Open Ground Out of the Desert


Open Ground

Out of the Desert

Don't Forget Your Bucket

I don't want to wear your pants, strange man.

Colorado, USA
21st October, 2001

The Irish and the British keep a distance between themselves and others. With the British this is called reserve, in Ireland we fill it with trivial banter, but it adds up to the same thing. It keeps the strangers away. Americans call this cold, diffident. But, then many Americans consider it their god-given right to get in your face and spit out whatever dull, ill-constructed little thought that happens to be baking their noodle right at that time.

It doesn't matter where you are, what time of day it is, or whether you'd ever met this particular sage before in your life. What need has he for proper introductions, or respect for a stranger's personal space, or all the delicate fencing necessary to establish a rapport What foolish inegalitarian trivialities! All that diffidence, that space we in the British Isles leave between each other, to protect ourselves from stupidity, from impertinence! How cold! How British! I've something dumb to say, and you're the guy I'm gonna say it to!


Some people love telling you facts. I know something and you don't! And I'm gonna tell ya! Because then, you will be amazed at... the number of facts that I have! The knowledge! And then you'll see what a ... what a...

...big moron, that you really are. Good lord! Don't these people know, don't they know how to approach a stranger? Don't they know that to tell anyone, stranger or not, a fact unasked-for is an insult? If you tell someone something you think they ought to know, you assume an undeserved position of intellectual superiority? It infuriates anyone. That's the way make a whole new enemy. To be a patronising fool!

Haaaa. There, that's that said. Of course, there are many good-mannered Americans, but there hasn't been a day without at least one encounter with a blowy loudmouth presuming on our... non-aquaintance, since I got here. It gives me the hmmph.

(Oh and to my Irish friends out there: I need an adjective that encompasses all the races of the British Isles. "British Isles people" sounds like a flaky 70's new ages revival group. Irish and British are alike in questions of personal manners, personal space and diffidence and so on. And Americans don't know the difference, being content to lump in all Irish as "fiesty little spokes" and leave it at that.)

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

So myself, Ian and Stefan go on a hike to the top of this mountain, Flattop Mountain, 13000 feet up. My highest climb ever. A reasonable gradient. We were breathing hard in the thin air. It's cold, snow patches under the sun, but we're moving quickly and I still have my shorts on when we reach the top. A man is lying in the shelter of a boulder. Looks up, sees me and, without preliminary, says:
"I've got some pants in my bag."
Good for you, I think. "What?"
"I've got some pants in my bag."
"Yes good, so do I."
"I just thought, you might want to wear them."
He's a smooth one, making a move on me so soon, and all these people standing around. "No, no. I'll wear my own." I venture. "If I have to." Wondering what to make of this mystery. Perhaps a vision, perhaps, sent to lead me on a mystical quest of self-knowledge. With his spare jogging pants, an erstaz symbol, a choice between the known, and the (fluffy and coffee-stained) unknown.

The guru stands up, to take his mystical offering elsewhere. All of a sudden I understood. The goretex thermodry pantaloons. The Nochafe bigload Pro-Climber Daysac (with water camel). The TWIN HIKING POLES. Hiking poles! For a path!

Equipment bore.

Equipment bores infest every outdoor sport. Dull, joyless individuals, rarely any kop when it comes to the sportitself, they delight nevertheless in always being unnecessarily well-equipped for it. And then they do everything in their power to let you know about it. Twin hiking poles! What the hell use is even one? Clean, new gear! A real outdoorman has equipment that is worn, well-used, and dirty. Obviously. He spends his time outdoors.

We passed out this buffoon labouring under his ridiculous load of... of stuff, and went down. The Rocky Mountain Park consists of a high range of mountains, bears, deer, the usual. It is cold, so we opted to spend the night 'roughing' it in a rustic cabins supplied by the YMCA, complete with games room, central heating, bathrooms, kitchen and on-site swimming pool and roller disco. Congratualting ourselves on our rugged pioneering spirit, we pulled back our fresh clean sheets and had a wonderful night's sleep.

Sand Dunes National Park

After an even more rugged, pioneering day - shopping in Denver and Boulder - we went to the Great Sand Dunes. These are big, well, sanddunes, 700m high, in the middle of nowhere. Clearly good enough reason for a national park in the U.S., God knows they need more national parks, they only have 380. The sand dunes were great fun, in the great sand dune way.

We all knew what to do. The same thing you you when you find a sandune anywhere. We climbed to the top and went "wheeee" as we rolled back down the sides. In touch with the primal forces of nature and all that. Contact with gravity. Educational. All that sand and no bucket. Wheee! What fun. I still have sand in my personal crevices, I swear.

The highest dune is 780m, about as high as the highest Wicklow hill. No sneaze, so it was a bit of a trudge getting up. Our trek group had already split into ability groups. The A-team, wild Aussie Sue, stalwart Saxon Ian and myself (with the non-dead lunatic Roberto in enthusiatic, noisy, but not always efficient pursuit) reached the top after about 50 minutes climbing. We looked back for the B-Team, who had taken an easier route.

"There they are!" I was looking at a group tramping doggedly on at the half way mark. "Quite far off but they'll make it soon!"

Sue shook her head. "No. That's them". She pointed at some ant-sized dots in a far canyon. Sprawled immobile. They had climbed 100m. Suddenly - "They're moving! At last! Come on lads!!"

And they've stopped.

And they're moving... and they've stopped. Every few minutes, the B-Team would gather itself, stagger forward up the rolling sand for a few yards, and collapse. We took shelter behind the lee, watched the fantastic evening light in sand-reds and sweeping greens on the Sangre de Cristo - the Blood of Christ - hills, and peeked over the edge at the other group, and waited. After an hour they were up. And what do you do at the top of a sand dune? Wheeeee! What fun.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Dark, deep. Sheer walls plunging 800m straight down to the broken waters below. Very much the canyon. We wander the cliff tops, flap around, pretend to push each other off the cliff edge. Very much the canyon sort of thing to do.


Colorado means "coloured" or "red" in Spanish, just as Arizona means "dry" and Nevada means snowy. Prosiac people, the Spaniards. But what colours! I have never seen land the colours I have seen in the American west. And as we went further into the southwest the deeper the colours became. Deep, old red, the red of ancient buried sandstone, lines of green and blue as other rocks became exposed, the darker greens of evergreen mountain trees.

It is a noble and ancient country. I had come on this trek to see mountains and forests, but found something I had not expected. Colour, deep colours reborn from ancient times. As we left Colorado to seek towards Utah and the American southwest, we were promised better yet: blood-red sandstone cliffs and deserts reared when the world was young. I couldn't wait.


Black Canyon


Sand Dune Roll


Rocky Mountain NP


At 13000 feet


USA Route


Hat & Spoon



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The Facts

Where I stayed

Various campsites in or near the National Parks.

How I got around:

Trek America for a three week camping tour. Brilliant fun. We visited and camped in sixteen different national parks. I couldn't imagine a better way to see the US.