I don’t know where to begin to describe camping in the forest.
Driving there was beautiful. It was an hour-long drive, along increasingly tall mountains and through increasingly winding roads. The air became cooler and more brisk, and something about it felt exciting.
We didn’t really know what we were doing, although I’d spoken to one of the Park Rangers a few weeks ago to plan the trip. We were supposed to park near the Wild Basin Ranger’s Station and walk to our campsite at Tahosa. We picked up our backcountry permit from the Ranger’s Station in Estes Park, the nearby town, grabbed some gear from an outdoors store, and headed to the Wild Basin.
Minor problem we encountered right at the beginning: no dogs allowed.
We had Lacey with us already, so we decided to make the precarious choice to take her anyway. Being from Florida, we also had a slight fear of Mountain Lions, Bears, and the rest, so we hoped she would be able to scent any predators and give us forewarning.
I never claimed to be wise.
So we started walking, each carrying heavy backpacks, a sleeping pad, a bear canteen, water bottles, and taking turns holding Lacey’s leash. About thirty minutes in we realized none of us had brought a cellphone, but since we didn’t have service, there would have been no point anyway. We regretted not having a camera, but trust me, that was one of the best accidents to happen to us. Sometimes it’s best to just see.
We had been walking for a while, probably an hour, when we found a sign post in front of a fork in the path. There were two ways: left and right… but the post stated that (something, I don’t remember what it was) was to the left, the Ranger’s Station was to the right, and Tahosa (our campground) was to a slight right-angled turn.
There were only two options, remember.
We guessed that we would find another fork down the right pack, at which point we could just take the more leftward path. We began to walk down it.
By this time, we’re getting pretty cold but it’s Beautiful out. Capital B Beautiful. The air is clear and bright. The air is bright. I didn’t know that was possible. We were walking over an everchanging path of stones, then hopping between the dryest areas in a creek, then trudging through thick snow. The snow was a bit of a problem, because every-so-often we would hit a really deep patch and get stuck… which meant everyone but you was tittering while you struggled to pull yourself out. Being laughed at while you’re stuck is frustrating, yet when the next person falls its absolutely hilarious. I swear, it’s the mountain air. Lacey was bounding from rock to snow to huge boulder. She hadn’t yet learned how to avoid the deepest parts of the snow by stepping on the hardened ice, and kept getting stuck and looking at me like, Go on without me, I’m doomed… then we’d pull her out and off she’d go again.
We kept along the path for maybe half an hour without finding any fork. We were becoming more and more suspicious that this wasn’t even a path at all – the snow had no evidence of being trampled by human feet and was becoming hard to walk through. Finally, some miracle created the perfect spot between two boulders, in the middle of the path. Gratefully we dropped our packs and began to set up camp.
Lacey was quickly becoming a mountain dog. She dug herself a little warm spot in the sun and tucked in for a nap. We humans set up the tent and tried to decide what to do – we could continue forward on this path and try to find camp, or just stay here. We ended up taking a quick nap in the tent (we hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before).
By the time we woke up, it was growing dark… we explored a ways further on the path, but found more dense snow, and no sign of a path.
We turned back, deciding we might as well go for a hike and see what we will see. We turned toward Calypso Cascades. Once we got there, we stood on the bridge overlooking the falls and just gaped. Lacey stuck her head through the bridge’s poles and stared in awe, too.
Imagine a landscape thoroughly filled with pine trees of all sizes, from small ones which barely reach your fingers to enormous ones, which you have to crane your neck to see the tops of. Some dead trees lean against live ones, speckling the landscape with gray. Mostly, though, the world is a multitude of greens, lighter, darker, more blue, more yellow. As the sun sets, golden light arcs through the leaves, settling like dewdrops in the pine needles. The squirrels come out as we stand still, scampering through nearby trees, begging Lacey to come nearer so they can taunt her with their speed. The snow is shining. Mountains loom in the background, some totally covered with white, others showing jagged peaks with boulders interspersed through the pines.
We turned back when we thought the sun was sinking too low. When we returned to camp, it was getting very cold. We quickly ate and squirmed into our sleeping bags. David guessed we had 12 hours before the sun would rise.
I hadn’t thought of this part of camping: we couldn’t do anything except stay in our tent for the next 12 hours. It was a daunting prospect. We played a few word games at first, but something about the cold and the blanket of night made sleep easy and quick. Lacey was shivering from the snow, so I opened my sleeping back and got her to lay down so I could zip both of us into it. Which was a wonderfully warm decision – I definitely recommend sharing a sleeping bag with a furry, snoring companion.
Halfway through the night, I woke up. Lacey had somehow maneuvered herself above my head (outside of the bag) and was shivering. She was trying to stuff her head in the crevice between my chin and shoulders. I was barely awake, so I threw my arms around her to try to warm her and moved my head to a more comfortable position to sleep.
She squirmed her head right back where she wanted it.
This was a decidedly uncomfortable position for me… having a medium-sized dog’s head squished into your neck while she’s trying to curl around your head isn’t really possible anatomically. I must have tried moving more than ten times, just to have her move right back into position, before I really woke up. It had gotten really cold by then, so I only grudgingly opened up my sleeping bag and got her to lay back down inside it. She loved it. She stretched her legs and laid her head on my arm, which effectively cut off my circulation but I accepted the compromise.
We woke up when the sun was well into the sky. I woke up first and read a few pages of my book. Lacey’s face was turned toward David – they were nose to nose. Whenever David moved a bit, Lacey moved so that they’d be nose-to-nose again. It was absolutely adorable.
Hannah and David woke up soon after, and Hannah and I did some yoga on a few choice boulders near the campsite. That was wonderful – it warmed us up, and stretched muscles in dire need of stretching. We ate breakfast and decided to pack up camp – we were running out of water already, and weren’t really prepared for the cold.
During the walk back, the morning sun sat warmly in the purest-blue sky. Everything was even more incredibly, starkly beautiful – I think that had to do with the fact that we had existed in the forest for a night. We had opened ourselves up to it. We saw more, felt more, and our breaths seemed deeper somehow.
As we walked down, we met a group of three older hikers. They greeted us, and asked how our night had been. I was in a daze, which must’ve been a mixture of the sleep which comes from a winter forest, being in awe of the nature around us, and everything else; anyway, I said, “Hi! Lacey just pooped. That’s why I have this bag! Now she’s happy.”
David and Hannah stared, the hikers, stared, and we all silently decided to go our separate ways.
Later, when I mentioned it, David and Hannah busted out laughing.
A few things I’ve learned: take your time. Hike, but not necessarily to get anywhere. Accept what you find.
Don’t look at the time. There was something deeply perfect about going by nature’s time.
There is meaning in anything and everything, if that’s what you wish to find.