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Peak Experience

Much suffering, much enlightenment on Pikes Peak

By John Sakowitz

WHEN MY FRIENDS back East talk about me, they usually say things like, "He's been in a slowly deteriorating state for years," or, "He's a dropout now and a total loser," or, "He's this superaloof hippie guy who lives in the mountains with his dogs."

All this is true.

For the last three years, I have managed a campground called the Crags for the U.S. Forest Service. The Crags is on the backside, or the western face, of Pikes Peak, which is called "America's Mountain" for a couple of reasons. Catherine Lee Bates wrote her song "America the Beautiful" from the summit of Pikes Peak. Also, "Pikes Peak or Bust" was the slogan emblazoned on the covered wagons of westward-bound pioneers crossing the Great Plains. Pikes Peak was the first big landmark that these pioneers saw after crossing a thousands miles of fruited plains and amber waves of grain.

At an elevation of about 8,200 feet, the Crags is located below Devil's Playground and above the Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp. The irony of living in a place between the Devil and Mennonites has not been lost on me.

I used to work on Wall Street. I used to be a lawyer. I used to be a bigger asshole than I am now. But I made myself sick. The noisy and busy dynamics of my life made me sick. I had a cocaine problem and a gambling problem and got divorced three times.

In 1997, I reassessed a 14-year period of ambition, consumerism, excess, and waste, and moved to the mountains. I took it all to the mountains.

I took it all to Pikes Peak.

And on Pikes Peak, I found great herds of elk and deer, and small herds of mountain goats and bighorn sheep grazing at the timberline. I found jays calling out from thickets of mountain mahogany and their mates answering from tree to tree. I found old cabins built by gold miners. I found an old railroad grade. I found a long, narrow railroad tunnel blasted through a sheer granite face. I found a trestle bridge that had collapsed 150 feet into a creek. I found gorges where Ute Indians burnt out the brush every year and made their summer camps until the white man came. I found gravel from old placer diggings. I found an old ax handle. I found breezes that smelled sweet and that I could feel stirring something in my heart and that swelled against the hills. I found the remains of mountain lion kills . . . splintered bones and sour-smelling carrion waiting for the coyotes and crows and other scavengers. I found scats and feathers. I found the complex, halting, delayed pathways of small nervous animals with one-second attention spans and the detritus that they left behind. I found mice in the goose down of my sleeping bag and marmot holes and squirrel nests. I found thunderstorms every afternoon in the summer, and, more than once, I found myself lost in a maze of lightning bolts. I found a great boreal forest of pine and spruce and fir that closed in on me and held me. . . and held me tight. I found remoteness . . . no towns, no buildings, no people, one road.

I found anonymity. And I found my own puny and pathetic insignificance in the whole scheme of things.

And in the summer, I gazed for hours into a tapestry of wildflowers. A curtain of columbines and lupines hid me from the world that I had left behind in New York.

And in the winter, from my RV, I looked out on the steep ridges that are the Crags, and they bristled with skinny pines covered with snow. The sky would always be perfectly clear . . . miles of cobalt blue. And the sun would be enormous and would seem close to me because I was so high up in the mountains and so close to the sun. And the snow would be clean and deep. And the footprints and tracks of small animals would be everywhere.

And at night in the winter, the mountains would be just a shade darker than the sky . . . just one shade darker. The sky would be indigo black, and the mountains would be one shade darker. The great monoliths of the mountains would heave into view only if I squinted my eyes.

This was the Crags. This was the world of the timberline. This was the world between heaven and earth.

I have a friend who looks like a society girl from the Broadmoor but who is really a witch, and when she visited the Crags, she gripped a tree and fell to one knee and told me that "GodSourceCreator lives here."

After paying my dues at the Crags campground for three years, I was elated when I got the telephone call asking me whether I wanted to try out for the caretaker position at Barr Camp on the other side of Pikes Peak. Barr Camp is the big time.

Barr Camp is on the eastern face of Pikes Peak. It is the side that faces Colorado Springs and the Great Plains of Nebraska and Kansas. It is the popular side of Pikes Peak that everybody hikes. The Pikes Peak Marathon is run up Barr Trail on the eastern face, and the world-famous Pikes Peak Auto Climb, which was broadcast this year on ESPN, is raced up the Pikes Peak Highway, also on the same side of the mountain as Barr Trail.

Barr Camp receives about 15,000 to 20,000 visitors every year--most of them in the summer--compared to 1,000 to 2,000 annual visitors at the Crags. Barr Camp was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1920s. It's really well built, solid construction. Barr Camp has a sort of formal mountain-lodge look: logs and granite and mortar with high ceilings and cross beams. I've admired its solidness and square lines for a long time. And, for a long time, I've wanted to be its caretaker.

The caretaker lives at Barr Camp year round and gets paid around $300 to $400 a month. The only real amenity is the search-and-rescue radio, and it's lonely and colder than shit in the winter.

To get to Barr Camp, you have to hike halfway up Barr Trail. That's about a 4,500-foot gain in seven miles. The summit is another 4,500-foot gain in six miles. Hikers celebrate Barr Trail's difficulty.

Except for a few signs for Barr Camp, there's nothing on Barr Trail that is very inviting. You can't camp off the trail. Camp and shelter conditions suck. Barr Camp is it.

As you hike up Barr Trail, you pass through several ecosystems. At the lower elevations, you find quaking aspen, larch, mountain ash, mountain mahogany, and the other softwoods of the foothills or lowlands. Higher up, you pass through the boreal highlands of pine, spruce, and fir. At even higher elevations, you find only bristlecone pines, which are scarred from centuries of lightning. Bristlecone pines can be a thousand years old.

Barr Trail is a tremendously scenic trail. Again, signage, camps, and shelters don't dot and clutter the trail as at a lot of other places in Colorado. Barr Trail isn't a happy place as in "happy trails." No way. It is a difficult trail, and, as I said before, it ascends a total of 9,000 feet in 13 miles. Barr Trail traverses steep switchbacks, jagged ridgelines, rock ledges, ravines, a dank bog or two, a couple of foaming creeks, slippery algae-coated cobbles, root-riddled miles, and a vegetation-choked forest . . . and that's just at the lower elevations. At higher elevations, you've got to cross boulders, taluses, scree, puncheons, and ladders of rock. And Barr Trail doesn't yo-yo in elevation: it goes straight up Pikes Peak--straight up.

I've always thought that Barr Trail is like a good psychotherapist. It listens without interrupting your bitching and moaning. Whether or not Barr Trail is a compassionate listener is an entirely different question.

Like a psychotherapist, the mountain can take two people in a bad marriage and cause them to finally break up. They'll fight and argue and complain the whole time that they are hiking until they finally get sick of each other and throw in the towel. Likewise for two people in a good marriage, the mountain can make them fall in love all over again. They'll want to make love at the summit . . . and some couples actually do exactly that. I've caught them butt naked behind the Summit House.

I think of Barr Trail as a good psychotherapist, and you can't ask more from a mountain trail than that.

The telephone call to try out for the caretaker position at Barr Camp came from a guy named Bill Slaughter, who is president of the Barr Camp Foundation. The foundation operates Barr Camp under a special use permit issued to the foundation by the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service is too broke and too understaffed to manage Barr Camp on its own. I was told that if the foundation didn't manage Barr Camp, the U.S. Forest Service would tear Barr Camp down . . . heartless motherfuckers.

The foundation does a good job managing the camp, as does the Barr Trail Coalition that maintains the trail. Both groups deserve a pat on the back for impressive coordination.

The U.S. Forest Service does very little on Pikes Peak, but that's OK because it's a federal bureaucracy and is not quick to respond to anything, especially because it answers to a higher authority in Washington. When the U.S. Forest Service finally decides to do something, either the Barr Camp Foundation or the Barr Trail Coalition has already done it.

When Bill Slaughter called me, I was living in Ukiah. There's a woman I know out there, and I thought that maybe we could have a life together, blah, blah, blah.

Barr Camp called, and I came running.

WHEN I returned to Colorado, I was so impatient to get to Barr Camp that I hiked Barr Trail all night to get there for my interview. I wanted to be early and make a good first impression. I almost killed myself hiking, but I felt like a Sherpa.

As I hiked, I could hear bucks skirmishing in the night. I could hear the light, playful rattle of their antlers, and a couple of times, in a circle of moonlight, I saw them dancing and pushing and stamping.

I knew I was home. I wondered what was happening on the other side of Pikes Peak . . . at the Crags. Were bears sleepwalking in the night, dreaming of blackberries? Were the green leaves of quaking aspen starting to turn yellow and rattle in the wind? Were the grasses brown yet? Were the Corn Maidens and Autumn Gods walking hand in hand? Had the winter winds started to bear down on the Crags--spiraling, whistling, blue-white winds blowing down from Canada?

I knew that later in the season, these very same winds would not be spiraling, whistling winds. Instead, they would be groaning and heavy. Even later in the season, the winds would be hoarse. And they would wear a silver mask. The boundless world of ice that is winter in the mountains would open up, and the Crags would be swallowed by the world of ice, and all things at the Crags would sleep in peace together.

I hiked through the night. When I finally got to Barr Camp, it was sunrise. I surprised the staff members, who were expecting me later in the day. There are actually three caretakers at Barr Camp who take turns managing the place. I would be replacing one of them. All three caretakers were there to meet me. And so was Bill Slaughter. They served me instant coffee and powdered eggs.

I remember that we talked a lot about gear the morning of my interview. Winter would be upon us soon, and we talked a lot about gear because gear can mean the difference between life and death at Barr Camp.

Our first priority is outerwear, closely followed by mountain-climbing equipment.

Outerwear, of course, is not simply outerwear: it is technical wear built for the demanding sports of alpine hiking, mountaineering, and ice climbing.

My own outerwear is a Prada parka that I bought secondhand in Aspen from a guy I know who went broke playing the NASDAQ 100. My parka has a Gore-Tex double layer pongee with Teflon nylon lining and 120-gram padding, and a hood with 80-gram Thermore padding and raccoon trim.

And outerwear is only just the start of an esoteric language. Climbers have an esoteric language all their own, and a lot of it has to do with their climbing equipment: grappling hooks, cliffhangers, talons, ibises, cam hooks, Logan hooks, keyhole hangers, rap rings, bird beaks, mallards, toucans, peckers, RURPs, Fifi hooks, angles, lost arrows, bugaboos, and knifeblades. And this list doesn't even include basic items like pitons, bolts, drills, drill bits, carabiners, and quickdrawls, plus your real basics like helmets, hammers, ice axes, ropes, harnesses, and crampons.

CLIMBERS--and the caretakers at Barr Camp may consider themselves to be expert climbers--are a special breed. They're aloof but they're not arrogant. Arrogance would tempt fate and cause accidents and death. And mind you--make no mistake about it--climbers are not yuppie campers and day hikers. Climbers are spiritual seekers. For climbers, the mountain is a stone tablet upon which God writes secret messages. The wisdom of the ages and all a climber needs to know is written on the mountain.

Who are these climbers? Climbers are like long-board surfers back in the 1950s in Santa Cruz when it wasn't necessarily cool to be a beach bum because the world didn't know what a beach bum was yet. It was simply enough to be stylin' in the surf. Climbers, surfers, river guides, and all like-minded spirits know this much: the ride is everything. Life is not so much a journey as it is a ride. The ride is that one hot minute that you'll remember when you're sitting in a nursing home sipping your puréed meatloaf and peas through a straw. Climbers just take the ride a little higher and a little farther.

Mountain climbers climb to a place where you can hardly breathe and your muscles are burning and you don't want to look down. Mountain climbers climb to a place inside of themselves called Fear.

And when they finish the climb, mountain climbers don't end up at the top of the mountain . . . not really. They don't end up at the summit. Mountain climbers end up at the sky. But it's a sky like no other . . . no birds . . . no clouds. Just the wind and ice. And ice layered over ice. And stronger winds. There is no scenery up here. There is only fear and panic and muscles burning from pulling arm-over-arm for hours as the sun starts to set and the temperatures drop and the winds get stronger.

Why do they do it, these mountain climbers? The mountain offers splendor and solitude, for sure, but that's not why mountain climbers climb.

I think, rather, the reason that climbers climb has something to do with a Buddhist proverb I saw once on a bookmark in the gift shop at the City of 10,000 Buddhas in Talmage, Calif. That proverb goes, "Much suffering, much enlightenment."

Another proverb that may explain something is a graffito I saw on a stupa in Tibet: "If you can use your cell phone here, you're not there yet."

These proverbs have given me pause.

I think that I may tell Bill Slaughter that I'm not up to this Barr Camp gig. I am just too much of a pussy. I'm a total pussy. It is bitter cold at Barr Camp and windy and lonely. Plus, I get altitude sickness.

I am not a hermit. I am a pilgrim. I'll hike up to Barr Camp, but I don't want to live there.

Nor am I a monk. Monks are long-suffering, and I am many things, but I am not long-suffering. I don't want to live on instant coffee and powdered eggs. I don't want to be celibate. I don't want to live on $300 to $400 a month. And I don't think that I can live up to the code that mountain climbers and long-board surfers have in common--you know, that the ride is everything. Live for the one hot minute.

I am a baby boomer, and like most baby boomers I know, I am a big baby.

I'm not ready for a lot of suffering, which means that I'm probably not ready for a lot of enlightenment. I'm the low man on the spiritual totem pole. And I couldn't live a whole winter without HBO.

The Crags is more my kind of gig. I can drive to the casinos in Cripple Creek for a 99¢ breakfast. My girlfriends can visit. My cell phone works. And the satellite dish on my RV can pick up HBO.

So, I think I'll stay at the Crags for another year--lower elevation and not as cold or lonely. And the Devil and some Mennonites are nearby to keep me company.

Whenever I hear about gigs like Barr Camp, I ask myself, "Hardship, discipline . . . yeah, but to what end?"

It's the wrong question.


John Sakowitz received an award from PEN USA West for his writing about the AIDS epidemic. He lives in Talmage, Calif.

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From the April 26-May 2, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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