In the morning, Laura and I drove into town for a big breakfast, a signature of our western trips. As we’d loaded the van the night before, Ryan said, “Yeah, you know how much Laura loves breakfasts.”
“I know!” I said. Then I realized he was being sarcastic.
“I don’t love breakfast,” Laura said, “but you both do, and it’s fun on vacation to have long breakfasts.”
You learn something new every day.
After breakfast, we decided to do a “quick” hike, since we were both pretty tired from the 14er and our early morning wakeup to go fishing. We settled on Cascade Falls, a 6-mile roundtrip hike with little elevation gain, located just outside of Grand Lake.
There was definitely some elevation gain, and the hike took us over 2 hours in and out, but the view of the falls was pretty cool. Plus, the trail went along the Continental Divide. I can’t complain.
We stopped in Winter Park for lunch, beers, and stocking up on food and liquids for our night camping in a fire lookout.
After my time in the Montana fire lookout, I was really looking forward to the time in the Colorado fire lookout, mainly because I’d have someone to share it with. And I might be less terrified, especially since Laura’s Alaskan background makes her a badass, fearless human.
Our lookout was a park-and-hike, so we parked the van and gathered up our supplies for the 1-mile uphill hike through the woods. No sooner did we get on the trail did we start thinking about mountain lions, so Laura grabbed the bear spray and we did our best to get up as fast as possible. This is easier said than done when you have a gallon of water hanging off your backpack.
Still, the moment we spotted the lookout after a switchback, the thrill outweighed the back pain, so we took some photos and clambered up the rocks to our little home for the evening.
With views of Arapaho National Forest and a powerful wind blasting us from the southwest, the lookout was pretty cool. Even cooler was a panoramic black-and-white photo left behind that labeled all the peaks we were looking at – including Torreys!
“How awesome to be able to see that,” Laura said, “We hiked that peak the other day. I wish I knew this was here so we could’ve looked for it from the top.”
The inside of the cab was baking hot, but the catwalk was cold. We bundled up, grabbed beer and wine and chairs, and hunkered down in the wind to watch the sunset. Back in the cab, we started unpacking when we heard foot stomps on the stairs. A hiker emerged on our catwalk, saw us inside, then started back down.
“You can take a picture!” Laura called, and he anxiously returned, snapped a few photos, and disappeared.
A quick look at the visitor log showed that hikers often came up to take photos. Signs posted all along the hiking trail warned hikers that people stayed in the fire lookouts, and to respect privacy, but according to the visitor log, people were coming up the stairs at all hours.
“Had someone trying to get up at 3:30 in the morning!” wrote one frazzled guest. “Make sure you close the hatch so no one bothers you.”
The hatch was a wooden door that, when shut, blocked the stairway. You could lock it from above so no one could get up, and we decided we’d do that later on.
In the meantime, we explored our outhouse, complete with an incinerating toilet and reachable only by scaling boulders using a rope, and then checked out our kitchen, where Laura made macaroni and cheese and we locked up before going back into our cab to eat and catch the moonrise.
The full moon, bright pink, rose over the glittering gridlock of Denver.
“It’s like we own Denver,” I said.
We were ready to bring our dishes down to the kitchen and use the outhouse when a clop-clopping on the stairs startled us.
“Another person,” Laura said, only this time, no one appeared on our catwalk. There was another clop-clop, and then silence.
My mind immediately went to the obvious: a murderer.
Laura’s might have gone somewhere else, but I was too terrified to know. We stepped out onto the catwalk and Laura hollered out, “Hello?”
No response, apart from a shuffle in the trees that sounded a lot like footsteps/a lurking murderer.
“That sounded like a person,” I swore, holding our dirty macaroni bowls. “What do we do?”
“You’re getting in my head. This is not where my mind would normally go. It’s probably a deer,” Laura said.
“On our stairs?”
We both retreated into the cab and sat nervously. The full moon rose outside and the entire world brightened. We attempted to go downstairs twice, but sounds frightened us, even though we had large flashlights.
“If we just had the bear spray, I’d feel better,” Laura said.
But we were sure we’d left the bear spray downstairs in the kitchen.
We both had to use the bathroom, but the outhouse was not easy to reach. Plus, we’d read that mountain lions were nocturnal.
“What if we go down to the outhouse and we both go inside?” I suggested.
“There is barely room for one person! You’d have to sit on my lap while I peed,” Laura said. She wasn’t wrong.
We mustered the courage twice more to go out onto the catwalk, but both times, rustling in the trees kept us from descending.
“OK, if we’re not going down, we should close the hatch,” Laura said.
This we did with some struggle; it looked a lot lighter than it actually was. The hatch slammed shut, guaranteeing that no human would easily ascend the stairs to our cab. We both returned to the cab and watched the world glow white in the moonlight.
“You know what? Let’s just do it. Let’s go downstairs. I’m ready,” Laura said. I gathered the macaroni bowls again and followed her to the hatch, only it was so heavy and so jammed shut that we couldn’t get it open.
I will not explain how or where we peed.
We decided to call it a night and crawled into our beds. I was just closing my eyes to sleep when a clomp-clomping on the stairs woke me up.
“Do you hear that?” I asked her.
It stopped before the hatch, then clop-clopped back down. My heart was hammering.
And it hammered all night, because whatever it was, it played on the stairs ALL NIGHT LONG. A little after midnight, Laura brought her sleeping bag into my bed and we laid awake listening to the thing hopping on the stairs.
A small part of me wished we’d kept the hatch open so we could see what it was. It reminded us both of our trip to Vega Reservoir years ago, when we were tormented by a raccoon that sounded like a human.
“Maybe it’s a raccoon,” Laura said. “A bear wouldn’t do this all night.”
“The raccoon must be our anti-spirit animal,” I resolved.
A few days ago, I told this story to a guy I know, and he said, “It wasn’t a raccoon. A raccoon wouldn’t be anywhere that doesn’t have trees.”
“Well what was it?”
“A marmot, maybe?”
This made sense. In any case, we’ll never know. In the morning, I woke up to the sun blinding me, and I felt braver. I went out by myself and managed to hoist the hatch up. I did this by walking around the catwalk and prying up one side, then walking back around the catwalk, waddling out so I was straddling the hatch, and pulling the handle up.
There was no bear spray in the kitchen, and it felt wonderful to use the incinerating toilet.
Later, Laura inspected the stairs and pointed at some little white hairs scattered everywhere among claw marks.
“Whatever it was, it must come here often.”
We had a breakfast of scrambled eggs, avocado, and cheese at the picnic table, looking out over Arapaho Forest.
“But where is the bear spray?” Laura wondered.
We packed our things, cleaned the lookout – emptied the ashes from the incinerating toilet, cleaned the dishes, swept the kitchen, signed the visitor log – and headed back down the path. Our bear spray was there at the lookout sign, where we’d gotten so excited taking photos that we’d left it there all night.
Back at the van, we loaded our things and got ready to head back. The plan was to drop me at the airport, where I’d pick up a $150 rental car, drive up to Fort Collins, grab Holly, and drive another hour north to another lookout in Wyoming, sleep there, leave at 6am and drive back to the airport in time for my flight.
Only the van wouldn’t start at elevation. Laura expertly worked the ignition to get it to start, but by the time we got off the mountain, it was well past my rental pick-up time. It was with a heavy heart that I cancelled on Holly, but the joy at knowing I’d get a good night’s sleep in Denver helped me feel a little better.
My goal for next year is to sleep in a fire lookout and not think that a marmot is a murderer.
Categories: United States (USA)