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Journey to the Bunny Slope Glacier

"Let's go see a glacier," I said to Joe, my husband. "We get to hike the last three quarters of a mile. We can stretch our legs."

We were touring through Colorado's Front Range, Joe driving the rented Land Rover and me searching the guidebook for something interesting to do with the rest of our day. Hidden Colorado promised that St. Mary's Glacier, one of a few glaciers in the state, was a spot only locals knew about. And it was just 12 miles off the highway we were on.

The fact that the glacier was atop a mountain should have warned us that the drive would not be an easy one. It didn't.

Neither did the beginning of Fall River Road, which led to the foot of the hiking trail to the glacier. I offered to drive as an incentive to get Joe to agree to journey to the glacier. We followed the serene country road through thousands of trees, a smattering of houses, and no people. When the road began to twist and rise, the Land Rover's four-wheel drive took us smoothly up Mount Kingston. I had learned how to drive up, down, and around mountains in the previous week. I thought I had gotten pretty good at it—until I met the last few miles of Fall River Road.

The twists grew so sharp that they could no longer be called curves. I had to stop the jeep and throw the wheel over hard to get around them. As we continued to climb, the trees thinned and the houses turned into trailers and shacks. Cars were scarce. A good thing—two cars coming from opposite directions would never make it around one of those twists.

"No pile of ice could be worth this," I wanted to say, after an hour of hunching over the steering wheel. But I didn't want to admit that my idea had been a bad one. So, I kept going until Joe offered to take over the driving. I pried my fingers from the steering wheel, climbed over him as he slid into the driver's seat, and started breathing again.

Soon after that, we saw a sign that said "Alice." The site of the richest gold mine in the state in the 1860s, Alice was now a ghost town. Seeing Alice was one of my reasons for going to the glacier. The first two times we drove through Alice, I didn't even know it. The town may once have represented great wealth, but it was now just a scattering of logs and a few crumbling wall remnants. Without the description in the guidebook, I would never have known that these were the remains of a schoolhouse and log cabins. No ghosts either.

Half a mile past Alice, we found the foot of the hiking trail to St. Mary's Glacier. When I opened the door of the jeep, it was so cold that I could see my breath before me. Twelve miles had taken us from a sultry summer day to near arctic cold at 12,136 above sea level. I pulled a polar fleece top over my t-shirt and read the sign, which announced that the glacier was three-quarters of a mile away. It would have been an easy hike—except that the trail was nearly vertical, rock-laden, and at a high altitude.

My heart pounded against my chest as we climbed, rebelling against the extra work I was forcing it to do. Every few minutes, I stopped, taking in deep gulps of clear, crisp mountain air. My cheeks burned from the heat my body produced. I shed my pullover.

Joe, whose asthma made the hike even harder for him, told me to go on without him. Since I had come so far to see my first glacier, I did.

Other hikers were going up and down the trail. Those who moved slowly and with labored breathing, like me, were the visitors. Those who moved swiftly and gracefully I pegged as Colorado natives, used to both the altitude and the outdoor activity. The ultimate insult came when, as I rested on a boulder, a couple jogged past me—going upward.

Stubbornness fueled my legs. I had come too far to turn back. Resting more frequently, I continued up the trail. It started to rain, but I would not be stopped. On I went, finally arriving at a clearing. At its edge sat a still, circular body of water—St. Mary's Lake.

Before my trek, all I knew about glaciers was that they were made of ice and snow and found in cold places. The partially snow-covered slope on the other side of the lake didn't look much like the titanic ice mountain I had expected to see.

"Where's the glacier?" I asked a hiker of the swift and graceful variety, hoping that I had missed a turn off the trail or hadn't yet arrived. He grinned and pointed across the lake; this was it.

Having pushed my body so relentlessly to get there, I sat in a patch of mud to enjoy the view. I pretended that the glacier, which looked like a bunny slope after a spring thaw, was truly impressive. Determined to enjoy the moment, I watched snowboarders and skiers swoosh down the glacier.

The rain fell faster. I took this as a sign that I should head back down the mountain before the entire glacier melted away before my eyes.

The descent was easier and faster than the climb up, but more dangerous, as I had to continually lean backwards to keep from falling forward. Despite the rain, which was turning into a downpour, people kept hiking toward the glacier.

"Any snow up there?" asked a teenager. He and his friends were carrying snowboards up the trail effortlessly, like they weighed no more than comic books.

"Sure is." I hoped the rain wouldn't make a liar out of me before they reached the glacier.

"Cool," said a second teen as they climbed nimbly up the rocks.

About halfway down, I met up with Joe, still climbing. After I had rushed on ahead, he had continued to ascend at his own pace, slowly and with many breathing breaks, driven to reach the glacier.

 "It's a bunny slope," I said, as the rain spilled down upon us. "The only thing you missed up there is the bragging rights to say you climbed to a glacier."

 Looking out through the rain, we took in the damp mountainside around us, the gray sky and wet rock monochromatic and yet, still grand, beautiful.

"We still have bragging rights," said Joe.

We watched the mountain for a few minutes more, then began slipping and hiking our way back to the car, having seen a rare sight, the sort of thing only locals might know about.

Copyright © 2002, Lori Zayon De Milto.

Lori De Milto is a freelancer who writes medical marketing communications to earn her living and travel tales to satisfy her soul. Her work has been published in Key West: A Collection and on the Kinetic Travel Network. She lives in Sicklerville, NJ.