TODAY, ON MAY 11, 2023, the rain here in Golden, Colorado is fabulously determined. It’s been cascading from the sky since late last night; the creeks are running high and are stained brown with earth; trails are muddy and gushing; the soil is saturated, with puddles spreading ever-wider; hilltops are lost within mist and sodden clouds. For a landscape of the American west that is so often parched, a day such as this is both a rare treat and a genuine relief.
Long may water pour from the sky in torrents! Long may the fire risk and summer heat be held at bay! Not everyone loves rain. But I adore it!
I went for a run in it just now – a ninety-minute splash alongside Clear Creek and onward up the Canyon into the foothills of the Rockies. The drenching I experienced took me back to my prior life in Britain. I used to love running in the rain, getting soaked, feeling the soft moisture on my skin, getting my legs caked in rich molten-chocolate mud, my hair plastered flat, having the dripping woods and squelching fields all to myself. Today, it was a little harder to force myself outside – middle-aged reluctance argued that comfort and work were preferable! – but I did it, I overcame the limiting voice of reason, and I’m so glad I went. Middle-age slipped away amid the joy of motion and the blissful kiss of the elements as they stirred every sense, and now, post-run, I feel invigorated, alive. I came home soaked to the skin, in clothes cold and clinging… but also buzzing with happiness and energy and life.
During the run through this exceptional May rainstorm I found myself thinking about another exceptional weather event that took place on this very day, May 11, two years ago now. The spectacular conditions I encountered on that occasion made the brief outing one of the most memorable I’ve ever had.
The outing was a camp – a single night out – and it was very much a spur-of-the-moment thing. I only decided to go early in the afternoon. I noticed, by chance, a forecast that called for heavy snow then clearing skies. A late season snow, I thought, that would be fun to camp in. And dawn sunlight striking snow-laden pines? Even funner. It might even lead to some worthwhile photos, if I’m lucky…
After hastily throwing gear into my rucksack, collecting the kids from school (oops, can’t forget them), making certain that dinner was set for my family, I drove 45-minutes to the trailhead I’d chosen… never once guessing at the magical twelve hours that lay ahead…
At the trailhead, the snow lay far deeper than I’d expected. Far faaaar deeper. In fact, at no point during the preceding winter, had it been deeper. Flakes were still floating down, too, drifting lazily from a misty sky. Pulling on my pack, I began plowing uphill, giggling like an irresponsible juvenile delinquent at the wonderland conditions I’d lucked upon.
The easing of the snowfall that was forecast for later hadn’t yet begun. Large flakes still filled the sky. But I continued uphill full of optimism. I wasn’t going far – only a mile and a quarter – and I didn’t need to rush. I planned to camp close to treeline. I wanted a spot that would give views IF conditions cleared, but that also offered some shelter. The forecast had also mentioned thunder and lightning. Instinct told me neither were likely, but I had to pay the forecast some heed. The threat of it added an element of doubt and trepidation, and all adventures – even micro adventures – are improved with that.
As I climbed through the forest I noticed that the clouds were starting to break. Holes appeared below, along with distant mountains that were now lower than me. The rents in the sky kept coming and going, opening and closing, appearing, vanishing. It was all rather exciting… and definitely promising.
As I neared treeline the holes began growing larger, the storm clouds breaking apart in a way I hadn’t expected. The forecast had shown clouds and light snow lasting until midnight, and only then a gradual overnight clearing. What was happening now had not been mentioned. Unable to believe my good fortune, I dropped my pack and dashed about like an over stimulated puppy, gaping and photographing the rapidly-changing scene.
Because of the forecast, I fully expected the clouds to close up again. I thought it was a fluke, soon to pass. I wanted to make the most of the moment while it lasted.
Eventually, a massive bank of cloud wandered in from the west, enclosing me in a vaporous murk, obscuring the view. But I couldn’t complain. No matter what else happened now, the outing had already been worthwhile.
I chose my campsite on a steepish slope, trying to line up the open ground with a straight shot to the morning sun – should I be fortunate enough to get one. After stamping down a flat platform I pitched ‘Auld Leakie’, my trusty shelter written about in On Sacred Ground. (PS: if you haven’t yet read The Earth Beneath My Feet and On Sacred Ground, what are you even doing here? 😉 )
As I stood for a while considering my chosen spot, still wondering a little at the wisdom of camping here with lightning in the forecast, the fog suddenly grew brighter… brighter… brighter…
…and then the clouds suddenly dropped away altogether, shifting in seconds, filling the valley beneath. I simply stopped and stared. Mouth probably open wide. It took a minute or two before I remembered my camera.
After that, for the next couple of hours, life was a dream….
It’s not an understatement to say that I’ve wild camped A LOT, more times than I can count – well into four figures. But not one other camp from that uncountable number has looked like this.
Despite the clearing, small ice crystals and snowflakes were still falling, spiraling and sparkling in the evening sunlight, adding yet another layer of magic to the moment.
Slowly, shadows lengthened, and the evening light grew warmer as the temperature grew colder. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and barely any sound. It felt otherworldly… heavenly…
After a leisurely dinner – spent feasting as much on the view as on my food – I left camp and ambled slowly uphill, seeking an elevated above treeline vantage point for sunset.
With clouds hiding everything below, I might have been in a world apart – a world utterly detached from everything that is busy, loud, demanding, ugly. A short drive, a mile or so walked, a belief that camping in a snowstorm with thunder forecast was a good idea, and this was what I’d earned. It was some reward. It could so easily have been missed.
It was soon pretty chilly up high – fingers and face demanded attention and care. But there was nowhere else I would rather have been. Home didn’t seem like somewhere I’d been only a few hours ago. It seemed a lifetime away. Or hundreds of miles. Some moments in nature can really take one out of oneself, transport, suspend time, elevate. I’d come seeking on ‘elevated’ vantage point, but I found an even greater kind of elevation than I’d sought…
Time itself seemed frozen!
I sat for a long while, soaking the moment up, wallowing in it. But eventually, deepening cold drove me back to camp. But I descended as though floating, awash with gratitude, appreciation and awe. I treasured every single step I took through the pillow-soft snow in that magical otherworldly paradise.
Some camps have meant more, I’ll be honest. Single nights out are too fleeting to have the value that the 100th night of a trip has, or the 500th! But still… this remains the most spectacular single night camp I’ve ever had… by a fair margin!
The night delivered a hard tent-coating frost, but I slept really well, contentment overcoming any discomforts. By dawn, the cloud sea had slipped far to the east, lingering only down in the plains. Sunrise approached long before six.
Soon, the rosey-hue of May 12 added a blush of warmth to the Colorado landscape. Spring here isn’t like spring where I grew up in London!
A hard frost coated Auld Leakie and the entire spread of the Front Range foothills. The air felt sharp and painfully cold. But… there were no complaints from me.
It was a morning to stand and gape, a morning like few others.
Eventually, I retreated into Auld Leakie for hot cereal and coffee. By the time I was done with breakfast the sunlight was stronger and the day was rapidly warming – winter’s cold failing before the bright May sunshine. Leaving camp again, I climbed back uphill, aiming to feast on the wintry scene while I could before it thawed away, and also to treasure the softness, the quietude, the expansive greatness of isolation, the big views across big hills, and the simple but raging pleasure from being where I was. There was no rush to do anything but wander about, grinning.
After a magical morning the time finally came to return to camp, pack up, and leave. But, honestly, each of these activities were hard to do.
Leave a view like this? A place apart like this? How could I?
Except, of course, I didn’t – not fully. I carried it with me, as I still carried it with – as I carried it today, two years later, in the teeming rain. This is the beauty of time in nature. It becomes us. Afterwards, we are never the same.
Soon, I was down in the trees, making fresh tracks through the almost-silent forest, with a few birds chirping, a woodpecker drumming, and the swish of clumps of sun-thawed snow beginning to avalanche off pines.
And knowing that the odds were high I’d one day return.