At the trail head a friendly, seasoned park ranger baited us with the promise of views guaranteed suitable for vacation picture postcards. I recommend Bierstadt, she said, smiling. It’s an easy hike, and the view’s amazing.

That’s why we came, the wife and I, in late September, to enjoy “wrap and peel” chilly mornings and bright sunny afternoons to see what can’t be seen any other time of year: groves of golden aspen, their leaves fluttering in all their autumnal glory under a cobalt blue Colorado sky.

Bierstadt Lake. Sounds like it should be somewhere in Bavaria, someplace where Heidi lived herding goats rather than in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park. With more than a dozen prior visits under our belts we never gave that trail a second thought. It sounded innocent enough. An easy jaunt. Just follow the arrow on the sign. Almost on a whim we departed Bear Lake with enough time to reach our goal and get back to the car, drive down to the lodge, clean up and enjoy a rainbow trout dinner with a glass or two of Pinot, to relax and savor the best moments of the day.

SignUpward and onward we’re winding along a well-beaten path, at least at first. To the folks coming down we said How far up? They all smiled and claimed Oh, just a bit higher. Soon the gnarled roots across the narrowing trail and loose stones made the ascent a bit more challenging. And scary. A twisted ankle here is as good as trouble on Everest. We’re in sneakers and shorts, the alpine climbing gear we shrugged off earlier still in the store window back in downtown Estes. I’m starting to huff and puff. She needs a walking stick. We’re not yodeling.

I might’ve been hallucinating on thin air but it felt like the forest wanted to start wrapping around us, maybe even turn against us. Towering pines became massive spikes with sinister arm-like branches threatening to grab us. I thought I heard something growl. I imagined we might end up like those poor lost children in a nightmarish tale by the Brothers Grimm. What would our family think about our mysterious disappearance, with only our cell phones left on the forest floor to show we were ever there at all?

Suddenly there’s a bit of a chill in the air. Overhead in typical Colorado afternoon fashion, the sky turns worrisome with billowing grayish cumulus clouds, almost within arm’s reach it seems at this over ten thousand foot elevation. Weather can get real ugly here, and fast. Lightening for sure could kill us, I’m thinking to myself. Or hail. And a gusher would surely sweep us away as easily as little pine cones go bobbing down a roaring creek.

Deeper and darker on what became an almost indistinct pathway we forge ahead. A couple miles and an hour and a half have gone by. But – this is a good sign – we are gradually dropping downhill, as predicted by the last hiker we met, who apparently had actually seen the object of our search.

Finally, we almost stumble onto the shoreline. And there it is, hiding beyond a curtain of thick brush – Tah duh, drum roll, please. Bierstadt! Glass-like calm, but shadowy. Marshy. The view around it uninspiring. And, most disappointing of all – no aspen to be seen. Anywhere. Um, this is it? I muttered, frowning. At this point, I’m thinking about rewriting the tour guide pamphlets and maps to refer to it as not much more than a pompous excuse for a pond.

Footnote: Albert Bierstadt, a 19th century painter best known for his lavish, sweeping landscapes of the American frontier, on this very spot rendered his vision of the lake that bears his name. I saw the lake. I saw the painting. He exaggerated. I guess anyone can use a broad brush of artistic license to portray a mediocre scene of nature as romantically enchanting. I took one photo and turned around.

Discouraged, we checked the time and decide we’d better find the way out, and quick. We’re low on energy and most importantly, out of bottled water. We have reached the point of no return, though. It’s too far to go back the way we came and shorter to take a different route to meet up with a shuttle bus. At least from now on it’s all downhill. But the trail is only as wide as a mountain bike tire, with a ridge on our right and a plunging slope on the left, nary a boulder or tree trunk to break our fall for 300 feet. In this case gravity may not be in our favor. I with my dizzying vertigo and she with sore feet echo back and forth an encouraging, Just take it easy. Don’t look down. We will make it. Really? At this tiptoe pace? I wondered.

Then, right around a hairpin curve on the trail . . . appears a panorama of the continental divide and Long’s Peak like we’d never seen before, and a mother lode of aspen. It was a visual symphony of yellow, fluttering and flickering in harmony with the breeze, thousands of glowing-in-sunlight trees dappling a dark green blanket of pines halted only by bare granite just under the floor of heaven. Stunning, it took my already short-of-breath breath away. We stood there a while in quiet amazement, as though we had stepped into a timeless time zone. Just the two of us and the Rockies, God’s own geological masterpiece. No need for a Bierstadt canvas here. This was real!

Aspens

Our dream state was bumped by reality when two athletic all-American college boys squeezed by us jogging like gazelles up the trail. I can still see their wide-faced grins as they floated past us as though they had wings. Hey, they said, sort of like they do this every day. Hey back atchya! We do this once in a lifetime.

The road far below still looked like a winding gray rope, so we had a way to go to catch the shuttle before dusk and before the storm, which luckily never came. Yes, we eventually bottomed out, safe and sound. A few folks were waiting there with us for the bus. We smiled at them and at each other, and swaggered a bit, proud of our feat in overcoming Mother Nature’s curve ball. My face said Yeah, I’m an achiever, but my insides were saying I need a hot shower and an ice-cold Coors Light.

We would laugh about this wilderness passage all the way back home to Nebraska and for a long time after, with a certain degree of chagrin and sarcasm tempered by a dose of sentimentality. An unexpected turn of events brought us the blessing of an unforgettable afternoon of adventure and togetherness, the kind you can only experience when you get up off the couch, out of your comfort zone, and far away from access to a cell phone tower – like on the trail to Bierstadt.

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