, longer-term project, one that’s finally ready to be read. It’s a book, titled “Outsider: Tales from the road, the trail and the run.”

I’ll dispense with the more cliché descriptions of what this work means to me. And yeah, I’ve had a hard time coming up with an elevator speech to describe what it is. But I’ll give it a shot here.

When I was young, I loved the outdoors. I can recall many adventures in the mountains, at camp and in a cabin that cultivated a fascination with the mountains and other wild environments. Growing up, I let that stuff slide. But eventually it came back to me, and boy, I needed it.

The book details it pretty well, but I hit a spell when my normally in-control life was anything but. How I pulled out of that nosedive was heading outside, running downtown streets or wooded trails, hiking in the hills, climbing mountains and taking road trips across the West. I learned a lot about myself, about life, and about God in those times. I wrestled with some tough questions. And I met some fantastic people along the way, each one of them making my life that much richer.

Scenes for this happen in my hometown, in the High Plains and in the Rockies, among other spots. All of them hold a special place for me, and there are some specific moments that will be burned into my memory for as long as I live.

I think a lot of you will be able to relate. How many of you use running to battle personal demons? Or head into the wilderness to quiet your mind, sort things out and recharge? If that describes you, we’re birds of a feather, my friend.

I’ll cut to the chase: I hope you buy it, read it and enjoy it. Hopefully we can start a few conversations. You’ll read my stories, as well as those of some folks I know. Maybe you can give me a few tales of your own.

“Outsider” is available in paperback and on Kindle. Pick up a copy, have a read and tell me what you think. And thanks – not only for giving a book a read, but for being here on this site through the years. We’ll see ya out there.

Bob Doucette

A prosecution, a standoff, and a pardon: The case of Dwight and Steven Hammond and its Pandora’s Box legacy

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon (Jeff Sorn/Wikimedia Commons)

With the stroke of a pen, President Donald Trump ignited another firestorm of sorts, this time with the pardoning of Dwight and Steven Hammond, two Harney County, Oregon, ranchers who’d been convicted or arson and sentenced to prison.

Conservationists and public lands activists were nearly unanimous in their condemnation of this latest pardon, saying that it not only dismisses the seriousness of the crimes in question, but undermined the justice system.

The case itself bears further scrutiny, for a variety of reasons. And going forward, it opens up the possibility of more conflict, not less, between conservationists, government agencies, private landowners and anti-government activists.

The Hammonds were prosecuted for two events. The first, an incident where Dwight Hammond was accused of setting a fire to cover up the poaching of game animals on BLM land. The second, years later, occurred when a controlled burn on the Hammonds’ property encroached on federal land during a declared burn ban.

The Hammonds were charged under a 1996 anti-terrorism law. The judge, upon sentencing, disagreed with the severity of the punishment – five years in federal prison – and imposed a lighter sentence, but that decision was overturned on appeal and the Hammonds were then sentenced according to the anti-terror law’s guidelines.

This is where things got sticky. Many believed the Hammonds were overprosecuted. Arson? Poaching? Obstruction? Sure. But terrorism? That’s more debatable. You could call the Hammonds reckless. But “terrorists” is a stretch.

In any case, their cause drew the attention of the first family of anti-government sentiment, the Bundy clan. Cliven Bundy became famous with his standoff against federal authorities in Nevada. Bundy had been grazing his cattle on federal lands for years but failed to pay grazing fees. When the feds came to collect, he sounded the alarm and militia-types showed up, rifles at hand, to force a showdown. Federal agents, fearful of a Waco-style shootout on the range, backed down and Bundy got away with his freeloading ways.

More importantly, he became a cult figure in the militia movement, even gaining favorable airtime thanks to the likes of Fox News’ Sean Hannity. The shine wore off his celebrity status when he famously said African-Americans were better off when they were slaves, but among hardcore anti-government activists, he remains revered.

Like Cliven Bundy, his sons – Ammon and Ryan – hold similar views on federal sovereignty on public lands. And when these two learned of the Hammonds’ fate, they arrived in eastern Oregon, armed followers in tow, and occupied the U.S. Fish and Wildlife headquarters at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

A lengthy standoff ensued. Occupiers trashed the headquarters building. They damaged portions of the land on the refuge, and generally wore out their welcome among locals who, while mostly sympathetic to the Hammonds, were ready to see the Bundys and their posse leave. The standoff ended when a caravan of occupiers was intercepted by state and federal law enforcement. A shooting ended with the death of one of the occupiers, and the rest were taken into custody.

Prosecution of the Bundys was a flop. They walked. And that leads us where we are this week.

The destructiveness of the Hammonds’ actions shouldn’t be downplayed, but neither should the opinion of the sentencing judge. For Dwight Hammond, well advanced in years, five years in prison might have had him dying behind bars. And certainly, it’s a stretch to call either of these men terrorists. And if that was not the intent of the prosecutors, then something about the law under which they were prosecuted needs to be changed. Arson in the wildfire-prone West is serious business. But you can’t lump the Hammonds in with the likes of Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden.

So you might, even if reluctantly, be tempted to view Trump’s pardon as a good thing. Unfortunately, it comes with unintended consequences. The pardon is the latest link in a series of losses for public lands advocates. That Cliven Bundy got away with his armed standoff is inexcusable, in that the law was flouted at the point of a gun aimed squarely at law enforcement officers and federal employees. His sons’ escape from justice from the Malheur standoff is equally troublesome.

And the pardon? The meat of it isn’t the problem. The perception of it is. It tells the Bundys of the world that their tactics are working. That through the force of arms, they can force their will against federal authority, and in their minds, eventually do away with federal ownership and stewardship of public lands altogether.

I don’t expect the Bundys to wield much influence in policy circles, though there are plenty of state and federal lawmakers sympathetic to divesting the federal government of all public lands (indeed, we’ve seen that erosion in full force with the shrinking of national monuments at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase/Escalante in Utah). But I do worry that extremists are looking for another fight, and maybe even itching for real violence.

We’ve seen this movie before, though in a different venue. It was the feds against gun extremists, which took us to Ruby Ridge, then to Waco, and ultimately to Oklahoma City. This isn’t anywhere we need to go, and certainly not something we want to encourage.

But are we edging closer to that again? Instead of guns, is the next major act of violence going to be over public lands? Anti-government sentiment in the West over land disputes goes back to the 1800s, so that’s nothing new. Neither is violence. But what’s new is the potential for hyper-violence, where a heated dispute leads to a standoff, which leads to a shooting, which eventually leads to real terror, and not the ginned-up version in an obscure 1996 law.

There’s a lot at stake here. The fate of public lands looks grim to many of us, considering the current thread of public policy. But I also worry that an emboldened movement that is unafraid of violence could escalate. I’ve seen the result of that sort of conflict on the streets of downtown Oklahoma City first-hand. We don’t want to go there again. This is something that prosecutors, activists, land owners and yeah, even the president, should consider going forward.

We’re too far down the road to do much of anything to fix the Hammonds’ case. That ship sailed when the initial anti-terror charges were filed. But we do need to move toward protecting the lands we have, working with our stakeholders and upholding the law. Too much is at stake to let the lawbreakers win.

Bob Doucette

Friday distraction: Some of my favorite summit views

Man, this has been a bummer of a week in the news. We could all use a short distraction from the horrible headlines and gloomy predictions, so this is my contribution. I went through some of my older images and found a few of my favorite summit views. So sit back, forget the angry world outside and relive some alpine goodness with me.

1. North Eolus

Looking deep into the Weminuche Wilderness from the summit of North Eolus.

The mountain itself is sort of an afterthought of the four big peaks that rise over Chicago Basin. But I found this view from North Eolus particularly impressive. I love the San Juan Mountains, and this view of a sea of wild, jagged peaks exemplifies the range’s rugged nature. “Awe-inspiring” is an understatement.

2. Mount Sneffels

The view west from the summit of Mount Sneffels.

Sticking with the San Juans, this view from the top of Mount Sneffels is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever been. Mount Sneffels is, by itself, an impressive peak, but it’s joined by a family of high mountains that add to the ridiculously scenic area around Yankee Boy Basin. To date, climbing Mount Sneffels remains one of my favorite days in the mountains.

3. Missouri Mountain

Looking into Missouri Gulch Basin from the summit of Missouri Mountain.

I’m a repeat customer at Missouri Gulch Basin, and I know I’ll go back. Five years ago, I did a solo climb of Missouri Mountain and was rewarded with this dramatic summit scene. The basin is beautiful, but is particularly impressive from the south end, guarded by the wall of rock that is Missouri Mountain. An unforgettable fall day.

4. Wetterhorn Peak

Looking north from the Wetterhorn Peak summit.

Back in the San Juans, Wetterhorn Peak remains my favorite mountain. It’s got all the goods for hikers and climbers. No less impressive is the payoff at the top. A summer solstice climb revealed a range still clothed in snow, and looking north from Wetterhorn’s summit gave me this lasting memory of 13,000-foot peaks that guard the northeast flank of the San Juans.

5. Mount of the Holy Cross

Holy Cross Ridge from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross.

There are so many great views from Mount of the Holy Cross, but this one of Holy Cross Ridge hits the mark. It’s a striking ridge, made even more so by the presence of snow contrasting with the dark coloring of the rock. The peak’s Cross Couloir is its most famous feature, one that has captured imaginations for well over a century. But there’s more to this mountain’s beauty than its namesake scar.

6. Uncompahgre Peak

Northwest view from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak.

Back in the San Juans, there’s no shortage of excellent views from the highest peak in the range. This one got my attention, giving you a decent perspective on the height of the mountain and the expanse of the kingdom it oversees. The San Juan Mountains are captivating.

7. Sunset Peak

A unique view north from Sunset Peak’s southern summit.

I couldn’t finish this list without at least one summit view from my home state of Oklahoma. The Wichita Mountains make up a collection of ancient crags and domes that are out of place in the surrounding Southern Plains. While not as lofty as most North American ranges, they still pack a lot of punch. The gnarly cedar remains of a tree on Sunset Peak’s southern summit caught my eye and is one of my favorite mountain images I’ve ever taken.

Obviously, I have a lot of other memories of great summit views from dozens of other mountains. But these rank as some of my favorite photos from any given mountaintop. Hopefully you can get out and make a few mountain memories of your own and, for a few hours or days, forget about the bad news floating around right now.

Bob Doucette