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John Werner: Backcountry a respite in age of coronavirus

John Werner: Backcountry a respite in age of coronavirus


It’s not easy hiking to a 12,000-foot mountain pass in a hazmat suit.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the age of coronavirus demands a lot more precautions to stay safe and healthy for people who love the backcountry.

My wife, Karen, and I were planning to hike in western Colorado well before COVID-19 shut down the country. After 25 years of serious hiking, I finally bought a Toyota Tacoma with a four-wheel drive that could haul us up some rocky, treacherous mountain roads to some trails we wanted to explore.

Once the coronavirus began to explode nationwide in March, a road trip to Colorado seemed like an even better idea. It beat flying to the mountains of California, Washington or Montana in a petri dish airplane.

We were tired of being cooped up, and the backcountry is one place you can feel relatively secure that a raging virus isn’t going to stop you in your tracks.

Hiking isn’t just good for the body, it’s marvelous for the spirit.

Especially during such a depressing time when some of the every-day freedoms we take for granted have been stolen by the coronavirus.

Like most Americans, we’ve spent the last four months sequestered mostly at home. I’ve missed the daily social interaction with my co-workers at the Trib, but fortunately I can still write stories from the house while Karen taught her high school classes online.

I’ve continued to hike at Cameron Park and ride my bike along the Brazos River and the Waco Dam Hike and Bike Trail once it opened. All that time, I dreamed of the freedom that backcountry hiking brings.

About 20 years ago, we bought a book titled “100 Classic Hikes in Colorado” by Scott S. Warren.

We’ve been chipping away at that list by doing about 25 of those hikes coming into this summer. But with our made-for-the-mountains truck, we were able to complete six more trails on the list in the last few weeks.

We hiked more than 60 miles and gained over 11,000 feet in elevation. We came back feeling healthier and in better spirits to help us get through the difficult months ahead.

As we planned our hikes, I wondered how many people would be traveling to Colorado since governors and mayors are telling people to stay at home as much as possible.

The answer: Multitudes.

I saw license plates from as far away as Maine, Washington, California, South Carolina, New York and Pennsylvania. I didn’t see as many plates from Texas as most of our trips to Colorado. But there were plenty of Colorado natives who wanted to get away from the cities into the state’s gorgeous Rocky Mountains.

The streets of Durango were packed when we got there on July 5. Though Colorado governor Jared Polis recommended that people wear a face mask in public, only about half the people on the streets were wearing them.

We avoided the crowds and mostly ordered takeout from restaurants. When we picked up our order at Derailed Pour House, one of the employees took my temperature as a coronavirus precaution. Luckily, it was a normal 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Coming from Waco with an elevation of 470 feet, we have to acclimatize every time we travel to Colorado. So we started on the Animas City Mountain Trail which begins at 6,680 feet and rises to 8,161 feet over six miles. Along the way, we saw beautiful views of Durango and the surrounding mountains and valleys.

I was so excited to get on the trail that I tripped over a rock and fell flat on my face about two miles into the hike. I suffered a deep gash on my left knee that bled for a few days, but Karen doctored it and I felt pretty good the rest of the trip.

Next we ventured west to Sharkstooth Pass on a trail which brought us up to 11,900 feet. The toughest part was the winding, rocky road to the trail that would have battered the bottom of a sedan but was manageable for a high-clearance truck.

We camped at Mancos State Park where we ran into a Colorado couple wearing face masks. They applauded us for wearing ours.

“It’s too bad that some people here see wearing a face mask as a political statement,” our fellow camper said.

In the little artsy town of Mancos, we were happy to see many people wearing face masks, especially inside stores. At the Absolute Bakery and Café, a sign read: “We wear our face masks for eight hours. You can wear it for eight minutes.”

After two day hikes, we did our first backpack up to Quartz Lake located outside of Pagosa Springs. We had tried the hike nine years ago, but a storm stopped us from getting all the way to the lake.

But this time, we had ideal weather and climbed through abundant wildflowers to reach the alpine lake late in the afternoon. Carrying a 40-pound backpack, the altitude made for a slow 4½-mile hike that rose 2,400 feet to a 12,400-foot pass.

But it was great to leave the crowds behind and spend a quiet evening in near solitude at the lake.

That’s social distancing at its finest.

Our next backpack took us to the Highland Mary Lakes outside of Silverton. This time, the monsoon rolled in and we were pelted by hail on the way up the trail. But the payoff was tremendous. The trio of alpine lakes is incomparable and the views at sunset were stunning.

The following morning, we hiked above the lake for an encompassing view of the Continental Divide. But an early storm rolled in and we were blasted by larger hail on the way down. Oh well, just part of the backpacking experience.

On the way down the trail, we saw some hikers whose loads were carried by llamas. I wondered if we were hiking in western Colorado or had taken a wrong turn to Peru.

Like us, most of the hikers we met on the trails were wearing bandanas to slip over their faces when they passed other hikers. They were very conscious of social distancing, which doesn’t surprise me because hikers are some of the most friendly, thoughtful people that I’ve ever been around.

When we were planning our trip, we purposely stayed away from well-known Colorado trails like those at Rocky Mountain National Park and the Maroon Bells outside of Aspen. Both places had restrictions in place to limit the number of people to allow for social distancing.

But we did make a trip to the north rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We drove through mountains and ranch land to get there, and the entrance is so remote and obscure that they didn’t even charge a national park fee.

Still the small parking lot for the three-mile hike was filled with cars from states across the country. It was further proof that people were eager to experience the great outdoors after being pent-up for months.

When we reached the ski towns of Crested Butte, Aspen and Snowmass, nearly everybody we saw was wearing a face covering. The ski towns were hard hit during the early stages of the coronavirus, and they know how it can wreck communities.

Social distancing in the ski towns was hard because so many people were there enjoying the cool, relaxed atmosphere. We did something called “dispersed camping” on a rugged road high in the mountains. Basically, you pull over and set up your tent and camp for free.

I did the same thing in college, but we didn’t have a fancy name for it. When you’re a near-broke college student, free camping is quite appealing.

Once again, we were able to get away from the crowds on a five-mile hike to a beautiful viewpoint on Scarp Ridge outside of Crested Butte.

Then we did a challenging nine-mile hike outside of Aspen called Lost Man Lake with Karen’s brother, Knud, and our niece, Sierra, that took us to 12,800 feet. They set a nice pace and quickly learned how old and slow we are.

Before heading back to Waco, we joined the beautiful and fit people of Aspen for a three-mile hike up the Smuggler Mountain Trail that overlooked the ritzy town. I didn’t exactly fit in since I’m not beautiful and only somewhat fit, but everyone was friendly and glad to be outside getting some exercise.

As the Grateful Dead once sang, it was a long, strange trip. Measures like face masking, social distancing and constant hand washing brought an extra level of precaution everywhere we went. But the joy of hiking in the mountains made the extra effort worth it.

I hope the coronavirus isn’t such an issue when we hike next summer, but we’ve learned there are ways to safely work around it and maintain your sanity while savoring spirit-lifting beauty. That’s something everybody could use right now.

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