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Gilt complex: On the trail of Colorado's fleeting golden age

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By Stephen Knapp

Though rigorously prudent and deliberative in most things, even I am not immune to the powerful “gold fever” that grips Colorado each autumn.

In the past, I’ve been content to enjoy the high country’s ephemeral fall fashions in the traditional way, through my car’s bug-dappled windshield. This year, however, my artistic nature and native patriotism suggested another course. I would mine the gilded realms on foot, wandering free among the whispering glades and quenching my thirsty soul with deep, aromatic draughts from the aspens’ sparkling cup.

Indeed, in an uncertain world where our country’s vigor depends on the fickle goodwill of lesser nations, and where the gloomy predictions of climatic diviners grow more tearful by the day, my eco-friendly program could be seen as the proper and righteous duty of any red-blooded American patriot. Super-patriot, even.

Behaving nobly is best done in front of an audience, and I felt sure I could rely on the cooperation of Evergreen Newspapers editor Doug Bell and former hometown reporter Bonnie Benjamin. Both are physically equal to the mission, susceptible to insistent pleading, and in desperate need of my sterling moral example. With only a few weeks badgering, they folded like a pair of cheese flautas.

When discussion turns to central Colorado’s autumn riches, the name most often invoked is “Kenosha Pass.” According to people claiming to know, “Kenosha” derives from “kinoje,” the Chippewa word for northern pike, or, possibly, pickerel — two fish that, like the Chippewa themselves, are otherwise unrepresented in the state’s historical inventory.

Kenosha Pass has long been associated with prosperity. In ancient times, Ute bands accessed South Park’s rich hunting grounds via Kenosha Pass. More recently, the narrow-gauge Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad traversed the broad, 10,000-foot saddle, carrying the mineral wealth of the Rocky Mountains to fuming smelters far below.

On Saturday, Sept. 27, my mission focused on Kenosha’s botanical treasures and, fueled by coffee and a warming sense of self-satisfaction, I set off up U.S. 285 on the hour’s journey to the pass. Before anyone asks if I’ve considered that driving 50 miles to walk 5 may attenuate my professed ecological superiority, I will say that I quite deliberately have not.

Our target was the point atop Kenosha Pass where the 365-mile Colorado Trail crosses the highway. It had been a while since I’d driven out Fairplay-way, and I was anxious lest I miss the trailhead. I should have worried about finding a place to park. The expansive dirt lots on both sides of the road were packed beyond capacity; tour buses disgorged blinking flocks of camera-toting sightseers; thick swarms of shiny-pantsed mountain bikers darted among milling crowds of hikers. On Saturday, the Kenosha Pass trailheads were probably visible to the naked eye from high-earth orbit.

To the west, the Colorado Trail climbs through dense aspen stands before turning north toward Denver. To the east, it hems the painted skirt of a high ridge before plunging toward Durango to the south. Fact is, we couldn’t lose in either direction. Kenosha’s reputation for autumn splendor is well-deserved. What to do, what to do?

The route west through Pike National Forest is open to bicycle traffic for a very long distance, while the eastern path turns pedestrian-only after just 6 miles. Since most of the pedaling set can’t abide a mere 12-mile round trip, the majority of bikers pointed their forks west. Seeking maximum serenity, I turned east. True, virtually every trail in Colorado requires that bicycles yield to all other trail users, but painful experience has taught me that the pedestrian willing to assert that principle will do so at considerable peril.

From the pleasant and well-appointed Kenosha Pass Campground, the Colorado Trail meanders through the aspens in a comfortable, unhurried way, smooth and sandy and gaining altitude in inches rather than feet.

Clouds of shutterbugs fanned out into the woods, and it’s a statistical certainty that every last one of them spent several minutes wobbling precariously in a small clearing, lens pointed at the sky, trying to capture that most iconic of Rocky Mountain portraits — golden aspen leaves dashed across the blue firmament. Sure, that particular construction became trite about 10 minutes after Ansel Adams first did it in black and white, but on such a day, in such a place, even the least intuitive amateur photographer could expect postcardquality from at least one picture in three.

“I’m a professional amateur,” laughed Zachary Jennings, his tripod crowned with a king’s ransom of state-of-the-art box-Brownie. “I come up from New Orleans a couple times a year to do some work for Lockheed, and I take a few pictures while I’m here. So far, I’ve got two that I’d like to print on canvas. In Louisiana they’re not really familiar with this stuff, but around here aspen pictures sell pretty well.”

Even so, many Coloradans still prefer the real thing to the Kodak equivalent. Shortly after starting out, we had the great good fortune to meet Tom, Kitty and Todd Thompson on their way down. Tom, as we soon learned, serves as president of the Society of American Foresters.

“I was a forester for 37 years,” said Tom, a cordial Littleton resident who seemed very much in his element. “I spent 12 of them in Colorado and retired as department chief.”

“So, yeah, we like to get out here a lot,” Kitty said, grinning a clever little grin that might have been a playful shot at the hubby. “It’s really pretty this year,” she continued, innocently enough. “I like it when it’s green and gold both. It really makes the gold stand out.”

Of course, one hasn’t really met the Thompsons until one has been introduced to the Thompsons’ dog, an amiable specimen named Pinchot.

“He’s named after Gifford Pinchot,” explained Tom. “Gifford Pinchot founded the modern Forest Service.”

Despite their unwholesome park service fixation, I recognized the Thompsons as people of surpassing quality and perception, like myself, and bid them goodbye with real regret. With less than a quarter mile behind us, Bonnie and Doug were already down to their reserve canteens and whining about a snack break. I thought it best to proceed before they could organize their grievances.

Climbing gradually for about half an hour, we suddenly emerged into a high meadow fenced on three sides by dazzling aspen walls. Far beneath us, South Park marched flat away into blue distance. Struck speechless, the words of another sensitive sojourner suddenly sprang into my mind.

“At this immense height the South Park stretches fifty miles before me,” wrote poet Walt Whitman, standing on Kenosha’s lofty summit in 1879. “Mountainous chains and peaks in every variety of perspective, every hue of vista fringe the view ee so that the whole Western world is, in a sense, but an expansion of these mountains.”

OK, so Whitman’s account didn’t really spring into my mind until I pulled it up later on the Internet, but he definitely got it right. And careful readers will note that he is silent regarding tour buses, mountain bikes, Indian tribes of the Great Lakes region, or fish of any description. I could easily have spent the afternoon wallowing in that majestic view, but my fractious companions had begun squabbling over the last of Bonnie’s Froot Loops and, with a deep sigh, I goaded them forward.

From the overlook, the trail gained altitude more quickly, winding up through ancient stands of dusky pines for perhaps a mile before rounding the brawny shoulder of Gold Hill and presenting another colorful surprise. The deep valley below looked like an artfully designed flower arrangement with the Tarryall Range standing in for the vase and bright aspens in place of chrysanthemums.

“I’ve done the north side of Kenosha a few times, but this is my first time over here,” said Helen Dohrman, taking a quick breather before tackling Gold Hill’s steep eastern slope.

One of the few mountain bikers opting for a 12-mile round trip, Dohrman is a Boulder nutritionist, which is akin to being a Hollywood narcissist, only better for you. She is chatty, informative, and in every way delightful. I’d be willing to bet she yields the trail to pedestrians.

“The north side is nice, but this is phenomenal,” Dohrman exclaimed. “I don’t know how to put it. The other side doesn’t have all these incredible moving sheets of color.”

Oh, I think she knew just how to put it.

By that time, Bonnie and Doug were fussing pretty much continuously, so we turned around and headed back the way we came. About every two minutes we passed another party headed up, families mostly, many with dogs. We passed whole caravans of horses, not a few campers, and maybe a couple dozen people pointing their cameras straight up at the sky.

The number of vehicles at the trailhead had doubled, which, under different circumstances, might have annoyed me. Instead, I felt sincerely pleased that so many others had taken the opportunity to experience some of the finest natural theater the planet has to offer. I am continually astonished by the depths of my empathy and the heights of my humanity, and I said as much to my trail mates.

With the shank of the afternoon still before us, I decided to permit my party a bite of lunch. Doug immediately started beating the drum for Zoka’s in Pine, probably because it’s the only local eatery listed in his all-but-useless copy of Zbignew Zimmerman’s Zuper Reztaurant Enzyclopedia.

Named for a lab/newfie mix who’s since gone to where good dogs go, Zoka’s vaulted ceiling offers a top-drawer lunch menu, a fine selection of malt beverages and a procession of grand paintings of the state’s signature deciduous tree in its glorious autumnal raiment.

“Those paintings are really sound baffles,” explained our waitress, Vivian. “The same guy that did our murals painted them. There are 13 different birds between them, and if you can find them all, you get a free dessert.”

An interesting challenge, but it sounded too much like gambling to suit my puritanical sensibilities. I hustled the crew outside before they could start counting jays and finches.

Physically fortifying, mentally relaxing, spiritually enriching — my inspired program of self-propelled aspen watching demands an encore and, flushed with success and self-congratulation, I’m determined to lead a similar tour each weekend until the last aspen leaf falls. It’s amazing how many of my acquaintances are unavailable on a Saturday morning, but I’ve penciled in Bonnie and Doug for Meyer Ranch on Oct. 4. They’ve promised to check their calendars.

For more aspen hikes ...

The aspen leaves should be near their peak on Kenosha Pass this weekend. To learn more about family-friendly area trails, visit www.funcoloradohikes.com.