By Shelley Ring Diamond (Phil’74)
First thing this morning I took a brief jaunt to Pearl Street, and people were wearing shorts and biking happily down the block. A few seconds later I watched folks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains stop for coffee at Schat’s Bakery in June Lake, Calif. My nimble footwork and enabled nostalgia came courtesy of a webcam of course. It’s so easy now to look and see, to judge and know before setting foot anywhere.
That certainly wasn’t the case when I flew to Denver in the early ‘70s as a CU freshman. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., and my natural landscapes harkened to the wingspan of the Brooklyn Bridge and the ice rink at Prospect Park.
No great research had gone into my college choice, except for a somewhat vague feeling that going to school in the Rockies would be “neat.” So I flew into Stapleton looking down on the fairly smooth landscape and wondered where the heck Boulder might be.
The vague feeling that led me to Boulder was obviously canary-in-a-coal-mine intuition, the harbinger of my mountain infatuations. After CU, my next home was California, where I found the Sierra Nevada patiently waiting.
This little memoir will explore the yin and yang of the two mountain ranges. As I explore that theme, though, it really comes down to the singular passion these places evoke in someone as lucky as I am and hopefully you are, to be in love with outdoor places.
I was a summer student upon arrival in Boulder and as if the sight of the Flatirons wasn’t enough, the first drive up Boulder Canyon was a revelation. I’d never seen immense rock punctuated by pine trees before — never, and so close to the road too — wow! And reaching up so high. Oh my. I may have been an excitable kid, but those initial impressions of the landscape and its power over me are unforgettable.
My fragmentary and ridiculously subjective impressions of the two ranges are: the Rockies are rounder and greener, the vegetation lush almost to tree line. The jagged Sierra “range of light” consists of more bare granite. It seems, ironically, a rockier range. Okay, John Muir I’m not, but I think a look at two of the best adventures I ever had in these phenomenal mountains will showcase the heart and soul of them.
Flying in the Rockies
Cycling was my transportation at CU. Ten-speeds made by Raleigh and Peugeot ruled the day. To wit, I had a crush on a green-eyed, auburn-haired, gorgeous guy (forgive me for sounding like Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl). I proposed to him we grab a ride up to Nederland, and then cycle the “mere” four miles to Ward.
It was soon apparent that whatever charms I possessed to lure him up there, my sense of direction wasn’t one of them. We immediately spotted the 14-mile marker (actual distance is around 12). I was discouraged, he was not. We pedaled miles, then had a 1,220-foot altitude gain on the Peak to Peak Highway.
Now, more than ever, I appreciate what a truly fine age 19 is. The cup of cocoa we drank in Ward is still the cup against which I measure all other cocoa. Then, my Auburn Knight (also known as Slade, who didn’t graduate from CU-Boulder) suggested we take a dirt road back to what he “believed” would lead us to Boulder.
You can take a crush to great heights, ladies, but feel free to tell them they’re insane if they think you’re following them down an iffy road as the sun is setting. And we did not.
Here was the sublime part: an amazing glide from Ward back down to Nederland – like skydiving, my swain said (he tried to talk me into that, too). Absolutely magnificent it was. The romance of that sunset ride led us to darkness at Nederland and then pitch black conditions as we returned to town. Boulder Creek burbled on oury right and the thin white line of the highway was the only marker to guide us. Thirty minutes after we made it safely back, our muscles started twitching involuntarily from the tension they held on the way down.
I keep that stellar day with me and visualize it from time to time whilst undergoing a tedious dental procedure. That’s one sign of a great adventure I suppose, though the pure joy in knowing you did this glorious thing is the true mark. Perhaps Slade shares this memory even though we never became an item.
Partially solo in the Sierra Nevada
Twenty years later I’m in California, a very active mom with my son and daughter and married to a third generation native. Through my marriage I’ve been lucky enough to inherit two cousins, Denise Petitfil and Susie Frank. They are the sort to say, “Why not?” to an 11-mile round trip hike to Cottonwood Lakes south of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States. One fine fall day, off we go.
The approach to the trail, located in the John Muir Wilderness, includes a terrifying drive up the eastern escarpment of the Sierras. The lakes are a series of crystalline alpine gems, stocked with golden trout (the state fish) and set amidst white granite peaks over 12,000 feet high.
Much like my first outing in Boulder Canyon, the drive from Los Angeles to the eastern Sierra on Hwy. 395 is a stunner. The eastern Sierras rise straight from the Mojave Desert and Owens Valley – very abrupt, dramatic and beautiful.
Denise, a good friend (not a CU alum), Susie (a former CU’er who didn’t graduate) and I arrive in Lone Pine and drive the road to the trailhead at Mt. Whitney to adjust to altitude. One-quarter mile up that rocky trail I say, “Let’s call it a day.” We head back to town for pizza: acclimation, schmacclimation.
Next morning we leave for the Cottonwood trailhead and drive what is probably the scariest road in North America, a literal zigzag called Horseshoe Meadows Road. You cling to and hug the side of the mountain while allowing one eyeball to marvel at the views of Death Valley somewhere below. Hang gliders jump off those cliffs, but they have wings…our car is tons of inert metal.
The trailhead to Cottonwood Lakes begins at 10,000 feet at the end of one of the highest road heads in these mountains. We weave our way through lodge pole pine and foxtail and get our feet wet at stream crossings. Finally, after cresting one last hill at 11,000 feet, we pull up and onto a breathtaking subalpine meadow. The meadows here are lined with tiny creeks that flow through moss and short dry grass.
Well, it wasn’t so much “we” since my cousin’s faster pace had left me in high-altitude dust. I stood alone beneath Cirque Peak and several other stone beauties and took in the immensity of this landscape and my quiet little spot beneath it. It’s not overwhelming. It just makes you so happy. And so like the glide through the Rockies, this moment will stay with me forever.
My companions reappear, which also makes me happy and we head together to the lakes. Golden trout come right up to the shoreline, clear to see as if under glass.
During the last 12 years we’ve developed a fall tradition of hiking in amazing places: the California desert, Sierra Nevada, Big Sur, Inyo Range, Arizona and Utah. This fall: Mana-atin, which in the language of the Algonquian means “The Hill Island.” New York City was an untamed world once, and we will pretend it is again – and there are great walks there and taxis to whisk you back!
The Santa Monica Mountains are my current backyard. They are a 55-mile long Mediterranean ecosystem in the midst of giant L.A. and straddle urban and wild spaces. I walk with good friends and my dog here. My kids have fed ducks and caught frogs amidst the chaparral. Beaches and good seafood lie right over the hills from my house and I love these mountains, too.
Shelley Ring Diamond (Phil’74) went from CU to Stanford for a master’s in communication. She’s worked for a variety of magazine, news, trade and web publications and in the film and TV industry. Her ungrateful progeny did not opt to attend CU, but are enjoying the great outdoors at the University of Oregon and UC-Santa Cruz. She’s been married for 25 years to Paul Diamond.