Scraping Heaven

A family's journey along the Continental Divide

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— Cindy Ross has a message for young couples just beginning a family, who think they'll have to put their lives of outdoor adventure on the shelf for a few years: Don't give in, you can still do it.

Ross and her husband, Todd Gladfelter, set out in 1995 on one of the grandest hikes any American can undertake, and they did it with their two toddlers in tow.

Ross and her family completed the entire 3,100 miles of the Continental Divide Trail, from Canada through Colorado and all the way to New Mexico, over the span of five summers.

Ross has recounted her family's adventures on the trail in a new book, "Scraping Heaven." Everyone who has made a three-mile hike into Three Island Lake in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, with young children on their backs, will identify with the odyssey. Ross has a comfortable writing style that propels her readers through the pages.

And Routt County residents may recognize some of the landmarks along the way, as the family hikes through the Never Summer Range to Breckenridge and then on to the San Juans.

The couples' children, daughter Sierra and son Bryce, were too young to hike the distance, but rode llamas instead, which were also used as pack animals. Much of the journey through New Mexico's deserts was made on mountain bikes.

Along the way, the children learned lessons about self-reliance that could not have been gained any other way.

Ross has some interesting things to say about the human drive for adventure, and what it takes to realize one's ambitions. She and her husband were both avid long-distance hikers when they met in 1980. After testing their relationship with a 1,400-mile hike through Cascade Range on their honeymoon, they went on to log 6,000 miles in their first eight years of marriage.

They hiked both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. But they almost resigned themselves to giving up their wanderlust when they began their family. It was a chance encounter with a Durango couple that led them to undertake the 500-mile Colorado Trail in 1993, with 1-year-old Bryce and 3-year-old Sierra along for the ride. The folks from Durango put them in touch with a source of llamas to make the hike feasible.

"There is a huge chasm between the words 'we'd like' or 'we hope' to hike the Colorado Trail and 'we're going to' hike the Colorado Trail," Ross wrote. "Our brain chemistry changes once we make that affirmative statement and commit ourselves. This is the very first step in making any dream come true. A dream doesn't have a chance until we make that shift. Every time we write it or, even more, speak it, our dream draws closer to reality. It builds our belief and confidence that it can and will happen."

After a positive experience on the Colorado Trail, the family, which lives in New Ringgold, Pa., dared to dream even a bigger dream.

Ross compares the sense of uncertainty and adventure her family experienced on the Continental Divide Trail to what pioneers on the Oregon Trail must have felt.

"That same restlessness is propelling us westward toward the great American dream. There's that same gamble and striving and risk, and we hope, payoff when we finally reach our goal. We, too, are walking away from our homes, our jobs, our loved ones; but unlike the pioneers, we hope to return. Still, Thoreau said, "We should go forth on the shortest walk ... in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return.'"

There were many physical challenges along the route from Canada to Mexico, and Ross spins a great tale. But there were emotional and relationship challenges as well, as the family headed west each summer, leaving friends and family behind.

Over one winter between the endless hikes, Todd expressed concern that the devotion to the hike is threatening his marriage.

"Out there, I've got six animals, two kids and a wife that I'm leading across snowfields and raging rivers and rock slides that the rangers claim are impassible, and I'm supposed to think about how I'm supposed to caress my wife and connect with her on top of it. It's often more than I can handle," he is quoted as saying.

However, the couples' relationship did more than survive five summers on the trail, it deepened. Today, they are planning a 500-mile river trip through Alaska.

"Scraping Heaven" is a nonfiction tale that Steamboat families will identify with.

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