CLAY JENKINSON: In Search Of America — Leadville, Adventure And Gratitude

To all of you who are following my little journey in search of America (or a bit of it), I am having a splendid evening. I arrived at this remote and understated camp, not far from Leadville, Colo., about 2 p.m. I did the minimum to set up camp. Only one other couple is here. They have a pickup on which is an iron frame, on top of which, level with the top of the pickup cab, is their tent. They have a ladder, aluminum, to get up into the tent. It took them about 75 minutes to set up. This seems like something the husband thought of and the long suffering wife went along. She probably hates it.

It is an absolutely perfect day, now evening. I built a fire for the first time. Since I am planning to stay at the dreaded KOA campground tomorrow night, just for the uses of satire. Who knows? Maybe I will love it. I haven’t been to a KOA since I was first married, in 1986 or 87.

At a market, I bought a pork kebab. I bought it over beef because it was only half as expensive. Around me are aspens covering much of but not all of the mountains. I’m just off U.S. 24 and so far, I hear a car every few minutes. I expect that to taper off soon. I am drinking a glass of chilled white wine. I will open a bottle of Pinot Noir soon. And I have been eating a really fine sharp white Cheddar cheese with Wheat Thins. It is peaceful here. The sun has not gone down but it has gone behind the mountain to the west. It is a bit chilly. The fire will help to keep me warm.

But here’s the best of the story of today. I’ve read 172 pages of “Down the Great Unknown,” an account of John Wesley Powell’s journey on the Green and Colorado rivers in 1969. I have read in this book by Edward Dolnick in the past, but not all of it, for much of it comes as new to me. He’s surprisingly good with his modern similes and metaphors for the dangers Powell and his nine men endured. What could be better than to read John Wesley Powell in Powell’s beloved Colorado? In addition to all of that, I have been in the Zone — I have reached that effortless reading moment when you think you could now read forever without pause. My kebab is, I think, done, so I will take a short break.

But if you want to know what perfection is to me, it is a wild place in the American West, books of the humanities, something to write on, an open fire, just enough wine to build an elevation of consciousness, and simple food being prepared in the old old way.

It’s dusk now, and the other three camping groups are beginning to bed down. My meal was very good. The fire continues, and, of course ,it is mesmerizing. It is as calm and perfect an evening as you could ask. I can just see my breath, but not enough to drive me inside.

I had to stop reading. Powell and his eight fellow adventurers have just entered the Grand Canyon, which Powell named. If they could have been supplied new boats and plenty of food just when the began to transit the Grand Canyon, that would have made it a very different journey. But by the time they entered the Grand Canyon, their boats were broken and battered, they had very little food left and that rancid, they were ragged, almost naked, and they were filled with fear. If they could have helicoptered out, would they have? At the key moment, at Separation Rapids, Powell seriously considers climbing out up the north rim. But he says something like, “But to say that there is a portion of the river I cannot run, a portion of the Grand Canyon I cannot explore, having already almost accomplished it, is more than I am willing to admit [is that the right word?] and I determine to go on.”

I know when I hiked the Little Missouri last time, around day 14 or 15 I wanted to be done. I did not wish to quit, but I wished to be done. But I knew three things. If I quit, I would have to tell my friends that I had quit, and to quit was to fail. Second, if I quit there was no easy way to contact Jim Fuglie, my ride, who expected to meet me three days later at a campground in the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. And three, if I quit, I would be diminished, with or without public shame. It would be a measure of me. So I pushed on, and felt the triumph of completing the journey. The last day was difficult, because it rained hard the night before, and I had to slog through bentonite and mud.

How fortunate I am to have this life. There are many difficulties — and downsides. I won’t enumerate them. But the upside is amazing and purely good. I get to do things like this and call it work. I get to read for a living. I can turn my adventures into stories. Few find fault with what I do.

The night is just this side of gelid now. I am hearing things moving in the dark, when they did not stir by day. My campsite is surrounded with large boulders and rocks, dark. The moon is over half full. I was wrong earlier when I said it was waning. I have my favorite coat on, a green canvas coat I bought with my daughter Catherine in Aurora, Colo., 15 or more years ago. It is tattered, ratty really, needing to be retired. But I love it, in part because those times I had with Catherine in those years, were among the happiest experiences of my life.

I am so glad that I spent one last night in the wild before heading back to the inevitable compromise of a KOA campground. I got a bonus day and night, and I was able to read most of the book of the journey of Powell in 1869. I am fortunate, too, in the mighty men I get to portray. All of them greater in every way, but all inspiring.

I am afraid of nothing but homo sapiens. But the folks who are here seem very docile. If you are sleeping in a tent lofted high over the bed of your pickup, you are probably not desperadoes.

One thought on “CLAY JENKINSON: In Search Of America — Leadville, Adventure And Gratitude”

  • Kay Opgrande June 12, 2019 at 9:08 pm

    I enjoy your writings and the Colorado adventure does not disappoint.
    I grew up on a ranch on US 85, house on east and land to the west, homestead claim in 1906 by my Wisconsin grandparents. Summer Sunday drives
    to the north or south unit was our family
    Vacation, Dickinson was a 50 mile trip and
    Medora was our county seat.


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