Colorado, Earthshipping, and the Land of Enchantment

The mountains were calling. They didn’t leave a message. I called back to see “what’s up.” They told me it had been a couple of months, and several pumpkin pies, since I had seen the summit of anything other than my own boredom. Then they hung up on me.

Fair point.

My last hiking expedition allowed the enjoyment of some incredible trails back East, but after weeks of stagnation and, well…pie, it was time to change direction. Were the winds blowing toward Colorado, my first 14er, a visit to the Ivy Leagues, and pouring concrete? Yes. To all. Except the pie.

The Land of Enchantment

New Mexico is a bewitching mistress. A landscape of sepia tones, mystic valleys, gypsum sands, and majestic peaks that appear to rise from the ground as from commandment.

My travels took me to the city of Taos, which had a unique enchantment all of its own. I opted to car-camp in the Taos ski valley parking lot for a few nights to acclimatize and prepare for a summit of Wheeler Peak. The area is currently undergoing an intense overhaul to transition to a year-round resort. The only places open for business were the charming Alpine Village Lodge, a handful of ski shops, and an espresso kiosk. Espresso! I spent the entire first day sitting at the kiosk bench, reading a Pulitzer novel, while simultaneously listening to smooth jazz spilling out over the empty strip mall airwaves. Throughout the day there was a steady line of construction workers and one rather large Saint Bernard to chat with. Not complaining at all.

The Bull-of-the-Woods Trail is an almost 16-mile out and back hike to the 13,161-foot summit of Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico. It was a cold, 19-degree, alpine start. Before heading out, I slipped into the hotel lobby and “borrowed” some of their hot water for tea. After a few days of borrowing hot water, I think they were used to me. And very polite. While confessing my Taos Valley sins, I should also add I spent a great deal of time in their women’s bathroom with the “adjustable” thermostat. As in, I personally adjusted it to 70 degrees and proceeded to take a nap. And the occasional combat shower. Maybe some laundry.

The ascent of Wheeler was long, demanding, but fairly uneventful. There were several folks at the summit including a group of college kids that were high on more than just the altitude. I watched in amazement as they imbibed, beers, sandwiches, and the meaning of life, all while taking group selfies. How the hell? I felt like such a badass reaching the summit of a 13,000-foot peak, until I was greeted by the cast of the Breakfast Club.

Discovering gold at 13,000 feet

Discovering gold at 13,000 feet

Nothing without Providence

The organic elevation we reach by opening ourselves to the outdoors and all of its natural beauty is powerful. It can heal even the hardest of hearts and the disheartened of spirits. As my heart was still in need of some healing, the mountains of Colorado now beckoned.

Through a work-for-stay program, Workaway, I had arranged to stay with a host on an earthship in the mountains above Buena Vista. This would allow me time to acclimate further before making a summit bid for Mount Elbert, the highpoint of Colorado, and the highest peak in the American Rockies.

“What the heck is an earthship?” you ask, genuinely curious, because it sounds like something from an episode of X-files. It’s pretty amazing, actually. An earthship is an off-grid, solar-powered home that has self-contained infrastructure including sewage, water, power, and thermal regulation. They are built using mostly recycled materials, are architecturally stunning, and help to reduce the impact on our environment by allowing residents to be more self-reliant.


Front porch view of the Collegiate Peaks

Front porch view of the Collegiate Peaks

Although my time there was brief, I fell in love with its intrinsic contradiction; its complex simplicity. Construction projects in various stages of completion juxtaposed with beautiful architecture, mosaic tile work, and a singular vision. The idea that with hard work, patience, and a dedication to seeing a better world, we can become less dependent on the systems of living that harm our environment. Thus allowing more freedom to enjoy a fulfilling life with those we love.

I’m not expecting that our society will completely unplug. I was quite excited to have 4G connectivity at 10,400 vertical feet. But I was equally enamored by the extensive library. The stories shared with other volunteers over the dining table. Even the game of Scrabble where the host clearly cheated. Don’t deny it. “Yeaked” is totally not a word. Point is, we need to reconnect with each other in a more personal way. We need more acts of kindness and a reconnection to our mother earth. We must respect our land, our wildlife, and most importantly, each other.

So, where do we start? Sometimes the best way to add to our lives is by subtracting. Live more simply. Recycle. Shop organically. Purge unwanted items to charity (do you really need the entire box set of Sex and the City? Seriously??) Take a break from social media. Get outside at least once a week to walk our beautiful trails and breathe in the fresh air. Take some time to invest in yourself. My inspiration? The rocks and crushing leaves beneath my feet as Fall awakens on the trail. When my legs feel like lead at 13,000 feet, but I push through, only to be greeted by spectacular views that pictures cannot possibly capture. Sleeping on top of my car in the panhandle of Oklahoma below a blanket of stars so tangibly vibrant, I could reach up, peel the sky down and wrap it around me. The 2 x 6 rectangle of paint that always tells me I’m heading in the right direction.

Nature is my providence. Nature is my healer and my guide. Find what inspires YOU and live it.

Ivy Leaguer

Although I was perfectly content at casa earthship building, shoveling, creating, and connecting, the mountains called again and told me there was an opening at Yale. At this time of year, conditions at altitude can get dicey, so with an all-clear on the weather front, I set out for the campsite with one of my fellow volunteers, a young man from Australia. He taught me how to make a proper campfire, how to cook with a cat can stove, and how to make a proper s’more. Mine completely caught fire and charred to a carbon crisp. I can climb a 14,000-foot peak, but apparently suck at s’mores.

Alpine start turned into “eh, 7:00 AM is still a good start.” After clearing tree line, the wind developed into gusts fierce enough to turn back a couple of other climbers. We pressed on to some boulder scrambling to reach a gorgeous summit with panoramic vistas. It was too cold to linger, so we headed back down only for me to once again lose a trekking pole down the side of the mountain. I lost the other on Guadalupe Peak. And this is why nobody loans me any gear…


Mount Elbert summit at 14,433 feet

Mount Elbert summit at 14,433 feet

My next adventure takes me to Springer Mountain and the illustrious green tunnel. See you all from the Appalachian Trail!

Amber JensenComment