I hiked into the mountains, up the Flatirons starting right behind my cabin at Chautauqua. No fires anywhere, but a haze hung over Denver, below in the plains. The plains rolled away from the Rockies all the way to Kansas. The mountains divided the continent here. I stood at an important junction of North America, the place where the West and the Midwest met, a place of strange weather, turbulent geology, dramatic history. Worlds met and separated here. I stood at the spot of the Great Goodbye, the place where settled farmers turned in their ploughs and took up hunting in the clouds and changed into mounted adventurers. I climbed the mountain, following a dark creek. The path forked in a spare fir forest dotted with huge boulders. There was a sign there, warning hikers about mountain lions and bears. If you see a mountain lion, make yourself big like Ted Berrigan, wave your arms, say many witty things at once, and never, never look the lion in the eye. You must convey an attitude of humble gigantitude. A bear, on the other hand, does not harm the small and humble, so you best roll yourself into a ball and go tumbling backwards. If a cliff is there, tough luck.
Most importantly, check your cell phone. The news this morning said that a hiker stranded in the Andes had run out of prepaid minutes and was saved by a telemarketer. I wouldn't bank on it, though. I got on a list that blocks telemarketers' calls. Foolish, considering. I might be up here, big like Ted Berrigan, saying witty things, tumbling over the edge of a cliff, bereft even of a pitch for a lower interest rate. It is a strange world when the guys you hang up on on level ground during dinner save your life near the sky amid lions and bears. Of course, like the love letter that burned down the West, the call that saved the hiker might be apocryphal. So what? We need our myths. And air, which is thin here. And lots and lots of water.
The higher I climb, the bigger the palaces and compounds nestled in the elbows of high valleys get. The rich have taken eagle-eyed views and whole mountains to themselves. Their 15-bedroom cliff dwellings stand like bright matchsticks in the rocky tinderbox of Colorado. Their swimming pools gleam suddenly like the eyes of mountain lions when the sun hits them. I doubt if anybody's home right now, their owners are either waiting for the ski season in their condos in La Jolla and Long Island, or have simply fled in terror. Not from the fires, but from their sumptuous retirement. Samples of such grandeur lie abandoned all over the mountains: their builders, rich Angelenos or Houstonian couples came here, saw, built, conquered, and ran away screaming from each other in the luxury of solitude and gleaming lion eyes. Some wives stayed. The men keep running.
I climb up to the snowline. Here begins solitude.