This past spring I made a pilgrimage of sorts out to Taos, New Mexico. I had spent the year prior teaching middle school art and spending most weekends in the art studio. For some reason, I just threw myself back into art making last year as a way to settle into a different way of life. I needed a way to ground and center myself and art has always been a way for me to come back to my center. After spending a full year painting and getting great feedback from friends and family, I decided to devote a month to living in an infamous artist mecca, Taos, New Mexico.
After spending some time in the Utah desert camping and biking, I made my way down to Taos for an early spring. I rented an Airbnb within walking distance to the square and set up my studio and spent hours and hours painting, setting up my website, visiting galleries, and getting social media accounts established. I sold my first painting while I was there! It was a moment of pure bliss knowing that my hard work had paid off in not just intrinsic reward, but also extrinsic.
I had driven through Taos a few years ago on a move from Georgia to Seattle, Washington. I remember not enjoying it that much, but since living in Utah I've developed a serious love for the desert so I gave it another shot. Taos is known for its art galleries, Puebloan community, and small town vibe with hippy culture. It's definitely a town where uniqueness and differences are celebrated. It's also the kind of town where outsiders are not always encouraged to settle. I met several residents of Taos, not just moved there residents, but actual descendants of residents whose families have lived there for generations that very much did not want an influx of people coming to live there. One man in particular told me a story about a rich, white man who had tried to build a ski resort there and turn it into the New Mexican Park City, but the town rallied against it and he was denied permits and ultimately permission to develop the area. I felt a little guilty taking up space there, but I tried to be respectful about it and ultimately I was just passing through, as many artists have done in the past.
One of the big attractions in Taos is the Mabel Luhan Dodge house. If you aren't familiar with Mabel, she was a huge patron of the arts, a writer, and rebellious woman of her time. She was friends with famous artists and writers such as Ansel Adams, Georgia O'keefe, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley. In addition to encouraging and supporting the art community, she also was involved in helping preserve and advocate for the people of the Toas Pueblo, her fourth and final husband being a member of the tribe and community. The Puebloan community is very much alive and present in Taos today. There is a wonderful presence of woven tapestries, rugs, Indigenous art, jewelry, and museums.
I took daily walks to the Mabel Dogde Luhan house as well as around the square. My time spent there was part art related, but also part sunshine related. I let the winter melt off of me and enjoyed the sunshine radiating off the adobe structures and through the mesquite trees.
Unfortunately, I was unable to spend any time in the Sangre de Christo mountains or national forests because the area was experiencing the largest fire in New Mexico history, the Calf Canyon, Hermit's Peak wildfire. I am very grateful that the smoke didn't envelop Taos. The smoke clouds over the ridge were bright red from the fire and ash was raining on the town. The local high school gym was being used a refuge for displaced residents. There were several fire crews and equipment staged in town. The fire never came over the ridge line and into town, but they closed all of the national forests in the area. I read an article that the forests there will never recover as many of the tree species will not regenerate on their own after a massive fire. I know seed banks are currently growing saplings to help regenerate the forest. Let's hope it works.
During the month I was there, I drove to Abiquiu, another mecca full of artists. Georgia O'keefe's studio and home is located there and you can take a tour. I didn't. It's weird....I think I've gotten tired of traveling alone so going to museums and other things outside of hiking alone is not something I'm super interested in unless I have a friend or partner with me. I've had so many solo adventures and experiences that at this point, the experiences mean more when they are shared. It took me a long time and a lot of lonely nights to figure that out.
In Abiquiu, you can also visit Ghost Ranch where Georgia O'Keefe stayed for just one month in a cabin there. It now serves as a retreat and education center. The ranch itself has great hiking opportunities as well as the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology and Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology where you can explore Native American art and artifacts as well as other items of historical significance to the region. The area is know for its fossil beds. I found prehistoric clam shells on a hike in the area!
On my way out of the ranch, I saw a cabin on the side of the road and decided to stop. I thought it was an old historic cabin. It was not! It was actually built to look like an old cabin specifically for the movie, City Slickers. I love the movie City Slickers. I remember watching it as a kid. It enveloped the idea of a working adult going off on a crazy, life changing adventure, something I have very much embodied in my own adult life. Even the sequel is worth a watch, City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly's Gold. Sparking the imagination in the same way Forrest Fenn's Rocky Mountain treasure has...the desert is full of mystery and intrigue.
I chose to paint the cabin with Padernal in the background. Gerogia O'Keefe painted that mountain over and over again. It was her obsession and you can see it from the cabin in the direction of the reservoir. What drew me to the image was the way the light and shadow opposed each other under the porch. When you're in the desert, you're always aware of the sun and you're always looking for shade. It's this very interesting play between light and dark, hot and cool, comfort and discomfort.
After I hung out on the much welcome shady porch for a bit, I took off to a bike trail in Abiquiu for a desert ride as well as vegan tamales from the local general store. I then returned to Taos.
I didn't take a lot of photos while I was in Taos which is unusual for me. It was more about just being there and devoting myself to my art and business goals. I chose to do this painting as well as one other painting seen below from my time in New Mexico. This trip was mostly about me establishing myself as a working artist in a place so many other artists had also sought inspiration. When I visited a gallery in Santa Fe, I talked with a very nice gallery director who gave me incredible advice on how to approach a gallery for representation. One thing that stuck out to me was when he told me "For every artist you see represented here, there are forty artists who have tried to get representation at the gallery and failed." It wasn't that he was discouraging me, it was more of a "prepare yourself my young friend, it's a long road ahead with a lot of slammed doors" vibe. I very much appreciated his advice and honesty. He actually inquired about buying one of my paintings until he found out it was acrylic. He only collects oils and there is a stigma attached to acrylic art versus oil paintings. Less worthy in the eyes of some. So I've continued my journey since Taos and am now showing work at a gallery in New York. I sell paintings through social media as well as my website and the gallery. It's been a great introduction to me on how to become a working artist and I'm very much looking forward to continuing my journey as part of the welcoming, vibrant, and loving creative community all artists are a part of. I am part of art history now and the ghosts that haunt these places of artistic inspiration whisper to me in the wind, telling me to keep going, there is still so much to create.
The Maroon Bells Wilderness near Aspen, Colorado is a high altitude, mind blowing wilderness area complete with thick forest, wildflower covered alpine meadows, and crystal clear lakes reflecting snow capped peaks. You've got to earn these views though! I earned the heck out of them this summer with my best friend and partner, Dob. The backpack itself was not permitted, but the parking area has a quota and the road shuts down at 8AM. You must make a parking reservation to park at the trailhead and get there prior to the road closing or book one of the shuttles. Heads up: I got on the website to book the parking reservation the minute it opened for the season and managed to snag the last parking spot for the dates we went so plan ahead if you are wanting to do that hike! Early bird gets the parking reservation! We also had to make multi-day reservations so that our car could remain at the trailhead for the duration of our backpack. Parking reservations, shuttle information, and more information can be located here on the Aspen Chamber of Commerce website. Now that business is out of the way, on to the story:
We completed Four Pass Loop in three nights. It's around 28 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation gain over four mountain passes that are all over 12,000 feet. Looking back, we could have completed it in two nights because we ended up camping about three miles from the trailhead on the last night in designated numbered spots, but we were exhausted, didn't feel like trying to find a place to boondock for the night, and the views from the last night's campsite were absolutely stunning and absent of the mosquitos that had been eating us alive during our entire trip. The can of Salt and Vinegar Pringles waiting in the car did entice us though and it was a tough decision to stay, but it was definitely worth it.
I was fortunate enough to have spent two weeks acclimating to Colorado's notorious high altitude terrain prior to this backpacking trip. I had spent a few days in Salida, Colorado checking out the art scene as well as doing some hiking in the area and visiting hot springs. After Salida, I went to Crested Butte for a week to mountain bike at the resort and complete some epic hikes in the area. One of the best things about Crested Butte is that it's only 30 minutes from Gunnison, Colorado which has a legit recreation center with heated pool, waterslides and hot showers for cheap! So if you're camping long term and need a shower, it's a good spot to check out if you're in the area.
My partner, Dob, flew in a few days prior to the backpack and we spent a few days in Glenwood Springs and Aspen doing some hikes above 12,000 feet to help him get acclimated to the altitude.
The night before the backpack, we camped at Difficult Campground in White River National Forest right outside of Aspen. We started packing our packs by laying out all of our equipment around the campsite, and then packing out packs together. The hike required bear cans and we both had our own cans. Initially, I had thought we would be able to pack all of our food into Dob's bear can as it's a larger model than the one I have. I was wrong. Dob is a big dude that requires a lot of calories and has a general vibe of "what about that weight bench tho?!?!", plus he's a vegan, so we both ended up carrying out own bear cans to accommodate the amount of food we needed. Carrying your own gear is good practice anyway for backpacking trips. However, I very much wanted to save weight. The feminist in me is like "heck no, you are not carrying any of my gear and I'm perfectly capable of kicking ass and taking names on my own" when backpacking with a male friend or partner, but then I'm like "ummm, I have a dude that outweighs me by 70 pounds and can therefore carry more of the shared gear...no need to prove anything at the expense of my almost 40 year old back." So I was like okay, he can carry the stove or the tent...yeah it didn't work out like that. By the time we got his pack packed with food and gear, there was no room for the tent or the stove, so I ended up carrying the gear I carry on solo trips anyway. No big deal but honestly, I was looking forward to loading him up with weight like a pack mule! Mush, you! His pack was pretty small and he ended up having to bungee cord his bear can to the outside of his pack. Make it work however you need to!
While we were packing our packs, there was a group of early 20 somethings across from us also getting gear ready. It's funny when you encounter other backpackers and you start eyeing up their gear and they eye your gear and you try to not act like you're being nosey but then someone strikes up a conversation and the entire conversation then goes to gear! How much weight are you carrying? What kind of bear can are you using? What tent are you using? How much does that weigh? How are you treating your water? Oh yeah, I used to have that backpacking stove but I switched to this one because...This happened to us. They yelled out to us from across the street "Hey are you guys going on a backpack? Where at??" And we found out they were also doing Four Pass Loop. So we took a break from packing to meet and greet, compare itineraries and gear choices, and share stories. The group was from Kentucky. They were college students that had driven all the way out to Colorado for a short trip because they had seen a picture of the cover of a Colorado hikes book. It was the first backpacking trip of two of the three people in the group. Go big or go home! One of the girls was majoring in outdoor recreation so I thought it was super impressive that she had decided to tackle a big trip like Four Pass Loop! I didn't start really enjoying outdoor recreation until my late 20s! I think about the things I could have accomplished if I had started a decade earlier than I did...hindsight...I've definitely been making up for lost time. It's all you can do really.
One of the funny moments was when we compared weight. The dude in their group had the heaviest bear can ever! I mean twice as heavy as ours. They had brought items like cheese and sausage, partially hydrated foods like soups and rice...we opted for several packs of ramen, backpacking meals for dinners, and cliff bars for breakfast. If there is anything I've learned during backpacking is how to cut weight from my backpack. My four day pack is shockingly light. And I'm okay with that. My knees and back thank me every single time I go out. They say you spend $100 on gear for every pound of weight you cut from you pack. If you have the means, money well spent in my opinion.
They were planning on doing the backpack in two nights rather than three which is definitely doable, but they had only acclimated for one day. It's kind of a gamble when you are at altitude. You never really know how your body will react even if you are prepared. I've never had much issue other than a slight headache here and there, but I've definitely been on trips with hikers that regularly crush it on climbs at altitude and they end up pooping themselves or feeling sick for the duration of the trip. My partner had acclimated for four days and he had serious trouble sleeping on the trail, another symptom of altitude. Best practice: stay hydrated, avoid alcohol, acclimate, and descend every night to sleep if you can.
The next morning we got up early and headed out on our first backpack together as a couple and Dob's first recreational backpack outside of his military field exercises and ruck marches.
We got to the trail head very early. Around 7AM. We grabbed out packs and headed out. The trail initially goes by Maroon Lake and Crater Lake which is where most people turn around. Great day hike for families. Once you get past Crater Lake, the crowds start to dissipate significantly as you start your climb to the first of four passes. We completed the backpack counterclockwise as it offers the best views at the end of your trip. Most trail runners complete the loop clockwise to get the two hardest passes out of the way at the start of their run. We saw several trail runners on our backpack and seriously, mad respect (with a hint of jealousy) that they can complete that entire circuit in one day. I don't think that any amount of training would ever allow me to complete a 28 mile run and 8,000 feet of gain in one day...while running. Noooope.
When I was researching the trail conditions, I have to admit, I was nervous. The snow had not melted out yet and the trail description said there were several snow fields to cross, several deep stream crossings, a cornice overhanging the trail on the first pass, and a gnarly snow crossing above Snowmass lake that required either a steep and very scary traverse across snow with a very gnarly plunge into the lake and boulders below if you slipped or kickstepping up the snow and onto a boulder field saturated with water where the entire hillside was just sliding out from underneath you. I had lots of anxiety about this hike when we started. I recognize this as the place you want to be in occasionally when you are in the outdoors. It's the spot where growth happens. You're still in your element using the things you've learned, but you are stepping outside your comfort zone just a little and pushing yourself to get it done regardless of if you are scared. Getting through this hike made me feel like a badass! This is one of the reasons I advocate for women in the outdoors! Nothing makes you feel stronger and more capable than tackling a snow covered mountain peak with a giant pack on your back! That's right, I slept in a tent, I didn't get eaten by a bear, I found water, I shit in the woods, I crushed it! And it's really awesome when you crush it harder than the men in the group! Humbling for the men, confidence building for the women! It's a win win situation.
The first pass we reached was Buckskin Pass at 12,462 feet. It was a beast! From the valley, you could see switchback after switchback making its way up a very steep mountain. The snow cornice perched atop the pass was definitely directly over the switchbacks. As most things do, they look scarier from a distance, and once we got to the pass, the cornice was just a few moments of sketchy hiking before we were on the other side and above it at the top of the pass.
The hike down from the pass was not our favorite. At this point we were exhausted from the climb, and the hike to camp at Snowmass Lake seemed endless. A classic Colorado afternoon thunderstorm rolled in and we ended up hiking in the rain most of way down.
Once we got to the lake, we looked around for a good campsite that was close to the lake but far enough to ensure Leave No Trace principles. Most of the other campers also respected the camping areas. There was competition for campsites. I ended up trudging though ankle deep mud and almost loosing my boot trying to snag a campsite before a group of four dudes did. We were both going for it at the same time and I was like "seats taken" as I threw down my pack. I have no shame.
We setup camp and went down to the lake to relax and get water. This was when we discovered the mosquitos were absolutely awful. Mosquitos don't really come after me a vengeance, but my partner is a buffet for them. He had not packed any bug repellant and I had just packed enough Picaridin lotion for myself to get me through the trip. Admittedly, I was very selfish the first night and didn't disclose to him that I had bug repellant. I was putting it on secretly in the tent when he wasn't around. The next morning I came clean about the lotion when I heard him slapping his leg and slinging all kinds of profanities while he ate breakfast. Sharing my dwindling supply of bug lotion was an act of love.
That night in camp we noticed the Kentucky group's dog and located their campsite to see how it was going. They were feeling the altitude. They ended up deciding to turn around the next morning and hike out the way they came in rather than continuing on to do the next three passes. One of the girls was feeling very ill and they didn't want to risk it. Smart move but also disappointing for them I am sure. The couple of the group had day hiked up to the second pass and it was nice to get intel from them about the super gnarly part of the hike that we had to tackle first thing the next morning. It was the steep snow slope or boulder field area that was giving me the most anxiety. Trail reports said things like "we had to turn around" and "I feared for my life while I was crossing" and "very dangerous, recommend doing later in the season..." They pointed out the gnarly part and when I saw it in real life, it didn't look too bad. I had definitely been in worse situations. We wished the group a safe journey home and made our way back to camp to turn in for the night.
I woke up feeling very refreshed after a glorious night of uninterrupted sleep. Dob, on the other hand, had slept very little and was feeling it. I'm not sure if it was the altitude that kept him up or the fact that we were out in the wilderness and he was hyper vigilant about our surroundings? He's a military guy and that's a thing sometimes. I woke up to him brushing the hair out of my face and watching me sleep which is super sweet but also kind of embarrassing...my hair is all gross and sweaty, I smell awful, terrible breath, dirt on my face...like backpacking gross...he didn't seem to mind!
When we got to the gnarly part, it was no joke. We contemplated going across the slope as there was a trail cut into the snow, but I didn't feel comfortable doing it without an ice ax so we opted on going up and over. There were steps kicked into the snow that went straight up. When we got there, there were two guys helping a girl get up the slope. She was having a full on melt down like sob crying because she was so scared. If you slipped out of the foot holds you landed on ankle shattering boulders so I get why she was freaking out. He partner was right behind her stabilizing her feet so she could get up. She would take a step and then pause and cry, she was shaking, I felt so bad for her. They ended up getting her above the snow bank and onto the rock so we started up behind them once they were off to the side. Once we got up the snow bank, it got so much worse. Once you stepped off the snow, the scree and mud under the boulders just liquified under you. Like the entire hillside just caved. And then it was scrambling over huge boulders requiring you to find hand holds and test every boulder you stepped on to make sure it was stable. Rocks were dislodged and went hurtling downhill. I was screaming "ROOOCCCCKKKK" every five seconds. Definitely the gnarliest scramble I've every done. Dob got through it much quicker than I did'. He has a serious lack of fear sometimes. It's incredible! I've seen him jump off of waterfalls, scramble over boulder fields, and do really scary stuff with zero hesitation or experience. It's impressive.
The painting I painted of this hike is from the top of the scary boulder field. The red rocks in the foreground are the boulders and Snowmass Lake is in the middle ground. I have several more I would like to complete from this hike. I completed this one first because I like the color scheme, the composition, and it was the crux of the hike for me.
Once I got past this point and back onto established trail, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. That was the most challenging part of the hike other than just the general physical challenge of climbing high altitude mountain passes with a heavy pack.
The next pass was Trail Rider Pass (12,415). A pretty straight forward hike up a snow field. Once we got to the top, the valley on the other side opened up before us in amazing views! I would say this was the high point of stoke for us during the trip. Completing the most difficult technical part of the hike, checking off two of the four passes of the trip, and taking in the views had us feeling incredible! We joked around on the pass and took a bunch of photos. One of my favorite things about my partner is the way he is always goofing off and making me laugh. The man almost never takes anything seriously which can be frustrating for me because I'm very much type A planning type, but most of the time I appreciate his easy going demeanor especially when we are adventuring together. He's always a yes man. Any adventure I've every asked to go on, he's been like "yup, I'm down" without hesitation and I need that in a partner. I've very spontaneous, but in controlled and calculated way. For example, I'll randomly decide I want to travel to a place I've never been, but then create a detailed slide presentation with all the minute details I've planned out. It's a weird dynamic.
The hike down from the pass was BRUTAL and never ending. We got to a meadow that was beautiful and had abundant water sources as well as large boulders for us to lounge on. We were like "hell yeah, the rest of today's hike is going to be chill."
It was not chill.
The hike down was long and very steep and our thighs were searing from the exercise. It didn't help that it started raining on us and the red dirt trail turned into red clay that had us slipping and sliding all over the place. At one point, Dob's bear can went flying off his pack and down the hillside when we stopped to put on our wet weather gear. It got caught in some heather so it wasn't hard to retrieve but it was definitely a "let's take a break because I'm about to lose it on this trail" moment.
We passed by a few campsites that were really nice but we wanted to get a little more distance in that day. We ended up passing by a flowing river and I stripped down and went for a swim. So incredibly refreshing and the icy waters helped my aching muscles and joints feel so much better. That was one of my summer goals in 2022: swim in more mountain lakes and rivers.
We ended up stopping at a horrible site for the night. It had a view of waterfall which was nice, but the ground was not flat and we had to pitch the tent on a slope. The mosquitos were murderous at this site. I mean awful. I crawled into the tent and refused to come out until the next morning.
I'd like to say our last day was epic, and it was, but the stoke was super low. Dob had not slept and we had to tackle two passes that day. The third pass, Frigid Air Pass at 12,405 feet, was killer. I sat down half way up the pass and was all "leave me here, just leave me." I imagined my body just resting there in that spot forever until the land just absorbed me as a relic. Every step was extreme effort. Once we got to the top, we were rewarded with amazing views of the valley that leads to Crested Butte. Many hikers will hike over West Maroon Pass (the last pass) and then through the valley to Crested Butte to stay for the night in a hostel or hotel, and then hike back the next day to Aspen for a short, but more comfortable backpacking trip. It's definitely on my list of things to do.
As we made our way up to the last pass, the bottom feel out of the sky and the trail became a literal river of water. In addition to the rain, there was booming thunder all around us. There was a part of me that wanted to stop and hunker down, but I was in sight of the pass and decided to push through. The rain didn't let up until I got to the top of the pass. ! was so stoked to get the forth and final pass, West Maroon Pass, over and done with. The only thing we had to do after that was one supposedly gnarly river crossing, locating camp for the night, and an easy hike out the next morning. Dob got to the pass several minutes after me and was a little irritated I had left him behind. I do wish I had waited and hiked with him so we could have made the last pass together. We started the journey together, and I should have waited to end it together.
The hike down from West Maroon Pass was very chill and the stream crossing that everyone was telling us was gnarly (hikers hiking the loop clockwise) was not even a thing. We just put on our sandals, unbuckled our waist straps, got out or trekking poles, and got across the water easy peasy. Dob ended up tossing his crocs across the river to another hiker that had not brought sandals with him for river crossings. Trail magic!
When we were approaching the campsite area, we passed by a group of four girls that were hiking in the same direction as us. Once we passed them, one of the girls ended up running past us to snag a potential site as there were only 11 sites available in that area. It was kind of comical the way she ran ahead. Dob and I had a conversation before that happened about if we snagged the last campsite, we'd invite them to camp with us for the night. They did not have the same plan apparently, ha ha.
That last night offered us relief from mosquitos and the best campsite views of the entire trip. I even found a rock that looked like it had a gold vein in it, but I accidentally left it there. It would have been an excellent addition to my ever growing rock collection. It was meant to belong to someone else's rock collection, I reckon.
The last day, we got up early, didn't even eat breakfast, and just hiked out to the truck. I was so stoked to throw my pack down off my back, take off my boots, and get down on the Coke Cola, Pringles, and Oreos I had left in the car. A total dumpster fire of a diet, but I think we earned it. When we got to the truck there were a few rangers who were walking around with a teenage boy. I guess their friend had gone on a hike in the area, but had never returned and had been missing for a day. Yikes! I'm not sure how that turned out, but I'm hoping he was found healthy and uninjured.
We ended up driving to Buena Vista that night. It was a two hour drive and Dob slept in the bed of the truck while I drove. We found an awesome laundry mat with showers! The local park was having a 4th of July festival with a beer garden, live music, and art vendors. We grabbed some brews and found a comfy spot in the grass to watch the band play. I love Colorado vibes so much. Just easy going, outdoor oriented folks living the good (but very expensive) life. I'm thinking about relocating there this year, but they pay teachers the lowest of all 50 states. We will see.
We ended our trip with a day spent at Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort! An epic place nestled right at the foot of Mount Princeton. Totally affordable and a great way to ease sore hiking muscles!
This was one of my favorite backpacking trips for several reasons. It was the first backpack I have done in Colorado, I did all the planning and reservations on my own, it was Dob's first backpack and our first true backpack together (we've done a lot of day hikes and sleeping at trailheads in my truck), but mostly because of the challenges and fear I had to overcome. There were moments when I had to tell myself to flip the fear switch off and just go for it! I'm proud of myself for completing this early season hike and I'm also grateful I had good company for the duration! My painting "Snowmass Lake, Aspen, Colorado" honors this experience and the landscape of White River National Forest!
Of all the places I've ever visited, the Canadian Rockies are my favorite by a long stretch. Anyone who has ever visited Banff or Jasper National Park knows what I'm talking about. And whenever I encounter people who are patrons of the parks and they haven't been there yet, I always tell them it's a must see area. Seriously, the stretch of land between Banff and Jasper along the Columbia Icefield Parkway is mind blowing! You are surrounded by rugged, remote beauty in the form of towering, snowcapped mountains, flowing alpine rivers, glaciers, and abundant wildlife. Maybe it's hyperbole, but I feel like I've seen a bear almost every day on my excursions in the Canadian Rockies, sometimes a little too close for comfort.
When I was in Glacier National Park on the journey to Banff, I remember hiking the Grinnell Glacier trail and encountering a bear with her two cubs. This is a high traffic trail in Glacier with a lot of folks who have spent minimal time in the outdoors and aren't always familiar with best practices to stay safe and also keep wildlife safe. Point in case, on this hike to Grinnell, people were not carrying bear spray which I feel is essential in grizzly areas and then, they were getting thisclose to a mom bear and her cubs to get that perfect photo for their Facebook. I mean, I saw a mom pose with her children 20 feet away from this bear while her partner snapped a photo. Bad idea folks. These animals are territorial and you are in their HOME. So please be respectful of the wildlife so that you and the animals are safe!
So anyway, I get sidetracked walking through the memories of my travels. I started thinking here about bears and bear safety and now I'm reliving the pandemic hiking moments where people just left mountains of toilet paper in the woods. Pack it out! Hopefully, it was a learning experience for many people about how to be better stewards of nature and use Leave No Trace principles.
Okay, back to the Canadian Rockies.
My initial trip to Banff and Jasper was kind of a rights of passage for me as a woman traveler. It was the first time other than Acadia National Park where I had set out on my own in my truck to a distant and remote wilderness setting. I drove from Seattle to Kamloops where I stayed for the night and then onto Jasper National Park. On this trip, I made a few campground reservations. Canadian Parks definitely roll out the red carpet for car campers: hot showers, cell phone charging stations, playgrounds. It is quite the change of pace from American national park campgrounds although this summer I did find showers at the campgrounds in Grand Tetons which was very much welcome.
I had planned on staying for two weeks on my first trip to Canada, but the wildfires ended up cutting my trip short by a few days.
The smoke was so bad that it completely obstructed my views of Lake Louise. I couldn't even see the mountains. Visibility was just a few yards. It was gnarly. I don't know if it's just me or if other people are affected this way but wildfire smoke makes my joints hurt, makes me swell and bloat, I have asthma that is only triggered by smoke, horrible headaches, negative thoughts. This had been definitely a downer over the last few years as there isn't a part of the west that hasn't been affected by wildfires during the warm months. It is increasingly getting worse year after year with minimal addition of resources to combat the issue. Draught continues to be issue as our planet's climate shifts and is negatively affecting the places we love and the wildlife that call these places home.
I tried to make the most of my first trip to Canada despite the fires. I still did amazing things even though I cut my trip short. I went white water rafting, completed several hikes, visited art museums and galleries in the area, visited three parks: Yoho (my favorite), Banff, and Jasper.
And Canada is very boondock friendly. There was one night where I thought I was parked in a good location to sleep for the night. When I find a spot, I don't usually hang out or build a fire or anything. I've usually been so physically active that day that all I want to do is cook and go to sleep. This night was the same, I just crawled into the back of my truck and was reading right before it got dark and saw a ranger pull up behind me. I was thinking "Oh crap, I'm in trouble" and the lady was so super nice and informed me that I was parked in a wildlife corridor and couldn't sleep there for the night. She asked me if I had a map on me and I gave it to her and she showed me where there was a large gravel parking lot just 20 minutes away that was free for people to park and camp overnight on. I was so incredibly grateful for her help in pointing me in the right direction to a place to park for the night. Even traveling down the Icefield Parkway has a place to park for the night. There is a huge lot right in front of the Athabasca Glacier where you can park for the night and sleep in your vehicle for a small fee. And the visitor center has a fantastic restaurant for an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet.
The Athabasca Glacier itself is worth the drive. It was the first glacier I had ever encountered and very informational experience. When you walk the trail, it has signs that show you where the glacier was located ten years before, twenty, years before, thirty years before....this interpretive trail paired with my wildfire experience helped reinforce my understanding of global warming. The glacier has receded significantly over the last 100 years.
I had another learning moment when I visited the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Canada. I had hiked to Bow Glacier Falls the day before visiting the museum, and when I was walking around looking at artwork, I noticed a painting of the same area I had hiked the day prior. It was of the falls and in the painting, on top of the falls, sat this huge white mass, a glacier. The painting had been completed in the 1920s. I pulled out my phone and looked at the photograph I had taken of the falls from a similar viewpoint and the glacier was completely gone in my photograph as compared to the painting from 100 years ago. I've always been intrigued with art as a tool to document history and it was very interesting to see this visual documentation of the progression of the melting glacier over 100 years. Bittersweet knowing that I had connected with an artist from history through shared experience, but sad to know that our connection was at a loss.
In additional to all the amazing experiences I've had in the area, I did manage to make it back to Canada earlier in the season the year after the fires were in full swing. I woke up super early one morning, I mean early, like 4 AM and drove from the gravel lot near Banff to Moraine Lake to complete a loop hike in that area. You have to get there early as this area fills up completely and they shut the road down by 8AM. I saw a lot of frustrated families get turned away because they hadn't done their research and planned their trip. I got up, drove up to the parking lot, and then got ready for the day, not the other way around.
The Moraine Lake area is insanely beautiful. It's a glacial lake surrounded by the Valley of the Ten Peaks. The blue green water reflects the mountains like a mirror. You can rent canoes from the visitor center there which is where I got the idea for my painting. It was a perfect image of brightly colored canoes sat against the backdrop of towering peaks. If you google "Moraine Lake painting" you'll see several artists' rendition of this same scene. I am not the only one painting this scene, but as an artist, sometimes you are just drawn to beauty regardless of how many times that same scene has been illustrated. I actually enjoy seeing the way other artists interpret the same scene. Art is truly a labor of authenticity and uniqueness of self like a fingerprint. Shared experiences through art connect people from all backgrounds. Art is a language.
I wouldn't say that I have one experience that influenced me to paint this specific scene of Moraine Lake, but more of a combination of experiences in the Canadian Rockies that has instilled in me a love of that area and a need to honor it through my art. I have several more scenes I would like to paint from my adventures there. Stay tuned!
I love paintings for different reasons. This one of a lake reflection in Medicine Bow National Forest is my favorite as far as technical skill goes. I was very happy with how it turned out: I love the texture in the different plants and rocks, I like the transparency of the water and seeing the rocks beneath the surface and the sky reflected in the water. I like the composition and the velvety nature of the brush strokes. I've painted four paintings so far of this area and also this experience.
In addition to loving this painting because I love my technical development as an artist through this painting, I love it because THE EXPERIENCE!
I relocated all the way across the country this summer to upstate New York to spend time with my partner and best friend before he deploys next year. I spent the last part of my summer in Washington and Oregon visiting friends and doing a few backpacking trips before starting my drive across the country to Watertown, New York. It took me almost a week to make that drive. I drove it pretty much straight through. I had been adventuring since April and honestly, the funds were running low so I didn't sight see much on the way, just drove mile after mile after mile sleeping at KOA campgrounds, Walmart parking lots, and miraculously in this spot that I painted! It was the highlight of my drive across the country and possibly the most beautiful scenery I saw all summer including the month I spent in Colorado.
I had stopped in Salt Lake City to pick up the rest of my things that I left at my friend's house and decided to cut through Wyoming on the drive. At this point, I was very road weary. I had been driving 7 hours a day plus and if you've driven across the country, you know that there are parts of the US that make you hope you never have to make that drive again...NEBRASKA...cough cough...eastern Oregon to Boise...cough....
I had used iOverlander to scope out sleeping spots for the night near Laramie, Wyoming so my goal for the day was to get to Laramie and then get horizontal on my comfy bed in the back of my truck. Let me digress for a minute with an ode to Gertrude, my Nissan Frontier. I used to have a Toyota Tacoma, Johnny Utah. Yes, Johnny was rugged; big tires, 4 x 4, silver mid-sized beast, roomy, but screw the seats in that truck on a long drive! Tacomas are not made for long drives if you have big girly hips like I do and a bad back. My back killed me on long drives in the Tacoma. So before I left Seattle on my crazy adventure during the pandemic (I traveled to remote parts of the country living in my truck for eight months during the pandemic), I traded my Tacoma in for a Nissan Frontier. A cute, tiny Nissan Frontier and I got a Snugtop canopy for it. Then my friend and I built a bed platform with storage in the back of it. I bought a tri-fold memory foam mattress for the back of it and the back of my truck has literally become a place of refuge and peace for me. I mean, when I visit friends and they offer up their spare bed, I'm like "No, that's okay, I brought my bed with me." I'm a small person, 5'4" on a good day, and I can stretch out and be overly comfortable in the bed of my truck. My partner, on the other hand, cannot. His feet hang out the back window when we camp in the truck. He takes up alot of space, as men will do. Gertrude's seats are heated and literally the most comfortable seats I've ever had in a vehicle. I have zero back pain after a long drive in the Frontier and it still does all the truck things the Tacoma did, but with a little less clearance. I highly recommend if you're putting in the miles.
So on my way to Laramie, I hit the worst traffic I've ever been in. I mean miles and miles of stopped traffic for two hours. I had time to apply for three jobs in New York by using my phone as a hot spot to my laptop, make a sandwich on the tailgate, and take a nap. It was awful mostly because I had been chugging on water and there were zero places to pee without every single person on the highway seeing me do it. So when I got to Laramie, I was exhausted and wanted to the easiest place to stop hurtling through space on pavement at 80 miles an hour. Initially, I was going to sleep at a spot that was meh, but available. I think I had considered the Walmart in Laramie. Then I did a little more research and saw that there was a national forest nearby with mountains and a few first come, first serve campgrounds so I decided to push through the exhaustion to get something out of the drive.
It only took me a extra 30 minutes of drive time to get into the national forest and I was rewarded with the view on the right! A beautiful alpine lake stretched before me, no traffic, just serene nature. I already felt the stress and tension of the road rolling off my shoulders as I drove further into the forest.
I ended up at a trailhead and had hoped to sleep there for the night. There were signs that said no overnight camping there, but sometimes you try to get by that especially if backpackers are leaving their vehicles there overnight. I try to be respectful of policies 100% of the time, but sometimes you just need to park and crawl into the back of your truck and hide for 8 hours. I definitely understand why they have that policy especially with the rise of van life. You don't want a popular trailhead completely filled with van lifers. There was a campground right down the dirt road that I assumed would be full so I walked from the trailhead to the campground just to see and by sheer luck or fortune, I found the very last camping spot for the night and snagged it for the steep price of $10. I was overjoyed. I managed to make it to the campground in time to do some afternoon hiking in the area so I packed my gear and hit the trail.
Absolutely stunning scenery. Wildflowers everywhere, bodies of water reflecting the stormy sky, petrified wood fossilized in the rocks, towering granite cliffs and boulders, it was everything you could ask for in a hike. I hiked about seven miles over a pass and into a valley before turning around due to weather. On the way back, the sky dumped rain. Just a downpour. And when I got back to the campground, an older man came up to me and asked it I had seen a women in her 60s on the trail. I told him I had not and asked what was up. He had said that the lady staying at one of the campsites had told him she was going on a hike and hadn't returned and he was worried about her with the bad weather rolling in. She ended up showing up shortly thereafter, and I could tell he was very relieved. One of my favorite things about the outdoor community is the way we look after one another in the wilderness. I have had several experiences on the trail that required help from strangers. I've given water purification tablets to long distance hikers who had lost their purification abilities and been without water for 24 hours, I've assisted in a search and rescue in a slot canyon in Utah where the hiker had to be airlifted out, I've been search and rescued myself in North Carolina on a backpacking trip after injuring both ankles on the Art Loab Trail. The wilderness community looks after one another because you know that it could happen to you. Being prepared, being aware, and having training in wilderness first aid is critical if you plan on spending extended amounts of time in the outdoors. Be safe! People get injured and die everyday in wilderness settings.
When I got back to the campground, it was really pouring so I crawled into the back of my truck and made ramen, got out of my wet clothes, and went to sleep.
The next morning I decided to explore another set of trails close the campground that passed by a large lake at the base of the Snowy Range. Damn! I was overwhelmed with beauty and it was very hard to pull myself away from the views to start driving again. I'm a big fan of minimalist, modern architecture like concrete structures with large windows and almost bare decor and zero clutter. Spaces like that help calm my mind and make it easier to focus. It streamlines my vibrations. The Snowy Range was nature's equivalent of that for me. It was simple in its beauty; just these huge towering white walls of granite that plunged into crystal clear waters reflecting blue sky. There was a beautiful order to it and lack of chaos. Even the boulder field I crossed through seemed manicured and not chaotic even though the very definition of a boulder field would be chaos through erosion. It was silent except for the wind blowing across the water. And I love silence. Noise is the equivalent of clutter to me and it complicates my mind and thoughts. I sat on the lake shore that morning and just took it all in. I didn't want to leave and that spot amplified the fact that I knew I was leaving the beloved western United States landscape that fills my heart with so much joy. I was choosing to move across the country for a person I loved that didn't have the ability to join me in the places I long to be. It was a beautiful and bittersweet moment that filled me with dread but also gratitude because I was reminded of all the beautiful experiences I've had over the last ten years that most people only ever experience through photos or social media posts.
Eventually, I had to hit the road again. That day I crossed into Nebraska. They were stark contrasts in experience. The Snowy Range in Medicine Bow National Forest was the one moment of peace and rest I had on the long drive across the United States and it will always hold a special place in my nomad heart. I've painted four paintings so far from just the 12 hours I spend in that location and I think it's my way of transporting myself back to that place and experience.
You would never think that this mountain gem is surrounded by arid desert in all directions. The Uinta Mountains are just an hour and a half drive from Salt Lake City. It's an incredible place for all types of recreational activities during all seasons: hiking, backpacking, riding horses, dirtbiking, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, trout fishing...I mean the list goes on. And one of the best things about the Uintas is that is almost all dispersed camping. There are sites all along the Mirror Highway where you can boondock to your heart's delight! I've never had a hard time finding a place to camp for the night and several trailheads are available if all the dispersed sites are taken. There are also a few developed campgrounds if you're looking for more civilized accommodations.
This was almost the last hike of the warm season for me before the snow hit. I ended up driving out to the Unitas because I had been getting a bit of city fever. I had started teaching again in Salt Lake City and had gone from a summer of adventure back to getting up at 5:30 AM to commute in traffic to a very enjoyable but demanding job. I needed a weekend away in the woods, so I looked on Alltrails and found a popular hike in the area. Then, I hopped on iOverlander and found boondock sites close to the trailhead.
If you're an outdoor enthusiast or enthusiast of anything seasonal (including pumpkin spice anything...ew gross), you know the anxiety and pressure there is to experience as much of that activity you can before the season ends. For me, it's hiking. When I moved away from Seattle there was a little bit of relief because I felt less pressure to crush it every weekend: wake up at 4;30 AM or even sleep at the trail head to make a summit time and back to the car before daylight ends, driving several hours to complete a hike and getting a parking spot at the trailhead, fighting Seattlites for parking spaces and camping spots. When I got to Utah, things slowed down quite a bit. Unless you're going to the national parks, parking is not a problem...you will find a camp spot....just drive out into the desert and there you are. However, I still felt the need to go out and get it done one more weekend before the snow set in especially after getting back into a habit of being off the road and on the job.
It was September when I did this hike. The day was warm and to be honest, when I was packing the truck, I did it quickly and did not bring the proper sleeping bag. During the summer, I always keep my truck packed with my camping gear so I can just hit the road on a moments notice but at that point I had removed some of my gear including my cold weather sleeping bag. I checked the weather and was like "Oh, I should be okay with two quilts." Yeah, no. It was super cold that night. When I got to the trailhead I thought about sleeping there but kept driving down the forest service road looking for a prime spot with a view, fire pit....
I ended up finding the most amazing spot in an open field with epic views of the valley, a huge fire pit, and conveniently next to the site were slash piles the forest service had set up that are ideal for fire kindling. I layered up and started a fire to help keep the cold away. As I've mentioned before in another post, much of the land in Utah is open range so cattle can graze during the warmer months. It was pitch black except for fire light and I heard footsteps approaching me out of the darkness. Camping alone in the wilderness and not having a light source, my heart was pounding. I was thinking worst case scenarios....bears, drunk dudes, Sasquatch...and poof....fear subsided when I saw a herd of cows black camouflaged by the darkness of night creeping closer to the fire for warmth or possibly curiosity. It was nice to have the company! They ended up hanging out all night and slept around the truck. I woke up the sound of their early morning moos as they moved off in search of food.
I woke up to ice on my car, gray skies, and rain. I had not expected so much rain and was honestly disappointed. I drove to the trailhead and sat in my truck hoping it would subside, It didn't and I put on my rain gear: rain pants, jacket, gloves and decided to hit the trail anyway after putting in the effort to drive all the way out there and sleep in the freezing cold under a thin quilt.
The rain wasn't just a light drizzle. It was a downpour. I mean, there was a small river of water flowing down the trail as I made my way up to the first lake. I passed several backpackers headed out due to rain. My mood was morose. Every step I was thinking "Why am I out here? Is this even worth it? I could just turn around." I got to the first lake, Wall Lake, and took in the views and thought to myself "Man, this would be an epic spot if it wasn't raining and completely enveloped in fog." I checked the map and followed the trail around the lake and up to a small rock wall. I decided I was already soaking wet, my pack was completely wet, might as well keep going just to check it off the list.
A group of horses and riders passed me on the trail which was a moment of happiness. Their dog was super friendly and kept bringing me sticks to throw for it until the riders called the dog away to continue on. After they passed and I made it to the next lake, a miraculous thing happened and the rain cleared up! I mean beautiful blue skies appeared like the rain had just been a figment of my imagination.
The scene that I painted from this hike was right after it cleared up and I was able to get the most amazing lake reflections that the area was known for. On the hike, you pass several big and small lakes, and they are like a mirror reflecting the trees and sky. Hence the name, Mirror Lake Highway. I was so incredibly grateful I kept going because I was rewarded with epic view after epic view. And that is exactly why we do what we do: we put in mile after awful soul crushing mile to get to that one view that makes it all worth the effort and pain.
I was able to complete the loop with fantastic weather and every other hiker I passed shared the same joy as me that we had stuck it out and the reward had totally been worth it! I had hoped to make it back to that area during the summer for an overnighter, but I never found the time. And I guess that's life? We hope that we will make it back some day but time only moves in one direction and you're only really in one place once. I'm grateful I got to experience the Uintas as much as I did. While I lived in Utah I got to hike, camp, snowshoe, and snowmobile in that area and it was an amazing experience!
lThis painting holds significant weight for me as an artist for many reasons. The first being that it was the first painting I sold through my website. A friend from Georgia bought it who has been a long time patron of my artwork! This was a huge milestone for me as a working artist. It was the moment that all my hard work and effort literally paid off! Second, the bones in this painting pay homage to one of the desert greats, Georgia O'Keefe. It wasn't until I started living in the desert that I understood her love of the landscape. For me, the desert washed my soul clean the way the desert sun bleaches and cleans the bones featured in this painting. Smooth, quiet, calm...it's hard to describe, but the desert became a place for me to heal from some of my past trauma as well as battle depression that I've been managing over the last few years. And sometimes I think about not sharing that part of myself with my followers, but I feel that mental health should be talked about openly because having community makes it easier to get help and support if you need it! For me, traveling, having new experiences, making art, chasing sunshine all help me see the beauty in life!
Third, this painting also highlights the general vibe of the area along with a major landmark near Moab, Utah. I am not a rock climber, but I have several friends who are and the rock tower seen in the background is a popular climbing tower in Castle Valley near Moab. The old pickup truck complete with rust and bone decor is a common site in the area.
On my last trip to Moab before I left Utah (hopefully not forever), I spent some time in Castle Valley hiking along the washes in the area. It's a really nice area if you're trying to get away from the crowds of Moab and Arches National Park. You still get epic views of the desert landscape as well as epic views of the Colorado River as it flows through the canyon without the traffic.
On trips prior, I had driven to this trailhead but never really hiked around the area. The last time I went, it was full blown winter and couldn't make it all the way to the trailhead. Originally, I had wanted to paint out here. Last summer I had plans of doing a lot of en plein air painting as I traveled, but after painting a few horrible landscapes, I abandoned that dream and decided to just enjoy the hiking and scenery and wait until I was back in the studio to create. It's also hard for me to find time to sit down and sketch while I'm out hiking or traveling. There's so much to see and do and I want to see and do it all so to carve out an hour or two to sit down and paint is a very hard thing for me to do. I'm definitely more of a studio artist. I'm learning how to slow down.
When I got out to the trailhead, I didn't really have an agenda. I remember being pretty exhausted that day and the wind was howling so I dropped my tailgate, ate a sandwich, then napped in the back of my truck for about an hour before heading out on a hike. I just strolled along some of the trails and took in the Juniper trees and cactus that had just started to bloom in the area. Occasionally, I saw a lizard or rabbit scurrying along. I didn't encounter anyone on my hike and that is one my favorite things about the desert. There is an endless expanse of land and sky so it makes being alone very easy. You don't have to try real hard to be a loner in the desert. You can literally just disappear into the landscape. I have a bad habit of wanting to spend time alone. It's peaceful and low stress. I grew up as an only child so I'm very good at entertaining myself.
I didn't hike too long on this hike because storm clouds started rolling in, maybe four miles round trip. The landscape, however, was legit just in that short walk. I did watch two climbers summit the tower while I was there.
When I got back to the trailhead, this old red truck was parked next to my Nissan Frontier. If there is one thing about Moab, it's that you can let your freak flag fly as high as you want. It's not uncommon to see people fueling up at the gas station or resupplying at the small grocery store who look like they've stepped out of Mad Max. It's also not uncommon to encounter people who make you wonder if they've spent a little too much time in the desert. Desert crazy is a thing. On the antenna of this truck were cow vertebrae stacked on top of one another. This wasn't the first truck I've seen with this decor in the desert. I've also seen a lot of cow skulls mounted to the front of trucks. Life goals.
I had a cow vertebrae in my truck that I had picked up on the second night I spent in Utah when I first moved there a year and a half prior. I had boondocked on an open mesa near Price, Utah and found the scattered bones of a dead cow while I was taking a walk. Also, not uncommon. Much of land in Utah is open range which means cattle are set loose during the warm months to feed on the open land. So bones are everywhere. A reminder of the harsh and unforgiving landscape.
I took my cow bone out of my truck and added it to others on the red truck's antenna before I left to find a place to camp for the night. I felt it was a good way to wrap up my journey in Utah. The bone I collected at the start of my journey remained in the desert in a type of real life mobile art installation.
I think about the desert often. I'm staring out my window right now at the snow falling in upstate New York and my mind drifts to the silent landscape, the warm breeze, the way the light dances along the cliffs and red rocks, the shade of the Juniper tree, the hyperawareness of water sources, and ability to disappear for days into the arid landscape. I look forward to experiencing it all again someday. Until then, I can relive those moments through my artwork. I use my art as a form of mediation that help transport me back to those precious moments when I feel alive on the road.
This story is probably my favorite of all my painting adventure stories. I've never met a single person that wasn't completely blown away by the Canadian Rockies. It's like the Rockies of United States but on steroids. The Canadian Parks Service also treats you like royalty when you visit: hot showers and cell phone charging stations at campgrounds, open 24 hour parking lots that are free or low rates for staying for the night in your van or vehicle. I've loved it so much, I've visited two summers in a row. I would have made it a third summer in a row, but the pandemic happened.
The first year I visited Banff and Jasper National Park, it was an awful wildfire year. I ended up cutting my three week trip short to just ten days. The smoke was so intense you couldn't even see the mountains from Lake Louise. On my drive home back to Seattle, I drove by forests literally on fire. I could see the fire line from the road. I have controllable asthma unless I'm around fire smoke. Then it's gnarly. So I abandoned ship that summer and headed to the Oregon coast instead. Those coastal winds do an incredible job of keeping the smoke inland.
The summer after the bad wildfire year was when I did the hike featured in my painting "Atop Cirque Peak, Banff, Canada." I went earlier in the season (July rather than August) to hopefully avoid fire season. I timed it just right! I encountered only a few snow patches on my hikes and I missed the smoke entirely!
This hike was a huge confidence booster for me. The year prior I had taken several courses with the Mountaineers in Olympia, Washington. The Mountaineers is a non-profit organization that offers outdoor recreation, safety, and navigation courses to the greater Seattle community. The course I took with the Olympia branch was called "Alpine Scrambling." This class included things that, as a Georgia girl, terrified me. Snow hiking terrified me. Crampons? Hell no! It's slippery and cold and icy and people like get injured and fall off mountains...or at least that's how I perceived it when I started taking the class. The alpine srambling class taught basic ice ax and crampon skills as well as rock scrambling techniques with guided hikes to gain experience with new skills. Had I not taken that course, this hike would have never happened.
I started this hike on a whim. I had been in the Banff area for a few days and was driving the Icefields Parkway towards Jasper and wanted to stop and do some hikes along the way. I had not planned on summiting Cirque Peak. It was more "I'm going to meander through this mountain valley until I get to Helen Lake or get tired and then turn around" kind of intention. The valley itself was mind blowing. Just a short uphill push through trees and you ended up with 360 degree views of a green mountain valley with snow capped peaks, marmots, flowing alpine streams, and an alpine lake. It was incredible.
I had downloaded the map on Gaia and Alltrails prior to starting the hike and had planned on going to an overlook just above Helen Lake and then turning around. When I got to the overlook, I knew there was a scramble up the peak because I had seen it in an alpine scrambling book at a gift shop in Banff. I studied the mountain trying to route find while taking a snack break. It looked gnarly from afar. I decided to get closer to investigate. I was alone on this trip, as with most of my trips, and whenever I'm traveling solo, I'm much more concerned with safety and less likely to take risks. When I got closer to the start of the scramble, a group of four people came over the ridge. They were headed in the direction of Cirque Peak and they stopped to chat about the route. They asked me if I knew the way and I told them I had downloaded the map. I pointed out the general route. They didn't have a map with them and were just winging it which blew me away. I'm a stickler for maps especially in wilderness areas. They asked me if I was headed up and I told them I was unsure because I was hiking solo and didn't feel comfortable going alone. They invited me to come along with them so I took them up on their offer. I was stoked that a group had invited me to tag along! I had spent several days alone in the wilderness at this point and human interaction was very much appreicated.
I was glad I downloaded the Gaia route because the route was all exposed rock, scree, and boulders. A few places required stemming up through cracks in boulders with scary exposure. Whenever we encountered a difficult section, I was able to see the route and get us back on track.
The group was incredibly fast and I definitely was out of my comfort zone keeping up with them. As we hiked, I got to know them and their story. They were a group of Catholic priests who took a trip each year together. I felt a little uncomfortable as I am not a religious person by any means. I often struggle with organized religion and the roles they confine women to, the way they idolize the male and consider them to be the chain that links women to salvation. I am, however, respectful of faith and a spiritual person at heart. I find my spirituality through nature.
I ended up hiking with the female of the group for most of the hike. Two of the men charged ahead and one of the guys hiked a little slower than us.
I was so relieved and stoked when we made it to the summit. It was a hard hike! Definitely a hike that had you told me a year prior I would be on, I would have said you were crazy. Lots of sliding scree, exposure, rock scrambling, a few snow patches.
On the way down, I ended up hiking with one of the priests for the majority of the hike. He asked me what brought me to Canada and why I was traveling solo. At the time, I had recently separated from my ex-husband and had just started the solo female traveler vibe I've been maintaining for the last four years. I was riding high on the new found freedom I was feeling and the boost of confidence I was getting from traveling and experiencing the outdoors as an independent woman. I had spent my entire adult life traveling and making plans with a partner, and now I had all this freedom to explore and experience life authentically on my own. I was also carrying around emotional weight. Getting divorced is not easy especially when you've been through so much and grown up with your partner. The priest, as they do, was a sort of counselor on the hike. I could tell he was offering heartfelt guidance and an opportunity for me share my trials and tribulations as a newly divorced woman in her mid-30s. When we got to the parking lot, he came up to me and asked if he could pray for me for safety and guidance on my trip. Again, not religious, but I appreciate the energy of prayer. So we prayed together in the parking lot before parting ways. Perhaps a higher force was looking out for me on my journey? They say Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travelers....
It was one of my favorite hiking experiences. I was feeling lonely at this point on my trip and I happened to stumble upon a group of strangers who offered companionship on a scary hike I would have never completed on my own. I made a connection with people very different from myself and ultimately ended up taking some emotional weight off my shoulders without feeling judged or mistreated. I summited a serious mountain and gained epic views and difficult scrambling experience! It was one of many highlights of my second trip to Banff.
I painted the view from the summit of Cirque Peak as a way to commemorate my experience as well as give myself time to wander through the memories the way I wandered through the mountain valley: with intention but open to the new experience and whatever it may bring with it. I'm grateful for the experience and the people I shared it with!