By Maryann Gaug © 2016
Driving down the dirt road to the parking lot, something didn’t feel quite right. After I parked my truck, I checked the tires. Sure enough the rear one was flat as a pancake. I pulled out the tarp, jack, and wimpy tire wrench and loosened the lug nuts. Well, four of the five loosened but the last one wouldn’t budge. I felt stuck in the middle of nowhere on the eastern plains of Colorado, 17 miles from La Junta. My dream of writing a hiking guide to Colorado had not included flat tires.
So I put on a belt pack with plenty of water, hoofed the 1.7 miles back to the “main” dirt road, and headed toward the highway, another 1.4 miles away. Finally a Jeep approached and I flagged it down. The young man inside agreed to help. A few twists later, the nut came off and he changed the tire. I never learned his name.
That was the second flat tire I dealt with while hiking various trails. Neither happened close to civilization and both times a helpful stranger loosened the last lug nut for me.
Over the years I had spent weekends hiking, backpacking, bagging peaks, and backcountry skiing to escape from a mind-intensive job as a computer programmer, later as a manager. My thoughts would wander to hiking around Colorado collecting data to write a guide, one of those dreams that of course could never happen from my perspective.
Yet my dream started to come true in the unlikely place of Tucson, Arizona. I had quit my job as a computer manager and attempted to follow my writing dream. After joining a regional outdoor writer/photographer group, I attended the annual conference in Tucson. The executive director waved an email in front of us announcing Beachway Press needed guidebook authors. I grabbed a copy and sent an inquiry email when I got home.
To make a long story short, after seeing several photos and articles I had written for www.cyberwest.com, Beachway invited me to submit a proposal for a hiking guide to Colorado. Two months later, after researching trails on maps and writing the proposal, I landed the job.
With over fifty trails to hike in ten months, finding friends to accompany me on week long forays around the state proved difficult. Off I went, hiking and camping by myself. When unfamiliar with a location, I asked local knowledgeable people what to be aware of (for example, bears or snakes). Learning about the environment, from weather to animals, snakes to foliage, helped me be prepared and at ease while hiking. I left my itinerary with a friend and checked in each night.
Hiking opportunites sometimes appeared unexpectedly. As I entered the Rocky Mountain National Park Visitor Center to inform an official person that I planned to include some park trails in the hiking guide, I realized that the woman behind the desk had helped teach classes I had taken from Rocky Mountain Nature Association. As Cherry and I chatted, another woman walked up. A travel writer, she wanted to hike the Ute Trail. Cherry volunteered to hike it with her and I jumped into the group. I discovered that I had met Joanne and her husband many years earlier while folkdancing in Boulder. Small world.
While we hiked along the alpine tundra I recorded Cherry’s fascinating and enthusiastic explanations of plants and animals along the way. Recording notes while hiking proved much easier than stopping and fumbling with pencil and pad. Many miles and notes later, I discovered I hadn’t recorded a thing because I had accidentally pressed the pause button on the microcassette recorder!
After hiking the trail of the day, I camped in the back of my truck. The topper-covered bed became a comfortable home away from home. By the light of a battery-powered lantern, I faithfully transcribed my recorded notes each night. I typically camped in public campgrounds, not for safety, but because I liked having an outhouse (too many people digging and using catholes can cause health problems) and a picnic table. Hot chocolate and cookies became favorite bedtime treats.
Camping generated some exciting moments. At Gates of Lodore campground, I met a group of rafters who would float down the Green River the next morning. As we talked, I discovered Annie lived down the block from me and the others lived in my home town or nearby. The next year when I went for my annual mammogram, Annie took the xrays. Small world.
That night, while snug in my truck and my new-found friends asleep in their rainfly-less tents, a thunderstorm moved in. What a storm! The wind howled while the rain poured down. The truck shook. The campers madly scrambled to pitch rainflys to keep dry. The next morning under sunny skies they launched their rafts, damp but happy to be on the river.
Later that year one hike involved an overnight backpack in the Flat Tops Wilderness. Foiled by rain in August, I returned in October right before rifle (hunting) season started. A lone female with a huge 48-pound pack on my back and hiking poles in hands, I must have looked a little strange. Several groups of horses with riders decked out in dayglo orange passed me by—all men. They were scouting for deer and elk. One asked me why I used ski poles. I told them the poles were made for hiking and promptly gave him a demo of their shock-absorbing feature. He seemed impressed.
Backpacking by oneself can be a tad lonely, sitting in camp eating a simple meal. Yet there was something about being away from all signs of civilization, with only what I carried on my back. Sure, the thought of a bear strolling by crossed my mind, but my worst encounters have been with chipmunks and pine martens who wanted to share my dinner. I felt quite happy that I had the skills and ability to camp alone in the mountains.
While transcribing my notes that night, the batteries in my headlamp died. I never realized how dark it gets in the middle of the wilderness on a partly cloudy night. Long ago on camping trips I learned to remember where I put everything before I went to bed. After finding the new batteries I discovered a trick to changing them in the dark. I felt each one as I pulled it out and inserted the new one in the same direction. In a few moments, the little lamp again brightened my tent.
Traveling solo really helped hone my skills. I learned to be more observant, not only of the terrain and any animals, but also of the weather and my own body. Knowing when to drink and eat or even when to turn around and try again another day became important. Observation also provided valuable information for each chapter in the guide.
I looked for new and different hikes and a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recreation planner suggested Thompson Mountain northwest of Cañon City. She kindly gave me a copy of a topographical map with the new trail sketched on it. Off I went, enjoying a hike through ponderosa forest—until I hiked through a fence gate and discovered the trail disappeared in the meadow. Undaunted, I headed downhill. Then the fun really began. The trail appeared and disappeared frequently. I found it by looking for surveyor’s tape on tree branches and frequently checking the map. Eating lunch by an old ranch road, I counted how many gullies I had to cross before finding the trail that would loop back.
Later, sitting in a grassy field, madly comparing the topo map to the landscape before me, I realized I wasn’t where I thought I was, much less where I was supposed to be. I had hiked a little too far. So much for my gully counting skills. Then I remembered that a GPS was recording the trail while I hiked. I could find my location on the map with some certainty—until I realized I needed a plastic scale (a special ruler) to plot the GPS coordinates on the map. Using my calculator watch, I luckily managed to plot my whereabouts. Returning to where the trail should have looped, I found no sign of it. I tried to follow the map, but ended up bushwacking through oakbrush over my head. If you haven’t tried that, I don’t recommend it.
Eventually I crossed a fence (no light bulb went off in my brain) and headed downhill. Concern set in because the sinking sun signaled the approach of evening and I needed to head uphill. So I climbed back over the fence (still no light bulb) and suddenly found the area where the trail first disappeared beyond the fence. If I had only thought a little harder, I would have recognized that barbed-wire fence! Getting “lost” did not appeal to me, but I felt great when I “found” myself again. Eventually I located and finished the loop. As darkness encroached I arrived at my truck only to discover a herd of cattle encircling it.
The many adventures I experienced while writing a hiking guide helped me find strength within myself, discover the beauty of Colorado, meet wonderful people, and develop an understanding of nature and its interconnections. Dreams do come true!
[Editor’s note: This article won second place in Unpublished Written Works category for 2017. Judge Mary Taylor Young commented: “Straightforward account of how the author transformed a love of outdoor recreation into success as a guide book author, a story that inspires others who want to take that trail (pun intended).”