By Howard Eskildsen
My favorite childhood memories have always centered around the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. As a kid living on the Nebraska plains, I used to live and breathe just to hear the words, “Let’s go to the mountains!” from my dad. The first trip that I remember was the year the whole family tried to climb “Long Speak,” the towering mountain that looked down from the front range across the prairies. It was the first mountain we saw on the horizon as we traveled from Nebraska into Colorado, and the last summit my teary eyes saw as the car dragged me back to the flatlands of Nebraska.
The mystery of how the mountain got its name was quickly settled in my four-year-old mind. Obviously, it had to do with Mr. Speak, the kindly old barber who cut my hair while he chatted with dad about the mountains. Judging from the chatter, he certainly must have climbed it so many times that it was named after him. Since it rose above a mysterious boundary called “timberline”, it must be a long, long way to the top. Hence the name, “Long Speak.”
The day of our journey finally arrived. How we loaded mom, dad, Bruce, Bernie and I along with all of the camping gear and food into the old Ford, I didn’t know. But wasn’t my main concern, I was more interested in seeing how far I could let my sock fly out of the window, tied to a string, without losing it. One word of reprimand from the front seat put an end to that fun. If we had been on our way to church, I wouldn’t have minded the threat of being left at home, but no way did I want to miss a trip to the mountains.
We trundled down the old Highway 30 past the site of the Plum Creek Massacre where Indians had derailed a train and killed those on board. I already knew the story well. Patrick Delahunty, the brother of the man who built the house we lived in, had picked off Chief Turkey Leg with his long-range rifle and ended the raid.
Without a thought as to who had massacred whom, we followed Highway 30 along the route of the old Oregon Trail. At Gothenburg where I stared at the former pony express station as we passed through. By North Platte, the river split, and we followed the south fork and left the old trail. The farms gave way to rolling sage-covered hills as we entered Colorado by Julesburg. Hawks circled lazily over the undulating landscape as the remnants of the Old West passed by.
“I saw them first!” shouted Bernie while pointing towards the western horizon. In the distance, two shadowy pyramid-shaped forms barely rose above the rolling plains. The taller one on the right was Long Speak and all eyes were on it.
Slowly the forms arose and transformed into mountains. We were pulled inexorably towards their mass as though they were the center of the universe. Finally, we crossed the hog’s-backs of the foothills. To the right, the Devil’s Backbone jutted upward, forming a hideous ridge. A few miles later Bernie and Bruce giggled as they read the sign, “Welcome to the Dam Store, the best dam store by a dam site.”
The road passed beyond the dam and into tight, narrow canyon of the Big Thompson River. On one side, white water splashed and frolicked over giant boulders below in the narrow riverbed. On the other side twisted, tortured bands of rock towered hundreds of feet overhead as though magically extracted from the depths of the earth. Onward and upward the highway wound, lured on by the pine trees’ haunting, sweet perfume that in my mind was the true essence of heaven.
Eventually, the canyon opened into the huge alpine valley of Estes Park. To the west, bare peaks rose higher than timberline, and patches of snow still chilled the August sunshine. We turned south and traveled up a wide canyon, over a ridge, and then followed the pavement along a creek to the entrance of a campground.
The car rattled up the dirt road to the campsite at the base of the Long Speak. I wandered about the stones by the parking area while the tent magically appeared and draped itself over the side of the car. I wasn’t sure exactly where it came from, but it seemed to have something to do with the homemade carrier on top of the car. Square metal tubing from some old airplane held up the canvas roof and walls, and everything seemed safe and secure.
I helped find firewood for the campfire so that we could roast marshmallows and hotdogs for supper. I gathered some dry sticks and headed back to camp. Along the way, bearded guys at least as old as my brothers traded me a big green branch for my little dry sticks. I proudly hauled the wood back to camp only to find out that it was too green to burn. I couldn’t understand why anyone would even do such a thing. Sure, my brothers played tricks on me, but in the end, they always made it right.
After the fire burned down and the marshmallows were gone, we headed to bed early. Morning came even earlier, and stars shone through the pine branches overhead as we headed up the trail in the pale, dawn glow.
I had no concept of how far eight miles was to the summit of the mountain, but it was farther than my legs wanted to go. Before long I was asking mom to carry me, but she had enough work just carrying herself. Bernie and Bruce, however, were off like a couple of mountain goats. They headed straight up the mountain instead of following the trail’s switchbacks.
After what seemed like an eternity, we reached timberline and some tumbled down remnants of old miner’s cabins. By that time, it was obvious that mom and I would not be going on. She had sprained her ankle, and I had worn out dad with my whining about how much farther did we have to walk. Since Bernie and Bruce were nowhere in sight, and there appeared to be a storm brewing on the top of the mountain, dad decided to continue up to make sure that they were all right. I never caught on that he and mom were quite worried about them.
Mom and I rested by some the foundation of one of the old log cabins. I don’t recall whether I ate marshmallows, graham crackers, or candy bars, but I do remember thinking that we always ate well on our hikes. After eating I had to take a potty break, so mom had me use the corner of the logs as a latrine. I gave little thought to the possible consequences of the stinking booby trap that I left behind as we started the hike back to our tent home.
It was much easier going downhill, but the forest darkened frightfully as we hastened down the trail. Angry clouds swelled outward form the mountain and spit cold drops of rain as we closed the final mile of the hike.
I wanted to go straight to the security of the tent, but mom was concerned about dad and my brothers. We went to the small, log ranger station where annoying records of campfire songs ran over and over. I couldn’t understand why anyone would sing about swallowing a fly. Mom said something about there being a call for help on the mountain and a search party already on its way. I wasn’t worried since I knew that none of my family would ever need help. A short time later, Bernie and Bruce bounded out of the woods, full of energy, and told of the storm that had chased them down after they had reached the summit. Mom grew more concerned since that meant that dad got caught in the middle of the storm.
Time drug on slowly as we hung around the ranger station waiting for word from the rescue team. A boy scout troop that was turned back by the storm came in with tales of rain and snow above timberline. They too had rested by the old miner’s cabins. I tried to hide behind mom when one of the scouts with a devilish grin held up a brown-stained canvas bag. “Guess what, Rodney set his knapsack in in a pile of poop by the old cabins!” Everyone laughed except Rodney and me.
Sunbeams finally began to pry apart the clouds as we waited and watched. I don’t know who spotted him first, but through the woods strode a familiar figure with jacket unzipped and a white handkerchief, knotted at the corners, lying atop his head. Mom let out a relieved gasp while through his toothless grin, dad assured us that he had come through ok, though one person that he met along the way had barely survived.
The storm hit just as dad had started up the cable route, a thick, metal cable draped down to help climbers ascend the final vertical pitch to the summit. Once he was on that route, the only reasonable option was to climb to the top and then descend through the easier Keyhole route. He met another group going up the cable, and they moved together through the storm. They could only see a few feet ahead in the blinding snow and one fellow only had a tee shirt to protect himself against the cold. Dad was well-clothed but had nothing to offer the foolish fellow.
They made their way to the top, and dad was relieved to see Bruce and Bernie’s names on the summit register. Carefully, they felt their way down a slippery ledge to the back of the mountain to the narrow slot called the keyhole. The well-worn trail switched back and forth down the steep, rock slope.
Most of the group sought shelter in a stone hut below the keyhole and tried to keep their shivering companion warm. Dad, however, was looking for his boys, and continued down and eventually emerged from the storm. He met the search and rescue crew along the way and let them know where the others were trying to wait out the storm.
As he emerged from the forest he was as happy to see us as we were to see him. I was also happy that I didn’t have to hike anymore. There was plenty for me to explore within sight of camp, but first, I wanted to take a nap.
Though we went to the mountains every summer, it was eight more years before I tried to climb that mountain again. That time I made it to the top and saw the drama had unfolded. In the meantime, I had learned to read, and it seemed strange to me to see the sign at the trail head that read, “Long’s peak.”
© Eskildoodle 2021