I learned long ago the correct way to hike the trail to Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch in the Rockies of northern New Mexico. I knew I needed water, a jacket for rain, sunscreen (although in 1971, when I was six, we called it tanning lotion or sun block - and we only used it at the pool), and sensible, rugged shoes. Footwear absolutely needed to be ankle height, if not higher, with strong laces and a traction-optimized tread. Twisting an ankle always loomed as a real threat, and a good, solid lace-up boot would help prevent that. Snakebite, by a prairie rattler or the dreaded diamondback rattler, could not only wreck a vacation, it could take a life. As a child I had no choice in the matter. When we hiked Chimney Rock, I wore my Red Wing hiking boots, which were perfectly serviceable.
Chimney Rock, Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, NM. Photo by Larry1732/Flickr CCL
My love of cowboy boots came from my very first pair of Acme harness boots. I got them as a young boy in Nebraska, and they helped me feel independent, strong, protected, and stylish. I lost track of those boots, and really didn’t have another pair until late into high school, at which time I was too cool to wear them -- city kids just didn’t wear boots. We left ‘wearin’ shit kickers’ to the country boys. I chuckle when I return to Nebraska now, because with enough distance, I can see that my hometown has and probably had plenty of room for cowboy boots.
My recent trip back to Ghost Ranch, a tentative foray into becoming a writer, gave me a chance to revisit this indelible landscape of my youth. The evening before, at the outset of the seminar, I knew I was in for a seminal life change. That realization came precisely 17 minutes into the seminar, when our leaders described for us a Native American corn pollen blessing ceremony they’d recently observed. They sent us out of the room and into the sunset to ask a blessing for ourselves. “This only works when it isn’t cloudy and you can be in the sun’s setting rays. And… be careful what you ask for, because it will probably come true,” the female leader averred. I moved into the sunset. Tears, unrehearsed and unexpected, sprung to my eyes as I spoke my deepest, most personal wishes into the wind.
Corn blessing. Photo by Ken Locke
Mid-seminar, our leaders released us on our own recognizance with this assignment: "Go do something -- then write about it." I chose to revisit Chimney Rock. The spring day’s weather defined perfection -- and a kernel of rebellion insisted that I keep my cowboy boots on for the hike. I grabbed something to drink, put some cautionary sunscreen on, and headed for the beginning of the trail up the mesa. It had been a dry spring season so far, so the trail up the mesa was solid and little challenge for me in my cowboy hat and boots.
As is often the case in life, my reality changed with my first step, even though I didn’t realize it until the end of the climb. It is indeed possible to hike in cowboy boots. My traction wasn’t as secure, but then again, I had all afternoon. Rustic echoes from the scrape of grit under my boot heels accompanied me. I made steady progress up the trail. I passed a few people. A few people passed me. Although I noticed that they wore a variety of footwear, none wore cowboy boots. They’d apparently had the same childhood training that I had--sensible, sturdy footwear was in, but cowboy boots were definitely out. My inner voice included this observation, but I just kept walking. The voice of authority in my head continued to advise me against any further hiking, unless I changed my footwear. Even when cresting the mesa, where dead juniper and pinon pine were silhouetted above the topmost layer of friable white clay, the critical voice muttered to me, "Well, you got lucky this time."
At the end of the mesa, where the view of Chimney rock is most grand, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s desert looks endless, I broke another rule. Trained to eat granola bars or self-contained trail foods that minimize environmental impact, I ate an orange. I used my pocket knife (“don’t EVER get water or other liquids on your knife blade unless you can quickly clean them up,” scolded my inner voice) to cut up a beautiful, fresh, dripping orange.
As I sat and rested on that white sandstone, hands sticky with nectar, I reveled in my discovery. I could break a rule now and then, even an inviolate childhood rule or two, and still survive.
So this is what it looks like… on the other side.
I hiked Chimney Rock today, but on my terms and in my new freedom.
Writer Ken Locke atop Chimney Rock, Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, NM.
Ken Locke lives in Kansas. He and his wife spent the first two years of their marriage serving as Peace Corps volunteers in the wilds of Papua New Guinea. They once stayed in a village where no other white man had ever stayed, if you believe their host for that night. He works as an air traffic controller – and reminds you that they are the ones that use radar and binoculars, not those little orange wands. He and his family continue to travel, and they always seems to run into new life lessons everywhere they go. You can read his blogs on WordPress – "Keeping Track" , "Chickens In A Bucket", and "A Rookie At Oshkosh" .