I couldn’t resist fitting in one more outdoor trip before heading back into full time teaching. All 47 parks had been successfully checked off the list, but I jumped at the opportunity to revisit the Rockies. Re-branded as the Park Pilgrim*, I hopped on a plane sans Clarence, ready to have some rugged adventures with a Denverite friend.
First stop: a primitive hot spring located pretty much in the middle of nowhere. I took a hefty 2-mile hike down to a rocky outcropping where natural hot spring water mixes with the Colorado River. I was not aware that this was a popular stopping point for rafting trips until I heard jubilant shouting halfway down the mountainside. There were a few too many people for my liking, but it was fun watching people awkwardly cliff dive from 40 feet up.
During my first go-round in Rocky Mountain National Park, I didn’t spend any time on the west side. Nestled neatly in between mountains, the gorgeous night sky made the cold camping experience worth it. I felt snug in my friend’s little tent, but I have to admit I pined for Clarence the teardrop trailer most of the night. Bugling elk lulled me into a fitful sleep; I awoke in the morning to a small herd gently chomping on foliage within 15 feet of my tent.
Cairn. I rolled the word around in my head, almost like a chant, matching pace with the sound of my feet hitting the slick rock. Canyonlands National Park in Utah was an adventurer’s dream. I was taking a much-needed break from Arches, the tourist trap only 45 minutes to the northeast. After being run into by one too many inconsiderate photographers, I was looking for some good hiking trails off the beaten path.
The visitor’s center was tiny, showcasing some of the local flora and fauna as well as the particular geology of the park. The list of trails was comprehensive; many were long and remote, boasting miles of solitude surrounded by canyons.
The Peekaboo trail caught my interest; it was an approachable 10 miles and rewarded you with a “peek” at the end of some ancient petroglyphs. I loaded up my pack, double-knotted my hikers, and went on my way.
The sun was hot, but not fierce, and my mind began to wander as it normally does during my long walks. After thinking of something meaningless for a couple minutes – let’s say food trucks – I stopped to take stock of my surroundings. I was off trail… or was I? In forested parks, the trails are well-marked by packed dirt and handy signs every junction. Here in the Utah desert, however, cairns were the beacon guiding the way towards the final destination.
They were also easy to miss.
I soon realized that constant vigilance would need to replace my usual daydreaming m.o. while I hiked. My initial irritation at this concept surprised me. Was I so arrogant that I couldn’t stand to actual pay attention and “work” to find my way? Certainly not.
I plodded on.
For those unaccustomed to the ways of hiking, cairns are piles of rock that vary in size from 6 inches tall to taller than a human. On the Peekaboo trail, the cairns were good-sized, meaning most of them were about a foot tall and easy to spot. It amazed me that someone had taken the time to gather rocks and stack them on top of each other, basically erecting a sign that read “follow me – stray ye not from the path”.
So I followed. I put aside my random thoughts about penguins, Lisa Frank, and the invention of soda, and decided to actually pay attention. I eagerly looked for the next marker, confident that some well-meaning and intelligent park ranger would not lead me astray with these cairns.
In the end, the petroglyphs were interesting, yet it was the hike itself that was most memorable. Following piles of rocks for 5 miles in and back felt akin to being guided on an epic treasure quest. Here’s the part where I could throw in some deep metaphor about people in my life who have guided my way, leading me along my quest for discovery.