We caught only a flash of the porcupine's glowing eyes before we heard the sharp thump on the bumper. There was a rasping hiss of quills sliding beneath our feet, a brief glimpse of its curled, dead body in the red glow of the taillights, and it was gone.
It was several more curves up the road before Randy spoke.
"That's an omen," he said grimly.
"Sure," I replied, trying to sound convinced.
"Really, hitting a porcupine at midnight brings bad luck," Randy protested.
Randy was from Pennsylvania Dutch country, where apparently you learned these things. I was from the Midwest, and studying to be an electrical engineer. Nothing in my background linked the squashing of a twenty-pound mammal by a two-ton automobile to bad luck, unless you looked at it from the animal's point of view.
"Hope it doesn't mess up our climb," Randy added.
We drove on silently towards the trailhead.
Randy was one of my climbing buddies that summer of 1984. We had both worked for several summers at the YMCA of the Rockies near Estes Park, Colorado. The job itself had little to offer: long hours of menial labor, $250 a month pay, plus room and board. It's not a place you go to make money, but for those obsessed with climbing peaks, it's heaven. The camp is nestled up against Rocky Mountain National Park, home to some of the most spectacular peaks in the country.
Sprague Mountain and Stones Peak were our objectives that particular night. The hike starts at Bear Lake, and is over 21 miles long with most of it above treeline and across open tundra. This leaves hikers vulnerable to afternoon lightning storms and makes it necessary to leave from the trailhead by midnight in order to reduce one's chances of getting zapped. Sprague and Stones are tough summits, and nobody in our group of friends had yet climbed them. Randy and I intended to be the first. This was the reason behind our midnight drive to the trailhead, during which our path crossed that of the doomed porcupine.
Driving through the Bear Lake parking lot in the middle of the night is a unique experience for anyone who has fought traffic there during the daytime. Empty and dark, Randy and I were the only ones there. We parked in the very front slot and made our final preparations by flashlight.
At the trailhead we noticed a new sign, with a large, black silhouette of a ferocious bear and ominous, red lettering warning that such beasts had been sighted in the area. Randy and I laughed at the image of the bear, for we knew that the black bears in the Park were small, scraggly creatures. Our laughter subsided quickly, however, when it occurred to us that we were the only humans in the area, and that we were about to head up alone on a narrow path through dense alpine forest. We discussed this situation briefly and came to the conclusion that bears were normal, intelligent creatures and, like normal, intelligent people, would be asleep at this hour. Still, Randy declared me expedition leader and told me to lead the way up the trail. Normally I would have taken this as a compliment, but that night I wasn't so sure.
In our modern lives we have very little experience with the true, primeval blackness of night in the wilderness. Our small flashlights barely dented the inky darkness, and my world quickly diminished to the small patch of earth at my feet. The trail soon began zig-zagging its way up the side of Flattop Mountain towards the open tundra.
As I swept my flashlight around the first of many switchbacks, a tremendous, black shape leapt across my field of view!
I froze. It had been much bigger than any creature I was prepared for.
"Did you see that?!" I yelled.
"See what?" Randy replied, several paces behind me.
"The bear! Look!"
I swung my light back around, and as I did, ANOTHER huge shape raced across the trees! This second time, however, I noticed the large boulder between me and the dark form. I wiggled my flashlight. The boulder's shadow on the trees beyond moved in unison with my hand.
It was a shadow bear.
"Well... it could've been one," I argued, as Randy tried to stifle his laughter.
I turned and headed up the trail at a faster clip, trying to outpace Randy's chuckles which drifted up behind me. Although I had hiked that particular trail many times before, I had never noticed how many bear-shaped boulders lined its path. Just as I would let my mind drift off to some other topic, another shadow creature would leap out. Each time, some deep, primal part of my brain would kick in before the rational portion could prevent the tensing of every muscle in my body. Needless to say, this certainly added some excitement to what was normally a dull part of that trail. It also set the mood for what was about to happen.
Randy and I reached treeline in the cold predawn. Here the shadow-infested forest was replaced by the short, gnarly forms of trees which had given up fighting the prevailing winds and simply grew along the ground. We were glad to be out of the forest, but the black, open sky, snaking bushes, and lonely tundra beyond provided us with a different form of unease. The next 15 miles would be across open terrain. Getting to the summits and back before the afternoon lightning storms meant a mad dash across the tundra, lugging 30-pound packs through marshes, up rocky slopes, and across snowfields. We decided to eat a snack and drink some water before continuing on.
Our position provided wide sweeping views across the jagged glacial valleys to the east. We turned off our flashlights to save the batteries, and our eyes soon became accustomed to the night. There was no moon, and the stars hung in brilliant banners above us. The only lights below came from the town of Estes Park, many miles away. Times like this give me the odd, simultaneous feeling of being insignificantly small, yet part of the larger whole. I stood there briefly, letting the moment sink down into my bones, then it was time to move on.
As I was repacking my water, something in the valley below caught my eye. Initially I thought I was mistaken so I looked again, first directly at it, then out of the side of my eyes to allow my night vision better access. Both views told me the same thing. I was about to point it out to Randy, but he beat me to it.
"Uh... do you see what I see down there?" he whispered.
"Yeah, I've been watching it," I replied in a hushed tone.
"Do you think it's the... you know?" he asked, hesitant to state the obvious.
"No. Can't be," I replied, trying to sound certain, " The Blue Mist is a story, right? Something they made up to scare kids."
Yet there in the valley below us, a luminescent, blue haze floated above the trees. It had the appearance of a nebula, with a brighter, glowing center surrounded by a more diffuse disk. It resembled a monstrous, blue eye staring up at us.
The Blue Mist, for those of you unfamiliar with the story, is a local legend in that region. Milder versions circulate around the Y's day camp, while the more vivid tales make their way into the late night gatherings of the older Y staff. It is said to be a pale, glowing mist which inhabits the Park's highcountry. Although some folks trace this legend back to the Ute Indians which previously inhabited the territory, most of the more detailed stories revolve around recent incidents within the Park.
A typical Blue Mist event involves the sighting of a mysterious, blue fog in the backcountry, followed by the disappearance of a hiker. One such incident occurred on the very trail upon which Randy and I now stood. A small boy vanished while hiking with his family through the fog. Despite the best efforts of dozens of searchers, the boy's body was not discovered until it appeared a year later in a canyon nearby, right after the sighting there of a odd, blue haze. It was as though the mountains themselves had swallowed up the boy, only to spit out his body a year later.
With this lurid tale racing through our brains, Randy and I peered down the slope at the weird form.
"Maybe it's a car's headlights," I suggested.
We watched. The light didn't move at all. I regarded the fact that it wasn't moving towards us as a positive sign, since most of the Blue Mist stories involve some form of death or dismemberment of at least one of the witnesses.
"Maybe it's a lake, you know, reflecting the moonlight."
We both looked up into the night sky. There was no moon. So much for that theory.
"Must be the lights at the Bear Lake parking lot," one of us suggested.
We both chewed this possibility over in our minds, slowly, silently.
"Must be what it is!" we both agreed.
We clutched tightly to this answer, as the alternative was too frightening to think of. We quickly shouldered our packs and headed out across the open, dark tundra. Neither Randy nor I looked back down the hill again. I never did ask Randy why he didn't take another glance, but in my particular case I remember being terribly afraid of what I might see behind me.
Randy and I did manage to climb both Sprague Mountain and Stones Peak that day. It was a strenuous hike across miles of boggy tundra marsh followed by hours of climbing up and down rocky slopes and snowfields. At one point, I slipped on a snow-covered rock shelf and was left hanging by my arms until Randy could pull me up. Despite our early start, we still got caught by a large storm as we dashed towards home across the tundra. In the thick fog, we lost our way and almost missed the trail which leads back down to Bear Lake. These, however, are typical events when hiking in the Rockies, and I wouldn't let Randy blame them on the porcupine's curse.
The luminescent, blue specter was another matter. Its image had been etched forever into my brain.
In the years following this climb I received my engineering degree, found a job in Colorado, and continued climbing peaks in the Park. I have never again seen anything like what Randy and I witnessed that dark night, but there have been several times when its memory has been resurrected--twice when hiking with others on Flattop in the predawn hours, and once when hiking alone through a subalpine forest several valleys to the south.
During these incidents, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck tingle and a queasy feeling deep in my gut that unseen eyes were observing me. The feelings were unlike anything else that I have experienced in the backcountry--a heavy, oppressive sense of something utterly ancient, something as old as the rocks themselves, enveloping me. As an engineer, I could easily attribute these feelings to ionization of the atmosphere, or anomalous magnetic fields, were it not for one critical fact.
You see, when Randy and I stood there alone in that cold, predawn blackness, and mutually agreed that the blue, glowing haze in the valley below was coming from the lights at the Bear Lake parking lot, neither of us dared admit what we both knew to be true.
There ARE no lights at the Bear Lake parking lot.