Crystal Water and the Ghost Horse

It is my fourth day here. Yesterday I went for a jog along the Colorado River. There is a paved trail behind our house that follows the tumult east to west. It is sandwiched between elevated asphalt—I-70—and erosive brown water. I can’t believe this river feeds Sacramento; it seems smaller than the Hoh. Besides the racket, the trail is gorgeous. It is tiered into the depths of a cinnamon canyon with freckled hillsides, a suntrap in early winter. That day, I couldn’t run as fast as usual; the altitude made gravity heavier, but I enjoyed the scenery as I plodded along. The wind calmly maintained coolness in the shadows while sunshine pelted the pavement with heat. A small blister developed on the arch of my foot, which is a strange spot, but I hadn’t run in those shoes before.

Still, today it is not painful enough to slow me down. Mario, who I met at an Eddie Bauer store in Denver, is driving west to meet me for a day hike. He arrives in a cloud of dust the size of a pickup truck. We talk about his family—he has a wife, but no kids yet—on the way to the trailhead. He has a pleasant way about him, perhaps a mentality that he has developed after so many years of retail work, so many years of greeting strangers with a smile, of being cordial and nice to everyone. Mario seems truly amiable though. His smile and upbeat tone are genuine. His enthusiasm is authentic.

The hike begins on a paved trail like the one behind our house. The Colorado is on our right; there are warning signs on our left that say, “Extremely Strenuous Trail. Bring extra water and food.” As the cars in the parking lot fade into the distance and the trail changes to stone blocks and crushed orange leaves, the chatter between Mario and I melds with the rhythm of our breaths.

We pass overhanging walls of fractured and segmented red stone, layers and layers of sediments compiled and eroded by the immortal water. Some of the other things we see are: gnarly roots and stones polished smooth by decades of rubber soles, bridges numbered consecutively as the trail winds along a mellow stream, iron-bar railings bent terribly by the forces of geologic time and the growth of trees that somehow cling to, dig deeper into, the weathered stone.

Strenuous? The trail is anything but. It climbs a thousand feet over the course of 1.2 miles. There are plenty of other people on the trail. We see elderly folks who are terrified of the steep hillsides, the switchbacks, the blocky steps that traverse the slope. We see teenagers without backpacks who carry liters of soda in their hands. We see a middle aged women in a black velour sweatsuit with white piping. She says she is from Las Vegas and she hasn’t been hiking in years. My body is just beginning to find a groove when we reach the lake.

Hanging Lake is perfectly named, or it would be perfectly named if the word “crystal” were somehow included in the title. Perched in a shallow bowl, an amphitheatre of rock at the center of the V-cut Dead Horse Valley, is a perfectly clear, perfectly blue, perfectly still pool of pristine water. My immediate thought is that I want to go for a swim, but the temperature of the water deters me. My next thought is that I would like to drink it, but I realize that this is not the Olympic Mountains, that there are a lot of people in Colorado, that no matter how youth-giving the water looks, it is probably contaminated. So, I am content to sit on one of the wooden benches that are built along the boardwalk that circles the lake and to watch the speckled trout enjoy their personal spring.

After lunch—leftover lamb meatballs and spaghetti—Mario and I take a five-minute detour to Spouting Rock. Slightly upriver from Hanging Lake is a cavernous rock face with a spouting waterfall coming out of it. The cool water spits forcefully, like a fire hydrant, from a gaping maw in the wall and comes pummeling down to the boulders below. The wall itself is covered with alien formations that must have been nourished by the mineral-rich spray; it reminds Mario of frozen moss and me of tropical coral. The spout is what feeds the crystalline lake and I wonder if there is some sort of geologic filter that makes the water so clear. It truly is an amazing sight.

I could not have asked for a prettier hike, but the trail to Hanging Lake was decidedly lacking as a workout tool. Mario seems to be feeling the same way and as we are descending, he asks if I’m interested in taking Dead Horse Trail for a while. On the ascent, close to the beginning of the hike, we had noticed a trail that veered off to the right; a sign that said “Dead Horse” marked the way. At that time, we had avoided it, joking that we were not interested in seeing a dead horse, but now it seemed like an excellent idea to supplement the far-from-strenuous trail we had already completed.

We descend to the sign and then begin going uphill again, along a path that is far less beaten. Quite naturally, I fall into a rhythm of motion. Everything is moving in unison. Stunted trees scrape my shins, but I hardly even notice them as I pass. This trail is much steeper, much more difficult, a much better workout. Sweat soaks into my backpack. I don’t feel like stopping for water. I climb higher and higher, eventually emerging from the deciduous canopy and gaining a view to the south and east.

The roaring Colorado looks even smaller from up here. There are a few fourteeners in the distance, their snowy caps poking above the brown skyline like yarmulkes. Mario is nowhere in sight. Lost in the depths of my personal rhythm, I didn’t notice that he had fallen behind. The altimeter on my watch says 7900’ and the air is cold. All the trees, short twisted stems, are identically barren. The trail is trampled grass and a few hoof marks. Slippery mud is a dark substrate. This ghost horse has been denting everything. I wonder if I should follow the marks over the next rolling hill. Will there be a viewpoint where I can gaze north? Will there be a dead horse, its eerie ghost leading me further into the heights of the Rockies?

It is tempting to continue, but the day has worn down quickly. In this season, the light disappears faster than the energy fades from my limbs. I could keep hiking; I could keep going over that ridge and I might find something amazing, but I have already found plenty of amazing things. I have already found pure crystal water, polished stone, alien geology, distant views, ghost horse tracks, a sweaty backpack. Maybe I should leave the next discovery for another day.

Mario is snapping pictures of the twilit canyon when I find him. He calmly agrees that it is time to descend. Loose rock and slippery dead leaves make the descent more treacherous than the climb. We don’t see a single other person on the trail. The only company we have, besides ourselves, is a chirping magpie. We catch a fleeting glimpse of its brilliant tail as it coyly serenades our descent.

Returning to the fork in the trail, we reconnect with the beaten path and immediately catch up to a family of three. Mother looks like she is having trouble with the uneven stones. Daughter seems to be enjoying the diverse terrain; she stretches her calves when she reaches the pavement. Father gives the two of them a high five. They shuffle into the restrooms.

I have been in Colorado four days now and I have been rock climbing twice, running once, and this is my first hike. So far it seems like there is more adventure than I will have time to embark upon. I’m happy that I have already used a lot of the obscene amount of gear that I brought down here. I have used my rock climbing gear. I have used my heavy boots. I have even used my ice axes—although not on the ice—for a photo shoot with Freya. The only thing I have not used is my ski gear. But as I sit here writing this, there is snow falling heavily outside and I think, from the thick layer that has accumulated on the car, the snow is beginning to stick.

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