A Little Bird Told Me: the story behind my Colorado Trail tattoo

I never wanted a tattoo. Not even a tiny secret one, hidden by clothes, visible only to me. There was never a good enough reason to get permanently inked and there were plenty of other ways to spend my hard-earned money.

Then one day something happened that changed my mind.

It was the last Sunday in July, and I had already hiked more than 350 miles on the 500-mile Colorado Trail. In a matter of hours, I went from sipping tea at sunrise to feeling like I might die alone, face down in the mud, on top of a remote mesa.

My goal that day was to meet my family at the Spring Creek Pass trailhead nearly 19 miles away, so I needed to hit the trail early and hike at least two miles per hour to make it happen. That may not sound very fast, but it’s a strong pace when you’re carrying a 35-pound pack up and over the Continental Divide.

The long day would be a roller coaster with four major climbs – 3,116 feet up and 4,825 feet down – and most of my hiking would be done above 12,000 feet in elevation. I’d hit Snow Mesa, a flat, four-mile plateau above tree line, toward the end of the day.

Snow Mesa had a reputation for its lack of shelter, and the San Juan Mountains had a reputation for severe afternoon weather. The Colorado Trail Guidebook even warned, “This is one of the most remote segments of The Colorado Trail and Snow Mesa can feel completely cut off from civilization. This can be a good thing on clear, windless days, but a scary prospect if there are lightning bolts flashing around you.”

I broke camp later than I should have that morning and hiked along the trail as it followed the contour lines of several mountains. The weather was holding, but I noticed clouds were starting to build.

After hiking nine miles, I reached a point on the trail described in The Colorado Trail Databook, my bible on the CT, as the “last forest-sheltered area before Spring Creek Pass.” Translation: if a storm rolls in on Snow Mesa, you’re toast.

As I stood sheltered in the trees, I could not see much of the trail ahead and had no idea what was brewing behind Snow Mesa. My gut said Stay put. Storms are coming and you’re going to get caught out in the open. But my judgment was cloudy, seduced by the promise of family hugs, beer and pizza, a hot shower and a warm bed at the end of the day.

When Snow Mesa finally came into view, the weather didn’t look great. The clouds were growing moodier by the minute, but the patches of blue gave me hope that the worst of it might roll around me. I picked up my pace and talked to the blue sky.

“I need you,” I said out loud to my shrinking patches of hope. “Please don’t leave me.”

I knew better than to walk across an exposed stretch of trail above tree line during an afternoon monsoon, but by now I was at the point of no return. I was closer to the trailhead than I was to that sheltered spot I’d left miles back, and nothing about either option felt right.

A lightning strike could kill me, and there were few places to hide, no matter which direction I chose.

Black thunderheads were boiling up ahead, so I stopped to put on my waterproof jacket, backpack cover and homemade Hefty bag rain skirt. My family was waiting for me on the other side of this mess, and they would be worried if I didn’t show up at the trailhead, so I kept hiking forward – straight into the powerful storm cell that was gathering strength on Snow Mesa.

The electricity in the air made my stomach sour and pulled at the individual hairs on the back of my neck. Those primeval cues sent adrenaline pumping and blood rushing to my legs, and my body started to run down the trail on auto-pilot. 

I carried some of my father’s cremated ashes in my backpack and I called out to him as I stumbled along.

“Oh, Dad, I need your help,” I cried as I ran into the howling storm. I thought about a friend of mine who was struck by lightning in the mountains several years ago. He was lucky it only put him in the hospital instead of the ground.

“Please help me, Dad,” I wailed as lightning and thunder struck at exactly the same time – a sign the storm was right on top of me. “I don’t want to die.”

As the tallest thing on Snow Mesa, I scanned my surroundings for any kind of depression in the terrain where I could hide. I spied a small dried-out gully, probably carved by spring runoff, with a slight overhang of tundra grasses. I jumped into the shallow trench and started to unbuckle my hipbelt. Metal attracts lightning, so I stashed my frame backpack away from me and hunkered under the grass overhang to ride out the storm. I looked down at the carbon fiber trekking poles in my hands and threw them javelin-style down the gully.

Tucked into a fetal position and balanced on the balls of my feet, I hugged my knees and squeezed my eyes tight, willing myself smaller as the storm raged overhead.

It finally passed, and I emerged from my hiding spot, muddy and shaken, but grateful to be in one piece. I burst into tears as I retrieved my pack and poles and clambered back onto the CT, whimpering “thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you” in time with my footsteps as I hustled down the trail.

Thunder rolled and rumbled at my back, reminding my ego who was boss out here in the high country.

But curiosity got the best of me, and I couldn’t resist turning around to look at the storm that had passed over – to witness what I had survived. The rumbling beast and I locked eyes, and there was an instant recognition that it was the predator ... and I was the prey that escaped to live another day. It flashed its lightning claws and teeth at me one last time before it slipped over the ridgeline.

I turned my body back in the direction of the trailhead, but I stood there, unable to move, under the lingering spell of the storm.

“Idiot,” I scolded myself. “Idiot! What were you thinking?”

Just then a flutter of wings caught my attention as a little brown bird landed on the trail in front of me. It faced me, cocked its head and then turned to take a few hops down the singletrack. It twittered and hopped along the muddy path, bobbing its tail up and down. It turned to look at me again.

“Alright, I get it,” I said to the bird.

“You’re leading me away from your nest, right?” I took a few cautious steps. “Fine, I’ll play along.”

When I was younger, I had followed other birds – clever killdeers – that pretended to be injured, dragging a wing on the ground a short distance to lead me away from their clutch of eggs. This little alpine bird was different from a killdeer. It wasn’t faking a broken wing, and it stuck with me for what seemed like an unusually long time.

It hopped, I followed. It chirped, and I chatted. Slowly but surely, the bird led me across a good portion of the mesa through the steady rain.

“You can go home,” I finally called to the bird, giving it an easy out. “Thanks for your help, but I’m okay now.”

But the little bird would not leave. I cocked my head, it cocked its head. I took a step, and it hopped a few paces in front of me. I sang a song and it chirped back to me.

When the rain finally tapered off, and the first rays of sunshine pierced the clouds, the bird flew away. And I walked off that mesa a different person.

I also walked off wanting to remember that day for the rest of my life, which gave me a great reason to get a tattoo.

MY TATTOO

I got my tattoo on February 2, 2018 – Groundhog Day. On this day two years ago, I decided to hike the Colorado Trail, and I’m forever grateful for that spark of insight. It was the day I climbed out of a deep hole of depression to face my shadow and embrace the sunshine.

In addition to watching the movie Groundhog Day on its namesake holiday every year, I also renew the following vows to myself as part of my annual tradition: be true to who I am, experience new things, brave the elements, give back in meaningful ways, love without judgment, and appreciate each precious day. Getting my tattoo was a great way to ink that deal with myself this year.

Big thanks to artist Ishmael Johnson at Scrimshaw Tattoo in Fort Collins. He does some mighty fine work.

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INDIVIDUAL TATTOO ELEMENTS EXPLAINED

The Post
Hiking the Colorado Trail is an analogy for my life’s journey. Just like the CT, I hike the long trail of life step by step and day by day. There are crossroads, challenges, alternative routes and lessons to explore and navigate along the way. There is beauty in both companionship and hiking solo on my journey, and if I keep my eyes open and trust my gut, there are constant signs to guide my path. The post and trail marker also remind me to prioritize adventure, self-care and spending time in nature.

The Bird
The bird on Snow Mesa was an American Pipit, a little tail-bobbing bird totally at home in the harsh alpine tundra. The brave little Pipit taught me to accept help, appreciate strength in the ordinary, and lead myself out of harm’s way. It distracted me from my limiting fears and inner critic, and it gave me companionship and confidence when I needed it most. I feel my dad sent the bird to me. Photo credit: Glenn Bartley

The Paintbrush
The paintbrush flower is one of the most common wildflowers in the West, and one of my favorites. It comes in all shapes, sizes and colors, and it was my happy companion along every segment of the Colorado Trail. My thru-hike inspired big changes in my life, and the paintbrush reminds me there is beauty in change, even when the path is hard and the footing unsure.

 The gracious Cheryl Strayed signing my copy of  Wild  and talking about my tattoo.

The gracious Cheryl Strayed signing my copy of Wild and talking about my tattoo.

 Cheryl Strayed then signed the arm that I may never wash again.

Cheryl Strayed then signed the arm that I may never wash again.