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Off Trail: Finding My Way Home in the Colorado Rockies – EXCERPT

By Jane Parnell

The following is an excerpt from the new book, Off Trail: Finding My Home in the Colorado Rockies by Jane Parnell of Fairplay, Colorado, which will be released in January 2018. Jane is a freelance writer and independent scholar. She has taught journalism at Utah State University and writing at Colorado Mountain College, and her articles, editorials and essays with the byline Jane Koerner have been published in High Country News, Mountain Gazette, Colorado Central Magazine and Outdoor Adventure.

Join the author on Tuesday, Feb. 13, at the Book Haven, 135 F St., Salida, for a reading in conjunction with the store’s Festival of Books.

False Summit

San Juan Mountains, September 1994: The closer I get, the more elusive the trophy. My destination today is farther than I think. It usually is. Optical delusion, as we mountaineers like to say. Chalk it up to oxygen deprivation or the blazing light at this altitude or overconfidence. After five solos in as many days, unscathed, I feel invincible.

[InContentAdTwo] When I top out on the summit ridge, the conquest appears imminent. The ridge before me curves like a hallucinated camel, rising to a distant hump that looks promising despite the modesty of its apparent cairn. I mop the sweat from my brow with my red bandanna, rehydrate with my half-empty water bottle, and push on. The cairn from the look of it up close has sat here undisturbed for centuries, the handiwork of a retreating glacier. On to the next hump. Splintered cumuli blister the azure sky. To the south and west, a sun-glazed tableau of unclaimed summits makes my heart race. I lick the stinging ooze from my windburned lip, relieve the friction in my right knee with a pop, and quicken the pace. The next hump fails to deliver the expected triumph, and the ridge beyond swaybacks to yet another high point. From there the ridge continues, on and on, over stacked and tossed plates of brittle shale that crack and crumble beneath my feet as I approach the next promising hump.

At first I mistake him for a lichen-splattered boulder, so deceptive is the pattern of his mottled fur. Head cocked, nose twitching, he seems to be enjoying the view while hunting for his next meal. Then the wind shifts slightly, driving my scent toward him. The white lining of a pointed ear rotates into view, an almond-shaped eye materializes.

Coyote, as close as I may ever get. He has a bald patch on his shoulder and a torn ear. A survivor, no doubt, of entanglements with barbed-wire fences and sheep guard dogs and all the other hazards of an often solitary, nomadic existence. The glint in his amber eye conveys a sly wisdom. Perhaps he will play me for a fool and warp my sense of direction with a ventriloquist’s yelp so I never reach the summit. Maybe that’s the point. There is no summit, just one step at a time, attending to what’s under my feet.

Coyote squats on his haunches, unperturbed and inscrutable as a Buddha statue. And then, with the speed and sureness of a warrior’s discharged arrow, he springs. I look over the edge, into steep, bottomless talus. He has vanished.

Twenty feet beyond his vacated perch is a pile of rocks arranged with human deliberation. Coyote has shown me the truest of seven false summits. In the triumph of the moment, our encounter is forgotten. How many false summits must I climb before I get the message and really start paying attention?

Excerpt from Off Trail: Finding My Home in the Colorado Rockies. Copyright 2018 by Jane Parnell. Published by the University of Oklahoma Press, January 2018.