The Wetterhorn offensive

Reese ascends the pass overlooking Wetterhorn Basin.
Reese ascends the pass overlooking Wetterhorn Basin.

“If it wasn’t for bad luck / I wouldn’t have no luck at all…”—William Bell and Booker T. Jones, Born Under a Bad Sign

After seven months without a full-time job (that’s 210 days, or 5,040 hours, not that I’m counting), and with unemployment benefits drying up faster than John Boehner’s ultraviolet-baked façade, I needed a respite from not working. With a coinciding break between winter and hunting season—not to mention impending homelessness—I decided a few battery-recharging days were in order before launching a last-ditch effort to find steady work. So the dogs and I packed off to a sliver of Colorado I had long desired to explore.

There was indeed a bad moon on the rise.

I first encountered Wetterhorn Basin a decade or so ago in Scott S. Warren’s fine book 100 Classic Hikes in Colorado. It was the photo of Wetterhorn Peak1 that grabbed me: a jagged shark’s tooth of a pinnacle piercing a murky sky, but presiding over a landscape lush with oranges, greens and browns. As it happened, I lived within a few-hour drive to the trail, which lay deep in the Uncompahgre National Forest in west-central Colorado.

Surely my sturdy Trooper, which I had starved myself to maintain over the past 302,400 minutes, could handle the journey down a gently winding state highway and the brief jaunt up the gravel Owl Creek Pass.

Wyatt and Reese marvel at their human companion's masterful fire ring. Or not.
Wyatt and Reese marvel at their human companion’s masterful fire ring. Or not.

Autumn in the Rocky Mountains is underappreciated, and I like it just that way. The aspen trees are rightly renowned, but they steal too much attention. The low-lying forests and valleys were ablaze with color as we drove south from the high desert of Grand Junction past the Uncompahgre Plateau to where canyons, woods and mountains collide.

Though snow dusted the rocky peaks, the days were warm and dry. We hiked in a bit, camping along a branch of the Cimarron River on our first night. As dusk faded to dark, Reese and Miles became especially alert; soon after retiring to the relative warmth of our tent, they began to growl.

The aptly named Chimney Rock.

Then I heard it. Faint at first, but quickly crescendoing to a jarring volume.


The so-called “bugling” or “trumpeting” of elk in rut is nowhere near as musical as its designation. It sounds like an asylum full of lunatics being simultaneously strangled. It is also apparently not a noise soothing to the canine ear. Fortunately, the frisky ungulates did not linger.

For the ensuing two days, the sky was bluebird, the sun ardent against the cool breeze. We encountered nary a soul.

The area reminded me happily of the Lionhead Mountains in Montana. There were the open meadows cut through with streams, here the west fork of the Cimarron River and Wetterhorn Creek; the rising forests, thick with spruce and fir; the boulder-dotted valleys; the craggy walls.

Reese and Wyatt above the timberline.
Reese and Wyatt above the timberline.

It is important to bask in such natural splendor now and then. To probe the depths of our remaining wildlands, to hear their their songs, breathe their purity, feel their earthiness. Then there are those times when you wish you had just stayed at home on the couch in front of the Xbox.

Tired from the previous days’ treks, the dogs curled against one another in the back seat as I loaded the frost-covered Trooper. We had driven scarcely a mile from the four-wheel-drive Forest Service road back onto Owl Creek Pass when the vehicle slowed to a halt.

Wyatt looks northward from the rise approaching the pass to Wetterhorn Basin.
Wyatt looks northward from the rise approaching the pass to Wetterhorn Basin.

I turned off the car and checked everything I knew how to check (an embarrassingly short list) then restarted. The engine idled, the heater blew, but no forward momentum. I pegged the transmission, which had been replaced barely a week prior after leaving me stranded on the way home from a job interview; the technicians at this isolated shop had clearly waded out of the shallow end of the gene pool, but given the circumstances there was little other choice than to keep the mechanical beast on life support.

For the first time in three days, I turned on my phone. No signal.

Reese after a dip in the Cimarron River’s frigid west fork. How do I know the water was cold? Because he shook most of it on me.

I cracked the windows wide enough for noses, placed two bowls of water on the floor, propped the Trooper’s hood in the international sign for “my car is fucked,” bid the boys adieu and started walking. Although the closest town was some 14 miles away, there were ranch properties and popular fishing holes along the pass. With a little luck, someone would happen by.

Within a half-hour, humanity reared its head in the form of a Dodge Ram bearing two brothers-in-law who were headed to one of the nearby lakes. They gave me a ride over the rollercoastering rock road to the oddly spelled Ridgway, a gas-stop trap of a town 45 minutes from the nearest tow truck and another hour away from home.

As there was no room in the cab of the wrecker, the dogs had to remain in the truck. They were winched onto the flatbed tow truck with the Trooper, hoisted a good eight or nine feet off the ground for the long, bumpy ride back to civilization. At least I had new shocks installed the month before.

Exploring a meadow along the Wetterhorn Trail.

Three-and-a-half hours and a $400 tow bill later, we arrived at a transmission specialist in Montrose, an otherwise lovely town then a frenzy of signs and banners screaming welcomes to hunters2 and support for various rabidly right-wing political candidates. The shop, of course, was closing for the day, but the owner recommended a dog-friendly hotel a block away and promised to examine my vehicle first thing in the morning.

The goobers who replaced the transmission apparently forgot to install an important gasket. Oops. Is there such a thing as mechanical malpractice? The transmission was at least under warranty, and the initial shop paid for the repairs. Which was not only just but fortunate, as the tow bill wiped out my savings. Sometimes luck does not favor the prepared; or maybe I pushed it too far or it plain ran out. Well, fuck luck.

“Shallow men,” believed Ralph Waldo Emerson, “believe in luck.”

Wyatt grabs some shut-eye.

1 While I am thankful that my local Walmart still provides a photo processing service for those of us who can’t afford to step into the digital era, there is always risk involved when someone else handles your film, particularly when said person seems to be working solely to maintain a crystal meth habit. Although I am grateful to have the pictures here, the roll containing shots atop the unnamed pass above Wetterhorn Basin and of Wetterhorn Peak itself was ruined. Suffice it to say, the view is stunning and Wetterhorn Peak magnificent (if you don’t believe me, check out the peak pics on SummitPost).

2 I find the level to which nonarmed, nonmurderous humans are expected to kowtow to hunters during the season strange and disturbing. Movie poster-sized signs at the trailhead warned hikers to wear bright orange, and to flag bikes, dogs and horses with similarly candescent colors. Is shootable wildlife the only thing not adorned in neon orange this time of year? Wouldn’t it be easier to just flag the bear, deer and elk so the rest of us don’t have to dress like traffic cones? And aren’t hunters—at least the ones who aren’t vice presidents or college basketball coaches—supposed to be about 200 percent sure of what they’re shooting at before they actually fire? If you are so trigger-happy that you mistake a bike, dog, horse or human being—even one not clad as a giant carrot—for a 400-pound woodland creature, you should not be allowed to own a gun.

A view north from the pass.
A view north from the pass.

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