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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
ARE YOU A CHILI LOVER?
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.
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
- Pour the oil into a large, deep pan and warm over medium heat.
- Add the onion and cook until slightly tender and translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Stir in green pepper and cook 1 minute.
- 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.