Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Big Hole

Somewhere between the time I met Bob Russell in 1970 and our marriage in 1972 he first told me about The Big Hole, a magical place about twenty-five miles north of Fort Collins, Colorado, but as inaccessible to me as if it had been on the moon. He regaled me with stories about this secret wonderland of tall pine trees and cold, clear streams of fresh water cascading over ancient rocks and fossils, populated with deer and other wildlife. The most incredible part of his description was the location of the place, this Big Hole, for it was not in the nearby Rocky Mountains as one might imagine, nor was it in the hogback formations of the foothills. No, it was in the flat prairie of eastern Colorado ranchland, a gash in the earth that opened into a ravine that could only be seen from the air. And it was on private property managed by a grazing association, a place I could never visit. He had been there, several times, he and his friend Bill Hartwig, two guys who enjoyed exploring northern Colorado natural wonders, like Crystal Cave, The Natural Forts, and little known locations of teepee rings, dinosaur tracks, buffalo wallows, and animal pits. And over the years the legend of The Big Hole grew and my imagination grew with it.

A little background might be helpful. Bob Russell's childhood took place in western Weld County, Colorado, on landlocked dryland farms without creeks, lakes, or even irrigation ditches nearby. Average yearly rainfall ranged between 9 inches and 12 inches but rarely came in thunderstorms or gully washes, so there weren't even mudpuddles for a boy to play in. Bob's dad farmed his own land for eighteen years in Weld County and most of those years he watched his wheat crop destroyed by summer hail and his optimism pounded into the ground with it.


Finally, in 1953, Doyle Russell had had enough of that and moved his family and farming operation over to Larimer County, north of Wellington, to farm the land that would be their home until he died. Bob was eleven years old. There were no natural water formations on this land either, but it was bordered on the west by an irrigation ditch and that is where Bob learned to swim. Ironically, this dryland farmer's son joined the Navy in 1962, became an Underwater Demolition Team aka UDT/SEAL frogman where he spent years in the water, cold Pacific ocean water, where he swam, dived, blew up underwater obstacles, and participated in sneak and peek operations and ambushes in South Vietnam.

Back home again after his time in the Navy, reeling from the shock of leaving the humid jungles of Vietnam to living on the dry, treeless plains of eastern Colorado, Bob was also trying to adjust to the surreal animosity and disdain that greeted returning Vietnam veterans. Wellington was not welcoming. He remembered the lush greenery and solitude to be found at The Big Hole, and returned there several times with Bill Hartwig, gaining access without permission, finding solace in that place.
When I came into Bob's life I was new to Colorado...well, not totally new. Back in 1955, just a couple of years after Doyle Russell moved his family from hail alley in Weld County over to his new farm in Larimer County, my dad moved our family from a trailer court in Tuscola, Illinois, to an Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, and we drove through Colorado enroute. Dad was a miner.
He had spent the winter of 1954 with a buddy from Illinois searching for uranium near Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado, the coldest winter of his life, he told us. In May of 1955 he was back in Colorado traveling west with his wife and four young children making his way to Washington State where he had a job waiting for him with the same employer, mining uranium. We spent several days in Colorado, entering from Kansas, driving across barren eastern Colorado in our 1953 Kaiser, coming through Denver at night where we gawked in wonder at the golden dome of the state house, illuminated with spotlights for all to admire. The next morning we awoke in Idaho Springs, enchanted by our first view of mountains, covered in Christmas trees, my brother said.
We climbed to the summit of Berthoud Pass where we stopped to throw snowballs and take photographs with Mom's brownie camera...snow in summertime, such was the magic of Colorado. That night we stayed in a motel in Hot Sulphur Springs where we were treated with such thoughtfulness and consideration that I lost my heart to Colorado. Fifteen years later when my life was spiraling out of control in Illinois I remembered Colorado and hoped the magic was still there.

Just like my father, I pulled up stakes in Illinois and headed west. I was married and had a two-year-old son when I arrived in Colorado the summer of 1970. An attempt to resuscitate our failing marriage is what brought us to Colorado but six months later it was over. Our son, Patrick, and I stayed in Fort Collins while my husband returned to Illinois. Bob Russell and I met at our place of employment, Union Manufacturing and Supply Company. After we started dating he introduced me to his friends, and he had a lot of friends. Among them was Bill Hartwig, which brings us back to The Big Hole.

In 2004 I learned that Larimer County had purchased the land surrounding The Big Hole from the grazing association and had named the area Red Mountain Open Space. I didn't learn until years later that the city of Cheyenne bought the actual Big Hole property in 2005 and cooperated with Larimer County to make both properties available to the public in 2009. I was finally going to visit the area I had heard so much about and dreamed of exploring. I talked to Bob about my desire to hike into the Big Hole and came up with a plan. I contacted Bill and Linda Hartwig in Torrington, Wyoming and told them about the new access to The Big Hole and asked if they'd like to join me on a guided hike.
They agreed, even got excited about it. So, in September of 2007 we met with our guide and two other trekkers at Walmart's parking lot early one morning and headed north out of Fort Collins for the Red Mountain Open Space.

I was having some trouble with my feet at that time, nothing major, painful areas between toes, mostly. I should have bought myself a good pair of hiking boots and thick socks but instead I chose cheap sneakers a couple of sizes too big, thinking the extra space in the shoes would be more comfortable for me. Oh, my, what a mistake! So, off we went, five adventurers and a guide, headed for the parking area at the trailhead, wearing layers, carrying bottled water, and me with my sloppy shoes.

This hike took place two years before Red Mountain Open Space was open to the public so we were the only people out there. At times, looking back down the trail, I saw a light colored car off in the distance, a Ranger who patrolled the 16,000 acres alone. We walked at a gentle pace, across a meadow stopping to look at small log buildings whose provenance was unknown to us. Soon the landscape changed from rolling meadow to rocky outcroppings of red sandstone as we climbed higher into the mountainside.I lagged behind so that I could photograph the group of climbers and take my time soaking up the beauty surrounding me. We climbed higher and higher up the unmarked trail where there was no evidence of man, no plastic, no cigarette butts, and not much noise either. I listened for birds but mostly heard the wind as it blew across the canyon making an eerie sound that changed pitch from a moan to a whistle. And the conversation between the hikers above me on the trail fell down the crevice slightly distorted like the cry of children on a faraway playgound. I could have stayed in that state of bliss forever.
After a couple of hours we arrived at the highest point of this trail. I'm not sure the trail had been named yet. If so, I don't remember it. Our group of five stopped to rest, drink water, take photographs, enjoy the view. I remember asking Bill just where the Big Hole was and he pointed off to the north. It may have been then that I realized I was so close to this place I'd dreamed of for many years but still a long hike away.




Today, while writing this post, I googled Red Mountain Open Space and The Big Hole and found this written by someone who actually did hike into that place, Roger Ludwig, "The trek into the glorious Big Hole is a long one, typically only reached by mountain bikers. But if hikers start early, bringing plenty of water and a good lunch you can do it. It makes for a ten mile loop, covering the highlights of this geologic wonderland. Perhaps someday the city will grant access off of Harriman Road through the Belvoir Ranch."


The hike back down from the apex of the trail was painful. With every step I took my feet slid forward and my big toes slammed into the toes of the shoes. No longer was I admiring the view, listening for birds. Instead, I was thinking "how much further to the car?" I don't remember much about this part of the hike. At one point where the ground was smooth I removed my shoes and walked barefoot giving me some relief from the pain. Finally, we walked out of the canyon and onto the flat land, our destination in sight. The Ranger I had seen from afar drove up to check on us, asked if everybody was okay.

He even offered to give us a ride to our car, still some distance away. Oh, how I wanted to take him up on his offer but my pride wouldn't let me speak out. Instead I tried to send a mental message to our guide. He didn't get it. He said we would walk to our van and enjoy the view along the way. And some of us did, enjoy the view. Back at our departure point, the parking lot at Walmart, Bill and Linda thanked me for inviting them, for hiking together on this beautiful trail, and hoped for an invitation to go back to my house so we could tell Bob all about the hike. Instead I begged off, telling them about my painful toes and desire to soak in a tub of warm water.
Over the next days and weeks I lost both toenails on my big toes, and learned a few things from that experience. Did you know that you can lose your big toenails twice and they will grow back but if you lose them a third time they won't grow back? Hmmm... makes me wonder how that evolved.
I cherish the memory of this hike with Bill and Linda. Like so many experiences with friends, most only happen once, especially in our later years. Bill passed away in May of 2015. I can no longer hike and climb. But I am holding out hope that if an entrance to the Big Hole is created on the northern border I might still get into that magical place, pushing a walker or using two walking sticks, anything that works. But if not me, then maybe you. You won't be disappointed...and wear good shoes.

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