The blue sparkle of a lake peeks out from behind the shelter of conifer trees lining the road on our drive to find a campsite on the Grand Mesa. An opening among the trees reveals a wider expanse of the blue beauty nestled in the surrounding deep green forest.
Pockets of snow dot the landscape even in late June.
This awe-inspiring scenery sits two miles above sea level on the largest flat-topped mountain in the world. Rumor has it that Ward Lake was formed by a volcanic eruption and has a bottom so far down no one knows the true depth. The remaining 300-plus lakes on the mountain have a wide variety of depths, depending not only on their formation but how much water the Water Commissioner releases through the system of dams covering the mountain. One day I plan to investigate the depths of these many lakes, just to paddle my kayak over the deepest, darkest holes.
The drive takes us past not only a number of mountain lakes, but a charming variety of mountain cabins, many built by locals since the early 1900s through a system involving land leases. One of the early cabins was built by a newspaper editor and owner of The Surface Creek Champion, Clyde Brewer. He built the cabin for his family in 1923 on Eggleston Lake. I feel a special bond to that particular cabin and smile as we drive by. There were fewer cabins around when we spent our honeymoon there in 1976. The roads were closed for the winter and we drove in by snowmobile. Since then, the family has replaced the roof, added a bedroom and a bathroom with indoor plumbing. The front room remains much as it did in 1923, except the big bed loaded down with heavy quilts has been replaced with a couch and chair. The best of the antiques were removed for fear of theft, including the ancient Victrola we once danced to. We continue past the cabin without stopping.
We pass another favorite adventure spot on our drive; Crag Crest Trail, an unforgettable ridge with jaw-dropping views. Not recommended for people with fears of falling, like me. The trail narrows along the way, leaving the phobia-ridden with nothing to do but set one foot carefully in front of the other and pray. My in-laws were some of the last to ride the ridge on horseback before the trail was limited to foot traffic only. Unlike me, who was raised near flat Texas beaches, my in-laws are mountain folks who enjoy the dizzying heights of the trail. I glance at the lakeside parking lot filled with jeeps and trucks. A busy day on Crag Crest with lots of adventurous folks out and about. I envy them despite my reservations of the hike and convince myself we will walk the trail again in the near future, but only on a windless day.
The Grand Mesa has a unique flavor of high mountain adventures and I am anxious to begin ours. The hot summer months find campers, hikers and anglers enjoying the cooler mountain air away from the heat-stricken valley about 6,000 feet in elevation below. The mountain itself rises at different locations to over 11,000 feet. An abundance of well-maintained hiking, horseback riding and four-wheeling trails zig-zag their way from lake to lake around boulders and forest, across creeks and dams, and through a land of skunk cabbage and wildflower meadows. A local four-wheeler club maintains many of the trails by posting signs, removing downed trees and clearing debris for easier passage, benefitting everyone who uses the mountain.
Our adventure onto the mountain includes four-wheelers, kayaks, fishing poles, hiking boots and two energetic golden retrievers for a 10-day stay. Arriving at Trickel Park Reservoir, we find our usual campsite taken. Backing the truck into a different clearing high above the lake, we discover a new favorite. With our table and chairs sitting on the edge of the site, there is a drop-off with a green meadow rolling down to the edge of the lake. We are on top of the world with a perfect spot for doing nothing. The only down side is the climb up and down to the lake, especially while carrying a kayak, fishing poles and lawn chairs.
While we set up camp, the dogs stalk the numerous birds pecking at the ground, but neither Ranger nor Babe is quick enough to catch one. With no one on the far side of the lake, I decide to walk them and get rid of their excess energy. But the blue water of the lake calls to me and a long walk is unappealing. I compromise with the kayak. After battling the muddy bank, I settle into the little boat to take the dogs for a “walk.” I paddle close to shore and they run next to me on land, often anticipating where I will go and waiting for me to catch up. When the brush becomes dense, the dogs swim around obstructions rather than run too far inland. The workout is good for all three of us and we return to camp tired and ready to enjoy the view.
On planning for this, our mountain retreat, I’d brought my novel to work on with the background of nature and solitude for inspiration. The mountain would have none of it. A world of nature flows around you on the top of a mountain. To experience it fully, one must be in that world. The sky can lighten and darken in surprisingly swift amounts of time. The sun shines in front while thunder claps from behind. Darkness rolls through swiftly to be replaced yet again by puffy white clouds and blue skies. Birds and chipmunks scurry around the campsite taking care of their own business. As evening approaches, the forest takes on the reddish tinge of fire as the sun sets behind towering limbs. Campfires appear around the lake with smoke drifting upward, advertising unseen others in the area. Flames crackle as wood burns red and glows bright. Stars settle in one by one and the chill of the wind deepens. Chairs move in closer to the fire and stories are told.
The days change with the winds. Weekends fill with a different kind of sound and movement. Trucks, campers and four-wheelers dot the landscape and up the noise level. Easily excitable dogs and parents join the chorus, both jumping up and down and yelping with encouragement when their kid catches a fish. My dogs discover an echo, confused but enchanted with the dog barking across the hill repeating whatever they say. Fly fishermen grace the scene with their lines whipping through the air. The mountainside becomes a neighborhood of sorts, with folks sitting on their front porches, nodding at like-minded strangers as they walk by.
The quiet sounds of nature return on a Monday, surrounding the few of us remaining in the area. A silent elk appears from the dark shadows of the woods to feast in a nearby meadow. A pair of eagles circle the abandoned lake, replacing the weekend fishermen. Whistle pig sounds once again fill the mountain air, no longer drowned out by the four-wheelers in their steady trickle down the dirt roads. Our campsite becomes an isolated, lonely place after the departure of the weekend crowd, the contrast oddly disconcerting. We came for the solitude, but enjoyed the activity of our fellow travelers. Now the silence of the mountain reminds us that we are mere guests, here for a temporary stay. That it’s soon time to go home.
On our last day, we pack up our things to head back to a world of wonderfully hot showers and big comfy beds. The long, curvy drive off the mountain is one of mixed emotions. Tired and dirty, we long for our creature comforts and daily routines, while grieving for the solitude and splendor of the world we leave behind. The mountain sharpens the senses and invites us to pay closer attention to our world, wherever we are. This is a lesson I will try to remember from my time standing on top of the Grand Mesa. I look forward to our return.