An epic, elemental pack-in

Finding earth, water, fire, air and space on the trail with three burros

It felt vaguely like something out of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings as we made our way up the steep trail on the western flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado. The mountainsides were lighting up with the colors of changing aspens, highlighted by the magenta crags of Crestone conglomerate jutting above, and the higher peaks where the remnants of an early snowfall hung in the shadows. A conch horn sounded from below heralding our journey. Onward I marched with three loaded burros.

My friend Peter conducts a spiritual retreat at high altitude each fall. In his words, the retreat supports integration of the elements of earth, water, fire, air and space, leading to developing stability, comfort, inspiration, flexibility, as well as openness, in one’s own life. He invited me to pack some of the gear on my burros for his group, who would be camping for several days at North Crestone Lake. It sounded like a fun outing, plus I hadn’t really done any packing with my animals for a few years and wanted to reacquaint with those skills. So I agreed to help him out. Peter and I live on opposite sides of the Sangre de Cristo Range, he in Crestone and I in Westcliffe. I’d been to North Crestone Lake years ago, but had arrived via a route over Comanche Pass from the eastern side of the range. This time I’d be driving around the mountains and approaching from the Crestone side, but the last pitch of the trail would be familiar.

It seemed easy enough. The trek in was about six miles. There would be about 250 pounds of assorted gear and food. I figured I could get it on three burros. But that’s where things got tricky. With no hesitation I chose Full Tilt Boogie as my lead packer. Next was Laredo, a two-time world champion pack burro who at 23 is not old by burro standards but who is limited by equine Cushings disease, somewhat similar to diabetes in humans. As a wildcard, I selected Roger, who I board and train for my friend Tracy. Roger is a wild burro from Arizona and let’s just say he’s “in process.” He’d run two pack-burro races in previous months but is suspicious of people and had never packed anything in his life. I needed three burros and these were the most likely of my herd to get the job done.

Days before the pack-in I lined out and fitted the gear. I had not used this stuff in several years. Pack saddles were adjusted to each animal and panniers were paired to each outfit. It all looked pretty good and Roger seemed to adjust to the gear. The other issue was squeezing this Sunday into the rest of my life. I coach cross-country at the local high school so the outing was literally jammed between meets and practices. I ended up making the drive over to Crestone the night before the trip, and having dinner with some of the group the evening before departure. Peter had brought shrimp curry from a restaurant in town. The food was delicious in the mountain air and in the company of interesting people – Michele, Macey, Xerephine, Randy and Marina. I had met Michele and Marina through the Tibetan Yoga class that Peter teaches online, so it was great to acquaint with them in person. As most of the group began to leave for their campsites or rooms back in town, I noticed the withdrawal of another presence that had been standing near the edge of the group. Peter said he had noticed this too, and then Macey and Michele — stepmom and stepdaughter — said they had an idea who it was. A friendly ghost perhaps.

I camped out in my truck at the trailhead, sleeping fitfully, and awoke to a chilly morning. Between coffee on my camp stove and icy water splashed on my face from the nearby creek, I managed to wake up in time to greet the crew as they began to gather. Thankfully, Michelle and Macey had brought me another strong coffee from town. We went through everyone’s gear and I divided it up evenly between the panniers and loaded them on the burros with Macey’s help. The process took longer than expected so we got a later start than planned, with Marina helping me out with the burros and the rest hiking along with their backpacks. As we departed the trailhead, Peter encouraged the group to look as we hiked for the “space,” which combined with light is where true awareness resides in Tibetan yoga practice.

September in the Colorado high country is a magical season. The changing trees, crisp blue sky and light snow on the higher peaks makes for almost surreal scenery. There’s an unexplainable fire that burns deep inside me for the wildness and connectedness I find while rambling about in these mountains with my animals. The first couple miles of trail were relatively easy, though we encountered quite a few hikers, many with dogs, and this made for some interesting situations with Roger. Early on I noticed a house on the other side of the creek and wondered how the building materials got there, and how the residents get their food and supplies home. We stopped a couple times to adjust loads and packs, and to rest. From time to time Peter pulled out his conch shell and blew out a loud honk to alert the mountain spirits of our arrival. At about 2.5 miles we encountered a big creek crossing. I honestly did not know if Roger would cross the water. But after seeing his two buddies go through he splashed across the creek like a champ. I looked at the crystal-clear water as I waded through and noticed aspen leaves floating on the still pools like gold coins that refuse to sink. The analogy of tossing coins into a fountain was not lost on me. The group stopped on the far side of the creek to take a break and eat snacks. Xerephine offered Roger a hunk of grapefruit and I was surprised when he willingly took it from her. This is a burro who didn’t know what grain was a couple years ago. In 40-plus years of working with burros I never considered they would eat citrus.

From there the trail grew more narrow and challenging, with many steep, rocky pitches. I’d been this way before, a quarter-century ago with Mary, and friends Dan and Jane, and leading burros no longer of this earth. Now I led Boogie with Roger following, and Marina brought up the rear with Laredo. As we hiked Xerephine, told me the story of how she arrived at her name through her work with plants. Her given name is Ruth and she is a musician, a vocalist and harp player, from England (Xerephine’s website is here). Gradually, Boogie and Roger picked up the pace and soon we pulled ahead of the rest of the group. We arrived at another creek crossing. This one was fairly wide, choked with alder and willows, with dark mud for an entrance and a steep bank at the other side. There was a bit of a struggle getting all three burros through this obstacle. Now the trail grew ever steeper, winding around cliffs of red conglomerate rock and giving way at last to open views above timberline, a high waterfall, and the huge glacial moraine that was our destination. I checked my breathing, being sure to take in the rarified air to the bottom of my lungs with each breath. Boogie and Roger seemed to sense we were nearing the finish line and picked up their pace with me power-hiking ahead of them.

Unlike most valleys in these mountains this one runs south to north, and the shadows cast by the western ridge began to grow long. I arrived with the two burros late in the afternoon at the predetermined drop-off spot below the lake, but we were all alone, and without Laredo. I unloaded the Boogie and Roger and waited for a long while before some of the others came into view. As the rest of the group arrived I hiked down to meet them and learned that Laredo had gone on strike and was quite some distance back with Marina. I headed on down  to see what the deal was.

What I found about a mile and half back down the trail was Marina moving very slowly with Laredo. Something seemed really strange. At one point Laredo literally fell down with his load. Marina stood by with a concerned look on her face as I wrestled the panniers from the pack saddle and got Laredo back to his feet. I recognized that Laredo was having some sort of blood-sugar episode and decided to go back and get Boogie to shuttle his load. I left Laredo there in a meadow to graze and hopefully recover while going back up for the other burros. Boogie was somewhat less than enthused to find that we had to go back with Laredo’s load, so the second ascent was somewhat slower than the first. Roger tagged along. By the time I got back up with this load it was now early evening. I dropped the panniers, said goodbye to the group and started back down. Peter accompanied me for a while. Before we parted he handed me his extra headlamp. It was about five miles back to the trailhead and I would be leading three burros mostly in the dark.

I got back to Laredo in the twilight. He was grazing and seemed to have recovered. I figured that with no load and the hike out being mostly downhill he would be fine. I led Boogie and let the other two burros loose to follow. As we descended into the trees the trail grew darker. I let my eyes adjust as I wanted to conserve the headlamp as much as possible, and also be more naturally in tune with my surroundings. There was no moon and only bright stars. In some sections I could make out the trail in the dim starlight, but in some darker and rocky stretches I turned on the light to see my way. As my eyesight slipped away with the light I felt my senses heighten in the darkness. I was feeling my way along the trail with my feet. I could hear the rushing stream to my left. I could smell the trees and knew when I was among aspen or conifers. An elk crashed off through the woods to the right. Occasionally I stopped and turned the light on, looking back to make sure both Roger and Laredo were still with me. Looming in my mind was the brush-choked creek crossing ahead. I knew I would have to lead the burros through in the dark because the headlight reflecting on the moving water might cause problems, especially with Roger.

I heard the running water before the trail took its sharp descent to creek’s bank. My next step plunged into the cold water and I splashed confidently in so as to not give the burros any pause. Boogie stalled only slightly before entering the creek but then followed. I carefully checked each step as I tugged lightly to encourage her through the narrow ford. In the back of my mind there was the thought she might spook and trample me in the stream trying to get through, or lunge through the ooze at the other side and blindside me from behind. I knew I was almost across when I felt the rocky stream bed give way to the soft mud underfoot. I scrambled out of the creek quickly and up onto the bank. After getting clear of the creek I checked to see that Roger was there, and then heard Laredo clamber up out of the stream as well. I turned on the headlamp to check the animals and then continued on.

The trail was getting less rocky and the air grew warmer. The forest seemed more friendly, almost laughing. I also was confident now that I would not have problems at the next creek crossing, though it was bigger, with faster-moving water. At least the ford was wide and there was no muddy ooze to contend with. As we reached the stream I surveyed it quickly in the headlamp then turned out the light and waded in. Once again I checked with the light on the other side to make sure I had all three burros, and then continued on.

I knew it was about 2.5 miles from the creek crossing back to the trailhead. The trail from here was much easier hiking, wider and less rocky. However it seemed like I kept marching on for ever and ever, and not getting anywhere. I was stuck in a strange time warp. From my experience running 100-mile ultra-marathons I know the mind can play strange tricks after dark. The clock seems to speed up. And while your body seems to be moving at a quick pace, what may seem fast is actually very slow. I refused to check the clock. Along the trail I took note of landmarks from the hike in. Switchbacks. A prominent rock outcrop. I kept thinking that I might notice lights from the house on the other side of the creek near the trailhead. But on and on we hiked. My feet hurt and my legs were growing tired. At one point Boogie yanked back, jolting me into reverse and nearly snatching the rope out of my hand. I turned to see she had shied at a boulder shining in the starlight. There was the temptation to be irritated, not with her but the situation. I thought how the late start had given way to the problem with Laredo, then the extra distance shuttling his load had added considerable distance and time to the effort. I thought about the three-hour drive home that awaited me at the trailhead. I had work to do that next morning, and coach cross-country in the afternoon.

I had to have a serious talk with myself — there is nothing like finally finding the “space” in the pitch-black dark. I’d had a great day in the mountains with these amazing animals and interesting people. It was not cold and I was not wet. I was not lost. The prospect of encountering a bear or mountain lion in the dark does not frighten me in the least. I was really in no danger from anything. It was a beautiful night in the mountains. How long had it been since I’d had a truly authentic wild experience? Moreover, I recalled than in my younger days I had adventures like this all the time. Now at 60, a late night out in the mountains was a rarity, something to be cherished. I was fine. There was nothing to be irritated about. I was here now, and now is all there is.

About then I saw a dim light to the left. It was the house I’d noticed on the way out that morning. I knew I was near the trailhead, and soon I saw the reflection of starlight off the windshields of parked cars. I led the burros to the trailer, unsaddled them one by one and put the gear into the trailer tack area. Then I loaded them for the trip home.

I’d just hiked 15 rugged miles, climbed more than 4,000 vertical feet, packed more than 250 pounds of gear to a high-altitude camp, and been on my feet for a solid 10 hours. I had indeed put together all the elements. I stood looking up at the stars from that place where we’d started that morning. The creek was singing nearby, carrying the water by the path of least resistance from where I had just been. I felt more thankful and alive than I had in a long time.

Epilogue

A week later I returned with Boogie and Roger, and my friend Trinity, to fetch the remaining gear which had been cached by the group near the same spot I’d dropped it off. They’d all headed out the day before. Since the loads were much lighter for pack-out trip I could manage it with Boogie and Roger. The colors were even more vibrant as we struck out with the unloaded burros, but as we climbed higher many of the trees that were gold the week before were now noticeably bare. There were a couple of minor rodeos with Roger when we met hikers on the trail, including a woman who was playing with her dogs in the water at the first creek crossing. We made good time on the ascent, at last reaching the headwall where the gear was stashed. Before loading up we ate lunch in that high spot above timberline. There was a different sort of chill on the breeze. Soon it would be winter at that elevation. The view was so magnificent that I didn’t really want to leave but we loaded the gear and headed back down.

This time the hike out was delightful in the golden glow of the fall afternoon, and I was able to enjoy the views I missed in the dark the week before. The rushing water in the creeks seemed to sing to me the entire way. In the last mile we encountered a lone hiker and she moved to the side of the trail to let us pass.

“How cute!” she said . . . “Well, you’re cute too, but can I get a picture of them?” 

“Sure,” I laughed embarrassedly, and moved aside. And there in the golden evening light Boogie stood disinterested while Roger turned his usual suspicious eye to the stranger and her camera. It was a picture worth a thousand words, but she had no idea.