This year’s Labor Day passed without comment. I was too busy with work.
But the Sunday prior, the dogs woke early and with a sense of purpose that veered toward insistence before my coffee finished brewing. To attempt to deny, or even delay, an outing would have been a loud and losing endeavor; there were signs of an imminent, sled-dog-team-style howling outbreak (anticipatory prancing, obscene-phone-caller breathing, suppressed woofs, etc.). Some days, the dogs demand a hike.
Dawn was an ember when we set out, its glow just being prodded back to life. Already, the trailheads overflowed from the long weekend. We rode south through central Colorado in the shadow of a wall of 14ers: Quandary Peak, Mount Lincoln, Mount Bross, Mount Cameron*. Vehicles lined the shoulders, and leaf gapers photographing the goldening aspen in the golden-hour light darted to-and-fro amid the traffic. Solitude seemed a tall order.
But as the sun broke over the eastern foothills, the humanity thinned and we chanced upon the road to Mosquito Pass, one of the highest four-wheel-drive thoroughfares in the country, reaching more than 13,100 feet as it stretches some 17 miles between the tiny, historic mining towns of Alma and Leadville. A decade or so ago, when I was the proud owner of a temperamental Jeep, I drove the road with a friend and deepened the impressions on the steering wheel.
Though the route is popular with four-by-four enthusiasts, much of the surrounding forest land is ignored in favor of the nearby peaks, which comprise the pass’s namesake Mosquito Range. I thought of Paul Theroux’s great The Mosquito Coast: “It’s the empty spaces that will save us.”
We diverted from the road before its dramatic ascent and set off into the woods from a makeshift campsite; the previous visitors were apparently big Coors Light fans. Theroux:
“I won’t be here in the future.”
“There’s America’s epitaph.”
We followed the crisp, clear Mosquito Creek into a sprawling valley between London Mountain and Pennsylvania Mountain, 13ers that bear an intriguing geographic juxtaposition. Despite the prevalence of the name, we encountered nary a mosquito. I’m not certain mosquitoes are especially abundant here; according to a Forest Service document about the Mosquito Pass auto tour, the once-bustling mining region earned its name thusly:
“After a long meeting without deciding on what to call their town, area residents disbanded for the night. When they resumed their gathering the next day and reopened the ledger to record the discussions, a squashed mosquito marked the page. ‘Mosquito’ seemed as good a name as any other, and a compromise was quickly reached.”
To think it took 40 years of bipartisan effort to reverse an instance of politically motivated cultural imperialism and restore the rightful name Denali to our nation’s highest peak; imagine what our representatives could do if they worked together. Incidentally, the Mosquito Coast (the place) is also not named for mosquitoes, but rather the indigenous Miskito people; yet note the commonly accepted spelling. Sigh.
The older I get, the more I empathize with Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast. Sure, his methods were unsound, a little Kurtz-ian even, and he was admittedly not a great father. But when I plugged back in on Labor Day, there were Fox’s “criminal millionaires and moral sneaks” jockeying for power; the advertisements pretending I’ve got “eight feet and two stomachs and money to burn”; the “national brain damage.”
“No one ever thinks of leaving this country,” Fox tells his son in the book. “Charlie, I think of it every day.”
I’m not threatening to flee the country (I’ll save that for next fall), and a sweaty, bug-infested rainforest would not be my first choice for escape. But I don’t need the Mosquito Coast when the Mosquito Range is right here. Besides, the dogs, unlike Fox’s family, are too pampered to adapt to a more primitive lifestyle, and they certainly couldn’t build an ice maker.
*Mount Cameron, though it reaches about 14,200 feet, is not considered a true 14er as it is a sort-of vestigial head of Mount Lincoln; the saddle, or gap, between its own summit and that of Lincoln does not drop the requisite 300 feet to earn distinction as an individual mountain.