Off Trail: Finding My Way Home in the Colorado Rockies

Off Trail: Finding My Way Home in the Colorado Rockies

by Jane Parnell

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Only one person believed Jane Parnell when she reported being raped at twenty-one: the mountain man who first led her up one peak after another in the Colorado Rockies and who then became her husband. Parnell took to mountaineering in the Rocky Mountains as a means to overcome her family’s history of mental illness and the trauma of the rape. By age thirty she became the first woman to climb the 100 highest peaks of the state. But regaining her footing could not save her by-now-failing marriage. Unprepared emotionally and financially for singlehood, she kept climbing—the 200 highest peaks, then nearly all of the 300 highest. The mountains were the one anchor in her life that held.

Finding few contemporary role models to validate her ambition, Parnell looked to the past for inspiration—to English travel writer Isabella Bird, who also sought refuge and transformation in the Colorado Rockies, notably by climbing Longs Peak in 1873 with the notorious mountain man Rocky Mountain Jim. Reading Bird’s now-classic A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains emboldened Parnell to keep moving forward. She was not alone in her drive for independence.

Parnell’s memoir spans half a century. Her personal journey dramatizes evolving gender roles from the 1950s to the present. As a child, she witnessed the first ascent of the Diamond on Longs Peak, the “Holy Grail” of alpine climbing in the Rockies. In 2002, she saw firsthand the catastrophic Colorado wildfires of climate change, and five years later, she nearly lost her leg in a climbing accident.

In the tradition of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Tracy Ross’s The Source of All Things, Parnell’s mountaineering memoir shows us how, by pushing ourselves to the limits of our physical endurance and by confronting our deepest fears, we can become whole again.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806160795
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 01/18/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Jane Parnell is a freelance writer and independent scholar. She has taught journalism at Utah State University and writing at Colorado Mountain College, and her articles, editorials, and essays with the byline Jane Koerner have been published in High Country News, Mountain Gazette, and Outdoor Adventure.

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The file cabinet in my study houses my share of the topo maps. After the divorce, Karl and I split them fifty-fifty. For nearly fifteen years they ensured our safe passage, steering us around marshes and mine shafts, through cliff bands, to the top. Stained and torn now, they are missing vital pieces of information. When I remove them from their folders, they fall apart in my hands. I piece them back together with Scotch tape so I can spread them out on the carpet, and tantalize and torture myself with possibilities.

There are six hundred and thirty-eight mountains over thirteen thousand feet high in the Colorado Rockies. If I were sensible, it would take several lifetimes to do them all. But I want to climb them all in this lifetime, provided my joints will tolerate the punishment. I want to leave my mark — my signature in every summit register or glass jar left by a previous party. I want to possess these mountains as they possess me. I want to know everything about them — the density and condition of their forests; the scent and variety of their flowers; the angle, age, and condition of their rock; the size of their summits. I rank them by altitude and divide them into logical, achievable categories. One hundred and fifty highest. The bicentennials and tricentennials. The four hundred highest. I was the first woman to climb the one hundred highest peaks of Colorado; mathematical precision makes the remaining task more manageable.

From Memorial Day until the snow sticks, every weekend is dedicated to the peak-bagging objective, each triumphal date and my companions' initials recorded in the same notebook with a birdwatcher's fanaticism. The solos with my most loyal companion, my dog, are signified with his nickname spelled backwards: God.

I hike for the exercise, burning off bad memories as if they were Christmas calories, transforming grief into muscle. "What's the rush? Are you training for an ultramarathon or something?" my friend asks when I return to camp an hour after he does. He turned back at timberline, exhausted by the pace I had set. It is my third summer without Karl, and I still have something to prove.

I hike for the thrill of it, scaring myself speechless on more than one occasion. But my body is up to it — legs of granite, heart and lungs a two hundred horsepower engine that drives me upward at eighteen hundred vertical feet per hour. Sixty-five heartbeats per second, three thousand six hundred per hour. On the trail my body ceases to be an object of curiosity or despair. It has a weight to it. My footsteps land lightly while my feet feel rooted. Every step a declaration of intimacy with the rock, the turf, the soil. The tapping of my hiking poles synchronizing with each inhalation and exhalation. My breath distilled into the clarity of light.

The divorce decree arrives in July, cementing our on-off separation of the past three years. Now it's official. Karl is no longer my guide, the expert with years more experience, a battering ram of a four-wheel drive, enough gear to equip a Himalayan expedition. The responsibility for transporting myself to the trailhead, for determining the routes and assessing the risks rests entirely on my shoulders.

Mummy Mountain, Rocky Mountain National Park, early August: I glance back at the dilating, bruised clouds and pick up the pace as I scramble up the last two hundred feet of the summit block, beating the lightning-charged cloudburst to the top by ten minutes. I outrun the storm's progression by choosing the correct shortcut down. Back at camp, I am welcomed by a Boy Scout troop leader who covets my spot for his party of ten. I'm happy to comply, confident I can beat nightfall, too, and make it out in time for a luxurious dining experience. No pine needles in the teacup. A steam-cleaned fork. USDA-certified beef on a porcelain plate. I don't want to break my dinner date with my parents, who rented a condo in Estes Park for the week. I told them I was hiking with a friend.

How do I explain that even though I am alone for the first time in my life, I am not as alone as they might assume? That I feel safer in the mountains on my own than among strangers in the city. That this is my belated rite of passage at age forty. I earned it; I paid for it — the scar tissue on my shins and in my heart a map of the interior topography of my life. Maps can be revised.

Pole Creek Mountain, San Juans, late August: Eight miles up Lost Creek, I find a safe place to cross, where the elk have flattened the bank and narrowed the channel with their habitual crossings. Their hoofprints in the mud provide stirrups for the leap to the other side. I land without a splash. Several hundred feet below the summit, another set of elk tracks guides me through the cliffs without a scratch. I will reach the top before the hailstorm and return to camp by lunchtime.

Uncompahgre Wilderness, mid-September: The whoosh of a low-flying hawk awakens me from a midafternoon nap in a basin beneath Mount Silver. It is three hours back to camp and the sun will set in two. The persistent bark of a coyote encourages me to keep moving. She is safeguarding her pups, spiriting me away from the den with the primeval song she spins out of thin air.

Cuatro Peak, Culebra Range, early October: A trail of fresh bear scat through the forest issues a warning. I'm trespassing on someone else's territory. I hustle along at warp speed even though I know it is not a grizzly. The last one in Colorado was killed by a poacher in 1979.

"You love the mountains more than you will love any man." A remark as hard to shake as a bruised toenail. Having announced my return to the condo in Estes with a thunk of shed boots, I am rewarded with Mother's best dish — fresh salmon marinated in soy sauce, lemon juice, and garlic — and some unsolicited advice. Her remark irritates me, and still does, because she is probably right. I don't know how to cope with the internet dating scene, where virtual specimens have replaced live ones. Rather than getting to know one another in increments over the course of our daily lives, waiting for the spark to combust spontaneously, we check each other out on and eHarmony. In a flurry of email exchanges, the candidates must be culled to a handful of must-meets who agree to a rendezvous site nowhere near my house in Colorado Springs.

The conversation with the architect who agreed to meet at Wild Oats comes to a halt when he looks down at my bandaged feet in the post-op sandals. He says he's running late for his doctor's appointment and he'll have to skip the coffee refill. We hadn't gotten to my mountaineering résumé yet, or the bunion surgery.

The accounting professor is willing to meet at my favorite Mexican restaurant in Denver, sixty-five miles away. He arrives first. I join him at the table next to the cash register. He orders chips with salsa. After the waitress delivers the order, he says, "I reserved a room for you at the motel across the street."

"Even the coyotes don't do it that quick."

"That's not what I meant. I thought you'd be too tired to drive home tonight. It's a long drive, isn't it? Especially at night." His Dos Equis is served. He squeezes the lime, squirting some of the juice onto his white shirt. He doesn't get the joke. Karl would have spit out his drink by now with his laughter.

"I'm not driving home tonight. I'm camping in the mountains." The chef put too many jalapeños in the salsa, and I'm on my second glass of ice water.

The enchiladas arrive, melted cheese still sizzling. He picks up his fork. "It's May. There will be snow up there. You're alone."

"My tent and sleeping bag are in my trunk." I look at his watch (mine cartwheeled into a creek) and excuse myself before the waitress brings dessert, saying, "Got to pitch that tent before dark." I do not tell him about my trophy collection, which is probably bigger than his and definitely covers more territory.

San Luis, Tijeras, Blanca Peaks. Pico Aislado, hidden away in a back valley, like the name suggests, with enough exposure to skip my customary self-portrait on the summit. Cyclone, Cirrus, and Oso, where a member of the Hayden survey of 1874 encountered a grizzly and lived to write about it. Heisspitz, Heisshorn, and Little Matterhorn, as if the Colorado Rockies were an extension of the Swiss Alps. Engineer, Galena, Eureka, Gold Dust, Crystal, Treasurevault, Lucky Strike, which isn't how I felt about it a century after the bust as I detoured around one collapsed mine shaft after another, dragging my mutt by the collar so he wouldn't be tempted by the arsenic-tainted water. Conundrum, Comanche, and that pragmatic compromiser, Ouray, who died before the forced relocation. Nathaniel Meeker, self-righteous Indian agent whose murder precipitated the banishment; and Kit Carson and Ulysses S. Grant scattered across three ranges on opposite ends of the state (one of those unintentional ironies of naming mountains for conquerors), while Arapaho and Navajo share a ragged ridge in the devastating wake of their defeat. The T's, the V's, the S's, the numbered and nameless peaks, my preference. A name conveys ownership. I wouldn't mind a Susan B. Anthony Peak. She toured Colorado in 1877 on behalf of the suffragist movement. Of all the mountains in my trophy collection, only a handful bear a woman's name. Silverheels, the nickname of an anonymous prostitute, seems prophetic in retrospect. She nursed the miners of Fairplay through a smallpox epidemic, forfeiting food and sleep, putting herself at risk as though their lives mattered more than hers. When she fell ill, rather than seek help, she covered her ruined face with a veil and vanished.

Obsessed and invisible: is that my lot in life, too?

I climb Silverheels twice: before the divorce and after with women friends who are also adjusting to changed circumstances. On the way down, when the terrain switches from talus to turf, we strip off our jackets and wrap them around our hips. Then we leap into the air and land on our sides and roll down the mountainside like potatoes spilled from a sack, tumbling to a stop in a bed of alpine forget-me-nots and moss campion cushions, unharmed. Marleen unbuttons her shirt. Annie clasps her hand to her mouth in a futile attempt to suppress a giggle. I rip off my clothes and they follow suit, a pack of alpha females intoxicated by their collective strength.

Weekdays I work to pay the bills, to convince myself I am capable of taking care of myself. Bruised legs and blistered lips retreat behind dark stockings and bright lipstick, deflecting criticism. My immaculate boss has high standards. The condition of my hair, sunburned and unruly, gets her attention. She suggests Redken's Extreme Conditioner. It fails to deliver on its promise — restore your distressed hair to lustrous manageability — and after noting the infraction in my biannual performance review, she hands me her hairdresser's business card. "Book an appointment."

During back-to-back integrated marketing meetings, while team leader Fred assigns the messages of the week — the same messages we've been trumpeting from sea to shining sea for three years — I confine my mental perambulations to pictographs in my notebook: Aztec pyramids with red dots to indicate the route of the sacrificial virgin; half circles for peaks with walkable trails; an anthropomorphic figure with an eagle head, human torso, and alpine sunflowers for hands. I keep my internal commentary to myself for fear of creating the wrong impression, stifling the howl in my throat, which could be misinterpreted as the wailing of self-imposed singlehood or the mating calls of Coyote Woman. Another strike against me in the performance review.

Weekend forays into the mountains compensate. The checkmarks in the margins of my peak-bagging list accumulate so fast, I can barely decipher one conquest from the next. As the triumphs mount, so do the accidental casualties. By the fourth anniversary of my divorce, my Honda Civic seems destined for the junkyard: two sets of tires replaced, not counting blown and shredded ones; a busted U-joint; the bumper drowned at a creek crossing in the San Juan Mountains. The one hundred thousand mileage marker on the odometer resets to zero, restarting the journey.

On my return home, the face confronting me in the bathroom mirror after the shower resembles Alice on her return from Wonderland, bright-eyed with astonishment and fatigue, revisiting her question after tumbling down the rabbit hole and nearly drowning in her own pool of tears: "If I'm not the same ... who in the world am I?"

And yet not one mishap. Fifteen to twenty summits a summer, and I lose my way only once without having to sacrifice the summit, my sense of direction corrected by a thorough review of the topo map. After several summers of hiking with friends or alone, I can recognize the tingle of electricity on my scalp in time to dodge an incoming lightning bolt, identify a peace-loving skunk in the dark, and find a summit in the fog; but I lose my Honda Civic in the grocery store parking lot. The orienteering course offered by the Colorado Mountain Club does nothing to minimize my disorientation in town. I am dyslexic with street signs, especially where I used to live, in Manitou Springs at the foot of Pikes Peak. Mountain Meadow? Deer Path? Elk Park? The names conflict with the Kentucky bluegrass lawns and domestic cats sunning themselves in raised petunia beds.

After a lengthy absence, I finally test my orienteering skills in Manitou Springs. I park my car with the Texans and Oklahomans in the public lot behind Patsy's popcorn stand and the Penny Arcade, and walk the crooked, hilly streets for hours on end, until my stamina gives out. I start out at dusk, when most of the tourists have already packed it in for the night. The camera dangling from my neck labels me as one of them. As I stroll up Manitou Boulevard, I barely recognize the intersection with the street where I used to live. My customary landmark half a block up, Filthy Wilma's painted face on the brick exterior of my favorite vintage clothing shop, is gone. The sign over the doorway says, "Greenhouse Gallery: A Co-Op of Manitou Artists." I've never heard of any of them.

I head up the avenue, ducking my head as I pass the window display of muskets aimed at the Mexican restaurant across the street, and beyond that block proceed, my head held high, through a law-abiding neighborhood of renovated bungalows and former boardinghouses converted into stately homes, not pausing once until I reach the gate at the bottom of the staircase. The gate won't budge. Its uppermost hinge has separated from the post, and the gate is too loose to swing through the pile of mildewed leaves on the other side. I lift the gate by its ornamental crest and push; it gives a few inches with a screech of iron on battered concrete, shoving the leaves out of the way. Beyond the gate is a steep staircase buried in more leaves. Seventy-two steps in all. A number I memorized shortly after Karl and I moved into the house.

Seventy-two steps. Steep and narrow with three forty-five-degree turns. I take a deep breath and begin the ascent. The slap, slap, slap of running sneakers on asphalt stops me in my tracks and spins me around. There she is — my successor, the Nordic goddess, perpetual youth. Coppertoned skin glistening with sweat, bared abs taut and rippling, twin greyhounds trotting along on her right and left, eyeing the street riffraff ahead. I know it is her because Karl has boasted of the dogs' racing pedigree. She races by in skintight, sky-blue Nike polyester, the greyhounds in lockstep. She must be training for the Pikes Peak marathon. Karl runs it every August.

I retrace my route, pausing to admire the cotton and silk imports in the window of Casual Comforts before turning onto the boulevard. Half a block farther, on the other side of the street, Patsy's is still open for business even though no customers are lined up at the order window. I cross the footbridge behind Patsy's and stroll down the alley, into the Penny Arcade. It takes me nearly twenty minutes to find Zambini, the Fortune Teller. Between the throngs of tattooed, spike-haired teens and the rat-a-tat-tat of their intergalactic dogfights, I am hopelessly confused. But after asking the night manager for directions three times, I finally find Zambini in a dusty, dim corner of the antique room. I drop a quarter into the slot and wait for Zambini's turbaned head to fix me in its red-eyed stare.

I must have been his first customer in years. His voice warbles as if swimming from the bottom of a fish tank or awakening from a century-long nap.

"Look into my crystal ball," he commands.

He holds the ball in his hands. With a clank, a card pops out of the metallic slit in his shirt pocket. He orders me to take it.

"Your lucky color is green." He got that one half right. I have hazel eyes. In the sunlight, green flecks speckle the brown irises. Several blind dates have been complimentary. They say my eyes are my best feature.

I fritter away a wallet full of quarters until the fortune I am seeking finally slides out of Zambini's pocket. "Unlucky in love? Your luck will change but only if you stop looking in the usual places."


Excerpted from "Off Trail"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jane Parnell.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Part I The Chase

1 Solo 3

2 Continental Divide 13

3 Queen of the Mountain 20

4 Serious Moves 27

5 Pinned 30

6 Roped 38

7 Souljourners 43

8 Choking 53

9 Vanishing Act 57

10 Slippery 64

11 Free Fall 75

12 Off Belay 81

13 False Summit 84

Part II After the Fall

14 No Name Peak 89

15 Farther Off the Beaten Path 95

16 Extremity 103

17 Pinned Again 113

18 Homecoming 119

Epilogue 127

Timeline 129

Notes 131

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