Commentary: Nothing But Gratitude For The Centering Power Of Colorado’s Hiking Trails

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5min 35sec
Stina Sieg/CPR News
Clunker gets its name from this old, rusted car visible below the trail. While the route is a local favorite, it’s also hidden away from large roads, giving it a hidden feel.

In 2020, we all had our escapes. Mine took the form of a rocky, narrow trail, with a perilous drop off one side. Only 10 minutes from my door, Clunker Trail overlooks a wide bowl of desert bordered by high canyon walls. 

That’s one of the beautiful things about living in Grand Junction. While you’re distressingly far from a Trader Joe’s, you’re always close to solitude.

I came to Clunker all the time as the world around me became more and more untethered, full of unimaginable loss. When cases of COVID-19 began to rise all over the state, I hiked. No toilet paper at the grocery store? Get on the trail. It was both my way to get away from things and to feel the pain more deeply. Sometimes I’d cry. Sometimes I’d talk to myself. I always felt more human afterward. The trail became my factory reset. 

On the final morning of 2020, I took one last Clunker lap for the year, with my ski pants on and an old ski pole for a walking stick. It was 16 degrees out. I was disappointed to have forgotten my gloves but happy to have the trail all to myself.

As I crunched through the snow and looked into the distance at the mesas of Colorado National Monument, I started to feel a giddy gratitude. A few months ago, I didn’t know this would be possible. I didn’t know what my life would look like. 

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Western Slope reporter Stina Sieg hiked through the stress of 2020 on the Clunker Trail, a few miles from downtown Grand Junction.

Back in September, I was hiking in Nevada, on a lonely peak in Great Basin National Park. On my way back down from the summit, I started to feel a little embarrassed by how slow I was going. I decided to try to pick it up.

A moment later, I heard a sickening crack.

I saw my right foot go completely sideways. It looked like that infamous scene in “Misery.” Instead of Kathy Bates wielding a sledgehammer, Wheeler Peak had used my own clumsiness against me. 

A hiker behind me somehow had a phone signal and called 911. Eventually, a pack of the kindest park rangers I’ve ever met strapped me onto a gurney, with a big wheel attached. As they carefully maneuvered me the two or so miles down the mountain, they were always checking in. One ranger, Tucker, let me squeeze his hand as much as I needed through my foot’s spasms. It was a break and a dislocation. In the ambulance, I kept marveling at how vulnerable our bodies are to such devastation, as the paramedics tried unsuccessfully to get an IV into my dehydrated veins. 

After emergency surgery, I couldn’t walk for six weeks. I hopped my way around with a walker. I live in a two-story house, so I’d have to scoot and pull myself up each stair going backward. I finally took my first step on Election Day.

I still have a little limp, a lingering unsteadiness. But on New Year’s Eve morning, I wanted to push it. The doctor said I could, and it had started to feel like my duty. There are several trails that branch out from Clunker, and since my accident I’d just been doing a 1.5-mile stretch. But I could choose to go twice that length if I wanted. Even as my foot started to protest, I knew I had to.

The exhilaration of deciding to go for it counterbalanced the pain, at least for a little while. I could feel how wide I was smiling as I walked through a small city of boulders, some as tall as me, a few the height of an RV. I hadn’t seen them in so long. I hiked past the ancient-looking, rusted-out car that gave Clunker its name. Finally, I was headed over the tiny bridge that leads to the last uphill push right before the trailhead. My foot was screaming. 

As I made my way up at a glacial pace, I thought about how this climb is always hard, even with two working feet. I thought about how many times I’d tackled this ascent in the past year, in good times and heart-breaking. Mostly I thought about each challenge right in front of me, every loose rock and icy spot, and places where the mud looked especially unstable. I was committed to not letting any of it get the best of me. 

When I reached the car, I could feel the warm tears welling up. I had hiked three miles, the longest I’d gone since that day in Nevada. I looked back at the path twisting into the snowy desert, with no idea what was ahead in the new year. But I was sure that, as long as I was able, I was going to be spending a lot more time right there, on that trail that had become a part of me. 

And I just felt so lucky.

We want to know about your pandemic happy place. It could be a trail, a park or a different room of the house. No worries if it's a secret spot. We're just as interested in how it makes you feel as its location. Leave us a voicemail describing your getaway: 303-871-9191 x. 480. You can also email us: [email protected]. If you're industrious, email us a voice memo from your favorite spot and describe what you see and feel.