Yesterday, I climbed a mountain to get away from it all. 12,000 feet and a thousand miles away wasn’t quite far enough…
Arriving at the San Juan National Forest outside Mancos, Colorado, the mountainsides looked desolate, bleak. Calling the stunted oak brush and scraggly pines at this lower elevation a “forest” felt charitable.
Drought left the lowlands a scrubby, dusty husk. Every gust kicked up a fine, beige powder that clung to everything with a static tenacity.
We set up our camp in a quiet dispersed camping spot along a forest road. After several days of seeing to much-needed maintenance on the motor home, I needed a change of scenery. I popped open the AllTrails app and ran a quick search.
Not far up the winding and rutted forest road, Madden Peak begged to be conquered. A nine-mile, lung-shriveling climb from 9000 feet to nearly 11,972, I’d completed longer hikes, but never at those altitudes. Determined, I loaded up my gear in our 4×4 toad (towed vehicle in nomad parlance) and set out for the GPS coordinates.
The gravel of the crumbling road gave way to jarring bedrock. I parked at around 9000 feet under the dark, watchful eyes of the quaking aspens and their spotted trunks. Grabbing my pack, I set out on the grueling climb.
Every step reminded me of how wrong my first impressions had been. Bare white bark shone against the sapphire sky, the ground beneath gilded with fallen, golden leaves. Only a few weeks earlier the peaks would’ve been adorned with a golden crown of fall foliage. Higher up and dense juniper, spruce, and firs joined the occasional scraggly pines of the lower altitudes.
One mile below the peak, a slanted meadow ran off into the faraway horizon. Dense forest parted to offer a false peak, an end to the drudgery, and a wonderful spot to rest and relax.
I climbed higher.
Those final steps I’ve learned are the toughest. But once you crest the top, all the pain and weariness are erased. Adrenaline, endorphins, the sense of accomplishment, and the rewarding vistas make your body forget what you just put it through.
I stood atop the jumble of boulders at the peak overlooking a steep pass. The San Juan forest stretched out, revealing the majesty and its secrets. Mysterious white cliffs shone in the distance. Trails crisscrossed the ridges. Mesa Verde rose against a flat horizon to the south. I steeped in the fragrant sun-baked evergreens and the magnificent view. More peaks waited to be conquered on all sides.
If only I had time.
To the north, a dirty gray haze rode a bitter wind. Smoke. The same uncanny winter chill we’d fled one thousand miles away continued its relentless advance while stoking a distant inferno.
Dismayed, I took one last look and began the descent.
Hope can be hard to find when the world around you continues to burn. Making lasting change however, requires admitting to the problem and pursuing a solution. Why can’t we do just that?
Because we’re nearly at the summit. The next steps are hard. False peaks lure us into complacency.
We must. Press. Onward.
Forward, never back.
Who caused the fires? Us. No debate.
Climate change isn’t a hoax. Continued use of old technology such as fossil fuels is our false peak. Our comfortable spot in the meadow just shy of the peak.
The extended drought plaguing the American West creates ideal fire conditions. Driven by less predictable weather, wildfires rage out of control despite the brave efforts of firefighters and volunteers. Extreme weather ignited many in California as lightning storms, devoid of precipitation, set off the worst.
People started many, too. The infamous gender reveal party was but one of the numerous causes. People seized on the event for political purposes, just as many spread rumors left-wing extremists started fires in Oregon.
But what’s more likely, left-wing environmentalists intent on burning down the forests or a surge of inexperienced campers fleeing locked-down cities to social distance in the woods?
Having spent the summer in a national forest outside a national park and seen plenty of campers, I can tell you where my money is.
But here’s the good news, the hope:
More people abandoning their couches to enjoy the Great Outdoors is one of the silver-linings of this pandemic. Fire safety only requires education. Most people simply haven’t been taught leave no trace principles and campfire basics. We just need to fund public awareness campaigns about how to explore this magnificent country safely.
What about climate change denial?
What people choose to believe in or not may soon be a moot point. The cost of renewable energy has fallen below fossil fuels. Oil has peaked early, in part due to lessened demand caused by the pandemic, but also following long term trends. Electric vehicles will reshape our reality. The battery technology they require will replace the traditional electric grid. The equation is no longer political but economic. People will be forced to reckon with that change, like it or not.
We will reach the summit, together. Nothing can stop us.