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  • Writer's pictureRichard A. Jones

Wilderness and Solitude

Solitude and Wilderness

All heaven and earth are still—though not in sleep,

But breathless, as we grow when feeling most;

And silent, as we stand in thoughts too deep:—

...Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt

In solitude, where we are LEAST alone;

Lord Byron 1788-1824

(From Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)

Solitude! it is something little appreciated today. In our time and culture, employees are called team members. We form students into study groups. We have pools of office workers. We organize people into consortiums, coalitions, collaborations, and committees. No doubt, much good comes out of this. However, it sometimes seems that our culture has bought into the lie that nothing good can come from being alone.

In the Sangres, when grazing leases were still in use, a sheep herder might spend days, or even weeks, alone in the mountains, moving flocks from canyon to canyon.

Earnest Sparling had known the caretaker of the old Hermit copper mine. Hardly anything is still visible of the mine today, but there was once a boarding house for the miners, in a clearing on Middle Taylor Creek. When we first came to the valley, part of it still remained, along with the old tin shack used for storing dynamite.

Earnest told me that the caretaker would go in, after the mine shut down in the fall, and stay all winter, only snowshoeing out one time for supplies. I wonder if this is how the name, “Hermit” came to the area.

In the wilderness, there are no man-made distractions: no television, no radio, no clock, computer, or to-do-lists, and no music other than that of nature itself. Oh, I suppose you could bring some of these with you, but the wind and creeks would only laugh.

We hurry, and scurry, and organize, and plan. But the mountains are Indifferent to human time schedules and plans. The mountains are Indifferent even to human presence.

***************

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are the most prominent feature of the Custer County landscape. Many know them only as a “beautiful view.” But some, such as Jim Patterson, Randy Rusk, Bill and Tom Schulze, and others, know them much more intimately.

There is a great difference between admiring the mountains through a picture window, and standing in a dark spruce forest and being chilled by a sudden gust of wind, or drinking from a mountain stream so cold that it hurts your teeth, or being caught in a lightening storm that stands your hair on end. I have been fortunate to spend a good deal of time “up close and personal” with the mountains.

Therefore, I think I need to devote at least one chapter of Walking the Same Ground to the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness which has been both my close friend and my bitter enemy.

in this view of the Eastern slope of the Sangres. Horn Peak is a commanding feature.

However this arial view looking down the spine of the range,

puts it in perspective. Horn Peak, in this picture, is simply a little pointy knob just left of the blue dot.


The physical depth of the Sangres is not evident to the casual observer. And neither is their Depth of meaning.

***************

The wilderness: uncultivated, untamed, uninhabited by humans. It may conjure up images of quiet beauty, but it can also be a place of great danger. It may even try to kill you, especially when you are alone.

I have been in every canyon from Brush Creek to Music Pass, a few lakes over the top, and some others west of Gardner. I am humbled by the mountains, and wisdom tells me that, in the wilderness, we are all visitors, not owners or residents. We should tread lightly.

To really enter into wilderness, we must be willing to relinquish some control and leave behind the safe and the predictable. It is the price to be paid in order to walk on this holy ground.

Wilderness is a place of intense experience where the carefully crafted veneer of our lives is stripped away. Everything that seems to matter so much down below: money, position, ownership, power, control, and getting things done, all disappear in the mountains.


In Henry Van Dyke’s 1895 book, Little Rivers, he speaks of the simple joys of camping. One of them being, “…Dishes that can’t be broken and plans that can.”

***************

It was October, and Kent Zeller, who was in Jr. High (and who is now retired from the Colorado State Patrol), had planned to go elk hunting with me. However, his plans changed at the last minute, so I went alone. The quiet and serene beauty of the mountains was forgott


en when I was lying on my stomach on the North face of Baldy in a hundred mile an hour wind, trying to keep from being blown off a cliff.

Grabbing hold of one small scrubby bush after another, I managed to inch my way along the ground until I finally got to a place sheltered a little from the wind where I could sit up. Scooting down a draw of slide rock, I managed to reach level ground. With legs shaking, I returned to my camp. The elk were safe that day, as I spent the rest of it recovering my strength, and being thankful that I was still alive,

***************

On a beautiful day in May, some 40 years ago, I was hiking to Goodwin Lakes for a little fishing. Again, I was alone. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful Spring day. The snow was still deep, but most of the time I could stay on top. However, I could hear water flowing underneath the snow, so I knew that it was melting below as well as above.

All of a sudden, my right foot broke through the snow and got wedged between two tree roots. My left foot, however, remained on hard packed snow above (Yes, I was a little more flexible in those days). While I couldn’t get my right foot free, I also could not get enough


leverage, with my left foot, to break through the snow in order to help out.

So, there I sat, pondering my fate, and wandering who might find my remains later that summer when the snow melted. The mountains were totally uninterested in my predicament, and continued on as if nothing had happened. For them, nothing had happened.

After about half an hour of thrashing back and forth, I finally managed to make a wide enough hole in the snow to lower my left foot until I could take pressure off of my right foot, and wrestle it free from the roots that held it captive. I did, finally, make it to the Lakes to enjoy some fishing, and I did not see another human being the entire day.

One summer, I guided four people into the Sand Creek area on a five day backpack trip. We saw no one else the whole time, except a very large Black Angus bull (this was still in the days of forest leases). He seemed to think that we were intruders. I respected that, and we gave him a wide right of way.

***************

Nellie Camper and Helen Montgomery both lived to be more than 100 years old. No offense to Nellie and Helen, but that is about the same time it would take a bristle cone pine, near timberline, to grow about a three inch diameter sapling. The oldest bristle cone in Northern California, is thought to have been a seedling when the Egyptian Pyramids were being built over 4000 years ago.

Rocky Mountain Bristle Cone Pine (pinus aristrata)

Those who study such things, tell me that the lichen on this rock that I picked up near timberline, grows at the rate of approximately one inch per century.


It is humbling to be among these ancients. However, if I will allow them, they may help me gain perspective on life.

***************

Sometimes, in Westcliffe, I think I can spot people who probably love to look at the mountains, but have rarely, if ever, spent much time in them. If they have, they didn’t learn anything from them. They are just a little too impatient, a little too demanding, a little too self-important.

One morning several years ago, I was having breakfast at Dave and Karen Purnell’s little cafe on main street (next to the old bus barn on the West end of Main).

A young couple was sitting at the table next to me, and I couldn’t help overhearing the man, with an air of condescension, placing his order:

“I want two eggs over easy, but I DO NOT want the whites runny. I want my bacon crisp, I want dry wheat toast…. And what kind of potatoes do you have?”

As I listened, my mind wandered back to the many trips I had taken into the Sangres, and some of the meals I had eaten there; those times when I had cooked in the rain, while huddled under a tree with smoke burning my eyes and water dripping down the back of my neck.

“Eggs over easy but whites not runny?” You have got to be joking! In the wilderness, I have eaten eggs that have been dropped in ashes, drug through dirt, and washed off in the creek. No! The whites weren’t runny, but they weren’t white either.

“Crisp bacon?” Well, in the mountains, if you take the raw ends of my bacon and then add them to the burnt middles and divide by the number of pieces that didn’t fall into the fire, I guess you could say that my bacon sort of averages crisp.

“Dry Toast?” In the wilderness, dry toast doesn’t mean without butter. It means that part of the toast that is left after I retrieve it from my soggy boot which sits smoldering by the fire, and I cut away half of it. The part that is left, is dry toast.

“What kind of potatoes?” It is probably best that you don’t ask any questions at all about my potatoes, or you might find out more than you want to know. Not only have there been unidentified black specks found that were not pepper; in the mountains, I have stirred things into potatoes that, at home, I would have stepped on and killed.

You see in town, at a restaurant, we come to expect eggs done our way. We are easily disappointed if the bacon doesn’t live up to our expectations. And, I have seen people became irritated or even angry if they have to wait a few minutes for their food. But food that we complain about in town, we will be thankful for in the mountains.

So, in the wilderness, go ahead, demand away. Complain about the food or the service. In fact, get up and walk out. But it will be a long walk.

***************

Have you ever wondered why, when we are in a place void of the evidence of human presence, and surrounded only by what God has created, we say that we are “in the middle of nowhere.” I think maybe we have it backwards. I think Elizabeth Barrett Browning thought so too.


“Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.”

From Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning(1806-1861)

Browning suggests that creation will not give up its secrets to the one who comes only for some utilitarian purpose (cut firewood, kill an elk, or catch a fish). The wilderness is a place to look long, listen carefully, and ponder meaning.

For me, the wilderness is not “the middle of nowhere,” It is a place where I have heard its whispered truth inviting me into its mystery and its ancient past. It has left me with questions unanswered. It is enough. I will come again. I will look, and listen, and ponder, and take off my shoes. Maybe I will catch a glimpse of glory.

***************

In closing, a word to the impatient, and the self-important, to those who demand safe, predictable, dry toast, and eggs over easy…


…Stay out of the mountains!

***************

Note: If any of you would be interested in how wilderness has helped to shape my journey of faith, I will be posting it sometime soon on this blog under the category, Reflections of Faith. Warning: I will probably be repeating the story of “eggs over easy.”

















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