Rocky Mountain National Park: going beyond the known

RMNP_1September in Rocky Mountain National Park is a postcard at every turn. If you live along the northern Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, you can drive up the Big Thompson Canyon, through Estes Park, and be saying hello to a park ranger in less than an hour.


Hiking here is soothing. On the running trail at home, I listen to the crunch of my feet hitting the dry gravel, kicking loose rocks. Here the way leads up into the deep stillness of the pine and spruce forest. The last of the high snowmelt trickles down little gurgling streams, straight down the mountainside, and where these streams cross the trail, all is wet, mossy, and dark. Long tracks of trail are wet as I climb, my footsteps muffled by pine cones and soft needles, bits of fallen bark and Spanish moss, and aspen leaves strewn like rose petals up the aisle.


Sometimes I run this trail, but today I am hiking, because I want to go farther than usual. The voice of the lower reaches is Roaring River, pounding relentlessly down broken boulders and the very bedrock of the mountain. It still runs wild in autumn, when many Colorado rivers have slowed to almost nothing.

RMNP_8Until this summer, I thought this was the Fall River. I thought I knew. The trailhead is off Fall River Road, this is the river along that trail, and Estes Park is filled with “Fall River” this and that. For 30 years, I thought I was becoming intimately familiar with Fall River, the churning falls seemingly the namesake.

Only, no. Because I never checked the fairly logical assumption I made when I first hiked the Lawn Lake Trail at 18, I have believed – all my adult life – that I knew what I was talking about. I have believed that my logical, rational mind was my most powerful tool.

And so I have believed a myth of my own making.

RMNP_7So obvious, now that I know. If any river in Colorado should be named the Roaring River, this one is it. The Roaring River’s banks are ripped high into the side of the mountain, trees toppled in, boulders the size of the ranger’s entrance station huts hanging precariously from the exposed dirt. In the flood of 1982, it tore loose from Lawn Lake and flooded Horseshoe Park and the town of Estes Park. You’d think I would have noticed, maybe listened to the detailed news reports that told how the old earthen dam at Lawn Lake built in 1903 gave way one warm, sunny, summer day, sending all the lake’s water down the Roaring River at 18,000 cubic feet per second. That’s catastrophic: 5,000 cubic ft/sec is a dangerous class 5 rapids. Water literally roared down the river in a 25-foot-tall flood wave. But I was 16 then, listening to American Top 40 on the radio that summer. I didn’t pay attention, and so, I didn’t know.

There’s so much we think we know…who we are, what is or is not possible, where the edges of the map are and where there be dragons. We create a personal mythology to make sense of our lives, to hold back the floodwaters of chaos and pain, but then the story takes over, and, as Murray Stein says in Facing the Gods, “The individual is unconsciously living a myth rather than a life.” We start losing authentic resonance with new experience. Because we decide we already know how the story goes.

RMNP_12Zen master Suzuki taught a summation of the teachings of Buddhism: “not always so.”

Maybe we should check our assumptions about what is true. Maybe life is bigger than we think. Maybe there’s a whole world out there, happening. Maybe we should find out what we’re talking about.



I made my way to Lawn Lake. But rather than take a break on the grassy flat banks and head back down the trail as usual – I just kept going. At first curious to see the lake-area campsites, I soon realized I was headed not only along the shoreline but up through a wooded rise and past the lake itself. I had found the trail I had seen others on years earlier, high on the mountainside above the lake, a trail I had longed to follow. As I realized where I was headed, I came to a good-sized tree fallen squarely across the path.

RMNP_15Deliberate though this gate may be, the trail clearly led on beyond it, equally intentional. No signs indicated whether the trail was open or closed. So I decided…that…I don’t know. I looked around me, but I had left everyone else behind. I looked up at the high country ahead.  I looked down at the tree trunk. And then I climbed over.

Often I am pragmatic, practical and safety-conscious. But I am “not always so.” While I’m exploring the larger world that’s out there, happening, with or without me, I have to let go my tight hold on what I “know,” if I want to expand my map of the world I live in.

Lawn Lake sits at 11,000 feet, and it was rapidly dwindling below me as I crossed soggy drainages filled with bushy willows as high as my head. Moose habitat, I thought, or elk, and mindfulness was suddenly pragmatic. Beyond the willows, one last stand of gnarled, wind-twisted bristlecone pines ushered me to the tundra above treeline, where dirt trails and rock cairns led to the Crystal Lakes hidden within a massive cirque, or to the Saddle, a relatively smooth pass between peaks.RMNP_18 Starting up the saddle trail, I scrambled over boulders, crisscrossing the drainage streams under a cloudless blue sky, the warm sun and cool mountain air exhilarating. Lifting my gaze to the peak above, I climbed from boulder pile to stone outcropping to rock ledge in the thin tundra soil. Soon I was above the saddle, above Crystal Lakes, and on my way toward the top of the mountain. RMNP_22

But by now, it was nearly 2:30. Mountain wisdom sends us all down from the high peaks before 2:00, always, and I saw the first clouds rolling over, creating shadows across the mountainsides. Happy to just be here now, I started down, this time toward the Crystal Lakes. I hiked along the rugged clifftops, looking down over the edges here and there at the smooth blue-green pools, the water-carved stone basins undulating like dragons under the surface.

I felt…ancient. Hiking along across tundra and square-bouldered cliffs and watching the changing sky, I felt connected to this immense, silent mountain, huge into the earth beneath me, and to the ancient people who have hiked across similar terrain, all over the world, for millenia. I felt incredibly human. 

It’s disorienting, too, though. So much of our daily life is spent down low, looking up. Buildings tower over us, bosses stand in the doorway talking with us seated at our desks, trees and hillsides and road signs all require us to crane our necks upward as we pass under. Here I looked above me directly into the immense sky, standing level with the tops of huge mountain peaks. Most of the immediate world lay below me, and standing on the steep slopes viewing the familiar through this unfamiliar lens, my definition of feeling human was stretched in new ways, as well.

Today I had hiked to almost 13,000 feet, higher than the pass between hooked Hagues Peak and Fairchild Mountain, that great cirque enclosing the stone dragons within crystal lakes. I had looked across the top of the 12,541-foot unnamed peak on Lawn Lake’s west shore, and stood face to face with 13,425-foot Mummy Mountain across the lake valley. Facing the gods, in mythology. In reality, facing my own insignificance, vulnerability, and mortality, without a heroic story to cling to. It’s disorienting and unfamiliar to go beyond the known edges of our maps, the world tilting away beneath our feet as we look up into the great unknown above. But this is where we find new meaning, the headwaters of all that sustains us.


“In risking the unknown, we gain a sense of life itself.”  —  Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart

I made it down to the trailhead as the elk began bugling into the early twilight. I looked back up at the peaks miles away, listening to the river, wondering at my day. I had stood on the cirque cliffs, where eagles circled. And I soon became painfully aware that I had stood there without sunscreen. Fairchild Mountain indeed. I knew better than to forget the power of the sun at altitude, and winced as I dabbed cold aloe vera gel onto my red neck and shoulders, laughing wryly, “well, not always so.” I had at last traveled the Roaring River.









This is not a trail

This is my running trail. running_trail_edgeHere in northern Colorado, the world smells like granite, dry clay, baked grasses, and ponderosa pine, and sounds like wild canyon rivers and the wind through cottonwoods. I live on the edges of things here – edge of the foothills but not yet mountains, edge of town but not quite in, edge of middle class but really working poor, edge of conforming but never really two feet in that circle.

The edges are where wild things live, at the confluence of safety and need. Wildlife tends to travel along the boundaries, a treed fenceline, the edge of a meadow, just below ridgeline, trying to stay hidden, while trying to find food, water, and each other.

Finding what nourishes us is often at odds with what soothes and protects us. We want to feel happy, fulfilled and nourished by our work, our homes, our circle of friends and family, our choices. Yet again and again, we prioritize against our own fulfillment. We choose the safe path, the beaten trail.

this_is_not_trailSafety is supposed to keep us alive while we find what we need to really live. For me, that safety has meant always having a steady day job and a house, supporting my family. For decades, I have prioritized responsibility and duty. I’m a big believer that kids need stability to thrive, and I have followed that path, missteps notwithstanding. But my family of chattering children have become a tribe of grown human beings, out making their lives.

I’ve always been a fan of the credo, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”

So my plan is to spiral out of control. No drama, no freaking out. Just letting go. Running away. Trekking away. Or biking away, sailing away. Taking that road less traveled by whatever means available. And letting “way lead on to way,” my favorite part of that Robert Frost poem.

This is not a trail. This spiral is more like the yellow brick road, which starts to uncoil at your feet the minute you seek it…and leads you on the adventure to your own courage, intelligence, and compassion, your heart’s truest desires, which is the grand adventure of your actual life. The spiral road just keeps widening, to encompass the whole world, and I’m going to go – literally.

Wild, isn’t it?spiral_in_running_trail











Define “wandering lightning”


According to Merriam-Webster:

1. wan•der•ing (adj): characterized by aimless, slow, or pointless movement; not keeping a rational or sensible course; to follow a path with many turns

2. light•ning (n): the flashing of light produced by a discharge of atmospheric electricity; the discharge itself; a sudden stroke of fortune

3. wan•der•ing light•ning (English translation from Danish): my name

4. Dan•ish (adj): my heritage, ancestry, surname

5. po•et•ic ser•en•dip•i•ty (descriptive phrase): finding beautiful and unexpected alignments, instances of what John Welwood calls “ordinary magic,” inducing astonishment, wonder, gratitude

6. a•quar•i•an (adj): one born under the double lightning bolt sign of Aquarius, the sign of the humanitarian friend, stubborn will, absent-minded genius, unexplained interference with electricity, unique relationship to time, and passionate love of freedom:

a) Aquarius horoscope September 2006: “You find poetry in daily happenings and compose songs out of ordinary emotions. Your method is simple: capture an elusive thought, hold it in your mind, and sing it to yourself.”

b) Aquarius horoscope February 2008: “Our love is a well in the wilderness where time watches over the wandering lightning. – Pablo Neruda”

c) Aquarius horoscope May 2008: “When the spell is broken, Aquarius, you will be able to tap into resources that you’ve been cut off from. When the spell is broken, you will finally notice three big, beautiful secrets that have been staring you in the face. When the spell is broken, you will slip down off a clean, lofty perch where it has been hard to relax and arrive at a low, funky spot where you’ll be free to feel things you haven’t felt in a long time. When the spell is broken, it will be because you have decided to break it.”