2 families, 4 days, 3 nights, 15 miles, 3,000 feet of elevation gain.
Aspen To Crested Butte: Day 4
Taido woke us up early with bowls of coffee and oatmeal on our last morning in the mountains.
We had four miles of downhill to hike before we would come to Gothic, Colorado, where a shuttle comes twice a day to take folks to downtown Crested Butte. The shuttle comes at 11:30 am and 5:30 pm, and we wanted to be on the 11:30.
Everyone was dreaming of showers, a big lunch at a restaurant, the hot tub, real beds and internet access, so we didn’t want to be sitting in Gothic all day waiting for that 5:30 shuttle. We were hiking before 7 am.
We broke camp and set off, immediately having to cross the same creek that Rhonda had fallen in the day before. Cole carried Simon across in the pale early morning light.
This time I opted to keep on my long sleeves to avoid a repeat of the whole whining-inside-my-head-about-being-cold scenario from the day before. This was a good decision as we hiked for a while in the long shadows cast by the mountains.
We started all together, but it wasn’t long at all before everyone was ahead of Rhonda and me. Bobby stayed back with us, bringing up the rear, as we were stepping carefully down steep, rocky paths.
The trail from Copper Lake to Gothic is absolutely beautiful. However, I can’t imagine doing it in the reverse, as a day hike, which many folks do. The elevation gain is serious. We were marveling at the uphill climb behind us and thankful that we were going down, even if our knees and ankles were hating us a little.
Mary Polly and Ben switched shoes because the day before she said she felt like she was wearing clown shoes. She wore thick socks with Ben’s Keens and Ben was back in his boots. Again, not ideal, but she seemed just fine and her footwear certainly did not slow her down. She and Ben were racing ahead with everyone else.
The kids would stop and wait for us at the river crossings, of which there were several. Everyone was in a bit of a hurry so mostly, they all opted to slosh across and just hike in wet shoes. I cannot bear the possibility of soggy feet while hiking, so if the water was up past my ankles, I would stop and change to my sandals. If it was pretty low, I would go ahead and cross since my boots are waterproof.
We had at least four river crossings on the way down, but maybe more like five or six. I’m pretty sure I was the only one with dry boots by the time we were done crossing rivers.
After we were past them all, we began to see lots more day hikers. The area was absolutely covered in wildflowers, so many people were hiking part of the trail to see the flowers. The Crested Butte Wildflower Festival happens every year in mid-July, so it was a peak time to see them.
Gothic, Colorado is home to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), a dream school for science majors all over the world. Students come out and spend weeks of their summer studying the mountain ecosystems, and complete all sorts of projects. Mary Polly swears she is going to go one day. The folks from the RMBL always have the best parade float in Crested Butte on the 4th of July. They all dress in green leaves and flowers. They look like forest fairies who’ve come out of the woodwork just long enough for the parade. These crazy kids are partially responsible for our getting to see all the incredible wildflowers, as they are constantly working to restore areas that have been trampled or damaged with native Colorado wildflowers. We ran into a few of them on the trail gathering samples and doing field research.
Taido had told us that we would be near the end when we reached Judd Falls, a day hike that we’ve done several times as a family while camping in Crested Butte, so we were excited and watching for the familiar falls.
It was probably around 10am when we reached the falls. We stopped for a minute to admire the view, but we were all anxious to get down the rest of the way to Gothic, so we did not stop long.
From the falls, we all started hiking down together. Taido was looking for a turn off to Gothic from the Judd Falls trail, that is only used by the RMBL residents. If we didn’t take the turn off, we would pass Gothic and go all the way to the Judd Falls trailhead, which is on the dirt road about a mile up from Gothic. To go that way would add almost two miles to our hike.
However, the turn off was not clearly marked, and I didn’t remember one from our previous hikes to Judd Falls, so I was becoming less and less convinced that such a trail existed.
Then Taido turned left off of the trail into an overgrown area, that was, at second glance, a trail in a former life. Or a lesser used trail. It was wide enough for a jeep or a four wheeler, but did not look as though it had been used as such for some time.
We waited and watched him while he hiked downhill a little bit before he yelled up to us:
Yes, it’s this way! Come on!
Sketchy, I thought, but we followed him. The kids scrambled down to him and on past him. Everyone could feel that we were getting close so they were all running.
We followed after them, but they were all quickly out of our view, so we just kept hiking down the overgrown trail.
It was not long though before signs of civilization appeared. We passed lots of projects, plants with small fences protecting them. There might have been marijuana growing. It is Colorado, after all.
We started to see the cabins that house students for the summer, so we knew we were in Gothic.
As we emerged from the woods, we could see the kids sitting at the shuttle stop. They had shed their backpacks and were drinking sodas they had bought from the brand new Gothic Visitor Center. They were smiling and yelling to us that we had made it.
But before I reached them, Taido said to me, Where’s Ben?
Isn’t he with you?
No, I thought he was with you.
Without even speaking, we realized what had happened. Ben had been ahead of us when we had made the turn off the trail, and we didn’t notice.
We. Did. Not. Notice.
Just let that sink in for a minute. Are you thinking What kind of parent does not notice that their kid is not with them?? Yep, that’s what I was thinking too.
I don’t think Taido and I even exchanged words. In a matter of seconds, Taido and Cole were running back up the trail we had just come down, and I threw down my pack and headed up the road to the Judd Falls trailhead in the hopes that he would be there.
I was about 100 steps up the road before I turned around and Bobby was with me.
It was a mile to the turnoff and another half mile to the trailhead.
Dear Lord, let us find him. Let us find him.
Let him know that we will find him.
We’ve hiked this trail before. He knows the way. Let him be sitting at the trailhead. Let him be there. Let him be there.
It seemed like forever before we reached the turnoff. Bobby kept asking me if I was sure we hadn’t missed it.
Nope, I’ll know it when I see it.
A car or two passed us without slowing. I was starting to wonder if I should flag one down when we finally saw the cars parked on the road. Cars park at the turnoff, because the 1/2 mile road to the trailhead is a four wheel drive road. So usually only jeeps or cars similar to jeeps drive to the trailhead.
We reached the turnoff and he wasn’t there.
Judd Falls is a popular day hike, so there were lots of cars parked at the turnoff and several hikers. We ran past them, practically shoving. I would walk when I was panting too hard to run anymore.
I was trying to calculate how much time had passed. How long had he been by himself? I couldn’t make out if it had been twenty minutes or two hours.
We had just reached the trailhead when Taido came running toward us from the other direction. They had found him.
Waves of relief washed over me.
Dear Lord Thank You.
Ben had gotten all the way to the trailhead and waited for a while before he realized we weren’t behind him. Then he walked the trail back to Judd Falls and was wandering near where we had turned off the trail when Cole and Taido found him. Taido sent them back down the way we had come before coming around to meet us to let us know they had found him.
We turned around and walked back to the road and the mile back to Gothic. On the way I thought about seeing Ben and what on earth I could say to him about the fact that I, his mother, had left him.
In all honesty, I had enjoyed the day of hiking a good bit behind everyone else. It had been quiet. Peaceful.
Along the trail before we reached the falls, I was even feeling a little mournful that the backpacking portion of our trip was almost over.
We had done what we had come to do, and soon we would be rid of our packs, but with them we would also be giving up the seclusion of the backcountry. I was trying to hold in all the exhilaration of the previous days of hiking and of reaching our highest point.
I was in my own little world.
I had no excuse to give to Ben but my own blatant selfishness.
When we saw him, Taido and I both took off running to his side. He was sitting in a rocking chair outside the Gothic Visitor Center and were both down on our knees in front of him simultaneously telling him how very sorry we were.
I was crying and saying I was so, so sorry. And Ben was saying he was sorry for hiking ahead and not staying with the group. And Taido was telling him, No Buddy, it wasn’t your fault. I should never have turned off the trail without making sure everyone was there first.
Later Ben told me that though he had been scared, he had just trusted God that we would find him.
I continue to be amazed at how trustworthy God is.
Unbelievable moments of mercy in the midst of my greatest failures.
Bailey bought Ben a drink and we all brushed ourselves off, dried our eyes and snapped a quick photo before the shuttle came.
We had made it. All of us. From Aspen to Crested Butte.