Last night, I fell asleep in my tent to the sound of dozens of wolves howling just hundreds of feet away in their enclosures at the Mission: Wolf sanctuary. Earlier in the day, we watched them devour pounds of raw meat in one of their twice-weekly feedings, then curl up in the shade to nap off the feast through the afternoon. In the evening, though, they came alive, and howled at intervals throughout the night. The half-howls/half-barks of the wolfdogs joined the chorus as the almost-full moon illuminated the 13,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the distance. Out here, so far from the nearest town and so many experiences away from our first days together, I can’t believe it’s already been two and a half weeks since we met our student group in Boulder.
As a passionate hiker, our recent trek through the La Garita Mountains in the San Juans, just east of the birthplace of the Rio Grande, stands out in particular and invites reflection. For many of our students, tents were pitched and backpacks adjusted for the very first time in the days leading up to the hike. Students with more experience in the outdoors were able to take lead in explaining the reliable but sometimes finnicky Whisperlite camp stoves and reading the topographic maps that guided us along streams and over the 12,500ft Halfmoon Pass, another new challenge in incline and elevation for many students. At our highest points, we were even able to throw some snowballs! Each night, our afternoon routine of setting up camp in the heat and the morning routine of taking it down again in the cold grew faster and more streamlined. Our pace quickened. We watched sunsets, sunrises, and stars, and thought about all the people who have passed this way before us.
Most poignant, we caught the mountains right in the middle of the changing leaves. When we left from the trailhead last week, the mountains were covered in patches of yellow aspen. By the time we returned four days later, whole hillsides glowed golden. Hopefully, we’ll be able to follow the colors over the coming weeks as we chase autumn south, away from the coldest nights. For me, the changing leaves are an especially important symbol this year of all the unexpected transitions we have been passing through, and a reminder that winter is coming again after a strange spring and summer, pulling us back to the point where this all began not so long ago. In that reminder, I think we are all so grateful to be spending these months together, in a new family pod and community, mask-free with people other than family members for perhaps the first time, touching the earth of this beautiful place and looking ahead to many more weeks together in mountains and deserts across three states.
After several weeks of movement from Boulder to Winter Park for orientation, back to Boulder, down south to the trek, over to Buena Vista, and finally to Mission: Wolf here in the mountains outside of Westcliffe, we are slowly perfecting the art of packing up our gear, setting up tents, constructing our gas stove, cooking as a group, and getting the van unloaded and reloaded for each adventure. I think we’re also all excited to settle in for the next week and a half here with volunteer projects ranging from constructing enclosures, to permaculture in the onsite greenhouse, to work with the wolves themselves. Ten days suddenly feels like we’re almost moving in, even as we look ahead to our time in South Fork and Great Sand Dunes National Park that will follow this experience, and our eventual travels south to New Mexico and beyond as we follow the river from its origins near the San Luis valley to the Mexican border. We’re excited to continue to share them with you.