An early morning driving out of Gunnison, car pointed east on U.S. 50 towards Monarch Pass. There is fresh snow and the forest is covered in a rime that is really snow that has been plastered on the branches by the driving wind. The engine changes from a throaty roar to a dull purr as the car crosses over the pass, changes as the accelerator is let off and the car begins to coast. The car stops shortly thereafter at the winter trailhead for Old Monarch Pass on the side of U.S. 50. The driver’s door opens and I emerge to find a winter wonderland all about me.
I don extra layers of clothing as it is cold outside the heated vehicle. Draco and Leah, my two faithful skiing and hiking companions, are eager to get out and explore, but I hold off on releasing them until I can direct their attention away from the nearby highway and it’s fast paced traffic. Finally, I am geared up, all is quiet and the tail gate opens. German shepherds everywhere! Except the highway, of course. They bolt off towards the trail and to where other dogs have previously piddled. Noses twitching, they are entranced. I grab the skis and poles and walk over to the trailhead, past the berm created by the snowplow, my walk a soft muffled crunch as each footfall lands in fresh powdery snow.
I attach the skis and vainly attempt to catch up the dogs who have now bounded off up the trail making further inquiries into the multiple yellow stains upon the snow indicating deposits of canine urine. Not only are the intriguing scents of canines past pulling the critters up the trail but also the smells of insolent squirrels who have had the temerity to tempt the dogs with their scampering about the middens cached by the industrious rodents some months back. They dash out of sight, and though unlikely to meet any real peril or cause excessive mischief as this early hour when it is obvious that I am the only soul about… still, they can cause havoc with but a moment’s notice… so, I call them back to me.
They both heed my call, Draco sprinting back towards me at full speed, missing my leg by scant inches, his expression boasting of pride and joyous rapture. Leah comes up behind, lagging as usual, but still full of mirth. Draco circles me, full of canine vigor, and races off again. As long as I can see him, I don’t mind him exercising his canine prerogative within reason. Leah, she goes where Draco goes and as long as he is nearby so is Leah. Confined to the car for the last hour, they are bursting with energy.
We started skiing at about half past seven. It is cold, but still. The winds that normally shriek through the gap in the rock have abated and will remain so until the sun rises to heat and stir the atmosphere. The snow is near perfect for the glide. Many folks use this area during winter so the base has been packed. The new snow atop the old makes for smoothness on every kick. We reach the pass and look out over the world below and to the west. Ah, one of my favorite overviews of the Gunnison Country. I can see most of the basin lain out, and I know all the drainages. All the stories I can tell from my past hiking, skiing and exploring!
That was fun! The dogs and I sail back down the descent, as the snow encrusted trees stand by monumental in their winter’s coat. The first stirrings of air announce the oncoming wind. Taylor Mountain stands out in the newly risen sun’s early light. The clouds are hanging low, and the combination is almost unworldly. Arriving back at the trailhead, I put the dogs in a sit and stay while I get the car unlocked and open the tailgate so that they can, once I release them, hop in while I unburden myself from some of the gear that encumbers me. Soon, we are coasting down U.S. 50, headed to Salida and a hot breakfast.
We eat at Season’s Cafe, fantastic food sourced locally when possible. Belly full of food, and further satiated with multiple cups of hot black coffee, I return to the car and the patiently waiting pups before driving east on U.S. 50 out of Salida. We don’t go far, just to Wellsville, before I pull off the highway and cross the Arkansas River on a county road that parallels the north side of the river. I believe that this is old U.S. 50, an alignment used prior to the mid Nineteen Thirties before being replaced by the current road. There is some Bureau of Land Management lands back here, on the north side of the Arkansas, that have a strong south face and should be relatively snow free.
We have crossed over into Fremont County and according to the signs on the ground I will be walking on County Road 56, although this designation does not show up on any maps. The gulch itself is unnamed and is the first such defile east of Maverick Gulch. There is another sign beneath the county marker, and this one says something ominous about there being no winter maintenance but that suits my purpose well so I ignore it. I’ll be walking up here, not driving, so the less traffic the better.
Off we go, part two of our doubleheader. Typical for the foothills in this area, the hillsides are studded with pinon and juniper. The larger trees are found at higher elevations where there is more precipitation. While the land about me is dry and sere, it is also snow free and it feels good to walk on the ground. There is a bit of snow lingering but not enough to impede my progress. The sun has warmed the earth enough so that aromatic chemicals have been released from the vegetation and my olfactory senses are enlightened with each breath that I draw. A nice reprieve of sorts from the frozen world that I live in.
We hike up the gully, as the road is more or less the wash itself. About a mile up, the road leaves the bottom of the gulch and climbs above on the hillside, winding around like the proverbial snake. As I gain elevation, my views are broadened. I can see above me the higher elevation where aspen and Douglas fir grow. To my south stands the mighty chain of mountains known as the Sangre de Cristo Range. Draco and Leah, meanwhile, are enlivened with their never-ceasing task at finding rabbits and squirrels. The sun back lights the mountains. There are few clouds in the sky, and all about me is a world of startling clarity and brilliance.
We climb some two and a half miles or so, until reaching a point where, leaving the road, I find a nice place for us to sit in the sun. A shady tree provides a canopy with a view. Briefly, we explore some of the rocks and trees in the area. Crossing over a ridge would lead us to the next named drainage to the east of us, Badger Creek. I have gone far enough for this day. The dogs are fed their kibble and I munch on a few snacks. There is snow here, now that we have climbed nearly a thousand feet above the Arkansas River below, but also bare ground upon which it is a singular joy to place my rump.
Draco, Leah and I return the way we came. My view is of the Sangre de Cristo Range as I walk. The dogs have no concern for the distant view, rather focusing their attention on their immediate surroundings, hoping for an opportunity to catch one of the wily rodents that occasionally skitters out in front of them. My focus shifts from the distant peaks to the rocks and vegetation nearby. A mosaic that brings beauty to this world. The rocks appear to be old metamorphic stone that might be the bedrock of the Rocky Mountains. A part of the pediment that was uplifted after the main orogeny that created the mountain peaks that Colorado is so famous for.
It is warm here in the Arkansas drainage just downstream from Salida. My frosty bones are glad for the change, however temporarily. We pile into the car, the dogs now content to curl up into balls of fur as I pilot our motorized steed back up Monarch Pass. Crossing the gap in the mountains, it becomes noticeably cooler on the western side as I descend into the valley below. Typical, I think to myself. Yet, that coolness is also concomitant with greater snowfall. Winter, like most seasons, is a mixed blessing. Gunnison is a deep freeze during January, yet the cold also preserves our snowpack and creates a beauty of it’s own. I am grateful for the adventure that I have had. I say a prayer of thanks as I pull into my driveway, safe at home. It was nice to warm up a bit, just to know that that warmth is only a pass away.