Aspen, the Colorado ski town for the very wealthy, broke the gas price record for the trip. The previous high was $4.64, seen near the Grand Canyon nearly a month ago. Aspen shattered that mark with a price of $4.74. We searched for alternatives and had to settle for the slightly lower price of $4.69 per gallon.
Aspen blew us away. Its streets were lined with the likes of Gucci and Christian Dior, and every block boasted an art gallery. In these art galleries, paintings went for upwards of 30K, and we saw bronze sculptures with price tags nearing a hundred thousand bucks. The little girls on the sidewalk even wore exquisite designer summer dresses. They looked to be 10, 11 years old and would outgrow the dresses within the year, perhaps sooner. Then their parents, fabulously rich citizens of Aspen and owners of million-dollar homes in the mountains, will lift open their wallets, bottomless as they come, and buy their little girls just the dress they wanted.
So what were us three poor fools, with threadbare bank accounts (and who could only afford a 40-dollar tent), doing in a wealthy town such as Aspen?
Just south of Aspen, deep in the heart of White River National Forest and surrounded by fourteen thousand-foot peaks, lay a wondrous treasure created by Nature, a treasure known as Conundrum Hot Springs. Scott had his heart set on visiting the springs, rated by many to be the best in the United States. Our research said it’d be a 4.5 mile trip one-way, with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. After conquering 14,000-foot mountains, this hike seemed laughable to us.
The laughable hike and the prospect of chilling in natural hot springs meant one thing: beer!
So off we went to the City Market in Aspen, to stock up. In addition to six-packs of glass beer bottles each (glass is heavy, but it was a short hike, so what? We thought), we got ground beef, onions, green pepper, and potatoes. Our first meal was to be the beef and all the vegetables chopped up, wrapped in foil, and thrown into the fire for 30 minutes. Add garlic salt to the piping hot medley, and you have the quintessential camping meal.
We went off to find the trailhead that led to the hot springs. After getting lost, we found a National Forest ranger who told us where the trailhead was… and that the trail leading up to the hot springs was 8.5 miles one way. When we finally found the trailhead, we stared at our pile of food and beer, and at our backpacks. We also had to pack up our tent, sleeping bags, warm clothes for the night, swimming trunks, aluminum foil for the beef/vegetable meal, cooking spray, knives and forks, bug repellent… the list goes on and on. We decided to spend two nights instead of one, to justify the long hike, which meant we had to bring a cooking pot, glass bottle of pasta sauce, and dry noodles for the second night.
Not to mention the ice to keep the beef and beer cool.
When everything was finally stuffed in, our packs felt like they belonged on the ends of barbells in weight rooms instead of on our backs. That day, I think I gained a sliver of understanding of how Atlas felt.
The general rule when climbing 14,000-foot mountains, we’ve learned, is to get to the top before noon. Past noon, the sky turns into a swirling mass of angry clouds, and it rains. A lot. We weren’t scaling a 14er today, but we were hiking through a mountain range dotted with 14ers, and our destination was at an elevation of 11,200 feet. We started the hike after 1 in the afternoon.
It wasn’t long before we saw dark clouds in the horizon. An hour into the hike, the rain started coming. Interestingly enough, we hadn’t seen rain since the night we drove into Mammoth Cave National Park, almost 40 days before. Lady luck had been on our side, and we took the dry weather for granted. But when the rain assailed us, we realized how fortunate we’d been. The rain stopped, but came again soon… Nature was playing with us, giggling at our dripping faces and soaked packs.
At one point, when the trail started getting steep, I was getting frustrated. My backpack weighed down on my back, the rain was unyielding, and we had maybe 5 more miles to go. Anger welled up in me, but then I thought of a scene from a couple days ago, when we were hiking up Longs Peak. We’d stopped a mile and a half away from where we were supposed to camp. Munching on trail mix, me and Scott started discussing the direction of the trail. I thought it’d veer to the right and bypass the hill in front; Scott thought it would go right over. As we discussed, Kevin sat a ways off, watching our discussion silently. When me and Scott finally shut up, Kevin spoke up. “Just hike,” he said.
It didn’t matter where the trail took us, how hard the rain came, or how heavy our packs were. Just hike, man. I kept telling myself, and soon settled into cruise control mode.
It was interesting how the rain seemed to make the valley come to life. The plants and trees gave off a stronger, cleaner scent, and in the distant mountain tops, we saw water coursing down in beautiful streams that would otherwise have been paltry.
About three hours, 8.5 miles, and 2,000 feet in height later, we got to the springs. It was raining still, but in big, fat, freezing drops. There were 15 campsites surrounding the springs, but every one of them was occupied (there was one unoccupied but with a nasty stench that we found was from a dead cow rotting nearby) except for the one farthest from the springs, it seemed. About 50 yards from our site lay a huge snowfield on the side of a mountain ridge, and we finally realized how freaking cold it was.
In the rain, we dumped our packs, set up the tent, and took off our soaked, stinking hiking boots (for the first time in my life I was angry at myself for double-tying my boots so well that my freezing fingers could barely untie them). Scott was the first one to go off to the springs. “See y’all there!” he said. Furious, I forced my numb fingers to work at my boots.
The hot springs, Nature’s hot tub, was deliciously warm after the hike. The surrounding valley and peaks were beautiful. We drained our beer, four glasses each, and melted into the springs. In the middle seemed to be the source of the heat, and if we dug the pebbles out, we’d generate more heat. We sat in the middle of the springs, digging and sending heat bubbles up to the surface. The rain still came, but we were safe in the sanctuary of the springs.
The springs itself was what I’d call ‘hippie heaven.’ People of all ages and backgrounds were there. They drank whiskey from flasks, beer from cans, wine from coolers, and smoked weed in pipes. Those would have been a hell of a lot easier to bring up. Nudity was an option that was exercised often as well.
The weather was unpredictable. One moment the sky would be pristinely clear, the next teeming with ominous grey-black clouds. The second night, we retreated from the springs and into our tent beneath those same clouds. That night, we found why our tent only cost $40. On Scott’s side, where most of the rain was blown, water dripped from the canvas, seeping through the seam of the window. Disgusted, Scott moved away from the steadily growing puddle on his side, and into Kevin, who in turn squeezed even closer to me. We slept rather too close that night, I’d say.
The next morning, we hiked back with significantly lighter packs. And it did not rain.