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December 09, 2020 10 min read

By Ryan “dirtmonger” Sylva

Red eyes glared at me in the darkness from my headlamp. I leaned against the alpine slopes of the Silver Creek basin below the saddle of Red Cloud Peak and tried to follow the glowing eyes of the fox. I felt so tired that the red eyes took me out of my headlamp bubble directly in front of my face. While my body felt dormant my mind responded to the wandering and glowing eyes like a crossword puzzle. I formed the word F-O-X. I felt the pulse in thought which informed my emotion. 'I sense danger. What is it? Or should I marvel at it,' I thought. I turned off my headlamp and listened to the stillness and felt the darkness wrap it’s cloak around me. I could calculate the distance within my head and sense of spatial awareness of the emptiness. Because of this I knew how far away the fox was from me. I propped my hands onto my knees, pushed up, and continued climbing. At 3am when I attained the saddle a vacuum of cold wind sunk down into the basin, an absolute yawning abyss that collapsed the air around me. I kept at it, zigzagging up what felt like imaginary switchbacks towards the peak. Deep inside my head I felt more aware than my feet pounding the dirt. At the summit of Red Cloud I plopped down and twisted off the cap of the Nalgene to sign into the checkpoint.

photo by Adam Andres Pawlikiewicz

‘Fifteen minutes later than I wanted. It’s ok,’ I murmured out loud to myself. I stood up to get ready for the 1.5 miles across the ridge to Sunshine Peak. In no more than 10 steps off of Red Cloud my eyes began to shut, as if my brain suddenly began to turn off. Before I had undertaken the High Five 100-mile Endurance Challenge in Lake City and the surrounding San Juan range my most concerning obstacle in the 48 hour challenge was not the 40k+ elevation gain, nor the summiting of five 14ers or the navigational challenges. Rather I felt more concerned with the wee hours between 3am and 530am. I did not know how I would respond, both mentally and physically. And in those 10 steps off of Red Cloud at 330am I felt each stride to be a stumbling and careening tumble into oblivion. I felt lost. I stumbled along slowly, misplaced in the mind but now physically aware. I knew where I was at, I knew this place so familiar to me. Somewhere within me instinctively knew to embrace the darkness, the sleepiness, each wobbly step, and the vastness above me that slunk into my mind.

I believe my whole life has been about The Almost. Most of all my life has been about the almost most of all. This is something I pondered after 2 months of hiking in immersion in the high lonesome of Colorado, something I reflected on of the High Five. I am left partially empty from being soaked in isolation and wilderness, while feeling satiated of having explored my home just a little bit more. Maybe the reason I seek the almost is to have that wee bit of space, so incrementally small, to keep pulling me in like a tractor beam, so when I finally reach a point of content I will probably be dead. In the meantime, I am content with The Almost. I am not trying to speak in circles or riddles, rather I speak within moments, within the rings of that tractor beam. These brief moments give me a glimmer of an horizon that seems eternal. It taunts my curiosity, its flaunting glint of light an unfulfilled intrigue that through the persistence of endurance I will one day bask in and be immersed fully. Some might say this is the punishment trait of the glutton, of the endurer, a Sisyphean character, and I admit that it is true I find semblance there in that wee bit of space. This is why I go farther, to the almost, for to be immersed in the incremental is immersion in everything.

The crescent moon hung in the low horizon donned in a red-orange glow. I could barely discern the moon for what it was. I could barely discern the trail of talus in the halo of light surrounding my face. That 1.5 miles took me almost an hour. Atop Sunshine Peak I felt so depleted, demoralized. I sat down and sprawled out within the rocky windbreak on the summit. Now operating off my instincts my body operated mechanically. I grabbed a barely still-warm burrito wrapped in foil from the Grizzly Gulch aid station some 3 hours earlier. I unwrapped the sausage burrito and gazed at the stars shimmering around the red crescent moon, the sliver of light still baffling me. As I discerned the blackness around me I began to piece together my reality. I did not fall asleep and I hovered in inertia. I felt my instincts droning, meditating, like cruising in for a pit stop. Somehow I knew I would need my instincts to navigate down the scant climber’s trail of Mill Creek. Somehow I knew I was at home in this mindstate, this place.

photo by Adam Andres Pawlikiewicz

I rose up after 15 minutes of a sleepy meditation and continued the battle of endurance. This is the spot of the incremental, the ‘why’ of what I have always embarked on, to be on a metaphysical plane of self that melds my inner illusions with my faculties and the reality in front of me, to where my curiosity makes sense of the story being told or written, or lived. I felt found. I felt the connection between place and mind and spirit. I trundled on. Before the trees and after the rock I found a bench of grass to sit on, my alpine throne in the blackness of night. I finally accepted the sleep nipping at my mind and just leaned back with my eyes closed. ‘Just do it,’ I said out loud, ‘Get it over with.’ Seconds here and there and I would drift into a dream, a moment or a flashback of sorts, and I would shake my head out of the torpid yet lucid state. I leaned back feeling my jaw open, almost hanging. Then, my mind would clear the calculator, or what have you, the memory. Then, I was there—-and not there. I could not succumb to sleep. I could only indulge. I shook the stranglehold loose, propped my hands on my knees and, again, trundled on.

photo by Adam Andres Pawlikiewicz

Two hours later I somehow navigated and descended the scant trail perfectly to hit the main road at the hidden trail head. I had been a meticulous zombie. The sun began to rise and I finally felt cold, chilly. I put on my wind shell layer, shoved my hands in my pockets, and staggered like a drunk to the Cataract Gulch aid station. I arrived at 715am after covering 11 miles and two 14ers between the hours of 1230am-715am. Somehow I endured the process, almost as good as what I had hoped for. My drive controls me, propels me, pushes me—-all the time. I walked into the aid station basked in the morning light rifling through the shade of the trees still holding onto night. I am cold, sunken in my head, sleep deprived, nauseous, wobbly and teetering, a dypsomaniac stumbling from the night, sleep walking; my face gaunt like a lantern, skeletal and lifeless, my eyes blank, but I am happy and I am home. I am happy in my pain cave and I am at peace during this moment. I am the lone vagabond, the adventurer living the life he has always wanted to. I am a Coloradan exploring the hinterlands of a Coloradan mindscape. I stumbled into the aid station from the careening depths of self. I felt shell shocked from the visitation within my ego, observing the veracity of self, that which scares me and that which I hide from others. The happy folks at the aid station cheered me on. They asked me what I needed and I told them I just needed to sit. My partner, Ruta, happened to be there and I did a double take in recognizing her. I was in a different realm in my head unrecognizable to what was in front of me. (Maybe I was asleep in my head?) I sat near a campfire and nursed chicken broth and yogurt. In a few minutes my mind woke up and I could be found again, the inner clock rising with the sun. I felt broken yet free, released. The new day had risen and I still had about 40 miles to go.

photo by Adam Andres Pawlikiewicz

There seemed to be no reason to hike some 700 miles across the High Lonesome of Colorado's Continental Divide to Lake City to start a 100 mile endurance race other than to train. I scampered along the high routes named Pfiffner, 10-Mile, and Nolan’s, 30 or so 14ers ascended. All seemed like feats in a way but failed in achievement to fulfill what I really had set out to do. Unbeknownst to me, I had set out from Rocky Mountain National Park to find a home, not only in the physical space within the state of Colorado but the acceptance of the home I have in my head. In order for me to nest in the physical I have always needed to nest in the head first. I believe part of calling a place home is to discover not only the most remote places but to explore the inner depths of oneself. Home is depthness. Home is not being comfortable. Home is exploring things which scare you, like the pain cave, or the unknown. Regardless of all that I had trekked up to that point along the Continental Divide before the start of the race I had only been training for one moment---that point of the deepest depth in me. Then, and only then, will I feel at peace.

The second night came along quicker than I perceived it. Due to lack of sleep I struggled to maintain focus on the ground as daylight began to fade. Speckles, like pixels of light, illuminated the ground, like the late night television snow of the old days, and I was desperately trying to piece together the program of what was on. I kept a quick pace following my pacers, however, occasionally I would need to stop to rest my eyes, or really, to regain my concentration. My frazzled head began to tire while my body physically felt in a higher gear. I stopped Alix, one of my pacers, to draw nearer and hear the wheezing coming out of my throat. Funnily enough I had thought the wheezing was only noticeable to me, like I had a pika living inside my brain. She mentioned the hovering thick smoke from the day, as I spat out a gunk of phlegm. Once again my mind and body had been in different realms and I, at this point, again sought a binding connection to stabilize myself. I shook it off.

A short while later, I navigated by breath as I crested the ridge above Alpine Gulch. I literally mean by my invisible air coming from my mouth, that my air from my lungs would shape the landscape in front of me. Almost a new moon, I could not even see the hulking Grassy Mountain in front of me. And that knobby mount is over 12,000ft! Utter blackness enveloped the air, cloaked our shoulders in the heaviness of night. Eventually, we found a way down because Alix and Sam knew this place, knew their backyard. Closely tailing Alix, who then followed Sam, the other pacer, scurrying down the canyon obliterated by avalanche debris, we fought our way and moved with urgency as now midnight had elapsed to signify another day. I found myself swirled in an eddy of light in front of me. I had been drowning in my halo of light focused on the ground and with the speed we were moving at I became dizzy, like riding in the teacup ride at Disneyland. I grappled with my bearings, shook my head, and I trudged on.

We hit Henson Creek Road. Now with 2.7 miles left I firmly knew the end was coming---that moment of finality. I walked over to Alix and Sam and gave them both a hug. Ten years of living in Colorado up to that point—-and I really felt like I had finally done something. At 5 minutes shy of 2am I ran with Alix and Sam into the town park of Lake City. A small crowd cheered me on. Ruta was there. Lucky too, a long time friend from Lake City who put the bug of this race in my ear. I hugged them both, both of them like family. I had had a history here in Lake City, with the town and Lucky. I felt like I was giving back something, something deep, unspeakable, almost all of me. Strangely enough I felt part of a community, a place.

photo by Adam Andres Pawlikiewicz

While I think it may be easier to accept one's environs than the confines of the mind, both feel like a place I can call home despite the noncommittal fear of residing in either space. A couple weeks later I found myself back in the San Juans. I had another route idea in mind--- a big loop around the San Juans connecting the thirteen 14ers of the San Juan ranges. Although I had recovered physically from the 100-mile endurance challenge I had not processed the emotion that comes along with such a feat. In typical fashion, I moved on to another goal yet that goal did not feel like a goal anymore. This indescribable problem I am constantly facing is the persistent pursuit of achievement. Although the focus remains on training, the process and the steps of attaining a goal which bring value, I find my interest is on failure which bolsters exploration and growth---this is the almost. Achievement in the end is only a gauge of where you stand as a person. I stood atop Sunshine Peak in the Needles

photo by Ryan “dirtmonger” Sylva

Group within the San Juans and looked across to the neighboring Windom Peak. The purple and pink light of day signified the end of that day. I knew I was not going to tag Windom Peak. I felt a sudden surge in understanding and clarity: that this new idea of a San Juan Loop was not a continuation of the High Five 100 mile race. I wanted to leave more to explore, more places to fulfill my curiosity of this place. I truly felt content with The Almost and my achievement did not matter to me as much as the experience.

photo by Adam Andres Pawlikiewicz

So, when I trekked across the Continental Divide back to where I parked my car, I trekked with an open heart of possibilities to continue this exploration of Colorado and to delve deeper into the inner of self. I thought of that morning at dawn walking into that aid station during the race when I could only feel enveloped by the depths of the pain cave and the surrounding San Juan. I weaved down a bend in the trail along the divide and scanned the skyline. I could pinpoint the route of the High Five. I could see each rooftop pinnacle and summit of the five 14ers. I scanned westward and basked in the glow of nature, my revel of sultry proudly absurd and unselfishly lonesome. I felt like I found the sunset, suddenly aware of the harbinger of a new season, of a time ending, of a shedding of an immersed skin soaked in Colorado's backcountry. I almost have what I want--just almost---however, most of all, I got what I needed.

photo by Ryan “dirtmonger” Sylva