On the first hike I ever took west of the Mississippi, a 99-cent poncho saved my life. A few weeks earlier, I had graduated from college, given away everything that wouldn’t fit in my car, and hit the road, heading West. My brother Paul was along for the ride and we stopped in Vail, Colorado to visit our cousin Elizabeth.
Elizabeth took us for a hike in the mountains above Vail. I had never seen such mountains; as we wove up through forests of aspens, fields of columbine and patches of snow still lingering in the summer, I fell in love at first hike.
Looking back, I realize it was a classic mountain trek: The trail followed a stream up into the high country, culminating at an alpine lake at the headwaters, below the peaks. We started in the morning under clear blue skies, determined to see the lake, but as the day went on, clouds began gathering and by the time we were nearing tree line, the sky had gone black.
We were in trouble. The weather was closing in fast and none of us was prepared for a storm. The wind picked up and the first big drops fell; the thunder in the distance was getting closer. Where there’s thunder, there’s lightning and we were in the wrong place for an electrical storm.
We didn’t have much time. Soon we’d be getting soaked, the three of us in cotton t-shirts and shorts. Then I spotted refuge: a massive tree had been uprooted, leaving a large hole between the rootball and a rock and Elizabeth pulled out our saving grace: a 99-cent poncho she had stashed in the bottom of her day pack.
We ripped the seams of the poncho to make a tarp, secured it over the hole with rocks and a dog leash and climbed under. The three of us barely fit, but it was better than nothing. Moments later, the storm hit hard. Huddled in that hole, under that poncho, the storm crashing around us sounded biblical. Thunder and lightning, fire and brimstone, a deluge of rain unlike anything I had seen back east.
Afternoon storms in the mountains don’t usually last long. After about 20 minutes in the hole under the poncho, the rain let up and the three of us emerged filthy muddy, but relatively dry. Abandoning the goal of the lake, we headed back down the trail, only slightly chilled, and infinitely relieved to have survived our first hike in the big mountains.
After all the adventure, Elizabeth wasn’t willing to go back to waiting tables in Vail. The night before Paul and I hit the road to Utah, she asked if she could tag along. A few calls to her boss, her roommates and her boyfriend and she was free.
The three of us and our dogs spent the next few weeks caravaning to Arches, Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Yosemite and San Francisco before we parted ways. Elizabeth headed to Tahoe to see friends and Paul and I up drove up the California coast, through Redwood country, to Oregon.
Since that first Colorado hike, I’ve learned a lot about mountains. This past summer, I spent a lot of days hiking in Colorado and managed to avoid getting caught in another high altitude storm. For a long time after that hike, I carried a 99-cent poncho with me at all times as a talisman. These days I carry good rain gear: jacket, pants, gaiters and a pack cover. If you live in the mountains, you best learn from them and learn well.
Check out my previous posts on Packing for Backpacking, high altitude hiking, and climbing 14-ers. I’ve learned a lot about road tripping too: How to Plan a Killer Road Trip, $$$, Copilots, Packing, Tips & Tricks.