How pathetic is it to be hiking in the mountains and be overtaken by a three-year-old girl in pink plastic shoes? Not only was she forging steadily onward and upward in her little Crocs—the backless kind, yet—but she kept talking the whole way without needing to pause for breath.
In our defense, we had to stop and rest several times because one member of our group wasn't feeling well. Another extenuating circumstance was that we were hiking at 10,000 feet. (The little girl, I'm sure, lives at that elevation.) Living in the Black Hills, I tend to think of myself as dwelling at altitude. Since our house in the foothills is at about 3500 feet, however, and since the highest point in the Hills, Harney Peak, is a modest 7242 feet, I guess I don't live quite as elevated an existence as I might like to think.
But we were on this steep, boulder-strewn trail for a higher purpose than to feel competitive with tots in Crocs. We were there to see St. Mary's glacier, which must be the smallest glacier in the world. It looked like a dirty snowdrift lying for about 100 feet along the side of a mountain. Not exactly spectacular, perhaps, but still worth the hike.
Going back down was much faster than the climb up; we even passed the little girl this time. Of course we were much too elevated—in the spiritual rather than the alpine sense—to feel at all superior about it. We had places to go, things to see, and other mountains to climb.
To drive up, anyway, on what is billed as the highest paved road in North America. It hugs the side of Mt. Evans for about 14 miles, two just-barely-adequate lanes with no shoulders and no room for sissified frills like guardrails. The steep drop-offs were awe-inspiring in more than one sense. I tried hard to believe our driver when he claimed he kept his eyes open the whole way.
We saw a mountain goat, only a few feet from the road, who paid no attention to the visitors taking his picture. He was too busy stocking up on calories for the winter ahead. From the thickness of his coat, he was well prepared for the cold weather to come.
At the edge of the tree line we got to walk through a stand of bristlecone pines, some of them 2000 years old. With their stubby wind-twisted branches, gnarled trunks, and scant bark, they're an amazing example of endurance through minimalist living.
The last stretch of the road was closed for the season, so we didn't make it to the 14,000-foot summit. The glacial lake at 12,000 feet, however, was still well above the tree line and was rewarding enough. The views were magnificent: aspens glowing golden in the sunlight, a shimmer of snow across the steep side of the summit, and a panorama of neighboring mountains. I needed a thesaurus to find other words for "spectacular," "awesome," and "wow."
Even the grandest of views, of course, can't make one forget indefinitely about the more mundane needs of life. As I approached the women's toilet, someone who was just coming out said, "I'm not the one who was smoking pot in there."
I believed her—just as I hope the next woman in line believed me when I said the same thing to her. But from the overwhelming reek of marijuana, someone certainly had been indulging in there. With acres of rocky slopes and ridges to disappear behind, her choice of a smoking site didn't make much sense.
Actually, it made no sense, in that marvelous spot near the top of the world, to smoke anything at all. Lock yourself in a toilet for a furtive joint? Or enjoy a magnificent view on a perfect October day? Only one of those is a real Rocky Mountain high.