We got over Cameron Pass, nearly asphyxiating on the diesel fumes from Ken's trusty smelly old truck, and found our envisioned point of departure at Lake Agnes, near the Nokhu Crags. Sadly, this area is within the Colorado State Forest, which meant we could not even park there while we enjoyed ourselves in the national wilderness next door. Indeed, the area was filled with admonishing placards, all forbidding us to camp, park the truck, start campfires, you name it. This prompted Mike to sing a little song that went something like:
After a ridiculous amount of avoiding large rocks in the road, Ken gave up and said, "Let's park here". We were still some distance from the trailhead, but hiking an extra mile didn't bother us, so we put on our boots and packs and abandoned the truck in a small clearing (i.e. there were no large trees for a truck-length) on the side of the road. We soon encountered the trailhead and then the boundary to the Never Summer Wilderness. We hiked uphill through forest across a creek or two and came into an open region of high, elongated meadows. We tried to find a lake we saw on the map but in the failing light we settled for a spot next to a large wall of rubble (not where one would want to camp in case of an earthquake, my California sensibility reminded me) at the base of a mountain (no name). We dined on cheese and black bean burritos in the tiny comforting light of Bruce's candle lantern. We had no campfires on this trip because there was a fire ban in effect for all of Colorado. Consequently, we found ourselves getting chilly early on and we tended to go to bed about 9 p.m. every night.
The next day I woke up rested and babbling in a jovial manner, a near-daily occurrence. (I don't know why I do this when camping with those guys - maybe because I feel free and happy, or maybe to show them that I'm really up and awake, and maybe just a little because it annoys them so much. I tried the middle rationalization out on Ken and he reminded me every morning thereafter as I was in mid-babble, "Bill: you're AWAKE!" I gained a reputation as a noise-generator and I was frequently harshed-on about it.) Distraught by the heavy stream of happy nonsequiturs, my camp-mates showered me with requests to kindly cease. Another trip theme was established that morning, that of Ken and Mike impatiently waiting for slow Bill and slower Bruce to pack up our gear and apply our sunscreen and prepare to hike. No matter when we started packing, Ken and Mike were always done sooner and stood ready with their packs on while we muddled about. We made our way up over a steep pass the first thing out of camp. We had lovely view to the south of the whole Never Summer Range on our left, barren eroded brown peaks with names like Stratus, Cumulus and Nimbus. On our right lay a lush valley, green with fir trees. Directly before us on a loose, rocky slope were many small bits of metal debris, the remains of an aircraft. Closer examination of the fragments told us it was a U.S. Air Force jet fighter which had crashed probably thirty years ago. One jet engine lay on the slope, turbine blades grotesquely twisted, yet still shiny after all these years, as were most of the aluminum and titanium fragments we saw. At first I thought the plane might have been an F-86 Sabre but I later found a small tail section which looked like it belonged to an F-100 or an F-104. Some of the pieces were very sharp, and both Ken and I had our curiosity awarded with lacerations.
We stayed high and followed the tree line for several miles, finally crossing a huge hillside of rubble before descending to skirt a moraine, only to hike up again to Baker Pass. We decided we could hike a wee bit more, so we continued south on a mostly level (though at that point any slight slope was quite noticeable to our tired legs) trail to Parika Lake, a rather barren place in the tundra, accented occasionally by krummholz. This was the lake at which we had agreed to meet Kevin and Frank five days later. I was anxious to lose a few pounds of baggage, so I made my pasta dinner: rotelle with sun-dried tomatoes, a bulb of garlic, onion, basil, lots of olive oil and parmesan, plus sauteed porcini mushrooms for Ken and me, all served with a hearty cabernet, followed by dark Dutch chocolate. This lightened my load by about five pounds. Of the pasta, Mike, the pasta hater, said, "Well, this is fairly edible", which I took as a great compliment. It was a cold evening and we lay in our sleeping bags and watched the stars. We saw a number of post-peak Perseids plummet.
The following morning, Bruce initiated another trip tradition: first light stove, then inquire about water. I think this earned him a stupid point, but except for Ken, who escaped embarrassing himself in front of us, we all collected a few stupid points during the week. We had to hike up to the wilderness boundary on the Continental Divide after breaking camp. Ken dashed off and climbed Parika Peak (12,394') before Bruce and I got to the top of the pass, but then he had left camp before we had. Mike had also left earlier, claiming he was now a feeble old man and so we would easily catch up to him. I believe the pass we reached was Farview Pass, and there was a sign on it indicating that no motor vehicles were allowed beyond the steep rim that dropped off into the Parika Lake basin. From the pass, we climbed up Farview Mountain (about 12,240') with our packs on, which was only a matter of gaining a few hundred feet. From there we followed a high ridge to the southeast, trekking on the tundra until we reached a saddle. To the left rose another summit just a few hundred feet above us, and we visited it. Leaving our packs at the saddle, we continued south along a narrow ridge to ascend Bowen Mountain (12,524), the highest peak we would stand on that week. Ken and Mike got there first and then left just before Bruce and I arrived, so no group summit photo was taken, but the traditional "Bill communes with the mountain gods" shot was procured. From Bowen Mountain, we had a spectacular view of the Never Summer range stretching away to the north and all the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks to the east and southeast, Longs Peak the most prominent among them. To the west, we could see our destination for that evening, Ruby Lake.
Emerald green with silt, Ruby Lake seems inappropriately named, but it is a lovely little tarn right at tree line, just held in place by what appears to be a small moraine. This was my favorite campsite of the trip. Mike and Ken saw a marten at the lake before Bruce and I arrived, and we were quite jealous, having never seen a marten before. I was hot and sweaty from hiking, so I took off my pack, took off my clothes, and went straight into the water upon reaching camp. The transition from uncomfortably hot to pleasantly cool was excellent as a first-hand or first-skin experience. Ken joined me for his second bath in the tolerably cool water which was much warmer than snow-fed lakes. I was able to swim a few strokes, and I finally gave up not because of the temperature but because of the lack of oxygen way down at 11,200'. Bruce was never convinced that the water was warm, despite all of our arguments to the contrary. His mountain-manhood looked a little diminished in our eyes. Another complaint heard 'round camp was about the mosquitoes, and I kept insisting that compared to the number Anne and I fought off in June in Yosemite, there was no mosquito problem at all. I maintained that there were only two mosquitoes at any particular location we inhabited. Dinner was couscous pilaf with salmon, and banana creme pudding for dessert. That evening, we had a wonderful sunset with prolonged evening colors on passing cumulus clouds. From the lake, we looked down a very pleasant little fir-filled valley toward Longs Peak. Because we retired early, I woke up in the middle of the night and could not sleep. I poked my head out the tent door and watched the stars, keeping vigil for a good hour. I was rewarded with several fine Perseids that made me want to tell someone, but all I did was whisper, "great!". Then I became ravenously hungry and I went to my pack an got a Power Bar and ate it. Ken told me the next day that he heard me pacing and munching and crinkling my wrapper and that he was also very hungry at the time, but he lacked the impetus to climb out of his cozy bag to join me. Isn't that sad?
The next day's hike was a short 2 1/2 miles, at least for three of us. Ken decided to do what a man's gotta do and he hiked straight up the hillside to the ridge at about 12,000' with his full pack. He would then hike up and down past Ruby Mountain and Cascade Mountain and meet us at Bowen Lake. We lounged around in camp and watched him go. We talked about this and that, and then I took some pictures, and then we dallied some more and it really didn't matter since we had such a short hike ahead of us. We finally left camp about 12:30 p.m. and dropped down into the picturesque valley, where we found the remains of an old miner's cabin and a faceted purple bottle that might have been a soda bottle from the 1920's. We walked through some nice patches of yellow-blossomed sneezeweed and various kinds of blue gentians, but the flowers in general on this trip were not as numerous as those in other years in other places in the Rockies. We followed elk trails though the woods for a while, then gave up and took the human trail up to Bowen Lake, nestled in a high bowl with a fringe of trees next to a mountain. There we found an unusual surprise: other people! Ken had arrived some time before and was beginning to wonder what had become of us. He told us of the other two parties totaling six people and their distribution about the lake, which was several days in for us but only a short day from another trailhead to the southeast. We chose to camp in a heavily used spot at the opposite end of the lake from the others. The afternoon was spent circumnavigating the lake and almost napping, anxiously awaiting the agreed-upon dinner hour of 6:00 p.m. We were not disappointed by Mike's meal of spiced scrambled tofu (another one bulb garlic night) and rice with miso soup. When Ken heard that Mike had not brought dessert, he was very depressed, so I saved the day by digging into a future dessert and rationing out two chocolate-covered coffee beans to each of us. After dinner, we stood by the lake shore and watched the nice evening clouds. We noticed a dead trout floating among the shallows and I thought, "what a waste; what a fine prop!" The clouds started to rumble and then we had about sixty seconds to scramble and cover our packs and leap into the tents before a downpour ensued. But as we prepared to settle down to a nice evening of rain and discussions about women, the drip-drops ceased. The dead fish out there was something of an obsession for me, especially after a few nips of Grand Marnier, and I wanted to do something with it. I discussed tossing it into Mike and Ken's tent, an idea which seemed hilariously funny at the time, but Ken's promise of severe retaliation made this option unattractive. Bruce suggested, bless his heart, that I dance around naked in the moonlight with it, and indeed this seemed quite appealing, especially when we discussed how to photograph the ritual. Springing to action, we set up cameras and in no time I was perched on a rock with Mr. Ex-Trout, doing the Dance of the Dead Fish. The most entertaining aspect of the ritual for me was that Bruce's auto- everything super camera was having conniption fits trying to focus and flash and decide on a shutter speed while my manual camera, which admittedly depended on Bruce's flash, only required a simple squeeze of the cable release to make it work. Post-fish towelettes were necessary to remove the odor from my hand. Ken and Mike lay in their tent the whole time and participated aurally, willing or not (from their comments, I assume it was the latter).
On Wednesday, we had another short hike, less than two hours, that took us down into a valley and then up to Blue Lake, a large round body ringed by trees. On the way we finally found a few huckleberries to eat, Before that we had seen huckleberry plants nearly everywhere, but they were all devoid of berries. The inlet and the outlet of this lake were crowded with bleached logs, like toothpicks spilled on the edge of a soup bowl. The first thing we did upon arriving at the lake is throw rocks. We tossed pieces of wood out into the lake and then tried to hit them with an assortment of rocks from handfuls of pebbles to great shot-put rocks as big as one's head which produced a marvelous splash. We wondered what the fish must have thought of the bombardment. We decided that if we had been camped quietly on the other side of the lake and someone else started throwing rocks into it, we would have said, "Can you believe those assholes?!" Good thing we had the lake to ourselves. After a prolonged lunch and discussion of Native Americans and how their culture struggles to survive today, we wandered to the inlet side and set up camp. Mike fished and caught a big trout. We saw several chipmunks fleeing in panic before a weasel grabbed one in its mouth and carried it off. The warm afternoon was also an opportunity to wash and bathe, which we did very enjoyably. Again, Ken and I found the water more swimmable than Bruce. We sat on dark rocks and dried ourselves, like lazy flotsam caught up on shore. To float a little and bake a little (everything in moderation) is a heavenly thing. Mike washed his underwear in our dinner pot and refrained from swimming because he was too old. Mike found and grilled up a King Boletus mushroom and we tried some after assurances that it was not poisonous and thought it good. Mike declared it just barely edible. He had earlier yanked a plant out of the ground and chewed on its bulb before spitting it out and noting that one could eat it if one had to. We supped on miso soup and couscous with sauteed garlic (a whole bulb, of course) and onion topped with Mike's trout. Since Ken provided the meal, we had a huge dessert consisting of two Pop Tarts each. After dinner came the great blind taste comparison in which we tried to tell the difference between expensive cognac and expensive single-malt whiskey, which cost less than the cognac. Mike was the best at distinguishing between the two liquors; the rest of us routinely got the identification backwards or, when given two sips of whiskey, identified the first as cognac and the second as whiskey or vice versa. Before retiring, we watched the moon reflected in the lake and discussed bacon and other fatty foods (we had already covered ribs and steak earlier in the day). That evening we got into an extended discussion of Star Trek plots and then James Bond plots which kept us up well past 10:00 p.m.
The next morning was my morning of indulgence. I felt lazy and I knew we didn't have to hike to a new camp that day, so I just stayed in my sleeping bag and enjoyed life. Everyone else was up and having coffee and then they had finished breakfast and still I remained in the tent, immune to all taunting about my slothfulness, which I knew to be jealousy. I finally rose after 10:00 a.m. (I stayed in a few extra minutes so that I could be sure to pass that benchmark). After I ate, Mike went off to fish or to play his flute and Ken had some project of his own, so Bruce and I hiked up to the cirque above us to explore. We decided to climb to a ridge next to Bowen Mountain and traverse to the summit of another peak. On the way up in a chute full of boulders, we found an impressive concentration of yellow sneezeweed, purple aspen daisies and red paintbrush, all intermixed in a very pleasing combination. We saw a Swainson's Hawk fly over and it gave the archetypal hawk cry, the one always used in movies and television shows when a bird sound is needed. It was a beautiful sound and Bruce got a chill when he heard it. The sky was overcast and when we got up to the ridge, I was wary of the possibility of lightning, so we aborted our plan and descended to a lower elevation. We stopped at a wonderful rock I had spotted earlier and we climbed it and had lunch atop it. This rock was perhaps fifteen feet tall by ten feet wide by twenty feet long, and it featured a number of interesting cracks and flakes and even a small overhang. Bruce began climbing it via different routes, naming each one with a typical offbeat or rude climbing name. The rock itself we christened Easter Island Monolith. While we were thus rockupied, Mike wandered up and joined us and we all discussed climbing while trying out different routes of ascent and different holds. We all thought it would be a great rock to have in one's living room and we discussed how one might have it sawn into sections and transported to one's house if money were no object. We probably spent a few hours on or next to that rock. We didn't know it at the time, but Ken was nearby, successfully stalking us. The clouds cleared up after dropping a little rain on us, and Bruce and I decided to try to make a quick dash up to our earlier summit destination before dinner. We would have made supper on time but we came across two bighorn sheep way up on a steep slope near 12,000 feet. We slowed to a literal crawl (we had to advance on our bellies at the last to get within telephoto range) and even then, as soon as we showed ourselves anywhere near the curly-horned creatures, they nervously ambled farther away. After we had seen enough of the sheep, we dashed up the peak, pausing only for a few photos. Then we high-tailed it down the ridge leading to Blue Lake, worried that we were holding dinner up or, worse, missing out on dinner. Bruce suggested a route that would put us where we wanted to go, but I insisted on going another way that I thought was better. My way led us to a steep cliff, and we had to backtrack and climb down some abrupt dropoffs (slightly better than a cliff) to get down to where we needed to be. We finally got to camp to find soup waiting for us and the main course (spiced peas and rice) still simmering. The rice cooked fast enough, but the peas took forever (I think we finally ate them about 8:30, and they were still a bit solid then). We praised Mike for the spicy taste while chastising him for making us wait so long. During dinner we had a dash of rain. Once again I saved us with a few chocolate covered coffee beans for dessert.
A day without restuffing our packs had done nothing to reduce our efficiency and we were packed and out of camp fairly early - even Mike and Ken could hardly complain. Since we were supposed to meet Kevin and Frank at Parika Lake the day before, we were anxious to meet up with them sooner rather than later, however. We set off up the ridge, past an old road and through some huckleberries, which we sampled. We soon reached a new valley and Ken, leading the way, saw several elk before they moved off across the slope. We misread the map and assumed we were quite close to Parika Lake, and the valley we were in was very pleasant, so we dropped our packs and Bruce and Ken and I set off on what we thought would be a short hike to fetch the others. We passed the remains of a miner's log cabin, the wall logs still forming a low square enclosure. Inside was a cast iron wood stove, in pieces. Nearby, we saw mine tailings. As soon as we got out of our valley, we knew something was wrong from the topography, and another map check showed our error: we were still several difficult miles from Parika Lake. We hurried back to tell Mike to stop setting up his tent. We lifted our packs with diminished enthusiasm and retraced our steps to the overlook we had reached before. We found a trail which might have been a game trail and we followed it and others down along a steep slope into the forest until the way went up a valley that was not on our itinerary. We broke off and made for a meadow we saw in the distance, through the trees. Bushwhacking in the forest was pleasant if indirect, and we quickly dispersed. At one point, as I climbed over large downed logs, avoiding branches in the face, I heard Ken yell to Mike, asking where he was. Mike, who was near me, replied, "Be quiet - there's a marten right in front of me!" I hurried to reach the spot where Mike stood, trying not to make a lot of noise while crashing downhill through forest floor detritus. Ken didn't hear and started yelling about where we should rendezvous and Mike shouted, "QUIET!" at him. About that time, I came up behind Mike, and there was a cat-sized marten on a log about fifteen feet in front of us, curiously regarding us with its fox-like face. Its fur was colored a shade of rusty brown, as I recall, not unlike a red fox's. It sauntered off down the log, apparently not the least bit afraid of us but rather looking like it had something better to do than hang around with a bunch of hairless apes. After the marten had disappeared, Mike shouted something to Ken about where we were headed and Ken yelled his reply: "QUIET!"
We paused for a snack after exiting the forest in a barren swath that had been clear- cut along both sides of a road that cut into the wilderness. Then we reentered the trees and climbed a long series of switchbacks (we gained 1000 feet in elevation) before reaching Parika Lake, where Frank and Kevin were patiently waiting for us. We rested and exchanged greetings and then we all headed back down the trail to where Frank and Kevin had made their camp the night before. They had a nice spot just off the trail under some trees, with a view of a lake. We set up our tents and prepared for the rain that was beginning to fall by putting up two tarps over the common area where we planned to cook. It was again my turn to provide the meal for the nine-day team, and I was anxious to unload the two pounds of chili mix and dried black beans I had been carrying for a week. Ken had an extra box of black beans as well, so we added it and cooked up the whole mess. We had enough chili to fill both large pots, and Mike, who generally eats one cup of food for dinner, was certain we would never be able to eat it all. Even we, who eat more than a cup of food at dinner, were wondering if we could manage to eat all of it. But we adopted the "pack it down or die trying" spirit and set to work. Ken and I both ate five cups of the spicy vegetarian mixture, and Bruce put away slightly less. Mike ate at least two cups (or was it three?) and Frank and Kevin had a taste. We cleaned both pots. I then brought out the chocolate-covered coffee beans and we had at least fourteen apiece for dessert. The rain stopped but the clouds lingered, and the moon illuminated them so that the world became a misty blue dream , the trees distant spectres only half in our plane of existence. We stood and admired the atmosphere for a time. I took stock of the silhouettes around me: six men of science, three with Ph.D.'s, one on the way, and two with Master's Degrees, yet nobody was mentioning science. There was something of a rule during the trip that we not discuss work (especially not the job situation). We retired early as usual. Imagine, if you will, what kind of a night we had, wired on dark chocolate and coffee beans and stuffed to the e. coli with power chili. Kevin and Frank had eaten pasta and their tent was reasonably quiet, but the rest of us were extremely productive methane factories.
The next day I broke tradition by getting up before anyone else, at 7:00 a.m. This was because of an urgent directive from my bowels. After attending to necessary matters, I walked down to the lake to photograph the mist rising from it and the clear reflection of the mountains within it. Frank and Mike joined me and we discussed the physics of the wavelets produced in the lake surface by a falling pebble. Then I hiked up the trail to photograph some flowers . Bruce was just rising when I returned to camp about 8:30 and I felt like my morning was half over. We had pancakes for breakfast. I was looking forward to this meal because Ken has renounced his love for margarine (which we had eaten on pancakes on all previous trips) and had brought two sticks of butter and some real maple syrup. There is a tradition of teasing me while having pancakes because I tend to poke at them before they are ready and I am generally anxious and worried that others are getting more than I. My audience was not disappointed when I flipped one pancake and 20% of it landed outside the rim of the pan, getting batter on Ken's glove. The day was sunny and we lay our wet clothing on the rocks to dry. Frank and Mike went up to Parika Lake to fish, and the rest of us hiked up the side of a mountain to explore an old mine opening. The entrance was collapsed and shoring timbers were scattered all about, some still supporting the aperture. We saw depressions in the hillside where the mine had obviously caved in below. We wondered what made those Nineteenth Century miners dig in that particular location, noting that at least tailings were not a problem as they were simply dumped over the edge of the steep slope. After visiting the old mine, we continued with our personal agendas. I felt content to sit and stare at the view and muse about whatever came into my head. Ken hiked up the ridge and then came straight down the side of it to the meadow below. Bruce went all the way up the ridge to the summit, which turned out to be the same peak we had climbed five days before. Kevin went up partway and came back later - perhaps he too was musing. I descended to the meadow (where a family had ridden horses up for a picnic) and explored another collapsed mine entrance. This one had rails coming out of it and there were rusty old cans strewn about. The tailings there had an interesting character not unlike pink luncheon meat, with many tiny inclusions. I wanted a geologist to explain what I was looking at. Kevin joined me and we hiked back to camp, where Ken told us two rangers had come by and warned us that two of our three tents were within 100 feet of the trail. We had to move those two tents, and we chose a spot down the hill, closer to the little lake. The new site became the main camp where we cooked meals etc. and Frank and Kevin merely slept off in the suburbs. We spent the afternoon lazily lounging in alpine huckleberry with an occasional interruption for things like Mike seeing a squirrel and thinking it was a weasel. We dined on split-pea soup and rozdali, then had tea as the full moon rose out of the clouds to the east, framed by fir branches. We retired early again and I woke up at 1:30 a.m. and decided that my bladder couldn't last until morning, so I got up and relieved myself. This proved to be a mistake as I was then wide awake for three and a half hours.
Despite my lack of sleep, I felt pretty energetic the next morning. After breakfast, Mike, Ken, Bruce and I bade farewell to Frank and Kevin. They would head south toward Ruby Lake and we had to hike north, back past Mt. Nimbus and its neighbors. The way seemed shorter than it had been a week before - we obviously had developed our trail legs. We crossed Baker Pass and had a snack at a tarn before rain clouds gathered ominously overhead. I saw a weasel running across some talus and he was close enough that I saw some details. Bruce had seen and photographed a weasel at Parika Lake a few days before, and of course we had seen the hunting weasel at Blue Lake, but it was fairly distant at the time. All of this went through my head as I watched the narrow beast scurry off over the rocks. We continued toward an unnamed pass (not the one we had taken before) in a drizzle. As we began to leave the trees, well up the slope to the pass, we heard thunder rumble and we decided to wait in the forest a few minutes until the pass-crossing situation improved. When we did cross, the clouds were still menacing but quiet. We did not tempt them but hurried down the other side, anxious not to be the tallest, pointiest things around. We dropped our packs at a picturesque lake near the trailhead. We called it Cowshit Lake for it had been the site of recent grazing. We cursed a bit about all the cowpies, but even with them it was a lovely spot, with a big meadow next door that had a 360 degree view of mountains. We sat under some trees and watched the rain fall on the surface of the lake, which was a very pleasant activity. Like watching a fire or listening to the white noise of flowing water, this combined aural and visual chaos was incredibly soothing. The clouds thinned and the sun came out that afternoon, and we set our wet things on rocks to dry. We also set ourselves on rocks to enjoy the warmth. I took a nice nap with my hat on my face (rather than smear sunscreen over every square centimeter of skin). That evening, we had a southwest style rice dish with black bean soup for dinner. We dined out in the meadow and enjoyed the magnificent view which only got better as the sun dropped below the western horizon. Bruce took dozens of photos of the changing colors. We set up our tents in the meadow as well, the dark trees of the lake seeming gloomy and confining in comparison to the open, yet distantly cradled grassland.
Our last morning in the wilderness was beautiful and I again was the first one up and out of the tent to enjoy it. The others seemed particularly sluggish that morning. Much time was spent cleaning Ken's stove and he didn't get his coffee and half-pound of oatmeal until long after I had eaten my cold cereal. Early clouds appeared and I set off on my hike as soon as I could. The others were dallying and pack-fucking and I just couldn't wait - I understood how Ken had felt a week before, yet I wondered why the tables had been turned so. The others planned to climb an unnamed peak (about 12,500') while I was exploring in more detail the remains of the jet aircraft we had seen earlier. As I approached the pass I intended to scale, coming around some boulders, I saw a large animal above me on the slope, perhaps a hundred meters (or yards) away. My first thought was that it was another bighorn sheep, but then I noted that it didn't have horns or big haunches. It did have a big, square-jawed head and a long tail, and I realized with excitement that I was looking at a mountain lion. It was instantly aware of me and it began heading up to the top of the pass, pausing every few steps to see what I was doing (I was trying to move away from the trees and rocks and get closer for a better view). When it stopped, it blended in perfectly with the brown rocky soil. A minute later, the big cat was over the top and gone, and for the first time I realized that all the little pikas and chipmunks in the area were raising a rodent alarm, a squeaky scream that said, "YOW! BIG PREDATOR OUT THERE!". It was a fine, rare moment, diminished only slightly by the California press' sudden infatuation with mountain lions and the many news stories I saw and read about them after I returned home. The others were extremely jealous of my encounter, and they could not get over the irony that I, the noisy, babbling, scare-all-of-the-animals- away hiker had been the one to see the big kitty. I continued over the pass , downplaying fantasy visions of being pounced on by a lion. The wreckage was all over, and I spent an hour or so examining many pieces of metal while the others ascended the peak above me. Just as they reached the top, it began to hail and they rapidly came down from the peak, afraid of becoming conduction paths. They crossed back over the pass as the skies rumbled while I stayed down low with the wreckage. I waited for a break in the clouds and then dashed up (as fast as I possibly could at 12,000') and over the other side, where I found the others waiting for me. Since the weather looked like it would only worsen, we decided to hike out and have a early dinner before driving back to Boulder. On the way out, we came to a little stream that required fording. Ken went across first and got his boot wet. I was commenting about how I would execute the maneuver when I noticed that Ken was angrily imploring me to shut up and cross, complete with hand gestures. Just as I was beginning to think that he was being quite rude, he said, in a loud whisper, "There's a MOOSE, right NEXT to me!". I quickly joined him with Bruce on my heels, and we regarded a baby moose and its mother, not twenty feet away. Bruce went into full camera mode and we tried to warn him that moose can be pretty dangerous, especially when they think their young are threatened, but fortunately he did not get close enough to discover this. For Ken the Alaskan, seeing a moose was about as exciting as seeing a deer, I imagine.
We found the truck as we had left it and washed up with my baby butt wipes as the skies worsened overhead. Then a lightning bolt struck nearby and I was only able to get the words, "Wow, that was..." out of my mouth before we heard a loud crack. I did not need to finish my sentence: "close". We quickly hopped in the truck and within thirty seconds, we were in the midst of a violent hailstorm. Ken drove as fast as caution allowed down the ridiculously bumpy road, the truck defroster whirring at full blast, tree branches pawing at the side windows. It was like the best carwash you've ever ridden through, with crazy slow-motion roller coaster effects thrown in. Ken looked like he was wrestling an alligator next to me, sinewy arms fighting the steering wheel, and I was reminded of a skipper at the wheel, navigating a ship though a gale on the high seas. I probably shouted, "Yeeehaw!" about twenty times. The hail turned into rain and then it went away entirely, just as we got to the well- maintained logging section of the road. We reached the highway and found the restaurant there closed, so we drove the extra twenty or so miles west into Walden. At the Coffee Pot, Ken and I had the 16 oz. steak dinner ($12) while Bruce, who had snacked on the way, only was able to put away the 12 oz. steak ($10), and Mike, characteristically, ordered the 8 oz. steak ($8.95?). My memory had not gotten fonder over the four years since I have been to the Coffee Pot - that was one of the best steaks I have ever eaten: absolutely gristle free and as tender as one could desire. Our waitress, a skinny, no-nosense, chain-smoking grandmother, makes all the pies there and they are excellent. We all had pie a la mode for dessert and both Ken and I were surprised to be pleasantly stuffed and not aching after eating a pound of meat plus everything else. It was good to see Walden again.
Ken ferried us back to Boulder, where we had some late dinner before watching James Bond movies. Bruce and I saw the Never Summers from the air the next day, like an angel's view instant replay, as we flew over the Rockies, headed toward the coast we call home.