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Family hike in Purgatory


   The camping season is now upon us like cold rain on an old canvas tent. Just the mention of the word "camping" takes me back to when I was a kid and my family would take its annual backpack trip somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
   I recall one trip in an area of Colorado known as Purgatory. Or maybe that was just what my parents called every place they backpacked with three young boys. The canyon we hiked into was full of old mines and mining paraphernalia. The way my two brothers and I looked at it, one miner's loss was an inquisitive boy's gain.
   After exploring some dilapidated old cabins, we discovered an old dump site where the miners tossed their late nineteenth Century garbage. Among some old rusty tin cans we found one that appeared unopened and tried everything in our little minds to pry the lid off but it wouldn't budge. We took turns banging it on rocks and sticks but the stubborn can remained closed tighter than a scared clam and wouldn't give up its secret contents.
    Finally, our dad noticed what we were doing and came over and promptly opened it with his trusty P-38 can opener. What to our surprise did we discover but several dynamite caps, carefully wrapped and preserved in oilcloth. These 100-year old caps looked brand new and our dad thought it a miracle that we didn't all go up in smoke. He hid them in a secure place so other inquisitive youngsters wouldn't happen upon them and reported the location to a ranger when we abandoned Purgatory and returned to civilization.
   As if the dynamite caps weren't enough excitement for this trip, we decided to climb up to a high mountain pass we could see from camp. My younger brother Mike was sick (maybe from altitude sickness or the thought of discovering more dangerous mining gear) and stayed in camp with our mom, while my older brother Frank and I went with dad and started our ascent the next morning.
   I'm not sure if what we climbed was a snowfield or a glacier but the surface was frozen so hard in the early morning that we literally had to chop steps into the ice in places. Near the top, we carefully eased our way along a rock face, looking down into a bottomless crevasse where the glacier hung precariously to the cliff. Soon afterwards, we reached the pass and knew there was no way of returning via the same route.
   After a brief lunch and great views into the next basin full of lakes and snow and ice, we faced the dilemma of the descent. Dad finally decided that we could slide straight down the glacier to camp. This was a scary thought as it looked pretty steep. The snow softened up in the afternoon sun and Dad said we could control the descent by sitting on one leg bent under us and keeping the other out front sort of like a break. Dad went first.
   As he stepped out, he took off like one of those circus guys shot out of a cannon. After 50 feet or so, he remembered to stick his leg out in front and slow his progress. When reaching a full stop, he shouted back up for us to proceed. It was one of the funnest modes of transportation I could remember, at least up to age 10. Sure, once in a while we'd catch an edge and tumble uncontrollably down the slope until wed manage to stick a toe, heel, fingers or chin into the snow to arrest the fall.
   At the bottom we finally slowed to a stop, soaked from the wet snow and laughing until our eyes watered. Our mom said that she stared wide-eyed as she saw three tiny figures sliding (I believe she actually said "falling") down the glacier. After all of that excitement, there wasn't much left for us brothers to do except see how close we could get to some of the vertical mine shafts for a look-see.
   Yep, they were the good `ole days. Maybe someday I'll have to return to Purgatory.