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  • Brian Johnson

The Flat Tops Wilderness - Part 2

September 8

Oh blessed day! Oh glorious day! It’s  a layover day! I awoke in the crisp dawn to watch the first rays of sun touch my little lake, then promptly rolled over and went back to sleep. When next I stirred the sun was well into the morning sky. Wispy white clouds drifted across a vast blue sky, giving promise of a perfect day. Those of you who are given to the involuntary sigh when I occasionally wax poetic would be well advised to stop reading now.


For it was a day for poetry and music, lake and forest and mountains unfolding before me, verse by verse in an endless song of creation, through an eternity we only dimly comprehend. I spent the day as a boy again, wandering aimlessly and happily through the forest and among the lakes, breathing deeply of the cool mountain air scented with fresh pine. My heart was full and my spirit at peace. I occasionally wandered back through camp for nourishment and water, before drifting off again in another direction. I never encountered another living soul.

This day was the fulfillment of why I came to this wilderness, of why I come to the wilderness. I feel lately that I have become frustrated with the world, with the foolishness and lack of civility . The world seems to be becoming less kind and tolerant, and if confession is good for the soul, I have treated people with less patience and charity, both those who deserve it and those who don’t. I came on a pilgrimage to visit my church, the cathedral of my faith, to find…renewal.

So I have nothing to report today. I had no adventures or interesting experiences and I met no unique people. I have no stories to tell, for the journey of the heart is difficult to chronicle. For my part I feel like I’ve nourished and rejuvenated some vital, elemental part of myself. Will having a day like today make me a better person when I get back to the “real”(?) world?  I don’t know, but I hope so. I hope so.

September 9

Summers are short in these mountains, lasting but a few precious weeks. Autumn arrived in the night, a new tenant ushered in by a cold front with no warning. I was already tucked in my sleeping bag watching the full moon rise over the cliffs. It cleared the top of the cliffs in a clear sky, bright and lovely above the mountain, but as I watched the dark clouds marched in behind it and swallowed it, ushering in darkness and a new season as the dark clouds spread over the entire sky. My dream of never having to unpack the tent for the whole trip in ruins, I rushed to set up the tent in the dark, slowed by having to do field repairs on shockcords that had lost elasticity. A few tentative drops of icy rain began to fall as I threw my gear in the tent. Lightning flashes appeared in the distance.

I awoke this morning to blue skies and puffy white clouds again. The rain had never amounted to much, and the lightning held off, but something had changed. The air was cool and a chill breeze blew, driving me into my down jacket for the first morning.

I treated myself to some freeze dried scrambled eggs for breakfast, along with the last of the coffee. I had accidentally grabbed the half used can of instant coffee instead of the full. What a disaster. I’d rather bring coffee than beer, if that tells you anything. I guess that’s my excuse now to have a cold breakfast tomorrow and hit the trail early for a long day.

I spent the entire morning lounging in camp, reading and listening to music and enjoying the fantastic scenery I could never drink in enough of. I also spent some time in quiet contemplation, thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of life and our place in the universe, but I won’t share. It’s some deep shit, and you’re not ready.

After noon I finally roused myself from my reveries and laced up my boots, determined to do a circumnavigation of all the lakes in the area. Most of the route was off trail, so I got to test my new phone gps app some more, although it would be hard getting too lost since the walk involved mostly circling around the huge basin I was in. I accidentally crossed the trail I will be taking out tomorrow, the good news being that my cross country route will save me some time from going back out the way I came in and picking the trail up there. The bad news is that sucker zig zags straight up a mountain.

My route involved a little bushwhacking through shrub and bush, and then when I got to the far side of the lake south of camp, I butted up against the encircling cliffs and I had to traverse some loose small rock slopes and do a little boulder hopping. Great fun! Although anyone watching would have thought I was picking my way as carefully as a cat. My big fear out here by myself is not falling from a great height to instant death, but more mundane concerns like breaking an ankle and being far from help in time and distance. Other than a few scrapes and scratches I made the hard parts just fine though. But, it’s the little things you don’t watch for that usually end up getting you…

On the last leg of my hike back to camp I actually picked up a trail and made good time. Apparently I was a little too careless on the rocky trail, because suddenly I stumbled, slipped, and went down hard, directly on my left knee. I rolled flat onto my back and lay for a minute and contemplated the irony of hurting my knee. Don’t say the “K” word. Obviously I was okay, or you wouldn’t be reading this, since it’s not posting until I get an internet connection. Although as I write this I don’t know myself for certain that I get back to post this. It’s like one of those freaky time travel things. Anyway, I was fine and escaped with a scraped knee and bruised pride, which I assuaged with happy hour when I got to camp.

The air has had a certain chill to it all day, even though there has not been a cloud in the sky the entire afternoon. Now as the sun is going down I’m contemplating whether it will get cold enough to drive me into the tent or whether I’m going to man up and sleep cowboy again. My time in paradise grows short, and for reasons I can’t fully explain, I do love sleeping out in the open…

September 10

I lingered in camp a little this morning, both to savor my last few moments in this beautiful place and to let the sun rise a little more over the mountains. It was freezing! I was also putting off the eight and a half mile hike to my last night’s camp at Mosquito Lake, which is a bit over three miles from where I parked the car.

I set out cross country and located the elk skull trail marker signaling the start of the climb out of the basin and on to the open alpine tundra. It was slow going and I was breathing hard by the time I made the top. I lingered a bit at the top, savoring the views out over the entire basin as the entire panorama of lakes, mountains, and forest sprawled before me, and silently saying goodbye to one of the loveliest places places I have ever been.

Out on the alpine tundra the wind blew coldly all day long and I was chilled most of the day, in spite of the cloudless blue skies. I felt the exposed places on my skin burning from the mountain sun even as the rest of me froze. I was still being effected by the altitude and moved at a leaden pace, needing to stop frequently, but not for long, as the cold drove me on. For five or six miles the scenery was one of vast, gently rolling alpine terrain, dotted with the occasional pools of water as I came over a small rise.

About half way through my intended hike something very strange happened. I got stronger. I breathed a little better and my leaden boots fell away. As my pace picked up I made good time to the trail junction pointing down towards Mosquito Lake. From here it was about four miles and 1200 feet of elevation loss down to the car. I descended rapidly through thickening forest and reached Mosquito Lake by happy hour. Instead of setting up camp I made the fateful decision to power on down to the car and drive to Yampa to get a room at the only hotel. After the trip here I was worried about finding a place to shower on my way to the airport. I was a little beat down after my twelve mile hike but was looking forward to a shower and a hot meal.

Imagine my shock and chagrin when I got to Yampa a little after six and the hotel clerk in mid September in a one horse town with a dirt main road told me there were no rooms available. There were a lot of pickup trucks parked in front of the only saloon, so maybe Yampa has a secret Saturday night life? There was nothing for it but to drive on, which really hurt. You have to understand how empty this country is. For almost a hundred miles of mountain country driving there was almost nothing.

Two and a half hours after leaving Yampa I rolled into Silverthorne,  looking for my first fast food restaurant with a drive through, as I was really dirty. Little Wendy from Columbus popped into view, offering sustenance and beckoning me home. I had not eaten anything since leaving camp that morning, I had hiked twelve miles and driven three and a half hours, I had run out of water a couple of hours back, and I tell you that hamburger with fries and a large cold coke eaten in the parking lot was one of the best damn meals I’ve ever had in my life.

Feeling a little better, I drove on a bit before finally stopping at a little place in Georgetown for the night. I was done in. This effectively ends my narrative. Tomorrow I drive on to Denver for the evening flight to Columbus. Lynn will be asleep when I get home, but when I get up Monday morning my first act will be to kiss her. Hard.

I had a grand and fulfilling trip, but time to return to my other life. I wonder if I could find someone to pitch a TV show idea to, called “Off the Beaten Path Adventures with Big Daddy”, so I could do this more often. Would anyone watch?

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