(Stewart Creek trail: 13 miles, 3560' elevation, 7:45 hrs.)
Having read up on this mountain, I had anticipated that I would start my trip report by raving ecstatically about how beautiful the views from the summit, how unspoiled the hike, what perfect communion I found with nature. How green is my valley: that sort of thing. But no, before I get to fulfill that expectation of serenity in nature, there must be a detour into barbarity. Bear with me.
It is 10 o’clock at night, and I am cruising a rented Jeep Liberty through dark aspen avenues at a steady 30 miles an hour. I am well into the final leg of my drive down to the Stewart Creek trailhead for tomorrow morning’s climb of San Luis Peak and all is going well; the traffic madness of the Front Range, the sinuous blacktop through Cochetopa canyon—they are behind me, and even in the dark I am easily navigating the oft-threatened difficult passage of thirty-or-so miles of dirt roads across the remote, ranching country of Saguache County.
With about a half-hour to go, I happen upon a white rabbit. Our cross-species intersection is for both of us unwilling, and for both of us different. To the rabbit, I must materialize as an explosion of violent light; all noise and crunching. To me, the rabbit is merely a white flash streaking across my right peripheral vision; I see nothing when I glance left—no familiar streak off the side of the familiar near-miss—but neither do I feel a crumping through my feet on the pedals or hands on the steering wheel. Nothing.
With a dropping heart, I slide to a halt on the dirt. When I rock to a stop and look back in the side-mirror, there, lit by my brake-lights, sits the rabbit, perfectly erect by the side of the road, facing my way, staring after me. I sit, expecting that as soon as its head clears it will bound away into the dark aspen; hoping that I can continue on with a clear conscience. But the rabbit doesn’t move. Even as I back up towards it, it only squirms around to watch me. When I stop, lighting it full in the high-beams, it doesn’t move, doesn’t even twitch. It just sits there, by the side of road, maintaining eye-contact and always in storybook rabbit pose: ears cocked, head erect over its front paws, rear paws tucked up underneath itself. It seems unhurt until I get out of the car and move slowly towards it, willing it to run. Then I see that as it tries to track me it does so only jerkily, twisting around using only its right front paw. Its rear is immobile, and it favors its left paw. Something is very wrong with this rabbit. It occurs to me as a certainty that I have broken its front left leg and crushed its pelvis.
In the 19 years I have been driving, I have played through this scenario many times in my head, mentally rehearsing for the inevitable, so I know what I have to do. I start feeling sick almost immediately and wander around the road, head up fists clenched in denial. The rabbit watches me, shuffling awkwardly on its one good foot. I pick up a six-foot straight branch from across the road and bring it over to the rabbit, who still stares at me, mute.
I address the rabbit like a golfer at tee. Softly, I bring the far end of the branch toward the rabbit. Then quickly up over my head and down again, hard at the rabbit’s. I miss its head and instead the end of the club collapses into its body. The rabbit is immediately on its side, but my hope for its swift end collapses like a bubble, because in no way, shape, or form, is it dead. I'm committed now. I try again. This time aiming for its head more closely. Again I miss, striking the body, leaving the rabbit alive. This is not a clean kill by any means. After a few strikes at its body the rabbit starts to race spastically, lying on its side it flees statically on its tiny patch of earth, going nowhere, slowly rotating, spraying up gravel around itself in its crazy orbit. It is racing for its life, trying to catch up to a future I’m snatching away from it. Again and again I bring down the club. My lunch is coming up. The head is such a small target, though, and I keep trying. Probably a half-dozen times I bring the club down on the tiny form. And each time, my strike is skewed to the rabbit’s body. Finally, I can do the butchery no longer, and I stop. But to my amazement, the rabbit is still breathing! I curse the inadvertent cruelty of my poor aim. One more time, I raise the club, only a couple of feet this time, but this time I strike directly at the rabbit's head, crushing what life remains in it instantly. It is done.
I don't know what to do now. I find myself staring straight up at the stars, in an upward plea for forgiveness that is almost instinctive, I suppose. I apologize to the stars, to the world in general, and finally—crouching down and resting my hand against its warm body—to the rabbit itself. I cannot simply leave it here on the side of the road, so I grasp as much fur on its back as I can manage, and gently pick it up—it is so light!—and move it down from the verge, where I lay it out against the base of a rock.
Muttering a constant stream of curses against myself, I get back in the Jeep and drive on through the darkness. I curse my need to climb a frigging mountain, or my need to drive as fast as I was going, against the life of random wildlife. I curse the fact that my own desires to be in nature turn out to be in direct conflict with the piece of nature I come into most intimate contact with.
Getting back to the hike itself, it is, of course, as advertised: beautiful, unspoiled, serene.
I set off five minutes before a cloudless dawn, first through a broad meadow at the junction of Stewart Creek, which I will follow up through its valley, and Cochetopa Creek, which drains a parallel valley down the other side of Organ Mountain’s east ridge, and then, as the ridges rear around me, into the Stewart Creek drainage proper. The sun rises behind me, lighting in pink the ridges beside me and the mountain peak ahead (which, I am assured by my research of this hike, is not San Luis itself). For the first couple or three miles, the path keeps to the right (north) side of the drainage, alternating between the trees on the valley sides and the valley bottom, where it passes beaver pond after beaver pond; some ponds acres in size, their dams over ten feet high. Looking back down the drainage, the ponds staircase down the valley like rice paddies on a Philippine landscape.
Nature is in flux all through this valley: Some beaver dams are breached with the creek rushing through in full flow; some ponds are bone dry, their beaver lodges stranded as mounds of dried willow and mud stacked many feet high, young fir saplings taking hold nearby where the ground was previously underwater; elsewhere, newer ponds have drowned out old firs. On the adjacent hillsides, climax species—fir saplings again—are taking over in avalanche chutes.
Stewart Creek Drainage looks to me like perfect moose habitat: wet, willowed, and wild. I search through the willows, their buds a green fur on red mist, and in the ponds, now thawing in the morning sun, but I find nothing larger than a ground squirrel. There is plenty of evidence to put together, though. Strewn along the trail is all manner of signs. Scat litters the path—some shits gnarled and sized like those of humans; some furry and pinched at both ends; some familiar black round marbles (deer, I think); some ovoid, exactly the size and shape of Cadbury's mini-eggs, of which some are a pure powdery, white. Mingled with the gastro-intestinal signage are prints—some that look like big cats’ (in my imagination, perhaps); some shod from pack animals (mules or horses); some that look like imprints of two dinner rolls, side by side (moose, I surmise), some cloven (deer or elk is my guess).
At about 12,000 feet and four miles in, I emerge from the trees into a large, untouched alpine basin, floored by willows, striped vertically by a few remaining snowfields, ringed around by ridges up to 13,800’, with a long, long view east-north-east down through the forested Stewart Creek drainage at the Cochetopa Hills far beyond. Looking around during my first long rest of the hike, I regret not getting here earlier yesterday, as this would have been a hell of a place to camp.
About a quarter-mile across the drainage, I see four adult elk traversing the slopes of Organ Mountain high above tree-line. As I bear toward the 13,107 saddle between San Luis Peak and Organ Mountain now visible on the left (south) skyline and make my way through the snowfields that streak down the north-facing slopes, another group of elk appear, this one only a hundred yards away and probably a hundred feet above me, directly in my path. They are a female and two young, maybe a year apart. She is trying to lead them across a snow-field, but she is having trouble post-holing, floundering belly-deep in the soft snow, as her young look on from the dry tundra. I watch, a broad grin of empathy on my face, as she struggles herself free, plucking each leg gingerly from the snow, and then leads them away, directly uphill towards the pass I am heading for, but they make such easy progress of traveling directly up the slopes toward it that my empathy turns to envy. But I am encouraged, too, and I push on up to the pass, where views open out over the upper basin of Cochetopa Creek below, and on east (right) up the ridge to what I think is San Luis Peak.
It is not San Luis Peak, of course. Despite my pre-hike reading, I am still confused over which peak is which, and I continue on climbing up a cairned path through the scree slopes to Unnamed 13,700, thinking all the while that I am gaining the summit of my hike. Finally, I pause, look around, and accept the obvious: that San Luis is off about a half-mile further to my left (now the south): it is just the left-most bump on a south-trending ridge, a rather boring summit, an uninspiring pinnacle for such a beautiful hike.
I sigh, re-gather my resolve and traverse the connecting ridge, over an intervening summit, and up the 300 feet to the true summit. After I sign the register and read back over previous entries—I am the first person up here in a week, and only the tenth this year—I look westward to all the San Juans that I can recognize. They are becoming a little more familiar to me, now: Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn, Matterhorn. To the northeast, storm clouds are billowing down the southern Sawatch mountains. In the skies around me, mild cumulus is gathering, but I am not concerned. Closer in, I see a party of six people gathering at the saddle far below me. Up here, there is bright sunshine and no breeze: perfect weather for a nap. I lay down next to the low wind-wall and—my weariness making a feather bed from the pebbles—I sleep.
I wake with a start. Snow is pelting my face. I am astonished to find that an hour has passed. A squall has moved in and, in every direction, the horizon is obscured by lowered, falling weather. There is no thunder... yet. I grab my pack and leave the summit at a run. Almost immediately, I meet up with the band of hikers I saw at the saddle; they are Michiganders who affirm brightly that they came up from the Creede side when I ask. (I work out later that they had actually camped at the same trailhead as me, but had taken the Cochetopa Creek drainage up around the south side of Organ Mountain.)
I wish them well and, in one long push, I hurry on down to the saddle, from where I glissade back into the basin, post-hole across the snow-fields, pick up the snowshoes I had stashed on the way in, and start the long haul back down Stewart Creek. Every once in a while I remember to stop to see if I can find the wildlife I had inferred on the way in. I can't.
I arrive back at the Jeep a little before 2 PM, after 6:45 hours of hiking and one hour of sleep. I change back into my cotton clothing, shucking the hiker and donning the driver. Winding my dusty way back out of the back-country towards CO 114 I try to remember where I had intersected with the rabbit, last night. I can’t say why it seems important to me to find it, but for miles I drive slowly, looking for just the right angle of dip of the road, the right setback to the trees on the verge, even for the six-foot cudgel. It seems that I want to see the rabbit again. That I have unfinished business. Whatever the reason, the road looks too different in the day for me to find the same spot, and eventually I find myself reluctantly approaching the blacktop back to civilization.
In the eight hours of driving that follow, I dwell on last night’s butchery. Maybe it was only a rabbit, only a random incident on a dark, dirt road, something that nobody but me really needed to know about. And, in the grand scheme of things, it was only that. But, to me, it served as a sign of something greater; a sign that all was not well—if you can stand the portent—with my place in nature. Somewhere in all those miles, I come to this simple conclusion: that even in our most innocent desires—to step foot on the high points of this country—we are selfish. Selfish in that the only beneficiaries are ourselves and our own senses of self, our own well-beings: this climbing, it serves only serves us. I had never thought that this particular brand of selfishness was dangerous, had never thought it hurt anybody, had never considered it—in the tenacious remnants of my Catholic upbringing—a sin. But I was wrong: as the rabbit and the gallons of gas I have consumed in my trek down and back can attest, we are not without impact.
As the miles unwind beneath me, I try to come to terms with what I’m prepared to give up for this passion. I try to come to an accommodation with my impact: I can no longer choose to ignore it, I must turn that particular stone over, I must start to address it. I promise myself and the natural world I profess to love and enjoy that I will try to re-find my place in it.
This, then, is my first accommodation, my promise, my bargain: that from the moment I get out of graduate school or I start my first professional position to the moment I set the final handbrake in the last car I drive, for every dollar I put in my gas-tank, whether it be for a life-or-death emergency, a trip to the store, or—certainly—a trip to a trailhead, I will set aside and send off a dollar to a cause that resurrects my position in the world of wilderness and the world of humans. A dollar to the Nature Conservancy, or to the Sierra Club, or to the Red Cross, or damn it, to the A.C.L.U.. A dollar to defeat the drilling in A.N.W.R., a dollar to buy wind-power from the electric grid, a dollar to house the homeless, a dollar to feed the hungry.
It is only a start, but, after all, isn’t that how even the longest hike begins?