My dad has stories for days. If encouraged, he could tell you stories until your ears fell off and the mountains turned to dust. He grew up in an era where life was simple and work was hard. Every time I go home to visit my folks, I learn something new about my dad. Ranch life in Southern Colorado consisted of sheering sheep and tromping wool for 12 hours and then going out and bowling a 250. That was my dad in the prime of his youth.
You’d think after 30 years of calling him Pops, I’d know everything there is to know about my dad, but fact of the matter is he has countless experiences to share. Some of my favorite stories of his involve his time on the sheep trail.
In his heyday, my grandfather’s ranch ran over a thousand head of sheep. Being the oldest of four, it fell to my dad to take on many of the responsibilities that came with tending to the farm and livestock. One of those responsibilities was driving the sheep up to the summer range in the spring and then back again in the fall. His father hired sheepherders to watch the flock while the sheep fattened up on lush high alpine meadows, but my dad was responsible for tending the camp during the drive as well as hauling supplies for the summer.
Growing up, my siblings and I would gather around the dinner table and listen to my dad recount his experiences on the trail. We would hang onto every word and our imaginations would run wild with the pictures he would paint.
The drive would take five days from the time they left the ranch until they reached their summer range high in the San Juan Mountains near the abandoned mining ghost town of Summitville. My biggest regret is that I will never get the opportunity to ride the trail like my father did; the sheep and the horses have all since been sold and cattle rule the range these days. But every time I come home to visit, I ask my dad about the trail because I long to know what it was like back then.
This Thanksgiving was no different, I spent a great deal of the holiday grilling my dad about the trail, the people he encountered along the way, the route they would take, what sort of hairy situations came up and how he got out of them. REI’s Opt Outside for Black Friday campaign inspired me to get out to enjoy the great outdoors, this time I would follow the same trail my dad rode so many times in his day.
Kayla and I awoke to gray and cloudy skies on Black Friday. Intimidating weather is something for which the San Luis Valley is famous. In fact, often times Alamosa is the coldest place in the lower 48. Undeterred, Kayla and I laced up our hiking boots, threw on some layers, and headed out for the foothills west of Capulin.
Growing up, I became quite familiar with the landscape in our little corner of the valley. The flat farmlands gave way to the open llano, then to the scrub and pinon foothills, and finally the pine trees of the San Juan National Forest. I had driven the road we would take countless times, but I was excited because despite all the time I had spend in the hills during my youth, I had never once been on the pack trail my dad so eloquently described.
Our journey would start at the Devil’s Biscuit counting corrals; an aging set of fencing and corrals nestled next to an outcropping of craggy geologic formations. The namesake formation looking like a giant biscuit balanced ever so precariously on a thin spire (why I didn’t hike the 200 yards it would have taken to snap a picture of it beats me, maybe next time).
The clouds still held their grip on the sky, their foreboding darkness threatening snow, but Kayla and I were not going to be chased away. Besides, the first two miles would require walking the road until we passed the pack trail.
It’s funny, growing up I never really liked this particular area. We had to drive through it to get to the pristine forests above but I always looked upon it with a certain disdain. Most people would say there’s nothing to it besides piñon trees, sagebrush, and weeds. Now that I’m older? I love it out here! Crazy how things can change, huh? As a teenager, I saw this landscape all the time, now as an adult many of my days are working behind a computer screen or with my head buried in a set of construction plans. I guess that’s what it took for me to fully appreciate the beauty contained in these hills.
Eventually the sun started to poke out and the clouds abated. Patches of blue sky became larger and larger until we were finally hiking in the sunlight of a crisp Friday morning. My hiking adventures usually don’t involve walking a dirt road, but at least we had the distant ridges and hills to satisfy our eyeballs.
After about two miles we finally came across the “pack trail” my dad described. In his words, “Keep an eye out for a trail heading to the west, if you drop down into Thunder Canyon, you’ve traveled too far. The trail is indistinct and isn’t marked, but you may be able to make out old tire ruts.” We found it alright, but turns out the Forest Service has maintained the trail a little better than we all thought. I guess they turned it into a service road in the years since my dad was last on the trail. Hey, things change. We weren’t disappointed to continue hiking on another road, this one was definitely more rugged than the comparatively smooth, graded road we just left. Besides, there wasn’t another soul in sight and the weather was changing in our favor.
About a mile up the pack trail we started to approach a large pine tree. Something about this tree made me stop and admire. It was all alone in a open swath where the few trees that do grow are the much smaller and stubbier piñon pine. Later that evening I was describing our hike to my dad and he asked:
“Is that big ponderosa still standing”
Yup, it’s still there! That’s funny you ask, when we got to it we both stopped and wondered what a big tree was doing all by itself.
“Yeah it was quite the landmark. But I was always very careful when we started to approach that tree. I always figured that if ever there was a good place to encounter a mountain lion, it would be there perched high in the branches of that pine tree. I’d always ride ahead to make sure there wasn’t a cat waiting for us before the flock moved through. Luckily we never saw a mountain lion, but I was always weary of them.”
Luckily on this day we didn’t see a mountain lion either. We continued on our way. I was simply thrilled to be outside, I pitied all the masses crammed into some big box store vying for a bargain, they didn’t know what they were missing.
Our destination for the day would be the Government Corrals, as my dad had dubbed them. It was here where the Forest Service would count out their flock to make sure they weren’t over their allowance.
It was an easy 3 miles to the corrals, so our appetite for adventure was not yet satisfied. After a quick stop for snack and to admire the landscape, we continued.
According to my dad, it was another 5 miles to Willow Park, a wide open meadow where they would rest the herd and break for lunch. A 16 mile day was not out of the question, but we simply pressed on deciding to see how we felt as we continued.
We rose higher on the trail and soon we had wide, unobstructed views of the mountains and hills in the distance. All I could think about was what it must have been like living and working on this trail.
I have to admit, it was pretty cool walking the same trail that my old man had talked about for so many years. I definitely felt like I was sharing something with him in that moment. It seemed like all those stories came to life for just a bit.
Unfortunately our streak of good weather came to an end and the wind started to pick up, so we decided to head back, plus I had to help out with some stuff around the house in the afternoon. I definitely could have kept going, but now I’m even more determined to backpack the trail in the summer. I may not have the horses or the sheep, but I have all my dad’s stories to make me feel as if I did.
We made our way back down the trail and eventually reconnected with the main road. Our stomachs were growling for lunch and I stupidly mentioned how good a cheeseburger sounded. Great, now all we could think about were cheeseburgers. Damn you, subconscious! To take our minds off of food, I decided to start a game of kick the rock. Hey, when you grow up on a farm with no cable and no internet, you gotta find ways to entertain yourselves!
My brother and I would play this game back in the days of elementary school. The bus would drop us off at the turn off to our County Road, we would have to walk the last half mile home. So, we would pick a rock and see if we could kick it all the way home by taking turns. Country kids are easily entertained, what can I say? *shrug*
Anyway, we kicked our rock the last remaining mile and a half to the car, cursing ourselves each time we managed to roll it off the road and into the scrub. Isn’t nostalgia fun? (well, fun me for anyway) And that, my friends, is how we spent our Black Friday. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.