Friday, September 3, 2010

Soul Searching Part I: The Colorado Adventure

"All I need is this right now. I've got the wind at my back, sun standing tall. All I need is this. Right. Now."

Early this spring I went on a date consisting of sitting on my couch, drinking a few beers and looking at a pictorial journey of the Hardrock course on my laptop. I know, I know, I’m a lucky girl. Obviously, we decided that we simply must go to Colorado this year and check out the goods ourselves.

Fortunately, one of my best friends was getting married in Denver come September, so though there would be a little wait – the trip was officially in the works. This adventure became a pending milestone for me, as I had recently made a few non-negotiables with myself concerning a timeline for regaining my health and happiness:

1. By the end of the summer, the company at which I had been slaving away to start for years at a criminal rate of pay would either take off, or I would have another job.

2. Due to number one, I would be able to pay for the flight to get me to Colorado straight up, without having to starve or sell my car and/or soul.

3. This trip would be a celebration of perseverance.

Well… life definitely changed in those six months. Actually, life changed last month. I did get a new job and I was able to buy that flight outright. But I’d be heading to Colorado alone. At first, I was horribly sad by this and also thought my goal trip had been ruined. What, was I supposed to camp and go on these long, hard, potentially dangerous runs all by myself? Well, yes. That’s exactly what I was supposed to do. Perseverance, baby.

I flew into Denver Thursday night, and after waiting over an hour for my bag of pertinent gear, I headed over to pick up my rental and drive to Colorado Springs. Luckily, I caught the Albertson’s five minutes before they closed and the nice woman allowed me to run and grab the remaining essentials: two gallons of water, a Gatorade and some Nutella. Party time. I made it to the Springs before midnight and headed up to find some dispersed camping off Rampart Range Road for a few hours of sleep. Unfortunately, before there were any places to set up my tent, the road turned into dirt, which turned into rock, which turned into a problem. William Shatner had given me a Yaris. And we weren’t going any further. I had a choice here: either drive to Manitou and sleep at the trail head (illegal) or pull off the road and just sleep in the back. By now, it was 1 am and I was going to be off and running in just a few hours. Sleep needed to happen now. So I pulledoff the road, spent a few minutes looking at the most amazing abundance of stars I’ve ever seen, and then climbed in the back to toss and turn and not sleep. I was in a Yaris, for chrissakes. A fucking squirrel wouldn’t have been comfortable.

I would suggest starting the song now, for dramatic effect.

With excited, albeit bloodshot eyes, I left for the town of Manitou around 4:30am, where I’d find the Barr Trailhead. Starting at around 6,800 feet, this trail climbs 13 miles up to Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain, standing at a majestic 14,115. Yes, that’s 7,258 ft, and I was planning on doing this today before the rehearsal dinner. Here is yet another example of my failure to understand and respect my little adventures, which are largely deemed massive undertakings by the general public. I’d never been much over 10,000 feet, it is highly suspect that I wasn’t carrying enough water and I really had no back-up plan. I wouldn’t call it so much lack of planning, as complete and blatant disregard for any semblance of planning at all.

Regardless, I got to it in the wee pre-dawn hours and was looking forward to a day of total solitude climbing my first 14-er. I was confused and looking for answers, and as per usual, I thought a big mountain could give them to me. And given that I was more confused than I’ve ever been, it was fitting that I picked the highest mountain I’ve ever climbed. (I apologize now if you don’t like metaphors. This whole trip is one big metaphor.) Anyway…. not at all to my surprise, the climbing started immediately and I huffed and puffed and blew my house down up to the incline. I was surprised at how many people I saw running down and jealous that their Friday morning pre-office workout could be something so terribly epic. Would I get bored of that if I could do it everyday? Nah, not a chance. Reason number 712 why I should move to Colorado immediately.*

*No really, there are 712. I've been counting.

I experienced an amazing sunrise and soon thereafter, the sky opened up to a bright, clear and insanely beautiful day. I ran along happily, keeping a good pace and snapping a few pictures here and there, but my head was still a mess. Why was this not enough for me? Why couldn’t I just accept? I was trying to force the answers to come. But we all know it doesn’t work like that. Hell, even I know that, but you can’t blame a girl for trying.

Reason #713.

I got up to Barr camp about 45 minutes quicker than expected and was actually amazed that so far, the altitude really wasn’t messing with me much at all. I felt great and I couldn’t believe I only had six miles to go to reach the summit. The next stop was the timberline, which also marked the point where I followed some dudes and lost the trail for a bit, resulting in some crazy boulder scrambling, resulting in me needing a little break. My lungs were definitely screaming now, and this hands and knees climbing shit was for the birds. So I sat on a rock for a bit, and I started to tear up. And then I started to sob uncontrollably. I was just so incredibly sad. And so incredibly frustrated that while I was surrounded by beauty for which I was deeply appreciative, I could not truly just be in those moments. The ghosts would not let me, and I was not ready to let go.

Eventually, I spotted the “trail” again and after a quick scramble was officially back in business. I ran as much as I could, now over 13,000 feet and actually enjoying the new burning sensation in my lungs, and after a fierce hike up the Golden Stairs the top appeared. A group of tourists that had taken the train up cheered as I ran the last few steps to the summit and took pictures of me as I dramatically cheered back… you know, for good effect. This has become a theme in my life: people asking to take my picture because they can’t believe I’ve just ran somewhere/something/for so long. Then they ask me if I’ve ever heard of Dean Karnazas.


Far, far above the timberline lies a place that feels like home.

I got up to the top with plenty of time to spare, so I took my time looking around from this new viewpoint. America the Beautiful, indeed. After circling the peak to make sure I saw absolutely every single vantage point, I headed inside the gift shop to refill my pack, eat a world famous doughnut and hit the restroom… and that’s where the trouble started. It began as a dull ache in my head and by the time I was heading back down the mountain had developed into a full on pounding migraine, inducing dizziness and the feeling of my skull imploding with every rocky step. This was quite troublesome, and resulted in my literally laying down on the trail squeezing my temples and praying that this altitude sickness would go away if I could just get down below 10. Oh my.

Baby's first 14-er!

Eventually, I decided that there was nothing else I could do to fix the pain so I should just run as hard as I could, lest I be late to the rehearsal dinner. This induced a few blackout moments, but my will to party was strong. I wish I could have enjoyed the descent a little more, but my head was pounding and I was really stressed out about being late. I made it off the mountain, but had to scramble to grab the Yaris and get on the highway. At this point I was looking at a baby wipe shower in the venue’s bathroom. Typical.

Made it.

Unfortunately, my phone sent me in the wrong direction on the highway and I lost a good 45 minutes back tracking in the now forming traffic. Here was my first breakdown of the trip. So far, nothing was going right and I had no one to help me. And I realized that I had been celebrating a trip of solitude, when in reality, I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to be here by myself. I didn’t even get a baby wipe shower! I was just so angry. How was it that I had just run up and down Pike’s Peak on an incredibly beautiful day out away from it all, and yet all I could feel was anger and sadness? However, I reminded myself that I had been here less than 24 hours – there was still plenty of time to decompress and get my brain all sorted out.

Before things got better, they had to get a little worse. I quickly pulled on a dress and ran into the venue with my heels unbuckled, hair flying and dirt still caked up my legs - but alas, missed the rehearsal. Luckily, Kristin just laughed and got me a beer. Ah, what a good friend... one that knows me all too well. Then, on the morning of the wedding I killed the Yaris. Yep… some SUV ran me straight into a beam in the parking garage and the thing crumpled like a Big Mac wrapper. Are you kidding me, life? No, life was not kidding, but fortunately the next thing it had in store was to get all fancy and have a great time with my friends and celebrating Kristin’s big day. I’ve never cried at a wedding, but then again, I’ve never truly understood and felt the words that were being said. A few of the happiest tears I’ve ever known fell for my friends standing there in realization that sometimes love really just isn’t enough, but for them, it was. It was beautiful.

The infamous trio reunites: Bux, Shoeless and Jamz - two dirty pirates and one awesome ninja.

After that, I partied my ass off all night, slept hard and woke up feeling surprisingly chipper. For my first trick of Sunday, I decided to try and race Kristin and Sam’s lab around the neighborhood. He was pretty much dragging me the whole way, even though I was running at about a 6:00 clip. Then, I got smart. I took him around again and about halfway through, ole Ox the dog slowed down. That’s endurance, bitch.

For my second trick, I remembered that one of the guys at my table had told me about some glacier, and I was going to go find it. So I packed up the wounded Yaris and headed out of town to St. Mary’s Glacier for another Colorado adventure. Yee-haw.

What I knew about this run was that it was a quick, mile in and then I could go climb on the ice. I had no idea what was next or how long I’d be out there. Now, the part of me that doesn’t trust the rest of me for one minute thought:

Katie, you know you’re going to find some shit to climb or some random trail that you have to see where it goes. You should probably carry more than one handheld and 2 GUs.

However, the rest of me said:

Ah, fuck it. …. But I’ll take a jacket.

Well, this is precisely what happened and exactly why I ended up with another headache. It was a quick little jaunt up to the lake, where I stood for a few moments totally amazed. Holy shit, that’s actually a glacier! I don’t know if I just didn’t believe the signs, maps and internet or what, but I was seriously amazed – kind of like a little kid seeing the ocean for the first time. This thing was from the ICE AGE for chrissakes. First thing’s first: Imma go climb it.

"St. Mary's Glacier" by Katie, not National Geographic

I spent a great deal of time looking in every crevasse, trying to run, sliding and falling because I was trying to run, and punching the ice to see how hard it was and if I could crack a glacier with my raw Katie power. In case you were wondering, I was largely unsuccessful at the latter. I got to the place where most people were turning around, but noticed that I could go a bit further. OK, well let’s just see where it ends and what’s up there. The end of the glacier was kind of anticlimactic, and stopped before I got to the top of anything. I don’t know if I expected a pot of gold or an alternate universe or what, but I’ve never seen the end of a glacier, so how could I know? At any rate, it seemed logical to go a bit further and peak out on this climb to see what was on the other side.

I'm in a glacier, bitch.

As I leveled back with the horizon, a wide meadow opened before me with two domineering false summits standing before me and one higher peak behind those. Well, game over on being responsible today. I knew immediately what my plans for the rest of the afternoon would be. Even still, I picked my way through the beautiful meadow and reasoned that maybe I would just complete this next climb and be sufficed. I’d take some photos, have a look around and then get back down before I got too dehydrated and low on calories. Haha, I’m so funny with my false sense of responsibility.

A little ways up the climb, I ran into an older couple who happened to have a guide book on them. Apparently, it was only a couple miles to the top – the top being the 13,294 ft James Peak. Also, I had not learned anything from my Pikes Peak adventure and therefore was completely unaware that the last two miles of a tall ass mountain weren’t anything like a quick little jaunt around the golf course. Is anyone actually surprised at my decision to carry on and that if I ran out of water and started feeling bad I would turn around? Maybe the last part? Well now, let’s define these parameters in Katie terms:

  • Running out of water – Not in my body, but in the physical bottle. Therefore, if I always keep one sip left then I have not run out of water.
  • Feeling Bad – Unable to move/dead.

Alright then. Up we go. Honestly, I definitely got really dehydrated and definitely got another killer headache, but I’m soooooo glad I climbed up James. Check this out:

You see my point, yes?

How about now?

No? Nothing?


It got super cold once I reached the exposed portion of the trip, which was largely due to the crazy gusts of wind that were trying to blow me off the side of a cliff. Haha! I brought a jacket, bitches. I’m so smart. Anyway, I was particularly enjoying these facts: 1.) the original peaks that I had seen were waaaaaay below me; 2.) I was now also looking down on the second peaks that initiated a “wow, I’m not going to go all the way up there today;” and 3.) I was still fucking climbing. Also, there were lakes straight from Amazing Town and they were making me happy and giving me a false sense of adequate water in my life.

Ref: Amazing Town.

I didn’t hang out long at the top due to the wind, but I definitely took some time to soak it all in and be appreciative of what was laid out before me. And also to be appreciative of myself and my ability to physically get there, to be independent even when I didn’t want to be and my newfound understanding that no matter what happens, my life goes on. I can either choose to ignore it or live it. And here I was, completely and totally living it.

I hammered back down in the late afternoon sun, surprised by the sudden life in my legs after all the climbing and celebrating and not sleeping I had done in the past few days. I even stopped to give directions to a set of backpackers like I was some kind of mountaineering local. Soon. Also on the descent agenda was lots and lots of thinking. I had one of those overwhelming feelings of just knowing the truth, with no confirmation needed. When taken to an air of clarity, my heart always seems to know without anyone telling me. The truth was hard and the truth was ugly, but it was not unbearable. While I definitely didn’t have the answers I was looking for, I had come to a place of acceptance without understanding – which much like my surroundings, was definitely a place I had never been. It’s interesting, instead of this truth setting me back and upsetting me further, it created a sense of empowerment. I could choose how to move forward. And I was choosing to plunge down another mountain and across a golden field, hopping over a babbling creek and into the great unknown. I can’t control outcomes and I have no use for controlling the people I love. Things will be what they will be and I will let them. That’s the only way I will find happiness. And right now, happiness was all around me.

I hit the glacier and instantly became an idiot. The trail-skiing skills I had invented/developed on the spring’s training trips to Mt. Baldy were definitely helpful, as I ran and slid and rolled down the large expanse of ice. I was shrieking and laughing and vaguely attempting not to kill myself, which elicited scornful looks and a passive aggressive repremand from a seven-year-old. "Daddy, she’s not being safe." Well… probably not. But my dad isn’t here to tell me no. Nanny nanny boo boo.

Then, I ran back down to the wounded soldier, drank half a gallon of water and ate about a bajillion lime tortilla chips. However, my day was far from being over and with the sun rapidly going down, I knew I needed to get food and set up camp immediately. I drove back down to Idaho Springs and ran into the visitor’s center to get some camping information. I ate at an awesome little place in town and had a blast talking to some locals at the bar as I inhaled a buffalo burger and local microbrew. I really wanted to walk around the amazing little mountain town a bit longer, but I knew I had to get up to camp before dark.

Camp was an interesting place. I drove up to the remnants of some hippie concert – there was a minefiled of rubber trashcans overflowing with beer cans and a dude was still jamming on an electric guitar on the stage with one cracked-out chick dancing all Phish-like and shit. I had no idea what was going on, but I prayed that the camping area was not close to this funny business. Luckily it wasn’t, but things got even weirder. So I walked into this ranch – yep, just walked right in – no one to be found. Um, OK. Is this squatter style camping? Well, I don’t want to get killed, so after a few hello? Helloooooooo?’s I tried calling the number. This apparently initiated World War III between a woman and her son in the back about who was too lazy or too overworked to get the damn phone. I have never before heard those sorts of words come out of a 70 year old woman’s mouth. Wow.

Then the awesome part was that she turned sweet as pie as soon as she saw me standing there. It was weird. I was kind of scared. But I was tired and wanted to go to sleep. She told me I could basically camp wherever I wanted on the property which was great, and even allowed me to use the upstairs bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth. Very cool.

I set up my tent near a little pond and climbed in just as it was getting dark. I was freaking wiped, so I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to go to bed early. It was awesomely quiet and I felt pretty safe knowing there was a couple camping not too far from me. However, it wasn’t too long until I started hearing some animals rooting around outside my door. Wow. They sound big. Oh shit… it’s totally a moose. Mind you, I am deathly afraid of encountering a moose. Bears? Been there. Snakes? Whatever. Mountain lion? Meh. Moose? Fuck that.

I mean, I don’t even know what to do if I run into one. Can I outrun it? Can I climb a tree? Is it like a T-Rex and if I stand perfectly still can it not see me? I sat there reasoning that what I was probably supposed to ignore it. You know, act like I didn’t care and that it was silly if it thought it was better than me. So I’d have to be nonchalant, not authoritative. That seemed right. However, I couldn’t help myself and unzipped the door a little to have a peek.

Ohmygosh HORSES! YAY! There were two of them and they had strolled over to get a drink and see what’s up. The moonlight was reflecting off their backs as they acknowledged my presence, now standing outside in the cool, clear night. This is the third encounter I’ve had with wild horses at night, and each one is magical and for some reason, completely calming to my soul. I went back to my sleeping bag, grateful for the visitors, and soon fell back asleep. Soon after, I was awoken to what I thought were footsteps outside of my tent. After listening for a bit longer, a smile crept over my face as I realized what was taking place. I unzipped the door slightly to see one of my new friends kneeling down to turn in for the night… right outside my tent. It was pretty special.

"Wiiiiiiild horses.... couldn't drag me away...."

The next morning I rose early, planning to get a run in and then drive back to Colorado Springs for a tour of the Air Force Academy. The crazy/nice old woman had told me I could use the bathroom again in the morning, so I hiked over with my stuff to wash up. She must have heard me and came out with a cup of coffee, which officially turned the table for me that this woman was awesome. Oh wait it gets better…

She asked me a bit about my trip – what I was doing, where I was going, what my job was like in LA. When I mentioned that I had been out in Colorado running up and down the mountains, she got really excited. She pointed out “monkey rock,” an exposed face of the mountain in front of me that did, legitimately look like a monkey. Apparently, it was customary to have races on the ranch which involved hanging a confederate flag from the monkey’s mouth and then running up the mountain to capture the flag and back down.

“The best is 18 minutes. You know, with legs like that, I bet you could beat the boys.”

That was all I needed to hear. I did it in 16:20 and am now a star at the ranch. I left before signing autographs.

The rest of the day was very enjoyable, with a little running, relaxing, eating a delicious lunch and getting a first class tour of the Air Force Academy from Miss Jolie G. The other awesome thing that happened was that I got my first real shower for awhile and let me tell you, that felt amazing. I knew whomever was sitting on the plane with me the next day would be appreciative as well. I hated the fact that my head was still a wreck, and I tried not to focus on what should be happening, but rather what was. But it was hard. I had tried to forgive and forget. I had tried to move on from what was consuming me. But I was not yet ready. And something just wasn’t letting me truly let go. If you know me at all, you understand that I am a big believer in signs – and let me tell you, the universe was throwing some heavy shit in my direction that I just couldn’t ignore. At one point, it even got biblical. The message was clear: I was not yet done enduring, and I was not allowed to stop loving. Sure, I could just ignore the truth – but what was happening to me was a direct result of others doing this. If I, too, ignored the truth, my pain would only be transferred to someone else. Not in this life, people.

As I boarded the plane Monday morning, after turning in the broken Yaris and checking the dirt encrusted remains of my adventure, I was torn. On one hand, I felt remarkably blessed and accomplished. All said and done, I had just thrown together an adventure through some of the most treasured and revered landmarks in our country and spent time celebrating happiness with some of my very best friends. On the other, I had been fully convinced that I would find peace out here, and instead my heart was now at war. I was desperately looking for the answers of what to do next, and I had done everything I could think of to find them. I searched high and low across grassy meadows, through aspen groves, out over beautiful expanses, in sparkling lakes and up and over peak after peak. Shit. I even searched under glaciers, but in the words of Bono – I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

One thing's for sure though: I'm not going to quit looking. This is a journey of distance, space and time and unlike a race, none of these things are fixed. And the course isn't marked. And I declined a pacer.


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