Greetings from Rocky Mountain National Park

Beyond the First Mile

Pale winter sunlight barely peeks over the snowy mountaintops as I pull into the parking lot, still bleary-eyed while sipping my thermos full of coffee. Three other SUVs sit at the far corner near the trailhead; I sigh, disappointed I’m not the first one here. Wintertime’s the absolute best season to hike Rocky Mountain National Park; tourists get scared of the snow, usually stopping within the first mile of trailheads since they lack proper equipment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen families settle for a partially wooded snowbank for a photo instead of a gorgeous frozen lake. Not that I should complain too much, since usually I’m the one taking those snapshots. 5 days a week I’m a Parks Program Educator, babbling about snow safety, top ten geology facts of the Park, keystone species for alpine ecosystems, elk herd movement. Most days it’s the best job in the world—breathing fresh air, sharing the space you love with people who are constantly awed by its beauty, working hard to educate the public in order to protect these prized pieces of land—but some days…well. It’ll be nice to leave tourists at the first mile today.

I down the last bit of coffee before I zip up my coat and shove my hands into gloves. The thermometer on the car reads 16 degrees Fahrenheit, which is better than I’d hoped. Perfect winter weather for a morning hike to Fern Lake; eight miles round trip, snowshoeing most of the way. I check my camelback full of water, strap on my snowshoes, and approach the trailhead. It gapes open in the early morning light; the forest of bare aspens and snow-covered evergreens splits just wide enough to swallow a few hikers at a time, ripping us from our familiar world of warm vehicles, cell service, selfie sticks. In there is a whole new adventure, a whole new world, waiting to be discovered.

A wide grin breaks across my face as the snow crunches beneath my first footfall on the trail. I don’t look back at the parking lot as I go, but I feel its presence quickly fading along with the rest of the technological world. Simultaneously, I myself am transforming; even under all my equipment I feel lighter, happier, freer. I chuckle to myself with delight. Today I’m not a Park Ranger. Today, I’m an explorer. An adventurer. Just like I’ve always wanted to be.

. . .

Eighteen years ago I stood in front of my classmates in mud-stained jeans and an old t-shirt, gripping a bit of chalk. My teacher had etched the question, “What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?” on the board, then instructed each of us to write our answer underneath. I practically sprinted up to the front of the class when Mrs. Johnson handed me that piece of chalk, chose a spot amidst the scribbles of “fireman,” “doctor,” “farmer,” etc., and hastily scrawled the word “EGSPLOROR” in big block lettering. I turned to her, beaming, proud of my career choice. It was the best one on the board.

“Hannah, that’s not a job,” Mrs. Johnson declared, speaking not just to me but to the entire class. “You can’t make money as an explorer. Besides, everywhere except the ocean and the moon has already been mapped. No one can explore anymore.”

I stood in silence for a second, stunned by what she said. No one could explore?? That’s impossible! I felt I explored every day. I roamed the woods behind my house, wandered in cornfields trying to find feathers from birds or arrowheads from natives, collected acorns of all sizes and shapes in the old hickory tree grove beside my grandma’s place. If this wasn’t exploring, then what had I been wasting my time doing?? Surely Mrs. Johnson was mistaken.

But she was the teacher! She knew everything! I tried to wrap my brain around her statement, my internal struggle surely visible to everyone in class. I couldn’t accept it. I wouldn’t, because I clung of one dream of mine, one place I had to see. Most importantly—most urgently—I couldn’t accept the fact that I could never explore…

“The Rockies, Mrs. Johnson! What about the Rocky Mountains out west? Like in the movies, and in my picture book of the USA, with the big deer-things and moose and cougars and snow that’s sometimes as deep as me? I have to explore them! I have to! It is so a career!” Tears fell from my eyes as I tried to convince her, tried to make her see that she was wrong. I could feel my classmates’ eyes on me; some kid in the back laughed, but most had the decency just to whisper.

Mrs. Johnson sighed. “I’m sorry, Hannah. That’s just not a plausible career; it’s more a hobby. Maybe as a vacation you can go out and drive through the mountains.” She then took the eraser, rubbed my response off the board, and handed the chalk back to me. “Why don’t you write your mom’s job on the board for now so you can participate in our next activity?”

What could I do but rebel?? Slapping the chalk out of her hand, I leapt over the desks of my classmates and crashed through the window, landing swiftly on my feet. Without pause, I rocketed away in full gallop, running, climbing over the chain fence that separated our schoolyard from the rest of the world, never breaking pace. I whistled for my dog; he came immediately and we ran, ran, ran through the cow pastures and hog farms in North Carolina, ran over the Appalachians, ran across the Great Plains, ran all the way to Colorado where we lived as hermits in caves, cursing Mrs. Johnson’s name forever—

Of course, that only happened in my head. In reality I gently took the chalk from Mrs. Johnson, wrote “Math Teacher” in tiny letters, and plopped down in my seat, burying my face in my arms so the other kids wouldn’t see me cry.

. . .

I’m 3 miles in and sweating hard. The snowshoes add extra weight with each step; though I cursed the 3 SUVs in the parking lot earlier, now I’m glad a footpath has already been broken for the day. Still, what a small price to pay for such beauty! Warm winter sunlight streaks through the lodgepole pines, their low-hanging branches dipping delicately into the babbling stream I’ve been following. Though ice chunks float along the edges, the center of the stream flows strongly, splashing off large gray rocks that tumbled from the top of the mountain centuries ago.

I stop to watch awhile, focusing on nothing except the spray of the frigid water. Almost instinctively, my eyes close while my head tilts upward toward the sun, all muscles in my body relaxing. The gurgling of the stream fills my entire consciousness, and I begin to believe that it is the only sound I have ever heard or will ever have a desire to hear. This sound, this feeling is paradise, is bliss; I have and always will exist right here, beside this stream…

A red-tailed hawk screeches high above, breaking the spell. I plummet back into myself, giving my body a good shake to ensure that no fingertip nor toetip fell asleep while I daydreamed. I swallow a quick sip of water, then continue on. I fear if I linger any longer, hikers that arrived at the trailhead after me may catch up, breaking the illusion of solitude.

. . .

Though it’s become a passion of mine, hiking never came naturally to me. I’ve always been fascinated with the outdoors, but growing up in rural North Carolina gave me limited options for where to wander. My family owned a spit of land by the river, but travel a mile in any direction and you were trespassing on someone else’s property. Though I’ve never come face-to-face with the barrel of a shotgun, my parents instilled so much fear in me that I was sure I’d get shot if I stepped one toe out of line. In hindsight, they were probably just frightened I’d fall into a swamp or get bitten by a water moccasin or—god forbid, after that terrible summer between 3rd and 4th grade—get another full-body poison ivy rash. I had my poorly built lean-to in my little section of woods, but never wandered more than a few hundred feet. The woods were dangerous, according to my parents, and I trusted them enough to stay put…for awhile.

My driver’s license changed everything. Suddenly I could go anywhere, do anything! I could drive to the beach, to the mountains, to the city! I could go places simply because I could—as long as I had gas money—so I did. I drove and drove further away, loving every second of new road and new scenery. The world had (finally!) opened up, with nothing at all to stop me from going wherever I wanted.

Hiking, of course, came naturally after that. Where I couldn’t drive, I walked. I walked up and down beaches, visited North Carolina State Parks, sought out less-travelled trails people on the internet recommended. Each place was fun, each unique, but something—something I couldn’t quite put my finger on—kept nagging at my heart. It’s not wild enough, there’s not enough space! You can zig-zag on trails for hours in these small parks, but what about just going? Just hiking straight into the woods for miles? I want to do that. I want to go somewhere vast, somewhere with acres and acres of just…forest.

Two weeks before college graduation, I got a call from Rocky Mountain National Park. They had finally taken a look at my application from months ago, and wanted to hire me as an intern.

. . .

Cloudless blue sky stretches above me while perfectly flat white snow stretches out in front. Between the two reside a thick layer of deep green lodgepoles, slowly creeping up into the chilling alpine tundra. Jagged peaks burst unforgiving from the trees, completely bare in some places, gathering feet upon feet of snow in others. The trail has ended; I’ve reached Fern Lake.

I stand in awe for a good five minutes, barely registering the heavy fog my breath makes or the decreasing temperature in my toes. Everything is still, silent, wrapped in a magnificent wintery blanket of isolation.

Suddenly, a wave of elation bursts forth from my soul! I am in motion again, whooping and hollering and laughing all at the same time. I lift my arms to the sun and stomp through untouched snow, immediately sinking to my knees. This doesn’t stop me, though; within seconds I’m out, shuffling here and there to study animal tracks or to touch an odd-looking rock or to simply find the perfect view of this snowy paradise. Yes, I think. Yes. Out here—out beyond the sound of car horns and cell phones—I am free. I am me.

The deep snow wears me out quickly; I’ve been hiking for a few hours and could use a snack. A relatively flat rock pokes out a few feet away, so I brush off the snow on top, sit facing the lake, and begin to devour the peanut butter sandwich stowed away in my pack.

As I eat, I think about my first few days at Rocky Mountain National Park. It was all so new; every single step into the Park gave me that same joyful, overwhelming leap in my stomach. I smile, remembering how goofy I acted while in training. All new employees were required to attend each interpretive program led by a Ranger in order to better understand the material. We were expected to take notes, but I fell more in line with the tourists: snapping photos of everything within eyesight, barely listening to a word with a huge grin on my face. When the Ranger tried to teach me to snowshoe—something I had never done before, as I had only seen a few inches of snow each winter in North Carolina—I immediately fell to my waist in a drift along with all the other tourists who ventured too far out of their comfort zone. I spent the next half hour plodding clumsily around a full parking lot with at least fifty other people, feeling like an accomplished adventurer while snapping photos and taking videos of our snowshoes. I suppose I started as nothing but a tourist, just like the individuals I interact with every day at work.

I wipe the crumbs off my hands and sigh, gazing out beyond the lake. How many individuals a day do I interact with? Annual visitors to the Park average more than 4 million, jamming roads for miles and damaging delicate ecosystems. Trails wear out and widen due to crowds; trash and waste pile up. Black bears become attracted to food carelessly strewn about campsites. More and more inexperienced visitors wander too close to the elk herds, trying to capture a perfect snapshot while failing to recognize their agitation. How many of Rocky Mountain National Park’s 358 square miles remain untouched, unseen to the public eye? Sure, it’s wonderful people want to visit such a place, but…

A few stray hairs escape my beanie as chilly gusts of wind grow stronger. Perhaps its time to head back; after all, I still have errands to run in town. I slide off the rock, taking one last long look at Fern Lake. You’re beautiful, I think. This entire Park is beautiful. I want to protect it, to keep it secret, but…but if others want to see it, they should see it. If there’s even a chance someone else’s heart could leap with joy while staring at this place—a chance for someone else to feel as wild and free as I do while exploring here—let them learn to respect the land, and let them come.

I leave with a quiet feeling of serenity, letting my mind wander as I make my way back to the trailhead. Where should I go next weekend? What trail would be emptiest? I’ll have to drive quite a while to find one, probably lugging along winter gear once more. Still, that’s part of the challenge, isn’t it? Finding new places to explore, discovering secret trails that haven’t been overrun by bloggers, pushing past the First Mile, past the hordes of people? Starting as a tourist but evolving into an explorer: that’s the game. And the reward—after all that heartache to find the perfect trail coupled with motivation to hike it—is some sort of primal connection to the surrounding wilderness.

About a mile from the parking area, I meet a family of four. I wave; they wave back.

“Headed to the lake?” I ask.

“We hope so; it’s the first time any of us has ever hiked like this before!” The father answers, gesturing to his kids so wrapped up in winter clothing they look like marshmallows.

I smile, reminding myself that I, too, began as a tourist. They may win the game yet. “Well, I hope you make it. It’s got a breathtaking view.”

The father nods in response, then begins to walk away. “Oh!” he exclaims, turning quickly to face me once more. “Umm…do you mind taking a picture of us?”

Nodding, I surprise myself as I reply with sincerity. “I’d be happy to. Now, gather together!”


Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National park offers breathtaking views of the spectacular Rocky Mountain range, with 60 peaks over 12,000 feet, small permanent glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, and historic and cultural treasures including ancient trails, game drives, cattle ranches and lodges. This park’s rugged landscapes harbor hundreds of high-elevation plant and animal species — some that are increasingly rare outside the park or are found nowhere else. Some of the park’s human-made structures speak to the boom-and-bust cycles and neverending search for adequate water supplies that characterized the nation’s westward expansion.

State(s): Colorado

Established: 1915

“Nature has been an integral part of my life since childhood. It wasn't until my internship at Rocky Mountain National Park, however, that I truly became aware of how such a vast, wild space could influence a human being. I stared in awe at the jagged peaks of the Rockies, observed elk during the rut, sat quietly by icy waterfalls, listening to their soothing noise. I learned of the multiple ecosystems influencing the flora and fauna of the Park, from tiny alpine pikas to our keystone species, the beaver. From day 1, I fell in love. Because of RMNP, I have become a field biologist, a backpacker, an environmental educator. National Parks shaped my entire adult life, and I strive to do my part to both protect these places AND to ensure they stay accessible to the public, so others can have the opportunity to experience what I did.”

National parks represent the best of America. Why do you care about protecting and preserving them? Tell us why parks matter to you!

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