Role reversal: An interview with Limitless Pursuits

In a turn of events, this guy was the person interviewed instead of the interviewee.

In a turn of events, this guy was the person interviewed instead of the interviewee.

I’m used to doing interviews, but almost all of the time, I’m the one asking the questions.

Thanks to the folks at Limitless Pursuits, I got a chance to experience that from the other side. They just posted a Q&A with me, where we got to discuss the outdoors, fitness, travel and infusing adventure in everyday life.

You can read the interview here, and be sure to check out the rest of the site. You can also follow Limitless Pursuits on Twitter and like them on Facebook.

See what makes me tick, and get to know Limitless Pursuits!

— Bob Doucette

Year in review: A roller coaster 2014

2014 was all about high country dreamin'.

2014 was all about high country dreamin’.

If I recall 2013, I dubbed it as a pretty incredible year. A lot of firsts happened then, giving thoughts to how much more could be done in 2014.

Well, not so fast. I’d say there were some great moments, but there were other things that got in the way of a few of my goals. But even with all that, 2014 turned out to be a good year anyway. So here’s a recap:

RUNNING

After a rough spring and summer, I rallied a bit in the fall. This was at the Escape From Turkey Mountain trail race in September.

After a rough spring and summer, I rallied a bit in the fall. This was at the Escape From Turkey Mountain trail race in September.

Unlike 2013, there would be no marathon. I topped out at 25K (twice), and did so with mixed results.

Coming off a pretty bad little illness earlier in the year, I got in shape enough to finish the Post Oak Challenge 25K. In 2013, I ran the 10K in the same event. The difference between the two is quite stark. Needless to say, I felt that Post Oak’s rugged and hilly 25K was every bit as hard as the marathon I ran three months earlier. I clocked in at around 3 ½ hours, pretty slow for that length of a race. I definitely have some redemption due to me here in a couple of months.

A couple of weeks later, I logged 15.75 miles at the 3-hour Snake Run, topping my previous result in that race by a half mile. I felt pretty good about that, though I attribute it to better in-race gamesmanship rather than fitness.

That led me to April’s half marathon at the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. That was where I ran my first half marathon a year earlier. I had high hopes going into that one, but a 2-hour delay to the start, warm temps and so-so conditioning led me to logging a time that was nearly identical to the year before. A 2:22 was fine for my first time, but a little disappointing for the second go-around.

Summer was a bit of a bust. Too much work, not enough training. But I rallied late in the season, good enough to whip myself into better shape. I didn’t set PRs, but I was in the neighborhood: a 1:32 at the Tulsa Run 15K, a 2:17 at the Route 66 half marathon and about 30 seconds off my PR in the 5K, a 26:37. I’m a bit heavier right now, so those times, while not fast, seem to be OK for now.

Me and Dan after the Route 66 half marathon in November. It ended up being a pretty good race.

Me and Dan after the Route 66 half marathon in November. It ended up being a pretty good race.

Going forward, I’m still trying to strike the balance between strength and endurance. I’m integrating more sprint and hill training into my workouts. And in the weight room, things are starting to get interesting. Consistency will be key.

OUTDOORS

The crew before heading up Wetterhorn Peak.

The crew before heading up Wetterhorn Peak.

A lot of good things happened in relatively short periods of time. My only regret was not being about to get out more. But in those short trips, ah man. Sweetness.

In late June, I joined up with some of my Colorado buds for some fun in the San Juan range. We had a rewarding climb of Wetterhorn Peak, which has turned into my favorite thus far. It ended up being a snowy, cloudy and cool day that included a gorgeous approach hike, a fun scramble to the summit, some dicey moments on the descent and a wild ride of a glissade on the lower slopes. This, not to mention the great company I had: Friends from past trips as well as new ones. I’d do this climb again.

Getting ready to hit the toughest sections of Wetterhorn Peak.

Getting ready to hit the toughest sections of Wetterhorn Peak.

A month later, I was back in Colorado for another go at the peaks, this time targeting the mountains of Chicago Basin. He basin is in the heart of the San Juans. But unlike past trips, this one did not lend itself to car camping. It’s just too remote.

Instead, it included a steam train ride to a trailhead and a 7-mile hike in to the campsite. From there, four 14ers await.

These were some of the fun folks who I had the privilege of backpacking into Chicago Basin with.

These were some of the fun folks who I had the privilege of backpacking into Chicago Basin with.

I got two of them : Mount Eolus and North Eolus. The ridge route we took on Mount Eolus was probably the airiest of I’ve done in Colorado, but extremely rewarding. It was also hard work: The hike up the headwall leading to the peaks is no joke, and at that point I was in pretty sad condition. By the time I got back to camp from those first two peaks, I’d resolved to take the next day off.

That didn’t slow down the rest of the crew, which went up and tagged Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak. One gal, named Kay, proved particularly ambitious, summiting a couple of 13ers to boot. My friend Matt, who drove up from Tulsa with me, climbed his first 14er, and his second and third. He impressed us all.

There were a number of people on this trip I’d never met, and a couple I only knew via social media. Kay was one of those, Jenny another. Both aren’t just turning into real mountain hounds. They already are. So add them to a list of outdoor women I know (talking to you, Noel and Beth) who more than hold their own.

Probably the best mountain view I've seen to date, from atop North Eolus.

Probably the best mountain view I’ve seen to date, from atop North Eolus.

I almost forgot: There was a 13er hike that week as well, when Matt and I hiked Mount Snitkau as a warmup to the real show at Chicago Basin. It was a worthwhile hike on its own, packed with scenery, and so close to Denver. I can see going back to Loveland Pass.

On the western edge of Black Mesa, looking into New Mexico.

On the western edge of Black Mesa, looking into New Mexico.

The last outing of the year took me to Black Mesa, in far western Oklahoma. This is a place I’d long wanted to see, not because it was the state’s high place, but because I’d heard how beautiful it was. Black Mesa didn’t disappoint. I did this one solo, and experienced the kind of solitude I hadn’t ever had before. I knew I’d enjoy that. I’ve come to a point where I need it. Add that to the stories people told me along the way and the unique experience that it was, and that little journey into the Panhandle may have been one of the most memorable I’ve had in many years.

I look forward to going back to Chicago Basin, back to Colorado, and also exploring places closer to home.

ON THE SITE

It was a good year for expanding readership on the blog. I had to cut some things out (no more Weekly Stoke), but that freed up time to concentrate on trip reports, essays and posts about fitness topics.

It also freed up time to get a few more gear reviews up. I’m always down to test new stuff.

As of this writing, the blog recorded more than 53,000 views for 2014. I also expanded its social media footprint via Facebook and Instagram. Those are growing slowly, but they’ve been a nice outlet to connect with existing readers as well as new folks. Since Proactiveoutside was created three years ago, nearly 155,000 people have given it a click.

For that I’m grateful. Thanks for reading, interacting, and being a part of this little project. Here’s to making 2015 that much more memorable!

What do you have planned for the coming year? Let’s hear it!

Bob Doucette

Black Mesa: Solitude, silence and serenity at Oklahoma’s high place

The rugged, arid and hauntingly beautiful scenery near Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

The rugged, arid and hauntingly beautiful scenery near Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

Think of a place. A place that you’ve never been, that caught your attention, and for whatever reason, didn’t let go. You tell yourself that one day, you’re going to go there.

I seem to zig where other people zag. Whereas a lot of people might gravitate toward a tropical paradise or some sort of alpine wonderland, I seem to be drawn toward something else. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to explore Patagonia or the Himalayas, or spend a week or five on the beaches of Bora Bora. It’s just that those lonely little corners, the remote places, that capture my attention so much more.

For me, that place is Black Mesa. As in Oklahoma. Yeah, you heard that right. For the better part of a couple of decades, I’ve thought about going to the furthest point west in the Oklahoma Panhandle to see the semi-arid bluffs of Black Mesa. It started with seeing a TV news story about the people who live in Kenton, a small ranching outpost of a town situated right in the middle of the tabletop formations that rise from the high plains. The TV crew filmed it well, showcasing its haunting, Old West beauty. Scenes of the sun setting over the rocky, windswept landscape remained with me for years.

I like desolate places. I like the people who dare to live in them. There is an eternal hardness to such locales that draws me to them. It was high time I scratched that itch.

The journey is half the fun

Getting there is a bit of a haul. It’s one thing to say that you’re going to the furthest corner of a state and proclaim that it’s “remote.” But state lines are just man-made constructs, and truth be told, the corner of many states is actually pretty close to something else.

That’s not the case with Black Mesa. No major thoroughfare goes through the area. If you’re on the highway leading to Black Mesa and the town of Kenton, you have to want to get there. It’s a very intentional decision. It’s closer to Denver than it is to my home city of Tulsa; this is also true of the state’s capital, Oklahoma City. And believe me, Black Mesa ain’t anywhere near Denver. It’s a good seven hours from my home, taking secondary highways across the prairie and farmlands of northern Oklahoma and through the Panhandle until there is almost no place further north and west you can get before entering another state.

I was OK with this. Back when I lived in the Oklahoma City area, all my drives to New Mexico and Colorado traversed rural western Oklahoma all the way through the Panhandle. Flyover country can be just as monotonous as it sounds, but sometimes it can surprise you. Just east of Woodward, I ran into a surprise in an area called the Glass Mountains. Rolling plains give way to short tabletops and bluffs that, at times, cut a dramatic skyline. These aren’t the Rockies, but the range’s namesake, Glass Mountain, packs a lot of ambition in its vertically limited but striking profile.

Glass Mountain, the namesake peak of the Glass Mountains of northwest Oklahoma,

Glass Mountain, the namesake peak of the Glass Mountains of northwest Oklahoma,

Certain things I’d see along the way made me curious about what it was like to live in the Panhandle, a three-county stretch of flat prairie that at one time was forsaken by tribal and state authorities alike, dubbed “No Man’s Land” by outsiders and inhabited by the supremely tough or the thoroughly criminal before eventually becoming part of Oklahoma Territory. The Panhandle has never been cosmopolitan, wealthy or flashy. It is now much as it was back then – wide stretches of plains suitable for cattle and farming. Aside from those activities, well, you can always go back to Oklahoma City.

One site of curiosity for me is in a little wide spot in the road called Elmwood. There isn’t much here – two gas stations and a burned-out building called the Pit Stop Motel. I know about the Pit Stop because in 2002, back when I was a newspaper reporter, there was a murder here I wrote about. Someone got whacked behind the motel – shot several times and left in a car obscured by bushes, a rare crime in these parts.

A few years later, when driving out west, I noticed the Pit Stop motel had turned into a charred husk. Holy cow. First a murder, then a fire. That’s a lot of calamity for one place. Surely this place had a story. If only I could find someone to tell it.

The ruins of the Pit Stop Motel in Elmwood. But the gas station next door is still alive and kicking.

The ruins of the Pit Stop Motel in Elmwood. But the gas station next door is still alive and kicking.

So on my way out there, I stopped at the ruins of the Pit Stop to have a look. Yep, still in ruins. But something was out of place: A bright sign planted on the property’s west end advertising lottery tickets. That part of the building appeared to be intact, and upon closer inspection, was open for business.

How did I miss this? The Pit Stop Motel might be toast, but the Pit Stop convenience store was still stubbornly hanging on after all these years.

I went inside and found a woman named Emily manning the counter, eager to help. Not many of the lights were on, but the walls were lined with coolers stocked with drinks. So I asked her about the motel.

“It used to do good business,” Emily said. Her accent was strong, possibly eastern European, or maybe eastern Mediterranean. I couldn’t quite tell. “But a big storm, the worst storm, came through. It was hit by lightning.”

She couldn’t have been any older than me, but had been running the show here for the better part of a decade. The murder behind the motel happened before she came along, the storm some time after. Emily had plans to hopefully bulldoze the wreckage and open an RV park. I hope that day comes. She was really sweet and open about it. It would be nice to see things turn around in a place where opportunities just don’t grow on trees.

I bought a soda and a Tecate and continued west, satisfying a curiosity of mine that went back ten years.

Being alone

The time it took me to get from Tulsa to the Panhandle was about the same as it would take to get to the Panhandle’s end. It’s just a really long way out there. I navigated the speed trap that is Hardesty, then picked my way through the de facto capital of the Panhandle, Guymon. Unlike the rest of the region, Guymon is actually growing, with an influx of Hispanic immigrants finding work here in the city’s pork processing plants, then later, in the construction and oilfield jobs that have come along. Western Oklahoma is mostly lily white, but not here. Texas County is about a quarter Hispanic now, and in Guymon, the ratio is about a third. You can see it just walking around town, and even on the electronic marquis of a fairly new elementary school on the east side, displaying messages in English and Spanish.

Something tells me there has to be a really great Mexican food restaurant here, one that I’d like to find. I’m a sucker for pork carnita tacos and a cold Mexican lager.

Back on the road, the day was getting long, and daylight short. It was nearing sunset in Boise City, the largest town and county seat for Cimarron County, with about 1,300 people calling it home. Instead of a stoplight, you get a traffic circle that uses the county courthouse as its hub. Signs tell you which way to Denver to the north, Clayton, New Mexico, to the southwest and finally Kenton to the west. Driving straight west, it took about five minutes before I became the only car on the road.

Now that’s a strange feeling. Drive in any rural area and you’re bound to see a passing car every now and then, and usually the driver will give you a friendly wave before passing by. But I saw nothing, just the occasional ranch home, sometimes with Christmas lights up, every 10 miles or so. Other than that, I might as well have been driving on the moon.

When you’re by yourself, your senses become magnified. You’ll notice things that wouldn’t ordinarily catch your eye if someone is with you. In this case, as I tried to beat the darkness to my campsite, it was the different phases of dusk. First, you get those brilliant hues of yellow, orange, red and purple as the sun retreats below the horizon. Once it disappears, the darker, less vibrant colors take over the show as the hues of the land become flatter and darker. Soon, only a cool glow remains out west, and the land turns gray, then black, and eventually melts into the darkening sky. By then, all you can see is what is illuminated by your headlights or from lamp poles and homes miles away.

That was the point I was at when I finally got to Black Mesa State Park. All I could see where the light poles. As I pulled in and drove through, I came to realize that no one was there. No campers, no park staff, not a soul. The only thing here were the dimly lit, almost ghostly, campsites and me, motoring around until I found a suitable place to park and settle in for the night.

We’re spoiled by electricity. In “normal” life, we can do all sorts of things well into nighttime because of the benefit of electric lighting. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, that changes. Darkness is the signal to call it a night. I set up my camp, ate a little dinner, then hunkered down with a book for awhile, drifting into sleep before waking up again, usually because the copious amounts of water and caffeinated drinks I’d had on the road wouldn’t leave me alone.

Daybreak gives me a better look at my campsite at Black Mesa State Park.

Daybreak gives me a better look at my campsite at Black Mesa State Park.

Weird noises greeted me when I went outside to take care of business. Camp was near some sort of body of water, the bank on the other side covered in trees. I knew I was being watched, mostly because of the noises I’d hear when I went outside – strange calls, scratching sounds, a plop into the water. But what was the source? Antelope? Coyotes? Some other predator? No way to tell. In addition to sharpening your physical senses, being alone has a nice way of intensifying  your sense of paranoia. In my mind, I knew that even predators mostly shunned people, that wildlife is more scared of us than we are of it. It was, however, impossible not to conjure up images of a pack of coyotes suddenly surrounding me, catching me quite literally with my pants down, and collectively licking their chops.

My bathroom breaks were brief.

Getting up the next morning, I went back outside and walked up to the pond just past camp and found the source of the sneaky commotion. As it turned out, the things that were going bump in the night were just ducks. To my knowledge, no human had ever been devoured by a flock of waterfowl.

With morning also came a break in the solitude. Someone else was here. I saw him motoring around on an ATV around the campgrounds.

We visited for a bit. His name was Cody, the park superintendent, and like a lot of people, he drove a good ways just to get to work every day – 43 miles from Keyes, a little down just east of the county seat. Cody told me that the previous week, he’d only seen three or four campers in the park, and I was the first this week.

“So what do you do here when it’s so quiet?” I asked.

“There’s always something that needs to be done,” he said, noting that many of the screens at a group camp building all needed replacement, and that he’d been working on flooring and other improvements for awhile now. It occurred to be that this guy experiences solitude quite often, working hours at a park which, during the off season, hardly anyone visits. And when the day is done, he hops back into his pickup for the long haul home – I imagine just about everyone out here is accustomed to long bouts behind the wheel to get just about anywhere – before getting up early the next morning and doing it all over again.

Given that, he was eager to chat. So we talked about the park, Black Mesa and some dinosaur tracks I could see if I didn’t mind driving a little further. He also mentioned the volcanoes around Capulin, New Mexico, formed in the same period that gave birth to Black Mesa and the neighboring buttes scattered throughout this corner of the Panhandle. I’d been there a couple of times before, so that wasn’t in the itinerary this time.

I was also wondering if there was a trailhead outhouse at Black Mesa. Seeing that the restrooms at the park were all locked, I figured a pit stop before the day’s hike might be a good idea. He then proceeded to tell me there was, and how nice it was, how it cost $80,000, and how much he could get done at the park for the price of that single outhouse. He was joking about it, of course. Mostly.

I paid him my $12, and he asked me where I was from.

“Tulsa,” I replied, and he then told me that he gets more visitors from my city than any other town. “Oklahoma City is second, for sure, but for some reason, well, I always ask them what the draw is. Why here?”

That’s a good question. Maybe it’s because it’s so different from where we live. Or perhaps it’s the lure of seeing the highest point in the state. It could be that we’re just more adventurous than our neighbors in OKC. They’ve got NBA basketball to distract them now.

Some examples of petrified trees at Black Mesa State Park.

Some examples of petrified trees at Black Mesa State Park.

This sign explains a bit of the history behind the petrified trees.

This sign explains a bit of the history behind the petrified trees.

With that, I left him, checked out the remains of a petrified forest inside the park, then took the winding two-lane road further north and west, toward the remotest part of Oklahoma. Black Mesa was in my sights.

Oklahoma’s high place

The state park isn’t actually at Black Mesa. It’s within the same geological formations, but to get to the mesa you have to drive another 17 miles or so. Practically like going to the mailbox, right?

The drive has its charms. You get to see more of the mesas, and in some stretches, hoodoos. I figured these curious formations to be more of a Utah or Arizona thing, yet here they were, twisted, windblown stone sentinels overlooking the highway.

Hoodoos seen on the side of the road near Back Mesa.

Hoodoos seen on the side of the road near Black Mesa.

Kenton is nearby, but not actually on the road to Black Mesa. It’s a very small town, but situated perfectly amongst the hills. You could find many towns that have a less attractive setting than Kenton. There are a few things you need to know, however. The hours of operation of anything except the post office are pretty limited, and if you’re low on gas, you’re out of luck. The closest gas station is behind you in Boise City.

What it does have: bed and breakfasts. It’s how a few of the ranchers out here supplement their incomes. There is also a curious looking building outside of Kenton that looks like a mock-up of an Old West town. At first appearance, it looks fairly new. But I could spy some parts of the building already falling apart from neglect. My guess: it was a would-be tourist destination that never got off the ground, now left to the elements to eventually be reclaimed by the land on which it sits. It will take time for that to happen, but in this part of the world, time is abundant and relentless.

Eventually I reached the Black Mesa trailhead. A ranch-style cattle gate barred things from inside getting out (the state allows ranchers to run livestock on the nature preserve), but had a nice little chute for people to squeeze through.

Oh, and it also had that wondrous $80,000 outhouse. Which was locked. For all of the ingenious engineering that went into this shiny new one-holer, I could only hear Cody’s voice telling me that the money might have been better spent somewhere else.

I packed some extra napkins in case I had to use the non-locked outhouse at Black Mesa, which is another term for a hole in the ground dug by yours truly if the need arose.

The winter sun tries to break through the clouds over Black Mesa.

The winter sun tries to break through the clouds over Black Mesa.

I saw one other person—a small SUV pulled into the lot as I was about to start the hike. It had Colorado plates. I figured the driver would breeze past me on trail, but I never saw the dude. My guess is he stopped to make use of the 80 grand in taxpayer facilities, found them shut tight, cursed his lot in this world and moved on down the road. So as I planned, I’d have the mesa to myself.

For a mid-December day, it couldn’t have been much better. It was maybe 40 degrees, mostly overcast and still. Considering that this area sometimes sees major blizzards and normally gets whipped by high winds, I think I lucked out.

One thing that struck me about Black Mesa: It’s huge. You can’t really see it all at any given vantage point.

It also became fairly clear how it got its name. Black Mesa is volcanic in origin, having been formed by massive lava flows that filled primordial valleys from eons past. Over time, soft soil and rock eroded away, leaving behind the sturdier rock of the hardened lava. It’s been described as a region of “upside-down valleys,” which makes sense: Most of the bare rocks you see out there are black or a deep slate-and-brown hue, colors festooned upon them by the ultra-high heat from deep beneath the earth that filled a void much the same way you might create a sculpture from a plaster form.

The hardness of that rock makes the entire region, well into New Mexico, impossible to farm. No plow can penetrate the soil. Only stubborn junipers, oak, cactus, wildflowers and prairie shortgrass can break that firm crust, so the only agricultural activity going on out here is ranching.

The most common critter I saw -- Black Angus cattle.

The most common critter I saw — Black Angus cattle.

I guess it’s not surprising that the most common animal I saw at the base of the mesa was Black Angus cattle. Scores of them were out there munching on whatever they could scrape up from the mid-winter scrub. I also managed to scare up a few coveys of quail, and ravens soared overhead. All the other wildlife common to Black Mesa – antelope, deer, coyotes and rattlesnakes – remained hidden from view.

The hike was simple enough – flat for the first couple of miles before turning up a ravine in the Mesa. This is where you pick up most of the 600 feet of elevation gain to the top. The trail got a little more rugged and somewhat steep in spots – it reminded me a little of hiking Elk Mountain in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma, just bigger. And higher.

Not quite halfway to the top. The steeper section lasts about a mile.

Not quite halfway to the top. The steeper section lasts about a mile.

I’ve hiked and climbed above 14,000 feet plenty of times, but the fact is that I live in Tulsa, elevation 800 feet. Black Mesa’s summit is more than 4,000 feet higher than where I live. It wasn’t too bad, but I felt the elevation going up.

About a mile later, I was on mesa’s top. Walking away from the rim, it looked exactly like I was in the middle of a prairie. The top of the mesa is that big.

Near the top, looking north.

Near the top, looking north.

The trail was clear, however, so I kept heading west. And then I saw it: a stone obelisk, marking the highest point in Oklahoma. Now as much as I get into the high country, I only have two state high points under my belt. Black Mesa marked the third – and shortest – in my life, 4,973 feet above sea level.

The marker of Oklahoma's highest point.

The marker of Oklahoma’s highest point.

So I stood there and looked around. Scrub brush as far as I could see on this thing, considered one of the easternmost outposts of the Rockies. Then I stared out west and made out what appeared to be a snowcapped peak. Or was that just a cloud? I walked past the monument, treading west to see if I could make it out better.

This took me to western rim of the mesa. Shortgrass gave way to black rock, and a sharply dropping cliff face overlooking a wide valley in New Mexico. And that was no cloud. It was, indeed, a large mountain, maybe 8,000 feet high, some thirty miles or more away. The winds were calm as the sun struggled to break through the clouds. While a bit chilly, that cliff seemed like the perfect place for lunch and a view.

The incredible lunchtime view on the side of a cliff on Black Mesa. New Mexico lies beneath me.

The incredible lunchtime view on the side of a cliff on Black Mesa. New Mexico lies beneath me.

I pulled out a pocket knife, a summer sausage, some cheese and Hawaiian rolls. Serious trail cuisine, you know. And I munched on that while taking in ridiculous views that went on for days. There were a couple of ranch homes way down below and not much else. I imagine it was a lonesome life, at least to some degree. But man. It would be hard to beat the scenery. You might lack company, but you’d be rich in so many other things. So I sat there slicing off hunks of meat and cheese and soaked it in. Black Mesa may not be the most dramatic or hard-won summit I’ve seen, but as I stared out into the high plains, I can say that the sights and sounds of that moment may be some of the most indelible of my life. Few outdoor experiences have been so sweet.

The hits kept coming. After eating I turned back to head back down. Across the mesa top, then down the ravine and back to the flat pastures of the valley floor. From time to time, I thought I heard something – some sort of animal, I imagined – and would stop to listen. Each time this happened, I’d stand stock still, even to the point of slowing my breathing. Sometimes I’d find the source of the sounds, usually a bird call or something. But other times, just silence.

The remains of cactus.

The remains of cactus.

Now contemplate that for a moment. How often in your life do you actually perceive silence? In your home, office or workshop, even at its most quiet, you’re likely to hear the whir of a computer’s internal cooling fan, or the blower from a vent, or the hum of electric lights. More often, we have noise around us, even if it’s just white noise – the din of conversation, or tires on the road, or maybe the TV or radio broadcasting whatever.

But here, in windless conditions, I heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. To think of a place this big, with so much in it, making no noise whatsoever is difficult to describe, not to mention comprehend. The closest I can recall to this sort of audio sensory deprivation is in the midst of heavy snowfall. But other than that, the silence was, for me, quite rare. And beautiful.

Once back at the trailhead, I thought about one more thing Cody told me I needed to see – the dinosaur tracks. So a little further up the road, I pulled onto a dirt road that led to a flat area where it looked like people had driven around or parked. Stopping the car, I looked around, and then headed down into a dry creek bed that seemed to be a place where fossilized tracks might be.

Sure enough, there they were.

Dinosaur tracks!

Dinosaur tracks!

The tracks were large, about the size of dinner trays, maybe a few feet apart, a few inches deep and some filled with water. Whatever prehistoric beast left these impressions could be measured in tons. Many, many tons.

I climbed out of the creek bed and went back to the lot. It had been a couple of hours and a whole lot of hiking since I last ate, so I munched on more of my trail food and cracked open the Tecate I bought from Emily the day before. As is always the case after a rewarding summit, that beer could not have tasted better.

Dark clouds began to gather to the north. Time to head home.

Bright sunlight hits the bluffs just as dark clouds move in from the north.

Bright sunlight hits the bluffs just as dark clouds move in from the north.

On the way back, I made one more stop: A barbecue joint in the small town of Woodward called Wagg’s, a place I’d visited years before when I was out this way to write about caving at Alabaster Caverns. The food was good, so a repeat visit seemed in order.

I sat down and placed an order. There were a few other people there, too, gnawing on ribs and jawing about the day’s events. A guy on a barstool strummed quiet notes on a guitar while gently crooning country tunes in front of a tip jar. It was completely mellow, almost warm, warm in the way that the glow and crackle of a fire calms the spirit while a winter storm rages outside.

I sat there for awhile, listening to the music and enjoying my dinner while thinking about what the last two days had given me.

I got to hear the “sound” of total silence. Roam an ancient land while having the entire place to myself. Walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs.

I got to peer into the lives of people in places few people know, but places brimming with stories just the same.

At that moment, I felt gratitude. I was grateful to have the time and the health to be there. It’s rare to have any these moments, not to mention having so many all at once. When you come across such a confluence, you have to acknowledge that.

I’m a blessed man.

GETTING THERE: From Tulsa, take U.S. 412/64 west until you get to Boise City. In Boise City, continue west on Oklahoma Highway 325. The highway will take you to the state park and beyond: turn north just before you get to Kenton to reach the Black Mesa Nature Preserve. The trailhead parking lot will be on your left.

From Oklahoma City, take Interstate 40 west until you reach U.S. 270 northwest until the highway intersects with U.S. 412/64 in Woodward. Go west until you reach Boise City, then continue west on Oklahoma Highway 325 until you reach the turn north just east of Kenton to reach the nature preserve.

From Denver, go east on Interstate 70 to Limon, then continue southeast, then south on U.S. 287 until you reach Boise City, then go west on Oklahoma Highway 325,turning north just before Kenton to the nature preserve.

Mile marker benches are placed along the trail up Black Mesa. This one has a pretty nice view.

Mile marker benches are placed along the trail up Black Mesa. This one has a pretty nice view.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: At the trailhead, go through the gate and hike west, then south on a flat, well-marked trail. There is a chance you will encounter cattle on this portion of the trail. Signs with green, metal arrows show the way, and every mile there are park benches marked with the number of miles you’ve hiked.

Continue hiking on this portion of the trail for about 2.25 miles, then reach the portion of the trail that ascends the mesa. The switchbacks here are moderately steep and there is some loose rock and washouts, but the path is clear and the washouts avoidable. This portion of the trail lasts a little less than a mile, and most of the elevation gain happens here. You’ll pass under a wooden and barbed-wire gate of sorts at the top.

The trail continues south, then west on flat, easy terrain until you reach the summit marker a mile later.

Estimated total elevation gain is about 600 feet. Round-trip route length is about 8.4 miles and does not exceed Class 1, with minimal exposure. I’d consider the hike as moderately strenuous at its most difficult. Bring plenty to drink, as there are no places to filter water. This is especially important during the summer, when temperatures can easily exceed 100 degrees. Also, during mild to hot weather, be on the lookout for rattlesnakes.

Bob Doucette

Alone time: A case for going solo

There are days where you wish you never would have gotten out of bed.

Most of the time, those days pass. The sun rises the next day, you breathe easier and chalk up one bad day as something you have to go through every now and then.

But there are times when those days run back-to-back. Or maybe they run on for a week. Or several weeks.

I’ve had a few of those stretches. Personally, I’d like to forget most of 2010-2011. But more recently, it goes something like this…

There is, legitimately, a lot of angst over this little guy.

There is, legitimately, a lot of angst over this little guy.

I wake up in the morning and check the headlines. Ebola has made it to the United States. Elsewhere, some crazy, well-armed maniacs are making a case for beheading people they don’t like. And according to one group, the rainbow flag is now the new “sign of the beast.”

Add to that a few long, stressful shifts on the job, and let me tell you, I’m ready to escape. I’m ready to be away from people. I’m ready to see no one, hear nothing, and just be still for awhile.

Funny thing. I was involved in a Twitter chat recently where the topic was solo travel. It got me to thinking about those times when I hit the road for some serious alone time.

Back when I was in college, my family was spread out all over the world. At one point, I had a sister in west Texas, a brother in Colorado, another brother in Germany and my parents in France. I was attending courses at a small Baptist liberal arts college smack in the middle of Oklahoma.

I was cool being on my own. I liked school. I had good friends, things to do and a certain feeling of, dare I say, “accomplishment” for making it on my own. Never mind that I had my parents’ gas card and plenty of help along the way. But I digress.

When the holidays rolled around and campus cleared out, I’d often make my way to my sister’s place in Midland, a small west Texas city built on the petro-riches found deep underground in the Permian Basin. The routine: Load up my duffle, slip on a thick hoodie and a jacket, and buy a pack of cheap cigars as my truck rolled southwest to the flattest land in all of Texas. That’s an eight-hour drive, boring as hell and I loved every minute of it.

Probably not your idea of a good time, but hear me out. After a semester of communal living, tight class schedules, high stress and all that other business, those eight hours on the road — blowing cigar smoke out the window as the sound of the engine, the tires on the road and the music on the radio droned on — was just the release I needed. The yellow, orange, red and purple glow of sunset over the horizon was a pretty sweet bonus.

I’m sure the trip would have gone by faster with some company, but then I wouldn’t have been able to burn all those cigars, wouldn’t have been able to sing all those songs a full volume, and wouldn’t have had all that time to decompress.

Going solo is often about just that – decompression. The time alone without distractions to just drink in what’s going on around you without having to satisfy anyone else’s agenda but your own is exactly the tonic I need when life gets a little too crazy for a little too long.

A rainy day in the Wichita Mountains. This was taken on a different outing, but the visual effect is the same.

A rainy day in the Wichita Mountains. This was taken on a different outing, but the visual effect is the same.

Those couple of years that went awry (I mentioned 2010-2011 earlier) was also a time when I had one of the most amazing and memorable outdoor experiences of my life. A solo hike in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma included a near-miss with a charging buffalo, a record-setting torrential rain storm and some absolutely incredible scenery – ancient granite peaks shrouded in rain and fog, transforming the appearance from sandy, beige granite into icy hues of pewter, silver and white.

When I tell people about that hike, they wonder aloud what would have happened to me if that buffalo would have gored me (self-rescue would have been a serious issues), or how I could possibly enjoy being soaked to the bone for hours on end.

But being alone allowed me to really pay attention to my surroundings. When you’re solo, your senses are heightened to a point where every sight, smell and scent is much more intense than it would have been if you had shared it with others.

It also gave me time to think. And believe me, I had a lot on my mind.

But in also focusing on the task at hand – navigating wilderness with no one else there to help – it also allowed me to escape. Maybe not forget. But even if for a day or two, just to not be where all the world’s troubles were, where all my problems were –  yes, that is an escape. As hostile as the conditions, and maybe the wildlife, were, that place at that time was a refuge not unlike the smoke-filled cab of my little pickup motoring down a west Texas highway.

More recently, a group climb in northern Colorado got washed out by bad weather, forcing me to make a choice: Go solo in a drier part of the state or go home. I chose the former.

I camped at the trailhead parking lot, which was dark and empty, nodding off to sleep to the mellower tunes I had on my phone before waking up in the pre-dawn hours and setting off on the trail up Missouri Mountain.

When you're walking into this misty void alone, the experience is visceral. This is on Missouri Mountain's summit ridge, just shy of 14,000 feet.

When you’re walking into this misty void alone, the experience is visceral. This is on Missouri Mountain’s summit ridge, just shy of 14,000 feet.

I suffered a bit on that trip, and the weather was dodgy the entire ascent. The only voice I heard was in my head, telling me to turn around and pack it in. But that same sense of heightened awareness I experienced in the Wichitas returned as I plodded my way up past 13,000 feet, and ultimately an amazing time where, for the first time in my life, I had a high summit to myself.

Hours later, I was back in my car headed toward civilization. As it turned out, I missed the news of the day – a mass shooting at a Navy station that ultimate kicked off another predictable social media shoutfest over guns.

At that point, I wished I was back in the bosom of wilderness, and away from the angst and outrage of “the real world.”

After the week I just had, I feel that pull pretty bad. The world can be a noisy, angry place. When I’ve had my fill of that, the quiet indifference of the wild, taken in on my own, sounds like paradise.

Bob Doucette

Places I like: Wetterhorn Peak

For many years, I had this thing for a Colorado mountain called Wetterhorn Peak. I saw pictures of it. Heard about people climbing it.

And then I saw it. Five years ago, while hiking Uncompahgre Peak, I finally laid eyes on this beauty. That’s when a low-grade obsession began — not all-consuming (that would be weird), but frequently on my mind.

A few months ago, I finally got to climb it. What usually happens after a climb a peak is something like still feeling a great appreciation for it, but the allure it had previously fades a bit.

That didn’t happen this time. Every time I see a picture of Wetterhorn, or relive that late spring ascent, I still find myself in a bit of awe. Not because of the difficulty of the climb (it’s not an extremely tough ascent), but more from its beauty.

Four ridges rise to its 14,015 summit. From the north, it’s rise is nearly shear. The south features a dramatic and signature sweep. Its east and west ridges are steep and rugged.

Pictures tell the tale better. Here is Wetterhorn as seen from the summit of nearby Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak as seen from Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak as seen from Matterhorn Peak.

My friend Kay hiked in from the north and snapped this amazing photo.

Wetterhorn as seen from the north. (Kay Bessler photo)

Wetterhorn as seen from the north. (Kay Bessler photo)

Wetterhorn wears the snow pretty well.

Late spring snow conditions on Wetterhorn's east face.

Late spring snow conditions on Wetterhorn’s east face.

And like a true beauty, she holds up well in a close-up.

The Wetterhorn summit, with the Prow to the left.

The Wetterhorn summit, with the Prow to the left.

And if you’re fortunate enough to reach Wetterhorn’s summit, the views from the top are incredible.

Amazing views to the north from Wetterhorn Peak's summit.

Amazing views to the north from Wetterhorn Peak’s summit.

Climber and BASE jumper/wingsuit flier Steph Davis writes a blog she titles “High Infatuation.” Though I think that term has a different meaning for her than for me, I can definitely  relate to the sentiment. Especially when it comes to this mountain. She hasn’t lost her luster.

Bob Doucette

Feds to public: This land is OUR land, and we’re gonna make you pay

One of the goals I have for this site is to get people outside. For starters, it’s good for you. And just as important, when you see the outdoors for yourself you gain an appreciation for it. With that hopefully comes a desire to protect and preserve those great wild spaces for everyone.

But now comes a couple of moves from the geniuses in Washington — one inside the bureaucracy, another from Congress — that would discourage and  even punish people who go into public lands for recreational purposes.

So let’s break it down…

Careful there, shutterbug. That pic might cost you $1,000.

Careful there, shutterbug. That pic might cost you $1,000.

FOREST SERVICE AND PHOTO FEES

First, the U.S. Forest Service wants to charge you a $1,500 fee for a permit to shoot photos or videos on USFS lands. And if you’re caught shooting without a permit, you get a $1,000 fine.

Liz Close, a USFS wilderness director, told media outlets that the rule is designed to follow the 1964 Wilderness Act, which forbids commercial exploitation of wilderness areas.

I’m all for protecting wilderness. But there are several problems with this proposal.

For starters, it runs afoul of the First Amendment. Still images and video are all considered protected free speech.

Second, the rule seems pretty arbitrary and open to a variety of interpretations. Does a news organization doing a feature story (not breaking news, which the USFS says it will allow without a permit) constitute “commercial exploitation?” What about coverage of ongoing news stories in wilderness areas? Who decides that?

And what if the “exploitation” in question is from some nature blogger who has a couple of sponsors on his or her site? Does that poor devil need to pony up $1,500 to take a pic of a waterfall?

The Wilderness Act was designed to protect wilderness areas from commercial activity that would alter or destroy their timeless, wild characteristics. That’s why there is an absence of oil wells, strip mines, amusement parks, luxury hotels and other big-footprint operations in federally designated wilderness areas. It’s also why any forms of mechanical transportation are likewise forbidden.

A photographer or a video crew carrying their gear on foot will not have any more impact on wilderness than an ordinary backpacker on a multi-day trip. Likewise, the ambiguity of what constitutes “commercial activity” should not threaten the average person with a camera or a smartphone who wants to get some images of nature.

Outside Online reports that public outcry has caused the agency to delay final implementation until December, and has extended a public comment period. You can make your voice on this subject heard here.

You might see tents. But certain members of Congress see dollar signs.

You might see tents. But certain members of Congress see dollar signs.

CONGRESS PULLING A FAST ONE

At least we can give the USFS credit for being open about their new, albeit wrongheaded, rule. But Congress is trying to do something that may end up costing you, and lawmakers are doing it in such a way as to sneak it in under our noses.

As reported by The Adventure Journal, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is trying to slip House Resolution 5204 into a general appropriations bill, and he might be able to do it without so much as a single hearing.

What does HR 5204 do? Here’s the breakdown, as cited by The Adventure Journal:

• It would remove the ban on the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management charging for parking, picnicking along roads or trailsides, general access, dispersed areas with low or no investment, driving through, walking through, boating through, horseback riding through, or hiking through federal recreational lands and waters without using facilities and services, camping at undeveloped sites that do not provide minimum facilities, and use of overlooks or scenic pullouts. The bill replaces them with a single prohibition on fees “For any site, area, or activity, except as specifically authorized under this section.” The Western Slope No Fee Coalition says, “Since ‘this section’ authorizes fees for anything, that prohibition is meaningless.”

• The Forest Service and BLM would be allowed to charge day fees for entry to national conservation areas, national volcanic monuments, visitor centers, and anywhere that has a toilet within a half mile.

• Interagency passes, currently $80, would automatically go up in price every three years.

I’m wary of legislation that is passed without any debate or a hearing, but that’s what  is afoot here. It’s also exceedingly vague, basically allowing fees to wriggle into public land use based on what someone might want to do at the time. There are already fees in some wilderness areas, but most are free. HR 5204 could greatly expand the number of places where fees would be assessed.

If this bothers you, consider writing your congressman and senators quickly — as in within a week — as it’s likely to be part of a continuing resolution to be passed soon to keep the government from being shut down.

In both of these cases, it’s not really clear what policy goal is trying to be accomplished. But they both seem to have a monetary goal — finding new revenue streams. I could rail on policymakers for not having the courage to reform the nation’s tax code in a way that would address federal budget woes, but that is another topic for another day.

What it clear is that both of these initiatives hurt the cause of wilderness in that they cut off public access by way of creating new financial hurdles for the people who love wilderness the most. If policymakers want to find ways to properly fund and manage wilderness areas, there are far better methods to do it than by  feeing and fining the public for enjoying public lands.

Woody Guthrie famously penned the words, “This land is your land, this land is my land.” The feds seem to be saying it belongs to them, and not us. That’s a sentiment that needs to be corrected.

UPDATE: The USFS has clarified (changed?) its position on permits for news gathering organizations. Earlier it had said it would apply to news organizations unless footage was obtained in a breaking news situation. The Forest Service on Thursday told The Associated Press a different story: “The U.S. Forest Service remains committed to the First Amendment,” USFS chief Tom Tidwell said. “It does not infringe in any way on First Amendment rights. It does not apply to news-gathering activities, and that includes any part of the news.”

The Forest Service also said that the rule would not apply to professional or amateur photographers unless they were using “models, actors, or props or work in areas where the public is generally not allowed,” Outside Online reported.

This is all good news — and a sign of what a little pressure can do in terms of making sure the government listens to people. It’s still worth your time to make your feelings known by clicking on the link above concerning public comments on USFS policy on this matter.

Bob Doucette

Places I like: Chicago Basin, Colorado

chi1

You know how wild a place is going to be based on how difficult it is to get to. While not a foolproof axiom, it generally holds up.

And that describes Chicago Basin, Colorado, very well. You can either hike in from some 20 miles out or hop a train and get dropped off in the middle of nowhere to start your journey to this slice of alpine heaven.

It’s a lot different than most of Colorado. The state is pretty dry by nature, but the San Juans tend to accumulate more rain and snow than neighboring ranges. And compared to the rest of the San Juans, Chicago Basin gets even more. The end result is a place so lush, so green, that is practically drips with foliage.

At times, the clouds and mists obscure the real rock stars of the basin – its peaks. But invariably, these beauties refuse to remain veiled for very long. Four summits towering more than 14,000 feet crown the upper reaches of the basin and even more 13,000-foot peaks join the show. Like the wilderness itself, all these mountains are wild. No gentle, grassy slopes for these crags. Instead, you’re greeted by sheer cliffs, tall spires and rocky ramparts that create an imposing – and inspiring – skyline.

In some ways, it’s too bad you can see these scenes from the road. But like a lot of things in life, with great effort comes great rewards. You’re going to have to do more than take a long drive to see Chicago Basin. But if you’re willing and don’t mind the toil, you’re going to see real wilderness on its terms, and in its full glory.

chi2

Bob Doucette