I learned to ski in Aspen during the seventies. My first summer visit was with my husband Michael in 1987. I’d never hiked before. Soon after arriving we drove to the Maroon Bells to hike the Crater Lake trail. It’s a rocky 3.4 mile round trip at an altitude from 7,050 to 8,060 feet. I was wearing tennis shoes.

Maroon Bells, Fall Colors Photo compliments of outdoorsproject.com

At mile marker 1/2 mile, dear Readers, I was 100% positive of being near death, leaving my girls motherless. I whined, complained and used very bad words. Michael being Michael agreed and empathized with everything I said but kept on hiking! It was an unpleasant weekend.

On our next trip, equipped with proper gear and having walked up every hill in Des Moines (our hometown), I met the mountain. Call me a “Rock Star.” After moving to Aspen, I loved our hiking adventures. When Life itself got rocky, it was the mountains I’d turn to for solace. I still do.


Weather permitting, I am back on the trails doing what, because of the Pandemic, I could not do the summer prior. Many of you have asked what it is I really do? This Ranger thing. Here’s my story.

White-faced Ibis, Spring Valley/ Kindall Road Pond, Roaring Fork Valley, Colorado

In the 1990’s Aspenite Joanne Lyon decided our Forest Service needed “helpers.” The culprit? Government cuts. She answered her call, inspiring three other locals to join her. After raiding the USFS’s storage closet to pull together second-hand uniforms, this ragtag group hit the trails. I was one of the second or third waves to join the group.

MAY READS – “Leave Only Footprints,” Conor Knighton’s one-year journey to all our National Parks; “A World on the Wing,” a Scott Weidensaul book on migratory bird journeys; “Beloved Beasts,” Michelle Nijhuis writes a definitive history of the conservation movement; “The Four Winds,” by Kristin Hannah, another best-selling novel by Hannah. (Note: I’ve not yet read the last two books but if your interested in the subjects of the first two, I highly recommend them.)

It was left to Judy Schramm, another volunteer, to formally organize us. In 2001 she spearheaded the Forest Conservancy’s emergence as a non-profit partner to the Forest Service. We were charged with promoting hiking safety and caring for the natural and cultural resources of the 2.3 million acre White River National Forest. We hired an Executive Director, Marcia Johnson. She’s our Smokey Bear.

Male Bullock’s Oriole, Private Home in Carbondale

Except for 8 years in Nevada, I’ve been on the trails every summer. To begin, we take a training course, receive First Aid/CPR instruction, shadow veteran volunteers and often participate in naturalist classes before becoming rangers. I set my own hiking calendar. Admittedly, my younger, hardier colleagues maintain a more rigorous schedule than I can.

Sometimes you must do the best you can until Help arrives!

Although I work with others hiking various trails, on most Saturday mornings you’ll find me before 7a.m., patrolling alone (my choice), the Crater Lake trail. It’s the staging area for small backpacking groups who hike the Four Pass Loop.

The Hen, Her Shadow and Me: It’s off-season right now. No guests at The Gant. That’s why I’m loving my new buddy who wanders around the property. Last Monday, at about 6:50am, I spotted her patiently waiting by our main office front doors.

I check that each backpacking group has a bear canister, a container used as a physical barrier to protect food from wildlife. No canister. No trip. Hardcore backpackers monitor their own community. Safety matters. I’ve never had to turn anyone around.

East Maroon Trail: Every year Phil, another volunteer ranger, helps me learn the names of all the various peaks of popular hiking areas but I always, always need a refresher course each summer! My Bad.

Each hiking group must self-register and one hiker hangs that tag with destination/participant information on his pack. It’s free, takes 5 minutes to fill-out but hikers often forget. I carry extra tags, pencils, retrieve a copy for the USFS and remind them Moms like to know their whereabouts. That they understand!

This American Robin framed himself using what remains of a deteriorating machine shed at Sutey Ranch near Carbondale.

For the next few hours it’s hiking the trail, answering questions, snapping pictures and encouraging first-timers. Most Saturdays I encounter 300-400 hikers. In high season it’s 1,000 hiker days. (I have a counter.) Besides people, I’ve met bears, moose and mountain goats. What I love most, however, is how in awe of the Bells our visitors are. Many have never been in the mountains. This may be the only vacation time they’ll have all year. My primary job, I’ve learned, is to help make it a safe and unforgettable one.

Three mountain goats were headed our way on the Crater Lake Trail. The 6-8 hikers on the trail with me were pretty cool about it. I suggested we just back off into the trees and remain quiet. A hiker on each side of the goats stopped others from moving forward. The goats were confused, ran back and forth a few times but then ran up the mountain. Actually it was fun for all of us to watch.


Spicy Black Bean & Sausage Chili (vegetarian version, also)

Chili was on my mind all winter but for various reasons I never got it made. When Betsy, my food blogging friend of the past decade, sent me her cookbook “Fifty For My Fiftieth,” with 50 of her favorite recipes, this called my name. The quick, flavor-filled recipe is the brainchild of American chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless who is widely known for his PBS series Mexico: One Plate at a Time.

I hesitated to post this photo. This chili can also be served over rice. It’s delicious. A nice change-up. Tastes better than it looks!

SPICY BLACK BEAN and SAUSAGE CHILI by Rick Bayless & adapted by Betsy Pollack-Benjamin

Makes 8 servings


1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 medium red or green bell pepper, seeded and diced
8 oz. to 1 pound of cooked sausage (chicken-cilantro, andouille or smoked), thinly sliced (I substituted ground beef chuck)
3 cups of tomatillo sauce or use your favorite jarred salsa
8 oz. butternut squash, diced into 1/2-inch pieces ( I added cut-up roasted carrots because I had them available)
2 cans (15 ounces each) black beans, drained
2 cans (14 ounces each) fire-roasted diced tomatoes, undrained


  1. Pour the oil into a large, deep pan and warm over medium heat.
  2. Add the onion and cook until slightly tender and translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Stir in green pepper and cook 1 minute.
  3. Stir in sausage, squash, sauce or salsa, beans and tomatoes. Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring often, for about 30 minutes. (Substitute ground beef for sausage slices or leave out meat entirely.)

Serve in warmed bowls topped with cheese and other toppings of your choice of optional toppings: chopped fresh cilantro, chopped green onion, sour cream or yogurt and crumbled corn tortilla chips.

Mini cornbread muffins are a nice addition.

This chili can also be served over rice.

Osprey, Riverfront Trail, River Valley Ranch, Carbondale