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Old Man's Mountain

THE ordinary old man and I were walking down to camp, firelight far below us in the trees, as we had fished long past twilight, and we were getting them left and right. A cold breeze ruffled the surface of the high lake, and the old man had called it. I followed him down the steep trail to the timberline. As we walked I let my feet find the trail, an old trick I had mastered years ago at Scout camp, coming home on pitch nights round a lake from visiting our counterpart girls' counselors.

He was a nice man. First time I'd fished with him he'd come up with our small group in the trees, and I was getting to know him. We were tired from the three-hour backpack up to 10,000 feet from the Huerfano River to base camp, then the pre-dusk hike straight up to Lily.

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It had been worth it. The old man was peaceful and happy. He was telling me about his life, about the Merchant Marines and being a foreman at a dirtworks in south Texas.... I listened. But the wildflower benches I had seen on the way up and could smell in the dark had me musing about another part of the Rockies, where I had, as a kid, a winter and a summer on my hands.

Now there was the Original Old Man. It was my first job and I worked at the lodge he had built out of stone from the river and peeled aspen, varnished against the weather. The place stood like a ship come to rest in an unspoiled valley above Aspen.

In the evenings in winter he had a small dining room. My chores done for the day, I'd sit by the fire in my wool socks in the entrance lobby and reread some precious book I'd crammed on in school that I could now relax with in the mountains ... these same mountains, 20 years later, I was now descending with this fishing buddy. I used to wait for one of the waitresses and she would come and sit with me for moments between courses.

It was an extraordinary place. A kid had everything he dreamed of at the lodge. The outdoors, a girl, a place to make for himself.

One evening the owner's son proposed I go with him up to the high hut where they ran dogs to help him if the snowmobile got stuck. He was taking food supplies for tourists who had ordered dog sleds the next day.

``You can ski back down tonight.''


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I had never skied 11 miles down anything in the dark before, but I said, sure. You said things like that at that lodge. Anyway, it would feel heroic to tell Liz the waitress that I'd be late, I was going up to the high hut and skiing down after. Hey, this was one-upmanship on the other guys at the lodge who liked Liz.

``I'll wait,'' she said. I strapped my nordic skis under the ties on the sled of the machine and we were off, packing the trail all the way up for the dogs, under a moon and still shadows on the snow. I was thinking, what a lodge, what a great old man to supply all this!

Whizzing up in the fine spray of snow, in big fur gloves, warm with the thought of Liz waiting, enthralled with the speed, we came to the twisting old mining road up to Pearl Pass. The machine was like a speedboat planing the white tropics. I held on, leaning into the curves, trying to depict landmarks along the trail I knew in the mirage-making moonlight.

The high hut was just above timberline, and after I helped unload, I didn't tarry, but bade cheers to the old man's son and walked out to the trail.

It would be darker than it had appeared from the snowmobile, and I would, under the shadows of trees, have to rely on the eyes of my feet through the thin-skinned cross-country boots. Pushing along through the trees in the dark, I began the descent, 2,000 feet round the mountain to the lodge whose lights were not hidden by a wall of mountain.

I began to make out all the landmarks I had looked for on the way up: the stuff of the lodge owner's repertoire. The beginning of his legend. Dead Man's Curve, steep switchbacks you could spill a sled on if you didn't stand with all your might on the iron-claw brake that he had invented for mountain-sledding. You could run the sled over the dogs and crush them, or strangle them in the gang line.

There was the avalanche slope that, it was told, the old man had run off, and where he had dropped hundreds of feet and lost two fingers in the early days developing the trail. Here was the old mine where he told how he poached an elk out of season before Aspen became Aspen and the original homesteader had to feed his family, ``the one real regret of anything I did.''

Then, farther down above me was the slope where he had dug his oldest son out of a summer avalanche, saving his life. Then down, down, looking into the valley by starlight now, I saw the sparse buildings of the ghost town where he had played Sergeant Preston's stand-in on the sleds for millions who never knew him.

Then along the valley, skiing fast on the set crust, into the lower aspens and the lights of the lodge, was the old miner's jail he had adapted for his beloved woodworking: inlaid bears and owls and wolves out of the sheerest veneers of rare woods. I made the descent that night under the tutelage of such a man.

The following summer I would spend at the high hut keeping my first journal, doing repairs. John Denver's song ``Poems, Prayers, and Promises'' would come out: ``The days, they pass so quickly now, the nights are seldom long, times around me whisper with their cold ... but still it turns me on to think of growin' old.''

And that summer the Original Old Man would take me up to his favorite high wildflower bench for the last time. Now, as I walked down the mountain with this quite ordinary old man, I thought no one could be quite like that lodge-owner. No times could be as pretty as those.

But wait, was I looking at it all with the easy heroism of youth? This guy beside me was radiating a great sense of peace and fulfillment as he told me about his life in the dirtworks of Texas. And down below us, in the glow of trees, though there would be no Liz to pull off my ice-caked boots, there were a couple of friends. If I looked out across the vastness of the continent, looking east with the stars, there was another Elizabeth, a little girl, my own, who in a few days I'd see.

So was this age of mine ``whispering round me with its cold''? Was it now so different? Yes. It was different. But I still had a long way to go to catch up giving the love and sheer livingness some of the people had given me whom I had admired - and was getting to admire now.

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