In the mountains of central New Mexico there are six little stone cabins circling a meadow. They are nearly 100 years old and they tell stories.
The cabins were built with plans designed by Kurt Vonnegut, the architect father of writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Vonnegut Sr. had traded the cabin drawings to philanthropist Hillis Howie to settle a debt after he guided the young Vonnegut Jr. on a trek through the Southwest in summer 1938.
Howie and the group of boys established a base camp in the same small meadow not far from the Navajo Nation where the cabins are today. They drank from a nearby spring and traveled throughout the rugged Southwest, returning occasionally to the meadow.
The cabins, once built, offered respite for groups that returned to the area. In all directions ponderosa pine forests cast long shadows and the spring seeps cool water.
Evidently, people have been visiting the spring and the meadow for many, many years.
Thousands of potsherds are strewn across the ground. On a nearby mesa the small relics are as numerous as seashells on a beach and are delicate reminders of past generations of people who have visited the area. The spring itself has witnessed a bewildering evolution of humans for generations.
Vonnegut’s 1985 novel “Galapagos” is dedicated to Howie for his role in influencing a young aspiring author during that summer in the Southwest. “Mr. Howie scared us half to death”, he wrote, “on purpose, screaming like a wildcat near our camp. A real wildcat screamed back.”
Vonnegut’s words set the premise of a million-year-long look at humans in nature. His experience and the writing he left us is an important reminder of not just our impact on the natural world but of nature’s impact on us.
Despite the gone years, the high desert of central New Mexico is still brimming with inspiration and casting pastel sunsets through pine-scented air. The place had lost none of the wonders Vonnegut experienced in his youth and reflected on as an adult.
The summer treks that Howie began continue today some 88 years later. As an instructor for Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions, I too lead treks for young students across the Southwest.
In fall 2008, in one of Vonnegut’s cabins, I sat at a sturdy wooden table and unfolded maps by candlelight. They showed the route of the Colorado Trail, which rambles through the Rocky Mountains from Denver to Durango. Although the trail is traditionally hiked southbound from Denver in the summer, I was only about 160 miles from the southern terminus.
With two hiking partners, former coworkers, plans were made to through-hike the 485-mile trail northbound.
A few days later, with our packs far too loaded, we said goodbye to our tiny cabin in the woods.
We hitchhiked first to Durango to a mountain pub, drank far too many beers, then hitchhiked again to the trailhead of the Colorado Trail at Junction Creek.
The next morning we shouldered our packs and took the first steps on a two-month journey of human power and hospitality deep into the mountains of Central Colorado.
The Colorado Trail makes its way through the Sawatch Range and overlooks the Arkansas Valley.
Salida is an optional town stop for hikers and also the halfway mark for through hikers. It is also where I stopped while through hiking into the fall. After finishing the Colorado Trail, I came back to Salida. There was more to see and more stories to tell.