Finding Zen on a hike in Summit County
summit daily news
Well-known writer Bill McKibben recently described his experience of stumbling onto a nest of stinging insects as a transcending journey that lasted for weeks.
The jolt of stimulation from multiple stings left McKibben to appreciate every tiny nuance along the trail, stopping from the eternal summit quest to be completely in the moment, in the here-and-now.
When the buzz ended, McKibben said he found himself wanting to get back to that state of mind ” a calm, centered place where life seems to make sense.
McKibben’s story account in Utne Reader is among the most wonderful recent literary accounts of the “Zen of hiking” and after reading it, I try to follow the same practice.
On my next hike, I sit down on a fallen log near an ancient fen wetland and take 10 deep breaths of the dew-scented boggy earth smells mingling with spicy-sweet butterscotch aroma of ponderosa pines.
A red-winged blackbird flitters to a stop in the willows, its wing patches glistening ruby-red in the budding branches. Nearby, on a drier hillside, a patch of wild strawberries is in full bloom. Tall spruce and fir trees grow up the steep ravine in a dense canopy, sheltering a healthy and pristine forest ecosystem here along Willow Creek. In some small way I start to feel like I’m part of it all, how the pieces fit together and why I’m here.
With hundreds of miles of trails and all its craggy vistas and inspiring peaks, Summit County surely ranks among the top areas when it comes to seeking mountain bliss and enlightenment, just like the iconic mountain Buddha sitting cross-legged atop a sacred volcano.
So this year when you hike in Summit County, take a moment to linger along the trail and take it all in. If it’s spring, try the Tenderfoot Mountain area between Dillon and Keystone, where the south-facing slopes melt early.
Look on the embankments in the wet earth and tall grass for the pasque flower, a tulip-shaped, purplish bloom covered with velvety fuzz to protect it from the inevitable spring snows.
As the snow melts from the higher terrain, the peaks start to call, sometimes with a lone, ghostly yodel echoing between canyon walls. Heading for the summit, you fall into the graceful rhythm of the hike, and the walk itself becomes a moving meditation, an easy trance. Buffalo Mountain, towering over Silverthorne, seems made for contemplation, with its convex bald head and commanding views of most of Summit County’s Blue River watershed.
Soon, the monsoons come, vaporous fingers of tropical air draping over the crests of the Rockies. If you’ve ever stood on a rocky ridge with the blue energy of a lightning storm zinging around, then you may have already experienced one of those thank-God-I’m-alive moments ” at least once you know the bolt missed.
And soon enough in the mountains, sometimes as early as August, it’s autumn again. You start to think about your favorite aspen grove, up along Meadow Creek, where the knobby white trunks of the trees seem to lean right up to the sky, bursting into a blaze of orange and red.
You lie down on your back and let yourself drift away with the swirling leaves until you’re perfectly calm …
Most lists of must-take hiking items include the common sense stuff, intended for safety and shelter. Those are important, but I also need some intellectual and physical sustenance along the trail. For me, the Zen of hiking means taking time to understand what’s around me, how all the pieces of nature fit together and how I am part of it all.
That means I’m never without some kind of natural history guide, and a small notebook to jot down ideas. The best general guide I’ve found covering everything from plants and animals to geology and climate is the Sierra Club Naturalists Guide to the Southern Rockies, by Audrey DeLella Benedict.
Covering the mountains of Southern Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, the paperback puts everything into a broader ecological context, and fits perfectly into the side pocket of most packs. Along with Benedict’s book, I usually have a seasonal guide – wildflowers at the height of the summer, mushrooms in the fall or rocks and minerals if I know I’m going to be in the crags of the mineral belt.
For above-treeline wandering, I pack along Anne Zwinger’s guide to Colorado’s alpine tundra, and if I think I’m going to be sitting under a tree for a while, I’ll try to grab a John Muir volume, or some other literary work that helps tie everything together.
– Map and compass
– Extra warm clothes, including a hat, fleece jacket and waterproof layer
– Extra food and water; energy bars, nuts
– A small first-aid kit and emergency signals like a whistle or a mirror
– Waterproof matches and/or lighter
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