Growing up in a small mountain town in Colorado spoiled me. There were some things that weren’t all that great. Some winters were very hard, with any of four roads in and out of the county either getting snowed in or buried in avalanche at any given time. The good part was that when we got snowed it, it just slowed life down a little bit. We either hunkered down and conserved our resources for a few days, or we took advantage of what we had on hand. Only on the coldest days or windiest nights were we discouraged. There is something about hearing that cold, howling wind blow against the side of your house for months on end that begins to eat at you. Some don’t come back from that.
Today, I can look outside my window and see green grass emerging from the brown of dormant lawns. In just a few weeks, the first leaves of Spring will be sprouting on the trees. The rains will come, bringing with them the rumbling crescendo of thunder. The soft patter on the roof as you lie in bed, as the streets will be slick and shiny, clean once again after the salt and sand of a pathetic Front Range winter. In the Front Range, it feels like we get four seasons. Winter is a periodic event, with only a few major storms leaving much accumulation. School is canceled for the kids upon the anticipation of a blizzard. I have only seen two or three in twenty years that would count as such in my book. A few days of the jet stream dipping down from Canada in December might be enough to put the mercury down to -20 or -30, but I remember days when as a kid, we sat in our classrooms, in our coats and snowpants, huddled around space heaters because the boiler had frozen.
Sometimes that wind would drift the roads over and kids out on the ranches would have to bunk with us townsfolk for a day or two, until the rotary plows cut new paths through the drifts. Even efforts to use industrial espionage to sabotage the possibility of school went unheeded, when some students unplugged the engine heaters on the school buses the night before a cold snap. The buses started late that morning and school went on as scheduled.
On days when it was so cold that even gasoline cars wouldn’t start, we headed to the local ice skating rink, a vacant lot that the Town would flood with a hydrant and we would skate on all day and sometimes well into the night. Broken telephone poles were our benches. A streetlight provided enough light to see after the sun went down. Shovels and a plow on wheels were left for anyone wanting to be their own Zamboni when the snow fell.
Outside of town, if you had the right toys, you could go snowmobiling. When I was older, I went cross-country skiing. Very few of my friends were skiers. Even downhill. For the most part, we were a poor town, and in spite of our snows and mountains, it was an hour drive to the nearest slopes. Instead there was ice-fishing, sometimes dog-sled racing, and for kids like me you could build snow forts in your front yard that would last until March.
My kids struggle with the school allowing recess. Then there is the matter of safety. Children are treated as fragile little eggs, and part of me thinks this is sweet because adults don’t want the kids to be hurt, but in reality it probably has more to do with litigation and insurance premiums than kissing boo-boos and wiping away crocodile tears for skinned knees.
I’ll spare you more of the walking to school uphill in three feet of snow stories (even though they are true). When I was a kid, our recess was three times a day of sliding down a 100 yard hill at 30 mph on a thin sheet of plastic. Sometimes we rode on our butts. Sometimes we flew down the hill face first. Once we got to the football field at the bottom, we ran all the way back up and did it again. As a kid, in the winter, I probably ran up that sledding hill forty times a day or more. There was the sting of icy powder on your skin, the teeth rattling impact of going over jumps we had made from packed snow, which turned to ice from the friction of hundreds of passes every day. There were glorious impacts, collisions with other sledders, a game where the elementary kids tried to take out high school kids as they walked up the hill to the lunch room, and enough concussions to make a sports medicine researcher giggle in anticipation like a kid at Christmas morning.
Any who know Walden in the winter know about the school hill. To this day, kids and adults still sled on it, though it is more regulated during school hours. The population of town has dwindled and the old elementary building has been abandoned. All grades fit inside what used to be the Jr.-Sr. Highschool building. A fair walk up the hill and across the football field and then up the main sledding hill again to find that exhilaration, now limited by rules of conduct, numbers of times you can sled, and other lists which just suck the life out of everything. It’s no wonder the kids use their recess to text each other instead.
I try to get my kids to the Hill at least once a year. We like to use truck inner tubes. Sometimes plastic sleds work if the snow is right. Coming up to altitude is about a 3,000 ft. difference. At 42 my body protests, but the muscle memory of hundreds of runs up that hill spur me on. Even if my lungs don’t cooperate and my heart races and my head swims, my legs are pushing me up that hill, eager for the next run down. Even my dad in his 60s will sometimes sled with us. My mom too. Times are different in good ways. When I was a kid, the idea of my grandparents in their 60s sledding down a hill was unimaginable. People got old younger and stayed there in those days. My kids don’t know what that was like, thank goodness. Or maybe it’s like my legs. Once you feel the pull downward and you are racing down the Hill, the years just fall away like chaff.
My youngest makes friends every time we go. He has never met a stranger it seems, and the local kids are welcoming. It’s the love of the Hill that binds them all. There is no rivalry or distrust of outsiders. They know only one thing, and that is the rush you get when flying down that hill, en masse or alone. They don’t even know each other’s names as they shout out to each other with every pass. Even my teenagers loved the Hill. They were pulled kicking and screaming from their devices and peer groups and their occluded teen worlds into an uncertainty of ice and snow and a blissful approach to terminal velocity. You are reminded you are alive because compared to your daily life, you feel one step closer to death. The phones don’t even compare.
Social media on the Hill is snow and gravity.
I grew up in a mountain valley, one of the three vast “Parks” of Colorado, a windswept plain at about 8000 feet above sea level, surrounded by 12,000 ft. tall mountains on all sides. We were isolated. Undeveloped and to this day, still one of the most untouched regions of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
My home town was, and to this day, hovers at around 700 people. We had one school. Two gas stations. Three bars. Three liquor stores. And two grocery stores, both of which featured severely marked up milk, bread, canned beans, and meat. Most people in town drove sixty miles to the nearest town (in any direction) to do their shopping. Only during blizzards when the roads were closed did the locals succumb to price gouging and shop locally.
A number of years ago, when I was just around my youngest’s age now, someone in town had a corral of horses down by the river. Something had been spooking them. Something which had emerged from the primordial forests, followed the river down, close to town, and began tormenting these horses. In the partially frozen mud of the Michigan River, someone found a footprint. It was like the shape of a man’s footprint, only large. And fresh.
I remember that chilly afternoon when a large group of local men gathered, some riding in the back of pickup trucks, others with their dogs. A few had horses. All of them had hunting rifles. There was a lot of hushed talk, fearful talk in low voices about Bigfoot. Sasquatch. For two days, the men crashed through the willows which choked the floodplain. They looked for any other sign. Hair. Scat. More prints.
Two weeks later, a black bear was shot by a friend of my dad’s with a bow down by the bridge outside of town. The bridge that spanned the Michigan River. Bears weren’t all that common in those days, having been hunted out decades before. And with the death of the bear, strangely enough, the signs of Bigfoot also disappeared. The two were obviously a coincidence. But I never forgot the angry villagers who converged to drive a monster out of our community.
I love telling my kids that story whenever we visit. This last Thanksgiving, my youngest, seven years old at the time, got excited about the prospect of hunting Bigfoot. His grandpa outfitted him with all sorts of lanterns, flashlights, compasses, binoculars, and other gear to help him in his expedition. Unfortunately, Grandpa ran out of steam that afternoon, and so it was up to me, Grandma, and his sister to indulge him on his trek.
The days were growing shorter, and so at about 4pm, we loaded up in the car while my dad napped, and headed east to one of my favorite places in North Park. I’m convinced it would be nearly impossible to take a bad picture of this place. The sunsets are spectacular. The mountains are just as they were when settlers came into the area, and probably not much different than they were when the first people came into the area, with the exception of a few timber roads and patches of clearcut here and there.
We drove up the winding road, chasing the shadows cast by the last rays of light for the day. The higher we got, the colder the air became. The roads were rutted with mud and snow and ice. An unseasonably warm November, but because of recent snowfall, the mountains were caked in an impressive white, unmarred above treeline by the warm days that had followed.
As night set in, we took pictures and walked a hunting trail a little ways to the trailhead of what is still one of my favorite hikes. I have probably hiked this path in the Summer more times than any other trail. It is daunting to say the least. Most of it is at a grade that would be straight up if not for the switchbacks. An old logging road allowed to grow over. A thick forest of lodge-pole pines and aspen make up most of this five mile ascent until you reach tundra and some of the best views of the valley I have ever seen. North Park stretches out to the west, north and south. To the east is the Front Range as you stand on wilderness area, the highest tors and crags to the South are the Rawah peaks, across the valley to the West are the Zirkels. Unlike Rocky Mountain National Park, just a few miles to the south, there are no groomed trails, no busloads of tourists, no cell reception, and no signs kindly reminding you to take only photographs and leave only footprints. There is just you, the biting wind, and the cerulean sky infinite.
That night, there was no Bigfoot to be found. And though we only stepped out of the car for a little bit, being unequiped for a night hike in the snow, my son ran and played, searching, hunting, as is what boys are born to do. His goal was fulfilled, even though I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that we didn’t even see any footprints that weren’t our own. But that is what adulting does. It fixes your sights on the goal for so long that you forget to enjoy the path. We didn’t need to find Bigfoot, only look for him.
And that is what we did.
We headed back home, watching the last rays of light fade behind the mountains to the West. The stars and other worlds of our solar system began to wink into view. My son fell asleep in his seat, holding his trusty brass lantern. My daughter got back into range of the cell tower and was happy again. My mom and I talked about life and the world and broken things and hope. Back at the Grandparents’ house, hot chocolate was poured. Television was watched. And Bigfoot remained elusive.