Travel Writing by Cory Hanson

My First Fourteener or, Oxygen Debt: a Hip-Hop Musical

“We been spendin’ most our lives livin’ in an Amish paradise. We’re all crazy Mennonites livin’ in an Amish paradise!”

The ever-looping random playlist that constantly streams through my head abruptly shifts to the “Weird Al” Yankovic classic “Amish Paradise” — one of the only “rap” songs I can sing flawlessly, word-for-amazing-word — as we pass the Rocky Mountain Mennonite camp on the strut-crushing, three-mile dirt road to the trailhead.

It’s later in the morning than we’d planned, but we hope we can still make the fourteen miles — and 4,000 vertical feet up and down — to the summit of Pike’s Peak and back before dark. The small parking lot is already almost full; it seems most of the more ambitious hikers have a good head start on us. Still worry-free, we jump onto the shared trailhead for the Crags and Devil’s Playground and the summit of America’s Mountain. Weird Al’s parody has shifted back to the original Coolio hit “Gangsta’s Paradise,” and I’m mouthing and whispering in my best hard-as-eff voice, “I’m 23 now, but will I live to see 24? The way things is goin’ I don’t know.”

Pike's Peak, Crags, Devil's Playground

Formations in the lower stretch

A half-mile in, we reach the trail fork and cross Fourmile Creek onto the trail that will take us, hopefully, all the way to the top. Even here at 10,000 feet, our pace is good and our spirits are high; it’s impossible not to be excited and awed among the fragrant pines, smooth red rock formations, and an impossibly blue sky. I’ve shifted down the tracklist on Coolio’s landmark Gangsta’s Paradise disc to one of my favorite deep cuts, “Geto Highlights.” I’m rapping, probably too loudly among the silence of the trees, “Y’know the crackheads be selling TVs and VCRs for forty bucks, so what’s up?” Thinking of outdated technology references in 90s rap songs, I take a brief side trip to the spoken intro of M.C. Hammer’s “Have You Seen Her?”: “Aww yeah. I’m glad I put this tape in!”

The only thing missing is the bright yellow splash of the autumn aspen trees, which, at this elevation, have all completely lost their leaves. The trail is well worn and well marked with small stone stacks (cairns), which are familiar to us after hiking so many of the green hills of Ireland. The character of the path shifts between straight climb and switchback — but always up, up, up.

Pike's Peak, Crags, Devil's Playground

Crossing the treeline

“Think about back in the day when the bibby less wine and the libby so trine and the baby won’t share nine nine!” Coolio is long gone and the much more technical hip-hop stylings of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony have moved in, and I’m singing the words I know — and making up nonsense filler for the words I don’t — in “East 1999” as we approach the treeline at about 12,000 feet. The trail here steepens considerably as it follows a gully on the bare slope. This sudden upturn isn’t exactly welcome, coming as it does just as the thinning air begins to slow our step and quicken our breathing. I think I should switch to some slower gangsta rap than Bone Thugs’ fast tracks.

Leaving the trees behind, we meet with some descending hikers and a small dog coming back from hip replacement surgery. (I abruptly stop in mid-rap on the much more chill “1st of tha Month,” featuring much more of the smooth, fun-to-imitate R&B voice of Bizzy Bone) They assure us that there is a good two-mile stretch of flat saddle at the top of this steep grade. I think that if a dog with no hips can make this climb, we certainly can.

Pike's Peak, Crags, Devil's Playground, Colorado, Hiking

Reaching the saddle, the summit comes into view

At the top, we reach the flat mountain saddle about 1,250 feet below the summit, which has finally come into view. In the near distance, we can see the toll road carrying hundreds of cars, bicycles, and motorcycles up and down the mountain on what might be one of the last warm Saturdays of the year. The wind suddenly picks up and the air is noticeably cooler, but we’re prepared with some extra gear. We stop for lunch in a small, sheltered nook in the rocks of what’s called Devil’s Playground — according to the chilling placard, “So named for the way lightning dances between rocks during a storm.” We’re glad to be here in late autumn, well out of thunderstorm season.

The trail parallels the road for a stretch, and we enjoy some company and some great pull-off viewpoints of the mountains to the west and the city of Colorado Springs and the plains to the east. We definitely stand out among the crowds of carborne visitors shivering in their shorts, having come from the balmy 80-degree weather in the city.

As we approach the final ascent, we’re suddenly very aware of our elevation and the time. The sun has definitely taken a turn toward the horizon, and we’re a long, hard walk from the trailhead. Adding to our concern is the loose rock of the final few hundred feet; the trail disappears into a marked path among the boulders, throwing up a big barrier to the hiker in a hurry. We set a hard turnabout time and decide to give it a go.

We climb the rocks, breathing heavily and resting every few steps as we approach the top, passing other landmark summits at 13,000 feet, 13,300 feet, higher, higher. I can only rap out a few words between gasping breaths, “From the depths of the…sea, back to the pack, Snoop Doggy…Dogg punch you in the…grocery sack…”

Finally, as the route through the rocks steepens, our time runs out. We can see the rock ledge a hundred feet above us, and another kind descending hiker tells us that’s the edge of the summit, but we’re still a long way from the visitor center and the landmarks on the opposite slope. With a selfie at-or-near 14,000 feet, we make our careful way back down the rocks as the sun continues its course to the mountainous horizon.

Pike's Peak, Crags, Devil's Playground, Colorado, Hiking

Near-top selfie

It’s sad to have gotten so close, seemingly within a stone’s throw — but in reality, likely a bit more — but we feel good knowing we won’t be picking our way through the empty woods at the Crags in total darkness.

The walk back down becomes a race to the bottom between us and the dipping sun. As we hustle over flat, easy paths, we seem to get a small lead, but when we run into steep, treacherous gullies requiring careful step selection, the sun catches up and takes the upper hand.

I’m singing and humming under my breath, hoping Sara can’t hear: “Let’s take a walk down the hallway, it’s a long way, it takes all day” and the other four or five words I know from “Halls of Illusion” by Insane Clown Posse (something about living in the gutter, selling crack to each other). I’m not proud of it, but hey, what’s in my head is in my head.

This back-and-forth continues all the way down the mountain, which gets more and more gorgeous as the colors of sunset splash the red rocks around us. Who needs the aspen leaves, I think as I admire the forest in the low light, but never slowing my step, mindful as I am of the fading light. The soothing sound of Bone Thugs returns when we reach the home stretch, back below the treeline, “Wanna kill my dog and man I miss my uncle Charles, y’all…”

Fourmile Creek again gurgles in front of us as the reds turn to purples in the sky that we can see through the evergreens. We’ve made it to the last half-mile again, and not a moment too soon.

Back at the car, with hardly a word, we both de-boot and take big slugs from our water bottles. With a look back up the mountain that we had come so close to tip-topping, I think, Someday, you big rock, I’m gonna stand up there and pour a little out for the friends and family I have waiting for me at Tha Crossroads.

And as our headlights shine on the Mennonite camp, I finish the day the way I’d started it:

“But if I finish all of my chores, and you finish thine, then tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1699!”

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