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Remembering the daze of fire

Open Space
Derek Franz
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

It was the summer everything was on fire around Colorado. In 2002, most of the nation was caught up in the drama of the Hayman Fire, but those of us around Glenwood were preoccupied with the 4,000-foot walls of black smoke just west of town. I can still see that vision of Armageddon as I look to the horizon of Storm King and Red Mountain from my second-story apartment window.

It was my first summer home from college. I’d been working at Summit Canyon and got off at 6 p.m. like normal. Except something seemed wrong as I got into my blue Honda Accord and tried to get on westbound Interstate 70 to go home to New Castle. Mobs of people were rushing around, worried and confused. Traffic was in the same sort of state. Still, I tried to drive west despite the looming wave of smoke that blocked out the sun. A frantic policeman stopped me and turned me around. That’s when I knew the situation was for real.

I knew my home wasn’t burning, so I had a strange detachment from the scene as I made my way to the high school with the rest of the refugees. Jimi Hendrix played so loud in my car I couldn’t hear the outside commotion: “A broom is drearily sweeping … up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life …” The music was eerily compatible with the commotion and it felt like I was watching everything from the bubble of a dream.



Days after the blaze was “out,” or at least controlled enough that downtown Glenwood could reopen for business, my friend Matt and I went for some rock climbs in the canyon. The heat was terrible and complications numerous. First, we had to find a way to cross the river, which was low enough to wade but only in places. Then we had to cross the railroad tracks, which was of course illegal. Finally, we had to find our own routes up the loose, 500-foot granite faces, as no one had been up there before as far as we knew. The idea of exploring and digging into our courage was the fun part.

Matt was barely 18 and slightly less experienced, so I was the one with the master plans. Our first two routes worked out splendidly. Moderate in technical difficulty, they went exactly as planned, save for some falling rocks that luckily missed killing us. I made plans for another, bolder ascent. It did not go as well.



Matt knocked off a person-sized block from the top of the first pitch that morning. It bounced off the slab, very near the rope, launched over the trees above my head, bounced once more on a boulder field below and slammed into the side of a train engine coming around a bend at that fateful second. The CLANG was horrendous and I thought we’d be arrested for sure. The train rolled on, however, and so did our climb (which we ultimately named “Train Wreck”).

Halfway up the route we had to bail. Neither of us could climb to the top of the wall as I’d planned. That wasn’t the real problem, though. The main issue was that we were out of water and had no way to escape an oppressive sun. We thrashed up wide, dirty cracks with mean bushes snarling our path only to get to the top and find a way to bushwhack back to the ground.

When I made it home that afternoon, I locked myself in the bathroom and lay naked on the cool tile floor for hours. It was the worst case of heat stroke I can remember, as I still felt sick the next day. My skin was thrashed and raw as roadkill and my brain felt the same. There are only about three other times I’ve felt near that bad: during a Grand Canyon backpack trip; coming down North Maroon Peak with a mysterious full-body rash; and last night and this morning after a “casual” hike up Notch Mountain for a view of Mount of the Holy Cross.

Dehydration is probably part of the cause in each of those cases. And though rain is sprinkling down on the hot sidewalk as I write this, my senses take me back to that one blistering, dry, dry July. You might say the memory of that summer has been burned into my brain.

Truth be told, as I read about more oil spills and the like, I feel like our world is burning up as much as ever and we still don’t know which way to turn except to distract ourselves with silly personal hobbies like music and rock climbing. We’re people, though, which means we’re small and ultimately not as smart as we think. Not much can be expected from us as individuals. Sometimes it seems it’s even too much to ask someone not to throw a cigarette out the car window. All we can do is keep trying.

Derek Franz can be reached at dfranz@eaglevalleyenterprise.com.

It was the summer everything was on fire around Colorado. In 2002, most of the nation was caught up in the drama of the Hayman Fire, but those of us around Glenwood were preoccupied with the 4,000-foot walls of black smoke just west of town. I can still see that vision of Armageddon as I look to the horizon of Storm King and Red Mountain from my second-story apartment window.

It was my first summer home from college. I’d been working at Summit Canyon and got off at 6 p.m. like normal. Except something seemed wrong as I got into my blue Honda Accord and tried to get on westbound Interstate 70 to go home to New Castle. Mobs of people were rushing around, worried and confused. Traffic was in the same sort of state. Still, I tried to drive west despite the looming wave of smoke that blocked out the sun. A frantic policeman stopped me and turned me around. That’s when I knew the situation was for real.

I knew my home wasn’t burning, so I had a strange detachment from the scene as I made my way to the high school with the rest of the refugees. Jimi Hendrix played so loud in my car I couldn’t hear the outside commotion: “A broom is drearily sweeping … up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life …” The music was eerily compatible with the commotion and it felt like I was watching everything from the bubble of a dream.

Days after the blaze was “out,” or at least controlled enough that downtown Glenwood could reopen for business, my friend Matt and I went for some rock climbs in the canyon. The heat was terrible and complications numerous. First, we had to find a way to cross the river, which was low enough to wade but only in places. Then we had to cross the railroad tracks, which was of course illegal. Finally, we had to find our own routes up the loose, 500-foot granite faces, as no one had been up there before as far as we knew. The idea of exploring and digging into our courage was the fun part.

Matt was barely 18 and slightly less experienced, so I was the one with the master plans. Our first two routes worked out splendidly. Moderate in technical difficulty, they went exactly as planned, save for some falling rocks that luckily missed killing us. I made plans for another, bolder ascent. It did not go as well.

Matt knocked off a person-sized block from the top of the first pitch that morning. It bounced off the slab, very near the rope, launched over the trees above my head, bounced once more on a boulder field below and slammed into the side of a train engine coming around a bend at that fateful second. The CLANG was horrendous and I thought we’d be arrested for sure. The train rolled on, however, and so did our climb (which we ultimately named “Train Wreck”).

Halfway up the route we had to bail. Neither of us could climb to the top of the wall as I’d planned. That wasn’t the real problem, though. The main issue was that we were out of water and had no way to escape an oppressive sun. We thrashed up wide, dirty cracks with mean bushes snarling our path only to get to the top and find a way to bushwhack back to the ground.

When I made it home that afternoon, I locked myself in the bathroom and lay naked on the cool tile floor for hours. It was the worst case of heat stroke I can remember, as I still felt sick the next day. My skin was thrashed and raw as roadkill and my brain felt the same. There are only about three other times I’ve felt near that bad: during a Grand Canyon backpack trip; coming down North Maroon Peak with a mysterious full-body rash; and last night and this morning after a “casual” hike up Notch Mountain for a view of Mount of the Holy Cross.

Dehydration is probably part of the cause in each of those cases. And though rain is sprinkling down on the hot sidewalk as I write this, my senses take me back to that one blistering, dry, dry July. You might say the memory of that summer has been burned into my brain.

Truth be told, as I read about more oil spills and the like, I feel like our world is burning up as much as ever and we still don’t know which way to turn except to distract ourselves with silly personal hobbies like music and rock climbing. We’re people, though, which means we’re small and ultimately not as smart as we think. Not much can be expected from us as individuals. Sometimes it seems it’s even too much to ask someone not to throw a cigarette out the car window. All we can do is keep trying.

Derek Franz can be reached at dfranz@eaglevalleyenterprise.com.


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