Road, onward, curves through more spectacular scenery.
The trees Aspen is named for remind me I’m missing fall back home; golden leaves shimmering in the wind. I just keep passing places I feel I could hang up the hammock for a month in. The mountains and all their layers of beauty call to the very core of my being, a soothing sirensong promising fulfillment in a life of indolent reverence for nature’s glory. why not, a voice asks, isn’t this what you came for?
There are pressing factors that keep me moving, but ultimately I keep going due to inertia more than anything else.
I make it into Aspen and stop at random, asking a friendly looking girl at a restaurant about cheap eats. She informs me I just so happen to have stopped in on the day of the world’s only Macaroni and Cheese Festival. Free Macaroni and cheese? Booyah! I circle the 20 stands from the village’s restaurants, sampling tiny cups of macaroni with everything from crab to truffle oil, and happily plenty of offerings with sweet, sweet bacon. I mean, the bacon is salty, but after my Spartan diet the only cherry that could top a day like today is free bacon.
Or so I thought…
I go back to talk to Jess, the friendly girl who offered me the heads up on the mac n’ cheese, and next thing I know I have a contact with a guy who did my very same trip last year, a place to stay tonight, an invitation to go out and party, and most important of all: water to help placate the ornery food baby my gluttony has conceived. Naturally, shortly I wander into a street party and am offered free cake – clearly the universe is telling me today is my day, so I indulge.
The night is New-Orleans-worthy, complete with swinger couples, a baby brown bear running amok through town, clogging stranger’s showers with my accumulated grime, and broken teeth (not mine, thankfully). Around 4:30 I finally get to sleep and allow the folkloric day to come to a close, new friends and strange memories warming my heart.
I wake late and satisfied, getting on the road well after sunrise for once. Definitely something to be said for properly resting indoors, curtains confounding internal alarms, allowing me to miss sunrise and rise with clear eyes.
On the road again: the spectacular aftermath of tectonic collisions and glacial scarring across the face of the earth continues to hinder my progress as the front wheel turns off road and on to adventure. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a wild place; a spire by the cliffside stands in defiant challenge to all comers. Will you simply sit in wonder, or will you conquer?
Every time I meet a wall like this, my first reaction is no way. Can’t make it. My feet will carry me forward regardless, eyes scanning the crevices and holds, following potential pathways.
…Well, let’s just give it a shot. See how high is safely feasible, keep calculating risk and playing with acceptable parameters.
And then there I am, on the wall, looking up, Yup, I knew this wasn’t going to be possible.
Four fingers and the barest edge of a foothold support me, and somehow I find purchase to ascend. My body disagrees with my mind’s healthy pessimism, taking me higher and higher.
I look down. At this height there’s no walking away from a fall.
Before getting carried away imagining how long it would take me to drag myself through the scrub to the road using only my arms, I shift focus to my attachment points. Left foot, secure and strong. Left hand, secure and strong. Right foot, loose rock. And barely within reach, a fingerhold I can find just enough traction on to lift myself higher.
You can’t debate long up here; the second the climb starts you’re burning down towards muscle fatigue. Gravity impassively waits for one wrong move; crumbling hold; sweaty slip to call you back to earth.
With each new, “last” safe move, another one presents itself. No need to look down anymore, after a certain point it’s irrelevant – you’re committed to one end or another. Choose correctly, move efficiently, and success is glorious indeed.
A minute success from the top, I look out on the canyon and my epic climb is put into perspective – a fraction of a fraction of the vastness conquered, the rest looming, undaunted by my tiny accomplishment.
Discretion is the better part of valour here – the Gunnison is more than a match for me and I measure my ambitions so as to not be overwhelmed by them. No celebrating yet; I still have to make my way down.
The geometry of down-climbing is a completely different obstacle. The route looks unfamiliar going down, it must be learned again, but this time by feel – I just have to remember what I can and improvise where I must. My leg dances when I put my weight on it now, uncontrollably twitching muscles strengthening my focus – each move is critical, final, and needs to happen as soon as possible once I release myself to the wall. The edge of the canyon is too close here, can’t skip moves – one slip and there won’t be much time for regret.
Walking back to the motorcycle a group from Florida salutes me and offers me water, which I accept gratefully – I never seem to carry quite enough. Out here in the desert these small kindnesses mean so much more, underscored by the uncaring solitude of the desert surrounding.
The dramatic landscape softens and levels out gradually until I’m surrounded by more flat terrain on all sides. Grand Junction seems pretty laid back. As I pull into a grocery store, a fellow in a threadbare shirt hails me and asks about my travels. For the second time in as many days, the first person I meet in town is a member of the couchsurfing community. I ride slowly behind his bicycle and gladly accept the offer for a place to shower and crash, once he’s convinced I‘m not some sketchbag.
Shortly my new friend Kenton and I are trading the traveler’s most prized commodity: interesting company. I tell him of my adventures and we marvel at how sometimes you just can’t seem to take a wrong step. Like me he is intrigued by the clash between our desire to rationally convince ourselves that we shape our own destiny and that feeling of being on a path that doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not. He’s fascinated by the concept of urban exploration, and I’m happy to introduce another acolyte to the strange subculture.
From him I learn about guerrilla gardening, a fascinating facet of graffiti culture and taking ownership of your world. He sows desert plants wherever he can; excitedly he tells me about his latest success, a once-barren concrete underpass now covered in life he planted. He’s a plant hunter, and specializes in the hardy species that can survive in inhospitable, rocky environments – plant pioneers, the original explorers of the wastelands. We lament the foolishness of people insisting on growing grass in the desert and I wish him luck in propagating his idea of waterless gardens.
I leave for Utah with a parting gift – a cactus, the only pet that might survive my vagabonding. Hopefully my new partner in crime will make it to Argentina. Hubert Minimus Fishberry the first rests fitfully in the storage shelf behind my fairing, silently cheering me on as I make my way into Utah and towards the legendary Moab, at last.