All your questions can be answered, if that is what you want. But once you learn your answers, you can never unlearn them. ~Neil Gaiman, American Gods
I wish I could have seen Garden of the Gods through virgin eyes, eyes not tainted by previous experiences, not undergirded by unrealistic expectations. I wanted to feel again the initial shock giving way to ecstasy when the seal is broken and I immerse in wonder. But I could not. My bell was rung years ago, has been reverberating ever since. The original hot shot injected directly into my soul turned me into a desperate addict, a hopeless junkie, suffering the gnawing monkey since 1985.
That single taste, a first taste fixing stained red claws into my psyche where they grip with the force of a terrified lizard clamped down on the soft parts of a hand threatening to do it harm. I have only been able to appease it, temporarily appease it a half dozen times. The last a brief taste bud tickler, a flick across the nubbin, four years ago. Next year, however, I’m planning a 2.5-week pilgrimage swimming solo through dust dry dust desert canyons, sleeping viscerally beneath the vast star blanket whose extent is visible only on pitch nights from isolated desert heavens. Until then….methadone, simulated experiences designed to ease my withdrawal symptoms.
The Urban Dictionary defines a junkie as a person consumed by an addiction where aspects of life suffer as they sacrifice everything, including dignity in a vain quest to satisfy their addiction. I don’t suffer daily but agonize enough that I feel the steely clamp constricting my soul’s ability to breathe. I temporarily mollified the pig with a short visit to Sedona in the Spring timed poorly to coincide with Spring Breakers. Still, there were isolated moments I was deeply satisfied such as when we found an offshoot trail at the top of Castle Rock where we moved in separate directions each to immerse in isolation bathed in breezes, the voice of god on the twitter edges of insect feasting birds, and the presence of presence.
A few months later I find myself desperate for another fix and we plan a trip to the grandiosely named Garden of the Gods. God’s garden is Southern Utah with a jumping off point in Moab. The Colorado version is not even a poor second, not a poor third, nor a poor tenth. It is more aptly categorized as metha-don’t! If you love outdoors, don’t do it. If you love red rock canyons, don’t do it. If you are a junkie like me, metha-don’t do it for it will only break your heart.
How best to metaphorize?
Imagine you have spent the last few months in ancient Varanasi, the holiest city, adjacent to the holiest river in all of India. Besides the sensory blanket enveloping everything you do, it is a place without alcohol and the only food offering is vegetarian. The vegetarian delectables are exquisitely spiced, still, do not temper your desire for some good home fixings, the solids you masticated after weaning from mama’s titty. Every day in Varanasi your craving grows for a three-inch thick filet mignon cooked medium rare marinating in red juices served with a side baked potato smothered in melted butter accompanied by a lovely bottle of pinot noir all shared with the love of your life by candlelight while Frank Sinatra croons over the sound system. The drive becomes so intense, steak sizzles in your dreams and you wake up every morning salivating.
You land back in the US and discover the love of your life maxed out the credit cards, emptied your joint bank accounts then skipped the country with a buff pool boy. The only cash you have is the leftover Rupees from the trip which, when converted at the airport at a crappy exchange rate leave enough money for a Mickey D’s hamburger and a juice box hastily consumed under glaring light in uncomfortable chairs while insidious musack competes for air space with screaming children. This is the devastation I felt visiting Garden of the Gods.
Day 1 – Rescued Animals Regaining Souls, A Broken Screen, and Heartless Reds
We headed out down to Colorado Springs, sister city to Garden of the Gods after visiting a wild animal sanctuary East and slightly North of the Denver International Airport. The sanctuary is home to rescue animals, most large beasts including black bear, grizzly bear, timber wolves, lots of lions transferred when the South American country, Ecuador I think it was, outlawed lions in circuses and attractions, a dozenish tigers including a white beauty. There were also a few foxes and coyotes. A mile and a half elevated walkway cuts one way through the complex necessitating a return trip to exit the park. The animals are viewed in large habitats from on high, a god’s eye view. The complex was impressive. Had I a solid working long lens and a tripod, I would have been able to capture some intimate animal photos.
The only drawback of the sanctuary, my camera bag fell out of the car cracking the viewing screen when it crashed into the pavement. It was still able to shoot pics but I was not able to check them for quality. Before going to Garden of the Gods, we pit-stopped at a camera store where I purchased a Canon intermediate model 80D with an f4.0 18mm to 135mm lens. I had been contemplating a new camera for a couple of years with a definite buy before Africa in 2020 trip. I moved the purchase up a year, 16 months to practice before safari time to ensure camera mastery.
We arrived in the evening. The roads weren’t crowded, they would be packed on the 2nd day, still, the less than ample parking was a challenge. After a couple of slow circles around the park stuck behind gawkers and crawlers unused to traveling anything but the flattest roads and completely lacking turnout etiquette allowing more confident drivers to pass, we found a parallel parking spot where someone just pulled out.
A short walk down the road brought us to a 2nd parking lot with a trailhead to a nice hike on an earthen trail. This would be a nice warmup for the 4 miler we planned on day 2. The trail was well marked and worn ensuring, even without a map, getting lost would have taken hard work or a complete inability to sense direction. Even the visually challenged could manage as the trail was corralled by fences. Fences in a park? Not unheard of but rare nonetheless. The trail showed a few nice views of red rock before crossing a road into a significant stand of rock monoliths. My heart beat a little faster. Was this a portent of the morrow’s hike?
Across the street, the trail was paved. We walked past a fenced off grassy area to a nearby set of vertical rocks. Their color bathed in the low angled sun tingled my innards driving me to pop off a few shots, still, though, with the old camera. The 80D was not yet unpacked nor battery charged. Some monoliths were side by side like pages in a well-read book. Others were single. The set was interconnected by dirt paths, mostly submerged rocks with a fin exposed adding a slight challenge to our walking. The layout allowed for some pseudo climbing. My wife climbed into a few gaps between the monsters and posed for pictures. Then it was my turn.
The rock, though the color of Moab, is a completely different texture, more like a 20 grit sandpaper than the 100 grit I prefer. And it was cold. Not temperature cold, soulless cold. As I lay my hands and cheek against the rocks I could tell they were completely devoid of soul. My ears, pressed against their surface, did not detect a heartbeat. Never before had I experienced such…such…sadness and loneliness in a natural formation. All beings in the outdoors are normally vibrant, buzzing with energy. These felt more like a discarded eggshell with the essential elements drained.
We did not stay too long. We were hungry and still needed to check into our hotel. I wanted to be sure we were rested for the long hike the next day hopefully kicking off early in the morning after a quick visit to the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center for a map. I still had hope for a longish, slightly taxing, mostly relaxing hike the following day. I have to admit, I was also anxious to discover the nuances of my new camera especially the automatic bracketing, a feature I’ve lusted over for years.
Day 2 – Signs, Signs, Everywhere The Signs
The Visitor Center opened at 8, we arrived by 9, way before the crowds descended. When talking to the ranger about the four miler we were hoping to take his comments were, you must be adventurous, take lots of water it’s going to be hot today, apparently upper 70s is hot for the area, and you won’t see much from the loop trail. All the rock formations are in the center of the park. The conversation convinced us our planned hike would be a mistake. Instead, we opted to park in the largest lot a quarter mile from the Visitor Center, enter from the side we had not seen the previous day and beat the crowds.
Well, the lot was already packed to overflowing. Sedona deja vu! We returned to the loop road with the growing line of cars driving until we found a parking space at the same lot we hiked from the previous evening. I squeezed the truck into a narrow, shaded slot and we began our hike. The trail is a loop. Unlike yesterday, we took the longer side of the loop this time hoping for increased solitude. The air was fresh, just the lower side of slightly chilly. Delicious for hiking. We heard a flicker singing eloquently near the top of a leafless yet green budding tree. The bird had a red mustache. A cottontail grazed silently on the dewy grass. It felt promising.
We rounded the trail cutting between tall bushes and a gently babbling brook (or was that the hum of rubber on the road?) We came to an intersection with a spur to our right heading away from the central park. We initially took the turn but upon hearing a very loud voice chose to turn back. The voice came closer. It was a cowboy-hatted trail guide leading a group of horse tourists. We pulled to the side while the guided shouted to the guided in a voice that carried far to the back of the pack the trail guide spiel of the area. Of course, the stopped horses decided it was time to both piss and shit leaving puddles and trail apples in the path we needed to take to reach the park center.
Even as the guide and horses moved out of our sight, that voice was still loud and carrying far in the crisp morning air. It wasn’t only my imagination. Someone off in the distance yelled for the loud voice to quiet down. Apparently, he was irritating more than just me, us. He did not oblige never attenuating his voice. We explored a side trail until they moved far enough out of earshot then returned to our original path.
We crossed into the central park at the same point. A group sat across the trail refusing to make way for crossers. I had to force my way through. We were back at the fence and paved trail from the day before. We looked at the posted map, quickly scanned to assess people density, and opted to go left around a meadow avoiding the densest of the crowds. Halfway around, we sat on a rock because I wanted to admire the wider view showing the monoliths. They were less red in the cooler light. Still, they were attractive.
It was here I realized we were experiencing a menagerie. The wooden, tow rail fences placed throughout the park held us at bay from connection and intimacy with the rocks and grasses. Signs told us to stay on the trail, not to climb without permits, and the many stop no hiking allowed. There were even signs flat on the ground where there were no fences warning to stop this is not a trail. The sign most tempting to draw me off the trail in defiance was the one that said notice rattlesnakes may be present stay on the trail. It has been thirty years of desert hiking and I still have not seen a rattlesnake in the wild.
We walked all the available trails in the garden with the exponentially growing crowds in relatively short time despite walking at an ambling pace. We did walk up a rocky trail to an outcropping with a nice overview. As did quite a few other people. There was a continuation we wanted to explore hoping for a similar experience to the spur we discovered on top of Castle Rock but there was a trail guard sitting in the way turning back any wanting a bit more adventurous experience.
The more I walked the more agitated my soul became, completely the opposite of my normal joy at communing with nature. I was reminded of the polar bear in Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo that repeatedly walked the same path in its small enclosure mostly moving backward. It had grown neurotic over the years of confinement and was a polar bear in form only, a white shell. The fundamental essence had been lost with its mind.
These rocks behind the fences and warning signs were the animals in the cages. They could not even look at each other without the man-made barriers separating them from their kith and kin. The reason they felt soulless and heartless is they, too, had grown neurotic from being caged in. They had decayed into lifeless shells.
The crowds were so thick it was like waking the city streets during rush hour. I was feeling more emotionally drained as the day wore on. We were out of the park by noon choosing, instead, to visit Pike’s Peak a day earlier than originally planned. It was a good choice as the weather provided great viewing and the following day’s drive to the Great Sand Dunes National Park was leisurely with ample time for side explorations including an interesting National Park famous for fossils and petrified trees.
To wash away the sour taste of the Gods, we summited Pikes Peak @ 14,115 feet right after escaping the Garden, a day earlier than originally planned. It’s about 18 miles of single lane, twisty, edge hugging road. It, too, was cursed by people without hill driving, use the turnouts to let the faster drivers pass etiquette. We drove up to mile 13 then transferred to a shuttle for the final ascent. I was glad we shuttled for I was now able to leisurely observe the scenery instead of white-knuckling the steering wheel.
The instant we exited the van, we were both slapped hard by lightheadedness due to the rarified air. Try as we did, neither of us was able to shake the ill feeling so cut our visit very short but not so short as to miss the spectacular vistas in the crystal clear skies.
Garden of the Gods wasn’t a place for us but that doesn’t mean it is not for everyone. If your haute cuisine is typical US style, flavorless gruel served at chain restaurants, Garden of the Gods may be a place for you. The only people I would suggest Garden of the Gods as a place to visit are people with small children who need to be carted around in strollers all or part of the time, the infirm needing paved walkways amenable to wheelchairs, or city folk never previously ventured outside concrete canyons who would be lost walking a dirt path and unaware the rocks have lost their heartbeats. If you are an outdoors person who likes challenging hikes to see phenomenal nature, don’t go. It will only crush your soul.