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Nature leaves us free and untrammeled; it is we who bind ourselves, confine ourselves, wall ourselves off, herd ourselves into cramped and sordid quarters. – Plutarch

Taking a friend on a first backpacking trip is a serious responsibility. Do it right and you enrich their life and yours. Set and setting are everything and it is your duty to provide both.

My friend Dan grew up in Wisconsin where his exposure to the wild was of the cabin-on-a-lake variety. But he had long been interested in my tales of trips into true, deep wilderness. Now his kids were old enough that he would not be missed so much at home. His time had arrived.

Setting him up with adequate gear was the easy part. Picking a destination for a first backpacking trip was much harder. It had to be not too far away, not too challenging, not crowded, but still be beautiful and have good fishing. With the explosion in Colorado’s population over the last few decades, such spots are now rare.

Most wilderness areas here are realms of rock, ice, and tundra, rugged landscapes that define our notions of the wild. But there’s a reason why these areas were left wild and unsettled. They are harsh and cold, unproductive of crops or timber, and thus improvident of agrarian life. What we see when we see wilderness are the lands that no one wanted. Mid-elevation wilderness – biologically rich but unsettled land between 6,000 and 9,000 feet – is scarce in Colorado.

Sometimes history, geography, and just plain luck conspire to preserve a good chunk of these rich middle lands. But that does not mean that you can visit them, even though they are owned by the public. In Colorado and other western states, ranches are strategically located athwart the lower reaches of river valleys. They sit on the only practical routes to the lands above. Ownership of a 160-acre homestead thus conveys control of a large hinterland. Public lands are made a private preserve.

A Perfect Spot

But there are spots where the ranchers do not reign, valleys where the land is preserved and its use and enjoyment are available to all. The Troublesome Wilderness Study Area in north-central Colorado is one of these charmed places. It is a land of wide valleys, meandering streams, sagebrush parks, and upland forests.

Rolling forested ridges stretch down the south slopes of the Park Range toward the Colorado River, while the forks of the Troublesome River reach back up to grasp the Divide. Wildlife abounds, as the longer growing season and variety of terrain provide browsers and grazers and gatherers with something to eat in all seasons. Although the Troublesome is no stranger to cows, the principal inhabitants are elk and deer, lions and bobcats, bears and coyotes. Though there are plenty of ranches blocking the valleys, the Forest Service built a trail into the Troublesome that shimmies up a ridge between these fiefdoms and offers Americans access to their land.

a man in a red shirt stands in a meadow with a mountain behind him
Dan enters the Troublesome.

Trekking Through Troublesome

We pull up at the trailhead and saddle up: me, Dan, and my dog Bonny. The trail splits immediately, one fork heading south up a lush river valley riven by a creek that spills from one beaver pond to the next. Our route instead stays on the nose of a ridge, dips down a gully and up again to a transverse ridge that bounds the wilderness. It is a short climb, maybe two miles out and 500 feet up, but Dan feels an obvious sense of accomplishment when we reach the top. As he should. We have left behind the world of divided time. We have walked into a stream of time where consciousness can follow the land itself. Here it can flow and eddy, rise and submerge with a logic that is outside human control.

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