Dear Colorado, when can we return?

The Rocky Mountain Way was better than the way we had

By Captain / Trip dates July 25-August 2, 2015

Atop Flattop Mountain, the wind is known to howl, scream even, as if unleashed by Aeolus to avenge another of Juno's jealousies. But on July 29, 2015, the wind did not whip. It whispered.

The sun was bright and commanding. What snow patches had survived into summer appeared especially incongruos. The sky was an airy, almost endless blue interrupted by only a cirrus clouds that might have been the nocturnal markings of Ursas Major and Minor that survived daybreak as wispy scratches  of white. You could almost hear Jacques Brel, or maybe Dusty Springfied, sing, "I'll make you a day, like no day has been ... or will be again." It was that damn perfect out.

But as with the song, there was a foreboding here. "If you go away," as the song is titled, continues to that lyric, coupled with, "as I know you must." The perfect doesn't last. And what's true in love is true in high mountains. Don't linger. Look. Leave. The stay is all the more grand for being abbreviated.

At 12,324 feet above sea level, Flattop is 2,000 feet shorter than the Colorado Rockies' highest peaks but still high enough to require attention to risk, even when it's in this perfect state. A day earlier, hikers on the way down told us to bundle up. They were an hour off the mountain and their fingers were still numb. Hat. Gloves. Fleece. Put them all on, they recommended. It's cold up there. In actuality, the big concern isn't cold. It's thunderstorms. When we picked up our backcountry permit, rangers warned us to be off the mountain by noon, since it is then that storms are most frequent and their attendant lightning strikes most fatal. Two weeks earlier and two hours south of here, a young woman on her honeymoon was struck dead and her groom critically injured. They, like us, started their climb in sunshine.

Had we known of her death before ascending Flattop, we might have climbed with more solemnity or fear, and, at any sign of a storm, an abundance of caution. Since we didn't know how real and recent the example of the rangers' warning was, we walked the switchbacks briskly toward the top, three groups of two, each at its own pace. We discussed family. We laughed at the fat marmots, scurrying ahead of us. We reflected on past hikes and imagined future ones. Mostly, we marveled, awestruck by the beauty behind, before, and beyond us.

We approached Flattop counterclockwise ‒ opposite of the norm and, according to guidebooks, the more taxing. Perhaps, but this way up provided an exposed view of the verdant meadow below, with its rushing stream pouring gracefully over a slickened rock to create one of the more unique waterfalls we would encounter. It was minimalist as compared to the typical falls along the lower trail, which were more like Rembrandts, dark and detailed as they cascaded through a thicker forest unthinned by the higher altitude that made trees sparse, clearing the slopes to be bathed in July's wildflowers. Fairyslippers. Fireweed.  Scarlet Gilia. Alpine sunflowers. A Crayola box of summer blossoms. Here's a video of the first day on the trail.

With each of seven switchbacks, the meadow and its stream grew smaller and the majesty of the mountains grander. The lower view was exceptional but different. You could see only as far as the next false summit, and as such the scale was smaller, as if you were an ant seeing a boulder but not the boulder field.  You see a part, never the whole. Higher, you see more. And then more. And yet more. The Rockies here reminded us of Glacier, with its oversized views of an Earth scraped away by moving, massive ice leaving every sort of mountain: Mountains jagged like a broken china plate. Mountains rounded off.  Mountains squared off. All woven one into the next.

On toward the peak, the landscape gots more severe. Rockier. More windswept. The air thinner. Instantly cooler. On this day, however, it was not cold. When we stopped to rest, we put on jackets and gloves. It was cold enough for those to add comfort but not cold enough to need them. Here's a video from on the trail.

From above, a lone runner came toward us in a thin, red jacket and shorts. Frank, we learned, was a professional cyclist who had turned to trail running and would be coming up and back down Flattop this morning. He'd taken a wrong turn, so he would also be running a little further than expected, which appeared to be of no concern to him. What's another mile?

We rested a little longer, watching Frank disappear beyond the high horizon before we put our packs back on and headed to the peak. At the top, we were mesmerized. Flattop is as it name suggests as flat as a butch-waxed head of hair from 1950. But look northwest and Ptarmigan Peak protrudes upward another 300 feet. Hallett Peak to the southeast is even a taller.  Little Matterhorn, to the north, is shorter but distinctive ‒ an oversized arrowhead, pointed toward some unknown game above and out of sight.

"I stayed up there for an hour after you guys left," Bob Pauly would tell us later. Rarely had he seen something so remarkable, and he meant to take it all in. It was almost too much to see at once but the longer you looked, the more details came into focus. A glacier. A snow field. A distant lake. An edge so steep as to be surreal. Vast, sweeping valleys above which preside the mountains. The mighty, mighty mountains. We came to the Rockies for this.

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Bob Pauly is our leader. The Patio Boy in Chief. Undisputed. You can find among us people who, back home, might seem the more likely leaders. A CFO. A principal. An executive director. A this. A that. A Cat in the Hat. None of us stack up to Bob when it comes to envisioning a hike, planning its logistics, and executing the plan. There's a reason the Patio Boys' motto (or one of them) is: Stick to the plan. It's because Bob makes fine plans. He leads. We follow.

The Plan for day one was to fly to Denver, head to Estes Park, enter the Rocky Mountain National Park, and check in at a reserved campsite. There were four flights involved for six people. Miraculously, all were scheduled to arrive at Denver International within a half an hour of each other. Unmiraculously, they didn't. The flight on Frontier from Cincinnati was delayed almost three hours. The Plan took it first hit.

Once in the Mile High City, we started talking baseball. Seems the Reds were in town with Johnny Cuerto on the mound. The ace would be pitching his last game in a Cincinnati uniform. Let's go. Let's vote. The Plan took another hit. The Rockies should be so lucky getting hits. Reds win, 5-2. Patio Boys happy. Well, all but one. Our leader was, by now, grumpy. The sun was setting, the dark descending. We would be setting up tents in the dark. That was not The Plan. He reminded us that he had abstained on the Reds-Rockies vote. Actually, he shrugged, like Atlas, appearing to not mind that his wisdom was unheeded by the inferior majority.

There's nothing like a night's rest in the cool mountain air to revitalize your psyche. By morning, Bob was back on his game. We were off to town for breakfast at the Egg and I, followed by final shopping, which would include finding bear canisters.

Most backcountry sites have pulleys so you can hang your food beyond a bear's reach. Here, the convention is to pack everything with a scent, soup to soap, into a $70 pickle jar capped by a lid that takes Einstein-like ingenuity, the fingernails of a Kardashian, and phalangeal strength of Keith Richards to open. After a few rounds with one of these jars, you might just tell the nearest bear, "Take it. It’s yours." Maybe he'll leave a little food after he eats what he wants.

But the contraptions are required, and so we arranged to rent them later at $3 a day at Kirk's Fly Shop, $5 a day up the street. A Kirk's, a guy we'll call Buzz said, "I'm not afraid of the bears. I'm bigger than they are." He was. But Buzz was not going with us. Rentals always comes with advice. Not sound advice. Just advice. We asked, for example, where to put the canisters at night and were told, "Somewhere where the bears won't kick them over a cliff." So let me get this straight: Bears, long thought to raid human campsites to consume the food, the humans, or both, actually just want to play a kind of bear soccer that involves kicking food canisters back and forth, scoring by knocking them over a cliff? Got it. Do we look that stupid? Besides, we brought the Bear Slayer along.

We now had our intel on cost, availability and local codswallop. We’d return at day’s end to sign rental agreements and collect our canisters. It was only Sunday. We wouldn’t carry canisters until Monday, when our five-day, four-night trip began.

The Plan had us day hiking on Sunday to Fern Lake, a spot I'd visited in 2013 with my wife and best hiking buddy, Kate. Designed as a warm-up hike without packs, the Fern Lake trail is an 8-mile out and back that starts at 8,100 feet and ends at 9,500 feet. If you remember your geometry, you'll be able to figure out why the trail is tagged as "strenuous" by the Park Service. The last mile or so of the trail’s hypotenuse is especially steep, but the rewards above abundant. Rarely do you find yourself on the banks of a natural lake this high above sea level and with mountains rising higher above it. It's an alpine scene right off of a postcard. You almost want to be a trout and live here.

We took a late lunch that included slices of summer sausage from David Heidrich, who correctly observed how awful this stuff tastes at home and how great it tastes in the woods. Then we napped, snapped iPhone pictures and headed back to the cars, dayhike done. The Plan was working.

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Back in town, we rented two bear canisters from Kirk's, three from up the street where they cost more. Don't ask. If you do I'd have to tell you that up the street they alleged that the canisters at Kirk's are too small and a bear would just walk off with them. If you Google it, you will see that two men recently were gnawed upon near Fern Lake by a bear. You will find no reports bears walking off with canisters. But never you mind. Acquiring bear canisters the night before the big hike was part of The Plan. We followed it.

"Let's go to the bar at the Stanley," John Curtin declared, sort of out of the blue.

The Stanley is a hotel in Estes Park that stands in stately, historic grandeur atop a knoll, looking as if it were built in case Gatsby stopped by. We were sweaty and grimy from the day's hike. The Stanley was not part of The Plan.

"I'll buy," John added. New plan.

Mr. Curtin is a fan of the movie "The Shining," which was somehow inspired by Stephen King's stay at the Stanley. A hotel that inspired a homicidal plot holds little appeal to me but the association has brought the Stanley more fame than its founder, the man who invented the Stanley Steamer, ever did. So within the elegant confines of the Stanley there is no shame in associating with axes and gore. Nicholson with that creepy, "Here's Johnny!" smile is on the walls of the Men's Room. Guess it helps with the flow of things.

We went inside what the Stanley's marketing team calls "The Whiskey Bar" because they sell a lot of whiskey there. Clever, those marketing boys! We took a seat by a wall of bourbon displayed behind glass like ancient artifacts. There was a nice bottle of 12-year Rip Van Winkle, which our Cork n' Bottle used to sell for $25. Now that you cannot find it any longer, the Stanley sells it for $65 a shot. The Whiskey Bar sold out of Rip's big brother, Pappy Van Winkle, at $180 a shot. We passed on the overpriced, limited stock Van Winkle products, but two of us did each order a $17 Manhattan. Mr. Curtin, who had set the per person drink cost at $10 on the front end, didn't flinch. In fact, he bought a Manhattan, too, making it three drinks for $51. All was well until Mr. Heidrich asked for an extra cherry. One needs one's vegetables. The cherries here were Luxardos, a cut above. Lauren, the pale beauty from Michigan whose skin may never have seen sunlight and whose hair was the color "Game of Thrones" royalty, was accommodating, noting the special instruction, “extra cherries,” on her ordering pad. Alas, she soon returned with bad news from the barkeep. The Whiskey Bar would be charging us  extra if we insisted on two cherries each. A Luxardo cherry is indisputably tasty. It's also expensive, as cherries go. But you can order a jar with about 45 cherries from Amazon.com for $21.08, which is 46.8 cents each. What bartender with the sense God gave a corkscrew sends a junior waitress back to the table to nickel and dime the high rollers out for a last drink before sunrise and a five-day hike to 12,500 feet?

Mr. Heidrich felt compelled to report this abomination to the front desk, where an earnest young man fell for the opening line, "Do you like bourbon?"  

"Yes I do," the desk clerk answered, like Robin to Batman, eager to please.

"Well then, you'll understand why we are upset and won't be buying dinner here this evening. Please relay our concerns to management," Mr. Heidrich instructed.

We dined instead at the Estes Park Brewery, a seedy excuse for a beer hall where a waiter from Moldavia assured us the fish and chips were excellent. They were not, unless your gold standard is Mrs. Paul's dipped in extra grease. By nightfall, someone's stomach was unsettled and someone else's credit card had been hacked.

Not to worry. By morning, we would be in the woods. We would be following The Plan. Bob Pauly carries himself with a devil-may-care bearing that disguises a central thing about him: If he is committed to something, count on it. At work, once as a nurse and nowadays as a medical software administrator, he takes the job as seriously as death — understanding that any mistake might mean that. He carries the same focus after hours. There's a tattoo artist in Gatlinburg who surely to this day wishes he had not broken sterile procedure while piercing Bob's daughter's navel.

For us, Mr. Pauly's attention to detail means our destination, and maybe our destiny, is in his capable hands. The campsites are selected. The permits acquired. Maps available for each hiker with the trail choices highlighted. All we have to do is show up. With food.

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Bob's trail name is Mooch, well-earned by his habit of, ahem, "tasting" everyone else's food. A bite here, a bite there and pretty soon you're nourished. You need only bring a spork. This is one way to keep pack weight down, and it works so long as everyone doesn't do it. Mooch need not bring a stove. Nor a water purifier. This trip, he did pack some Mountain House free-dried food-like substances. He just mooched boiling water to reconstitute the stuff. No one wants to eat cold, stiff Styrofoam. It's much better eat hot, soggy Styrofoam — especially if you can mooch some salt and pepper.

Whatever the consequences to taste, Mountain House does keep a pack light, and given this trip's distance and elevation, it was a goal for most of us to do that. My goal was 32 pounds. With an investment in a lighter tent, the gift of a lighter sleeping pad, the loan of a lighter sleeping bag, and a lot of discipline around food and clothing, I almost made it. Were it not for the requirement of carrying a bear canister for food, which in addition to be a pain to open also weighs a lot, I might have made weight.

Not everyone obsesses over pounds. For John Curtin, when it comes to comfort versus weight, comfort wins. Call it the wisdom of age. As our senior hiker (don't ask me to be exact because, as John tells us, "Age is a number and mine is unlisted"), Silver Pops has been around long enough that he doesn't intend to be uncomfortable if he can help it. A pack that weighs 55 pounds is worth every extra pound if it carries things you want when you are 1,200 miles from home and two days' hike from civilization. Whereas my lunch was a KIND bar and a dried smoothie mix, total weight 2.7 ounces, his was mini bagels, a block of cheddar, and peanut butter. And it wasn't just food. It was all sorts of stuff that Pops kept pulling out his pack. It started with "my Davey Crockett Bowie knife," which he wore on his belt at the ready should a bear attack him. "Don't tell Maryanne I didn't bring bear spray," he instructed us. Then, trying to imitate his wife's voice but making it way more whiny than the actual Maryanne voice,  he added, "Now you be sure and buy bear spray, John." 

He didn't have bear spray but he did have bug spray. He also had bourbon, as did everyone, but he had a Diet Mountain Dew to go with his. His tent was big enough for two or three Johns. His collection of batteries could electrify any need. And then there was the plastic glow stick he pulled out on day three, declaring, "I'm not sure what this is but it looked cool." And it sort of did.

Pops pulled so many things out of his pack that we've changed his trail name to Silver Poppins, after the magical nanny who unpacked an endless supply of everything from her carpet bag.  Morning coffee need a spoon full of sugar? Poppins probably has it. The only thing he didn't have was a scale to check the weight of his pack. Not to worry, though. He was carrying less body weight. He used his Bowie knife to add three new holes in his belt, which was otherwise too loose on the new Poppins' girth.

As the chef, I'll take a little credit for that. Dinner followed a pattern: First, brown some fresh garlic in olive oil, then add a foil packet of salmon or chicken. Set aside while boiling a quart of water to reconstitute a conglomeration of chia, orzo, orange and black lentils, brown rice, and couscous. Add a square of bouillon, stir and season to taste. Mix in the fish or meat. Serve. You don't get fat on this stuff.

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One of the realities of hiking at age 60 and above is aches and pains. There's a reason Advil and Ambien made this trip. We ain't what we used to be, lads and ladies. We pee more. Creak more. Tire faster. Walk less. Mr. Pauly mapped this out at 5 to 7 miles a day, compared to the old Death Marches he mapped out for the 40- and even 50-year-old versions of ourselves, when a 25-mile day was to be expected.

It's bad enough to be old and aching without adding to it, which happened at the trail head parking lot when Mark Goetz opened the hatch of our rental Kia SUV and out tumbled a bundle of $2.99 firewood onto his toe. Did I pack the hatch? I think I did. To quote our next president, Rick Perry, "Oops!" Maybe this is why Mr. Goetz's children are going to pharmacy school. They know their Dad is a Patio Boy, and that carries with it the possible need for future pharmaceuticals. For the time being, nothing on hand especially worked, and so Sir Goetz was required to begin our five-day hike with a noticeable limp and a smile that often looked like a grimace, through which he would say when asked, "I'm fine." Code for, "Don't ask."

Mr. Goetz is not monogamous when it comes to hiking. He has another group of trail buddies and they have a rule: No misery. they are planning a trip  next summer to the Grand Canyon. They will hike to bottom of the canyon, i.e., downhill, then raft out, i.e., not hike back uphill. Minimize the misery. This is not a Patio Boy rule. We're Mr. Goetz's yin, they his yang, or vice versa. I'm not sure.

No one had quite the hard row to hoe this trip as John Hennessey, the Bull. Tough as they come, Mr. Hennessey is no complainer, but going up toward Flattop Mountain on the first day of the hike, his IT band was stinging. "It's on fire," the Bull said, with all the passion and just-the-facts-ma'am accuracy that a "Dragnet" casting director could ever desire. It was going to be a long week if things didn't improve. They did. The Bull stretched, adjusted his stride, perfected his use of a trekking pole, and popped ibuprofen. The combination worked, and by the time we reached those final seven switchbacks up Flattop, the Bull up front and so among the first to see Frank, the cyclist turned runner coming toward us.

We talked bikes for a while with Frank, he instructing us, the amateurs, about the sport's specialists. Burly sprinters who can elbow through a thicket of riders. Winsome climbers who go uphill at 20 mph. Frank's specialty was the long, flat distances. We told him we, too, were cyclists, though certainly not of his caliber. But on any given Sunday, from March through early October, the Patio Boys can be found in their saddles, riding at 17 mph for 30 to 70 miles. Yes, Frank said, cycling is the new golf, by which he meant that men of our generation had quit putting and started peddling. It seemed a mild insult. Or maybe not mild.  But hey, we're old.

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Frank would be one of many people we met on the trail whose back stories provided variety and a little intrigue. Rex Graham, who shared a campsite with us one night, is a birding blogger, with a website that boasts a high clout score, meaning people not only read his posts but share them. At camp, he had rigged a simple tarp into a most creative tent, folding it just right to make a tall, teepee-like shelter with a floor beneath it. Long nights watching YouTube videos taught him the best way to accomplish this setup. He seemed to have mastered it. We invited him to dinner and to a taste of Mr. Hennessey's medicinal Elijah Craig, 12 years old. "That's smooth," Rex said, apparently new to bourbon of this caliber. The Kentucky bourbon industry had another convert. It's our calling.

We sipped and amused one another. Somehow the subject turned to our kids and cars, and Mr. Hennessey told of his daughter calling about an oil warning light. Open the hood, Dad instructed, and look for the word, OIL, atop the engine. It would be written on a cap about the size of the lid on a jelly jar. Remove the cap. Add a quart of oil. There was no such label, she assured him. But there was a lid that read 710. Think about that. Think OIL upside down. Rex laughed with us.

We didn't see hundreds of people, though the Rocky Mountain National Park is a crowded place. Most kept their distance. Those who stopped to talk were unfailingly interesting. Resting on rock were were two men, one older, the other younger. The latter was maybe in his 40s, and tattooed and in a muscle shirt. He had a menacing face by birth, but a kindness to his nature that didn't match the look. The two were fly fishing and headed to Haynach Lakes, which, Menace Man reported, were the best fishing lakes in the park. Even at rest and with an uphill hike yet ahead of him, he seemed as impatient as a boy to wet his line. Asked what kind of fish, he answered, "Big." Species? "Trout, I guess." And so we met the world's only fly fisherman who did not know a trout when he caught one nor care. So long as his catch was abundant and big, he was fine with it.

Further down the trail, four young fly fishermen from West Virginia were beaming. The were decked out in precisely the right gear, and might have been catalog models for Orvis. But make no mistake. They came to fish and they did fish. They had just spent the day casting a stream so teaming with brook trout that they caught them nonstop. "Killed  'em," said one, though not actually since this is catch-and-release territory. He had tied on a Parachute Adams at sunup and not needed a second fly all day. It wasn't just the fun of catching so many fish. It was also the beauty; the iridescent colors of Salvelinus fontinalis. Brookies, the jewels of all waters, may be tiny but they make up for it the way a diamond outshines cubic zirconium.

At one campsite, we met a guide. His regular duties were in the Grand Canyon. It becomes too hot for him in late July so he books trips to the Rockies. His charges this week were  graduates of the University of Rochester about 20 years out of college and now dispersed around the United States. Once a year they did something together. This year, it was hike the Rockies.  As a one-time boarder at the University of Rochester House, I felt an affinity. The house was otherwise known as Big Pink because it was both, big and pink, like the Band's legendary studio and home in Woodstock. My Big Pink was in West Harwich, Mass., in the summer of 1975, when I was in pursuit of eternal love, which lasted two, maybe three, years. Fond memory. Another story. My roommate that summer was Hank Blumenthal, who had zero common sense. He was born without common sense the way some people are born missing a toe or chest hair. No one said this of Hank to insult him. It was just that it was so. As for these Rochester grads, one did not have enough common sense to leave his cologne at home. From the smell, he must have bathed in it. Bears probably ate him overnight, although his pals didn't mention that in the morning. 

Frank was alone. The fishermen came in a pair and a group of four. There were six University of Rochester men. But as often as not the people we encountered were couples. Not sure why, but many were on their honeymoon or celebrating an anniversary. In retrospect, I cannot help but think of Kathleen Bartlett, the young bride killed on Mount Yale earlier in the month. It was the last day of her honeymoon. She was 31 and a special ed preschool teacher, described by friends as the kind of person who just made everyone around her smile and described by her husband, who called her "Katie Bear," as the love of his life. These are the sorts of couples we kept meeting. It made us miss our own mates, and maybe wonder why were out here without them.

One set of newlyweds arrived late in a campsite to be our neighbors. They set up a six-man tent, the kind you see at a KOA. Tall enough to stand up inside, it was probably an ideal honeymoon suite. But L.L. Bean lists the weight of such a tent at 23 pounds. Hats off to the groom, who had carried it two miles from the trailhead, cradled in his arms as if it were oversized and misshaped football. Tom Brady wouldn't do that, not even for Gisele.

Elsewhere, we chatted with a nice, older couple on horseback who had driven from Kansas ‒ or was it Nebraska? ‒ to ride in a place that was not flat. They certainly found that. Their horses, trailered for nine hours to get here, were in hog heaven when they stopped for an hour to graze the mountain grasses by a cool, clear stream. The horses were Tennessee Walkers, bred to woods, waters, and uneven land, so right at home here.

Frank. Rex. The fishermen. The new Mr. and Mrs. The old Mr. and Mrs. They all added a little something to our hike's glory. The trail is meant to be shared.

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Shared yes, but the trail's solitude is its most gracious gift. On Thursday morning, the day after our time atop Flattop, I slept in a little. We were camped at Tonahutu Meadows, which was a vast and grassy meadow next to a burned out pine woods with the little Tonahutu Creek snaking through. Dave Heidrich was up early and had walked out to sit on a rock by the trail, perhaps a quarter mile from the tents, which were just inside a part of the wood than had not burned up. He'd worked his way through the meadow, where he saw instance after instance of grass bent over where a moose had bedded town for the night. From the rock, he'd seen a couple of moose grazing but by the time I arrived they had moved along.  "Let's go into the woods and see if we can find them," Mr. Heidrich suggested. And so we did. The grass, which looked neatly mown to ankle height when viewed as a whole and from the vantage of the rock, was actually uneven and, in some spots, waste high. And the meadow was a marsh. There was a good acre or more to cross before the forest, which had a floor covered by downed trees, between which emerged the new growth that follows a fire.

Barely more than 20 yards into the woods, Mr. Heidrich said, "They may be..." He was about to say close but then changed his tone, "Right in front of you, Captain!" And there he was: A young bull moose, well-antlered, and blacker of coat than any moose I'd seen before. It was as if his brown, mottled hair had taken on enough black to match the charred trees around him. How, I wondered, could an animal this big be almost invisible in the woods? I could almost hear Marisa Tomei in "My Cousin, Vinny" say, "Oh yeah, you blend," and mean it.

The moose stared at me like a 14-year-old child looking as a parent who had just offered some unwanted counsel, then lumbered away, crossed the creek, and rested in the cool shade, asking to be left alone. We obliged.

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A week or so before the trip, I happened to be at a Wendy's, eating a late lunch alone. Adjacent to me were three elderly men, each in elderly men shorts and Velcro top walking shoes. It was John Prine's church scene ("hearing aides in every pew") recast as all male and reset in a 21st Century clean, well-lighted place, as if Hemingway and Hooper has conspired to update their despairing vision of modern life. As Hemingway so frighteningly set it down: "Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name….  Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”

Nada? Nothing? How about high school football?

 "How’s Pete?" one of the men asked, as the man across the table leaned forward to hear better. "He was having some trouble with his heart."

"We called him Lindbergh. Lindy. Man, could he fly! I almost tackled him, but he scored and they won," the leaning man said.

"He's knees are shot now," the third man interjected.

"Who's aren't?" the first man said, his walker folded and propped against the booth.

Judging from the raconteur’s age, the game he was recounting probably was played in the 1940s, yet the pain of that missed tackle was as raw and real as ever. What's fair about being born with uncanny speed? Nada.

The whole Wendy's scene was foreshadowing. It would not be a Patio Boys trip without recounting high school football glory days. Having none, this is usually my time to go to my tent. Nonetheless, I've managed to absorb a little. Did you know that in 1975 CovCath was 0-10, thus recording the worst record in the history of Kentucky high school football?  Mr. Goetz played on that team. It is said we learn from failure, and indeed Mr. Goetz did, as he went on to be an accomplished high school football coach. Also, things improved for CovCath. The team was 1-10 in 1976. And here's the thing: 1975 was the first of the Coach Ray years. He would redeem himself over the next 29 years with four seasons ending with district championships, two with regional championships and five with state championships.  Our next trip to the woods is Oct. 9. If you want to learn more, come.

Football is not the only trail topic. There also is fond recollection of old girlfriends (we met some new ones this trip; some of us have been holding back) and scatological commentaries, which this time included techniques for the activity usually conducted atop a toilet seat but in the woods remains necessary despite the absence of the aforementioned luxury. I'm trying to be polite but reportorial here. Who knew there were so many techniques? There's the squat. Simple. Quick. Efficient. There is the lean-on-a-tree, an old reliable that provides the comfort of a backrest. It's suitable for reading while your processed waste exits your bowels in good time. No need to rush. And finally, there is the method that is surprisingly popular: the supported squat. Both hands grasp a tree in front, bend your knees, and lean back, sort of like Hobie Cat sailing is heavy wind. Whatever you do, don't let go of that tree! We saw each of these mimed trailside in a slapstick break one afternoon that had us bent over in stitches, which is not one of the positions.

As this weren't enough of that, there was the gas. It unnerved Mr. Hennessey, who just didn't understand. What is it about the woods and flatulence? Dear god, there some reason that all decorum is left at the trailhead? If you woke up during the night, and everyone did, you would have expected to hear snoring. What you heard instead was snoring and farting. First this tent, then that one. Pass the earplugs.

Bear with me as I tell you that in the Wynkoop Brewery in Denver's hip LoDo, where we sort of started our journey, there was a poster of Kurt Vonnegut on the wall, with one of those curly self-portraits that the great philosopher/satirist drew of himself. And so it goes. Mr. Hennessey and I began to discuss our mutual admiration, including of Slaughterhouse Five, in which the master's refrain when horror occurs is, "Somewhere a dog barks." And so, when a fart disrupted the peace of the wilderness, Mr. Hennessey would say, "Somewhere a dog barks."  Not everyone got it. In fact, no one got it. But now you know. Mr. Vonnegut would approve. Take it from me. I met him. And so it goes.

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A trip has stats. Here's ours: five days, four nights with backpacks, 25.2-mile loop from North Inlet with an elevation gain of 3,958 feet and campsites ranked by Mr. Paul on a scale of 1.0 to 5.0. One is worst; five is best. Big Pool got a 3.0, July a 4.0, Tonahutu Meadows a 4.0, and Big Meadows a 4.5 plus this salute from Mr. Pauly: It was the best campsite of his backpacking life, before or after the Patio Boys.

What made it so? First, it was our rescue site. We were permitted for Sunrise, an easy three miles from Tonahutu Meadows, thus providing our easiest day. But we walked right past the sign for Sunrise because, doing the trail in reverse, we were always seeing the backside of the signs. So four among us went back to find it. Silver Pops and I remained beside Tonahutu Creek, which at this spot was leaving another burned out woods, briefly passing through a clearing. Exposed, the Tonahutu was bathed in sunlight, and its pebbled bed reflected golden as the stream ducked back into the woods. Had the Yellow Brick Road been a creek, it would have looked like this. We could see trout spurting forth for bugs on the surface or poking between the rocks for larvae. We tried catching the little flying bugs to toss into the water to tease the trout, but the bugs were elusive. We had better luck shaking the streamside grasses to knock bugs into the water and stir up the trout. It was a fine way to while away a half hour or so until Misters Pauly, Goetz, Hennessey and Heidrich returned to report that Sunrise was an unmitigated disaster of a campsite. A 1.0 at best. Too small. Dead trees everywhere. One large one crashed to the ground as they walked up, a forewarning.

So on we go. Our welfare is our concern.

Big Meadow looked promising on the map. But it might be occupied. It was not. The campsite was vast, with several clearings that could accommodate groups of varying sizes. We selected one in the woods but with an opening that afforded a view of the meadow.  We decided to wait before pitching tents, in case someone came along with a permit and, therefore, would have dibs on the site. Two parties came, but each selected other sites, so we were good.

What made Big Meadows so fine was the meadow. Here, at 9,000 feet, plus or minus, was a meadow the size of an international airport, with Tonahutu Creek dissecting it. Gorgeous, 11,000-foot mountains were to the east and south, the two directions you could see most clearly. Green Mountain, another giant, was behind us to the west, and loomed larger, closer. The meadow just opens up the whole, vast scene. It's sort of to the mountains what the Reflecting Pool is to the Washington Monument. A complement. Mr. Goetz and Mr. Pauly sat their tents with rain flies off so as to enjoy it all the more, including the night's festival of stars. It had not rained all week, and would not this night either.

You've heard the saying it is always darkest before the dawn? Here, it was darkest after sunset and before the moon rose high enough to clear Green Mountain behind us. It was July 30, one night before the official blue moon of 2015. The saying, once in a blue moon, is because they don't happen often. A normal fall, winter, spring or summer has three moon cycles each. When a season has four cycles, it has a blue moon.

This extra summer moon would be unusually bright, asserting itself immediately as it crested a low point in Green Mountain, which it silhouetted dramatically, as if showing a black and serrated edge of a giant knife. Instantly, Big Meadow was lit as if a UFO were landing to pickup E.T. and take him home. Somewhere a dog barks. We slept like kittens.

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There's not much to tell after Big Meadows. We returned to Estes Park, turned in the bear canisters, and tried to figure out something to do on Saturday. We headed for Fort Collins and a rendezvous with Mooch's wonderful niece, Hannah, currently pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Colorado State University. When we found Hannah, she was sitting at a sidewalk table outside the Steak Out Saloon with her fellow grad students, each of whom has a Ph.D. already in microbrewery brews: 90 Schillings. Easy Street Wheat. Mighty Arrow. Their recommendations were unfailingly excellent. They've studied.

Fort Collins was new to us, and it made a big impression. Why aren't we all living here? Old Town was a vast business district of pubs, restaurants, and storefronts with tattoo parlors next to fly fishing shops ‒ and people everywhere, laughing, walking, unlocking bikes. This place is bike-friendly the way Augusta is golf-friendly. Bike lanes. Bike stands. People on bikes. Dogs on bikes. Old bikes. New bikes. Single speeds. Vintage 10-speeds. Bikes with very cool paint jobs. Bikes left to rust enough to make them unappealing to thieves.

Sufficiently inculcated in Fort Collins’ assets, it was decided that on Saturday we would get bicycles and take a brewery tour.

Pro cyclist Frank would not have approved of our bikes, which we rented for $20 each for four hours ‒ enough time for us to wander from one brewery to the next, sampling 30 beers, ipping some, drinking others. We started at the well-known Fat Tire Brewery and went from there, riding bikes that had fat tires that felt like riding on sponges. Hannah was our tour guide. At every stop, at least one bartender knew her, and at each stop she had recommendations. Her doctoral research involves improving biomechanical knees. There will come a day, not too far off, when each of us is likely to benefit from her research directly as our patellas and menisci fail. But for now, her beer research was contribution enough. We toasted that. We also toasted Fort Collins, our hike, the blue moon, Vonnegut, our wives, the sun, bike paths, Johnny Cuerto, the mountains, elk, moose, wild flowers. Life. May your good health outlast your good looks. Sláinte. Rocky Moutain way. Couldn't get much higher. Bases are loaded and Casey's at bat, playin' it play-by-play. Time to change the batter. Time to go home.

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Leaving Fort Collins and headed to the Denver airport, the Rockies asserted their presence on the horizon, unmistakably identifying an otherwise generic interstate as a place western and not quite tamed. They are big, domineering mountains from this visage. Some just look outright massive, rising above all the others, but together they are even more immense and imposing. The sky was no longer clear, no longer sunny as it had been nearly all week. Clouds had gathered. Some were low enough to touch the mountaintops.  A storm had brewed at the higher altitudes. Streaks of rain fell. Lightning was likely. It was a good time to be headed home. A good time to be off the mountain.

Somewhere a dog barks.

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Kathleen Bartlett's death in the Rockies has left her new husband, her family, and friends grieving. But they are trying to find joy in remembering her with a charitable fund. You and read more and consider a contribution at Katie's GoFundMe site