We called it the Valley of the Dinosaurs. Mostly because of the humongous rock formations that were scattered all around. They dominated the remote high valley in Colorado’s Tarryall Mountains with their sheer size. And they breathed a strange sort of life into the area that had convinced me early on that the whole place was on the move. I could never pick out any one thing that caused me to think that—it was more like a general, overwhelming, and deep gut feeling that had me convinced. I was consumed by the place’s pure and simple beauty. And I sensed the place was more alive than me from the very first time I blundered into it. Through the years, I took every opportunity to return. And while the physical cost of getting there was never cheap- without fail, it was always worth it.
After almost five hours of clawing our way up out of Lost Creek, things finally started opening up a little. A couple of small clearings, or maybe they were more like openings, allowed us to actually walk like normal humans for a few feet and also offered glimpses of the red granite humps sticking up just above the trees not far ahead. It felt good to be moving in a more upright position and not tangled up in some sort of vine. Just as I began thinking that our route was starting to become more backpacker-friendly, we rounded a clump of aspens and were stopped by a wall of small spruces, filled-in with Gooseberries and a ridiculous amount of deadfall. I looked for a simple way through, and to that end, made an impromptu zig-zag just before coming to a complete stop. Give me a break, I thought, almost out loud.
There seemed to be just one option, so I took it, and we walked right into the middle of a particularly dense thicket. At least, I reasoned, we’re going in the right direction. Besides, we’d been fighting the same stuff all morning, and I saw nothing new. Just ahead and to the right a bit, there was a space between two trees that looked promising. It was blocked down low by a small bush, and a conglomeration of dead and dry aspen poles and logs wedged and suspended above that. The opening appeared to be the best possibility for continuing to move forward, and so we headed for it. After a few steps, I stepped into a mostly hidden bog. And my left foot sunk into the mud almost up over my ankle.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I yelled.
My right leg was in an awkward position when I pulled back to yank the wet foot out. Instinctively, I raised my whole body up, and to my right and simultaneously, the pack’s weight pulled me off balance and even further to the right than I should’ve gone. I lunged and pulled my wet foot out and up. Just as it was coming free of the mud, it caught on some sort of vine, and since the unbalanced weight of my pack was already pulling me to the side, I fell uncontrollably onto the ground.
Luckily, my right knee hit first, which broke my fall, and then I just slowly kind of crumpled on down. There was plenty of noise for those first few seconds, but no words. No one, including me, was sure how to react initially in such a case. After a brief moment, I looked for blood, felt for cuts, and began anticipating the pain that would surely soon set in. But alas, there was none of that, although there was a profound silence.
Then, I rolled all the way onto my back and simply said, “that was good.”
At that point, it became okay to talk, and that’s what almost everyone did. Somehow, I’d missed the rocks, stumps, and the pongee-like stick a beaver had left. How in the world did that happen, I wondered? What were the odds? After a few seconds down on the ground, a small aspen tree helped me get back up onto my feet.
I checked the straps on my pack, noted that it still wasn’t lunchtime yet, turned my focus back toward the thicket, and began moving forward once again. I began to feel time-pressured to get through the gnarled mess we were in the middle of but knew better than to rush things any more than we already were. After walking a bit, a promising looking route between two little spruces appeared. I guarded my eyes against the wayward sticks and branches sticking out everywhere. And I avoided grabbing any trees that might have sap on their trunks as I pushed toward it. No reason to confuse the issue any further, I reasoned.
We finally made it to the trees and passed between them as envisioned. But we were abruptly stopped dead in our tracks at the far end by a grove of tangled, bunched, and seemingly impenetrable small Aspens. There appeared to be no real choice, so we once again just sucked it up, put our heads down, and pushed our way in. We busted through to the other side after only a few feet. And I was relieved to see mostly widely spaced Lodgepole Pines and no underbrush blocking the apparent route. Our speed increased as the vegetation became more amenable to backpacking. Even so, we were still going uphill and were above 11,000 feet in elevation, and travel was painful.
After only about 100 yards of less complicated walking, we met a literal wall of willows. They were in massive jumbled clusters and clumps, and I looked and probed for a reasonable way around, which I soon found. After only 50 feet or so of detour, the end-run worked as hoped, and we were quickly back on track. After another few minutes, we finally came to the anticipated small stream that marked the start of the Valley of the Dinosaurs.
We crossed the creek and, at that point, had almost arrived at our destination. Initially, the valley floor was flat and dry. But I was aware that it would ultimately get marshy and that willows, Potentillas, Gooseberry bushes, and mud would make the going tough.
To avoid all of that, I moved onto the hillside and took a more circuitous route. As we climbed up out of the creek bottom and onto the higher ground, we were greeted by a game trail headed right in the direction that I guessed we wanted to go.
Without hesitation, I stepped up onto it as if I expected it to be there all along. It angled up slightly toward the broader part of the valley, and the higher peaks off in the distance while avoiding the creek. Good, I thought. I was relieved by the prospect that the little trail might just take us to the magical clearing where I hoped to set up our camp.
Walking on the small path was easy. After hours of dealing with the constant confusion and chaos of the morning, it was welcomed relief. Everyone began to sense that the end was near, and a sort of second-wind came into the group. The forest trees were widely spaced, so our backpacks fit through easily, and we moved effortlessly along the elk trail. It was pleasant and exciting walking. And then almost abruptly, we came around a corner and were there.
The trail entered the clearing at a different point from where I’d come into it before, and I’d never even noticed that it was there. I strangely felt as if I was arriving home when we finally rounded a big bird-shaped rock and walked into the meadow.
The place was virtually level. Essentially, it was an opening nestled into a grove of scattered and stunted Limber Pines, that were all gasping for air as they climbed the north side of Bison Peak. Off to one side, clear and cold water cascaded down from somewhere up above and created a small creek, which provided easy and direct access to all of the fresh water we could ever use.
There was little underbrush or even grasses mixed in with the widely scattered trees that surrounded the clearing, which helped create all sorts of openings for tents within the forest’s protection. The soil was more like gravel and composed of the same granite as the Dinosaur Rocks. It drained well, and I was confident would not get messy in the event of an afternoon storm. The trees and a few smaller boulders provided all sorts of hanging and leaning options. It was a comfortable place to camp.
The meadow separated the tent sites from one of the monstrous “Dinosaurs,” which dominated the view to our east. The rock had the appearance of a turtle, and as I walked around looking for the perfect spot for my own tent, I was sure that I saw it flinch.
And then, there was the summit of Bison to our west. From an opening near the creek, we could see it towering over us, almost as if it were guarding us against something. The same ridge that provided our backdrop and water continued from where we were on up to the top. The almost magical high altitude line where the trees stopped, and the alpine tundra began (tree line) was easily discernible. And the rocks and boulders of the actual summit were visible less than 1000 feet above.
Within 15 minutes, the tents were all set up. And our home for two days had taken shape. Finally, after hours of climbing, falling down, and otherwise bushwhacking our way up from Lost Creek, we could sit and lean back against a boulder or tree to soak it all in. As I sat there, I let my mind and eyes wander and kept trying to come up with a single word to best describe what we were all in the midst of– but couldn’t. There was more to it than that, I supposed. At least, I concluded, we’d gotten to a place worth getting to.