Measure the mountain by the people you meet

Keep on truckin', Dennis ...

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— The big hike up Colorado's highest peak is very much like a trip to the supermarket in Steamboat Springs.

Of course we didn't shop for groceries Sunday morning on the way to the top of 14,433 foot Mount Elbert. But we sure ran into a bunch of friendly folks who slowed us down considerably, and we were glad to see them.

We were among the first eight souls on top of the mountain as the sun broke through the clouds at about 8:30 a.m. The early light painted nearby Mount Massive and the distant Pyramid Peak. And wouldn't you know it?

When we reached the summit we ran into people we see all winter on the ski racing circuit.

On the way down the mountain, I met a young woman from Arkansas who wears a skirt whenever she goes mountain climbing, because she enjoys the additional freedom of movement.

There was a young man from Purdue University who was eager to chat about Big Ten football, a family from Rochester, N.Y., and a couple with a funny looking dog that was determined in its ultimately fruitless efforts to drag a squeaking pika out of a pile of rocks.

I met a father and son from Alabama who had just rolled into Colorado on Thursday and were fairly certain they hadn't had sufficient time to grow acclimated to the altitude.

They were wheezing noticeably, and for a moment I was tempted to suggest that for their first climb in the Centennial State they might have chosen a 12,000-foot peak. But I didn't have the heart to do it (the south will rise again -- all the way to 14,000 feet).

The most interesting fellow I met on the hike was a gentleman from Bryan, Texas.

Dennis Spears wasn't even trying for the summit of Mount Elbert. He was hiking a section of the Colorado Trail that merges with the Mount Elbert Trail for a half mile or so.

"This is my first hike," Dennis said.

"What do you mean this is your first hike?"

"This is the first hike I've ever been on."

"How far are you going?"

"All the way to Durango."

"Where did you start?"

"In Denver."

"But that's 400 miles!"

"Actually, it's 478 miles, plus some extra miles for little side trips," Dennis said.

What kind of fellow would set out on the first hike of his life and choose one of the toughest stretches of trail in the western United States?

Apparently, the kind of fellow who is a retired motorcycle racer and sells welding supplies in a small Texas city.

And if you're wondering where in the Sam Houston Bryan, Texas, is, why it's about 39 miles northeast of Old Dime Box and almost due east of Huntsville.

Anyway, Dennis said he enjoys solo adventures.

"Every 10 years or so I take a month off and go do something without my wife," Dennis said.

One year he went on an epic canoe trip. A decade later he rode his motorcycle from Texas through Steamboat Springs all the way to Yellowstone National Park. Another decade later, he decided to give hiking a try.

Dennis has already met some interesting people on his hike, including a 70-year-old woman who was hiking the Continental Divide Trail and shared a few miles with him, where their respective routes overlapped.

Dennis told me the woman's name, but I'm going to use a pseudonym in an effort to protect her anonymity and her domestic tranquility along with it.

Let's call her Mavis.

"I asked Mavis how far she was going and she said, 'I'm going as far as Highway 50, and then I have to call my husband and ask his permission to go further,'" Dennis related.

By my reckoning, the intersection of Highway 50 and the Continental Divide Trail is on Monarch Pass east of Gunnison. Mavis might actually call home from the Monarch Ski Area.

"What are you going to do if your husband says 'no?'" Dennis asked Mavis.

"I'm going to go home and wait for the sonofabitch to die, then I'll go hiking all I want to," Mavis shot back.

The last Dennis saw of Mavis, she was burning up a hill so fast he could no longer keep up with her.

So often, we head for the mountains seeking solitude.

But you won't find solitude on the trail to Mount Elbert, and that's OK. Because when you think about it, a mountain is just a big old pile of rocks until you encounter some interesting people on the trail.

Keep on truckin' Dennis.

Keep on truckin' Mavis.

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