- Mileage: About 3 miles roundtrip
- Elevation gain: 566 feet
- Altitude: 9,416 feet
- To get there: Take Bear Lake road in Rocky Mountain National Park to the Bierstadt Lake trail head.
I am not ashamed to admit that hiking, for me, has always been about the conversation, at least a little bit. I can’t help but to have noticed that as feet move and stumble over a trail in pursuit of something, the brain lets words out in front of us, like a string of sounds pulling us on. We know we can’t stop because we don’t talk like this with road or rubber underneath us or with warm foods tempting our mouths otherwise. And it is with this that suddenly you’ll find you’ve gotten to know someone.
On the way to Bierstadt Lake on this late May day, it’s with a person I already know well and conversation moves from trivial bantering to serious toils to Civil War soldiers. Going back and forth on a set of tedious, south-facing switchbacks we make our way to the flat top of a hill and can’t bring up any negative thoughts. We are tromping over snow on the hilltop, falling through into cylindrical traps formed by our own feet. We thought we could trust them in not being so heavy and feeling out the stable spots. But we were wrong. They are traitors. We are laughing and screeching so loud at the shots of cold that I’m certain the sounds of treachery will take the switchbacks back down and get into the ears of a concerned trail crew working below. But that is not the case, and we are utterly alone in the still, melting woods. That’s not much of a surprise and as we wander over the flat trail we become unfathomably ridiculous, as usual.
“Are you sure you want to keep going,” I ask my hiking partner and good friend, Sinead. I am being sympathetic to the fact that she’s wearing capris pants and slip-on hiking shoes with no socks.
She looks at me like I’ve suggested the king of blasphemous ideas.
“Dude, no,” she says. “We haven’t even seen the lake we came here to see! Plus, Civil War soldiers did this. They just cut off their feet and kept going!”
Didn’t I say we were getting ridiculous?
“Do you want me to cut off your feet, you damn Yank?” I ask, jokingly referring to her New York roots.
“Yeah,” she says, completely serious, “Do you have a knife? You can even use a dull knife.”
“No, I don’t have one,” I tell her. “But I might have a paperclip in my first aid kit. We can use that.”
It’s too much not to smile now and she’s laughing, and somehow we feel that among all the snow fields we just don’t know where we’re going. We are a bit turned around, but friendly signs direct us and we are on our way once again. I fall through the snow over and over. It’s always unexpected and the rest of my body moves forward to continue the hike, while my poor leg is stuck until my brain realizes the rest of me cannot go on without it. I am falling and lurching down the trail and from behind me Sinead is laughing every time. Finally, we reach Bierstadt Lake. I say finally, as if the walk took an eternity. Really, It only took us about 45 minutes: half of which was spent climbing switchbacks and the other half of which was spent going over flat land.
Bierstadt Lake is worth the unexpected spring snow tromp. Lumps and clumps of mountains rise majestically behind the lake, out of a cloudy slumber for the morning. I point to them, trying to recite the names of each, like a kid might recite vocabulary words written on a blackboard. I want so, so badly to learn the names so that, if that nothing else, I can feel they are my true friends. I feel if I know them by name it’s not entirely unreasonable to put my arms around them, squeeze them tight, and thank them like I would any other good friend. Maybe that’s wierd… but really!
There is thunder rolling above us, and we both feel a bit of urgency and obligation to head back down. But we know there is a way to enjoy this in a flash without lingering on the snow banks and soppy rocks. We decide on 17 to 18 seconds of silence on the edge of the lake. This is a challenge for us as a pair and we doubt our ability to accomplish the task. We stand on separate rocks and shut our chattering mouths, just looking around and listening to the woods. I count silently, a smile forming as a I get into the double digits.
I’m at 19 when Sinead admits: “I lost count a while ago.”
We’re laughing and trying to stay balanced on the banks of Bierstadt Lake in late May.
Hiking details from “Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park,” by Kent and Donna Dannen.