I had wanted to do a hike in the stretch between Questa and Red River. I had planned on it. Somehow, I had not gotten to it yet, and found myself sitting on a day before a friend was coming to visit and the realization that, if I were going to do this hike, it was now or never. The weather was dictating that we leave at the conclusion of our friend’s visit. I found that in the two and a half weeks we had been staying in Questa, I was compelled to hike more in the Rio Grande Del Norte. The National Monument was spectacular, and its proximity to where we were staying also made it convenient. So, I almost missed this hike between Questa and Red River. I almost missed the chance to experience a new favorite hike. It seems that in each location I land, each new environment, I find a new favorite hike. I can no longer name just one. I cannot say I have one favorite hike above all others. There are several, each with its own personality. Each with its own significance. Each bringing about a different set of emotions and thoughts for me, different senses of my self. This hike, then, is another favorite. Another special place to add to my growing tally. I think I might need to start a list before I lose track of all these favorites.
After reading up on my options in the Red River area, I decided on hiking the Columbine Trail. Not the entire thing; it is approximately 8 miles long in each direction. I would have liked to have hiked the whole trail, but it would not be this time. It was not until I got to the trailhead that I realized that this trail is a National Recreation Trail and that it wanders up a river through a designated wilderness area. This immediately rendered the trail meaningful and significant to me. And here I was, hiking it on a Monday afternoon in October, with only two other cars and a truck pulling a horse trailer in the parking lot. Not likely that I would see many people on a trail that is 16 miles round trip. I immediately sensed that wildness upon entering the trail, with towering rocky walls rising up on one side and forests on the other. This was a place for (mountain) lions, not tigers, and bears. Oh my! Add to that the aspen trees changing color—their leaves glimmering in the sunlight, quaking in the wind—and the green of the conifer needles providing a contrast to the yellows of the aspen leaves. Wilderness indeed.
The trail hugged close to a river, crossing over it several times in the distance I traveled up the narrow passage between mountains. After crossing the river for the first time, I found myself looking up to rocky outcroppings and ledges perfect for mountain lions to perch, eyeing the scene below for their next meal. I saw a cave, dark and deep. Deep enough to not know the end of it. Curiosity aside (and I wascurious), I was not about to climb up to check it out lest someone be home. It was then that I realized I had forgotten my bear spray. Again. I was not worried about it for the bears I might see, was hoping to see. These would, as in previous areas so far, be black bears. I was less concerned about becoming a meal for black bears since cubs would not be so young and they are not the carnivores grizzlies are. I wanted the bear spray for the mountain lion I was hoping not to see, for you are very unlikely to see one unless they are hungry. I did not want to become the main course for a mountain lion’s next meal. So, I wish I had not forgotten the bear spray. Again. As a poor substitute, I took out my hiking poles, not needed for the actual hike, and prepared to wield them as swords should the need arise. I hoped it did not. I eyed the rocks closely as I walked. I turned around to look behind me frequently, as these big cats prefer to, quite unfairly, sneak up on their prey from behind. I hoped I did not see a mountain lion, unless, of course, I spotted her up high on some lofty ledge, dozing in the sun and not at all interested in me.
I did hope to see a bear. I really, really want to see a bear. Not from my car, as has been the case in the past, but out on a trail, where I am a part of the wilderness with the bear, and not simply a spectator in a fiberglass and metal can with glass windows keeping me still one step removed from the experience. I do not count seeing the bear on the Lost Lake trail, since I only saw its bulbous backside as it ran to take cover as I approached. I did not get to see its face. I did not get to see the grace and wisdom and secrets held in its eyes. So, I do not count that as a real sighting. Of course, should the occasion arise that I get to look a bear in the eyes, even a black bear, it’ll probably scare the crap out of me. I’d have to resist the urge to both pee myself and talk to the bear and scratch it behind the ears as I do my cats. It is maybe a good thing I’ve not seen a bear up close and personal. But I still want to. I did not see one on this trail either.
What I did see is llamas. Three llamas. Three llamas carrying tremendous, bulky packs for their humans. I was heading up; they were heading down. I was no more than a half mile into the trail. There were four adults, two children of around 4 or 5, and a baby. And three llamas. I asked if they were just out for the day, eyeing the llamas’ burdens as I did so. They were. They had just gone up for lunch, they said, and were on their way back down. That must have been some kind of lunch they had, and I wondered if I’d see another 20 people following them down the mountain. After some small talk and petting the llamas, I headed on my way and they on theirs. I then kicked myself for not asking to take a photo of these three gentle, beautiful beasts of burden.
I never did see those 20 people I imagined had to have been a part of the lunch party. I did not see another soul walking the trail, in fact. No people, no llamas, no mountain lions, no bears. Just me. My boots shifting through fallen leaves that provided a resting place for raindrops that had fallen the night before or sinking into soft soil overlaid with brown needles muting the sound of my footfalls or scuffing over rocks and small boulders sporadically strewn across sections of trail. Birds flitted through the trees, one of them calling out a warning that I took to either mean stay off my turf or a mountain lion is right on your tail. Either way, I hastened my pace just a bit. The gently flowing stream provided a consistent humming, threading its way through my own breath and heartbeat. And twice, the woods opened up into a broad meadow, whose grasses and spongy soils I wanted to lie upon to watch clouds dance in the sky and leaves sway to the music of the wind.
My soul melded into this place. I lost my edges for a time and became a part of all that was around me. Even in my nervousness over the very unlikely potential to become prey to an element of this landscape, to a creature who belonged here more than I ever would or could, I still felt wholly a part of it all, welcomed into its fold for a time. It is a place I will return to. Maybe next time, I will throw my camping gear on my back and make my way to the end of the trail, to camp out there for a night, maybe more. To see what new magic the rest of the trail holds. What mysteries can be felt in the nighttime space of this wilderness.