Waking up to the gorgeous landscapes of Colorado felt foreign and a bit surreal compared to my typical days driving to work or class. At the start of our road trip, there was a rest stop on the border of Colorado, and two hasty hours of restless sleep, where I woke up every 20 minutes. At the end, there was a hustle to clean our rented house, say goodbye to Boulder, and traverse through empty farmlands of Nebraska until we got home.
On one particular day, we hiked Rocky Mountain National Park. At that point, I had grown accustomed to long car rides. I sat in the back seat with my music ready to go, and stared out the window at the tops of mountains far more beautiful and rugged than any man-made creation could ever be. As we neared Estes Park about an hour later, the landscape began to look familiar. Charcoal rocks, the entrance to the park, the town surrounding it. My mind flashed back to my most recent (and only previous) visit in May, when I camped with my friend and travel partner for a night, and hiked in shorts amidst the snowy trails.
This new day was sunny, and I mistakenly thought it might be warm. Yet as soon as we got out of the car, huge gusts of wind pelted us from every angle. My teeth began to chatter, and I huddled near the trailhead, hoping the bathroom shelter would protect me. My ears seemed to freeze and fall off. My roommate handed me an extra windbreaker for warmth, and our large group set off towards the Glacier Gorge trail.
The trail began as a path that wove through small patches of forest, and more exposed areas where tall cliff edges rose up hundreds of feet nearby. My boyfriend and I trailed behind for a couple minutes, to take in the views on our camera and try to capture even a sliver of the beauty for memory. After a couple miles, we began hiking onto a wide gorge, where the sun was most direct and the wind picked up speed. We passed several other hikers who had climbed far up onto the side of the cliff and were shouting hello to us from up above. My fear of heights kicked in. I laughed nervously and continued walking on with our group.
At that point, the hike got more difficult. The snow was deep on every side, and one misstep could land you in many feet of snow, or find you slipping down the side of a steep edge. We followed the trail as it climbed higher and higher through the forest on what seemed an infinite loop of switchbacks. I got even more nervous about losing my footing, and debated turning back.
Yet it’s hard to rationalize turning back in the middle of Rocky Mountain National Park, on a sunny day in the midst of your adventurous vacation. So, we went on. And it was worth it.
The trail eventually gave way to Loch Vale, the small lake at the end of the hiking destination. The entire lake was frozen solid, with human and animal footprints imprinted on virtually every icy spot. The boys in our group raced ahead across the frozen lake, toward a tiny island submerged in the middle.
I stood still and tried to breathe everything in for a moment. Mountain peaks stood poised to the left, right, and center of my view. Snow covered the mountain ranges in patches of white, while evergreens lined the perimeter of the lake. Up above, the sun shone down on the land, turning my friends into silhouettes that blended in to the landscape. The rocky mountain terrain complemented the rich blue sky, and its jagged edges poked out from what felt like a painting. Everything was crystalline, suspended in a living snow globe for the winter. I felt as if this was the beginning of time.
When we eventually decided to turn back, we took a different route, which some of the girls in our group had branched off to take on the way there. Turning back this way appeared lower to the ground, with no frightening switchbacks. Turns out, it also meant one swift and steep hill right at the edge of the loch.
The boys gained speed on us and went ahead. After several minutes of trying to carefully step down the slippery hill, my roommate and I gave up and slid down like penguins. Despite an entirely frozen butt, I found myself racing towards the bottom, giddy with adrenaline and covered in snow. I made it down the rest of the way with a mix of running and sliding, a soaring mix of unwielded momentum and energy.
By the time we finally got back to the car, I was exhausted and ready to take a shower hot enough to burn off my hands. We all fantasized about getting Taco Bell in Boulder and I vowed to buy warmer clothes before hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park in the early spring ever again. Yet as we got back to town, and I ate a cheese quesadilla in my damp hiking clothes, I felt nothing but happiness and continued awe at the beauty of the world.