From the flat seas of Kansas and Nebraska, the mountains of Colorado shined in the prairie like a beacon. I didn’t need a map to get there, I just aimed towards the purple smudge on the horizon until it erupted into the formidable Front Range, the gentle plains running all the way up into the foothills and then evaporating, halted by sandstone slabs and dark granite peaks speckled with the last few patches of summer snow. In a heartbeat I’d traveled from the midwest to the true West.
I drove in past mile marker 419.99– I guess the “420” sign kept getting stolen?– and gleefully spent the day tasting my way through craft breweries on my way to Leadville, down a winding road, the turns first shielded by a granite cliff and then opening up to a stunning mountainous panorama hidden behind each bend, a new amazing view replacing the last. I was suddenly and surreally reminded of laying in my sunny Wisconsin backyard at six years old, clicking through a View-Master reel of beautiful alpine vistas– blank paperboard space and then CLICK a new view slots perfectly into place– dreaming of what a mountain might be like.
Too early the next morning, cold leftover pizza and instant coffee for breakfast, and then I was moving. The northern trail to Elbert’s peak starts off in a clammy pretty forest of damp trees, low sunlight dappling off the last of the morning dew; after only a few steps it intersects the jawdropping Continental Divide Trail.
I paused here and gazed the imagined length of this route, a thousand miles south to Mexico and two thousand north to Canada along the spiny backbone of America, and the accompanying daydream caused me to grimace for a second and hug myself covetously. The Germans probably have a word for it. Sehnsucht? Fernweh? I moved on, stomping through a narrow cold stream and then upward, the incline of the mountain pulling me back into the present, to living this dream.
The next mile and a half brought gentle hiking through the Colorado forest, the kind of wide pleasant trail that allowed my mind to wander. I chatted with other hikers and greeted exuberant dogs. Too soon I stepped out of treeline into an assault of high-altitude unfiltered sunlight, and retreated back to a conveniently felled log in the shade to trade my longsleeve layer for a slathering of SPF30 before braving the summer sun. Beyond the safety of the trees the mountains opened up around me, fields of sun reflecting off the earth, a narrow rosy trail of faded rock slithering dustily through the hard land.
The trail twisted upward through the sun, giant Mt. Massive collecting all the clouds to my right. Small pockets of wildflowers sprung out of the cracks in rocks, the flashes of purple and yellow the only reprieve as the trail got steeper, then much steeper, and my world briefly narrowed down to only the rocks below and the sun throbbing overhead. The trail cracked and shattered into a neverending talus field that seemed to aim directly up through a tunnel of hard sun. It felt like hours before the path regained the ridgeline, and suddenly the world opened back up around me, the neighboring mountains welcome companions.
The ridgeline was a more mellow and scenic incline, and I stretched my legs on the slope until something made me stop in my tracks– for the first time since I was driving on Route 24 that morning, I could finally see the summit. Breathlessly I bolted up the dark ridge, curving into the final few feet to the top of Colorado, the second-highest point in the lower 48, the summit standing tall above all others. There were a dozen or so people up there today, a few locals picnicking, a few jolly tourists holding up signs for photos or hunting out the scratched and chipped USGS summit marker. People grinned and high-fived me on my way to the peak. Behind me a hiker released his dog from his leash and the dog leapt into a nearby snowfield to roll and wallow in the wet drift. I snapped open my summit beer and stood on the highest rock of them all, basking in the sunlight, in love with the world.
About the beer:
There are so many fantastic beers in Colorado, and nearly all of them offer summit-convenient cans. I agonized over my options on the way here, and even packing my bag this morning I had an IPA from Aspen Brewing in my hand, but in the end I chose the classic and outstanding Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues, the first craft brewery to risk packaging in a can, and a delicious beer in its own right. It tastes sharp and clean like the mountain air, smooth like a sugarcookie but with a rising crest of pine-resin hops; smooth and easy-drinking and close to perfect.