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A Rocky run

9/30/2010

• Photo galleries: Part Three | Part Two | Part One

As landmarks go, the U.S. Continental Divide stands alone. It separates the watersheds to the Atlantic and Pacific, east from west. It is, by definition, our nation's spine.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Colorado, where the Divide snakes through 650 miles of America's most impressive alpine terrain -- giant mountains that engulf you like a tidal wave, befitting their rugged reputation.

The waters that drain from those peaks are often overlooked, a sideshow of sorts. Yet they are just as extraordinary.

Drawn by that contrast, last month a friend and I set out on a six-day journey the likes of which nobody, to our knowledge, had undertaken. We traveled nearly 120 miles on foot through the heart of Colorado's high country, tracing the Divide from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek while competing in the Gore-Tex TransRockies Run, one of the most unique sporting events in America.

And at the end of each day's stage -- which ranged from 14 to 24 miles and required us to climb as much as 4,700 vertical feet in a day -- we fished the alpine lakes and rivers that make the central Rockies a world-class home for outdoorsmen. From gold-medal trout streams to turquoise reservoirs in the shadow of 14,000-foot mountains, our fishing exploits were executed on minimalist terms and with minimalist gear -- and, you could argue, with minimalist results.

But perhaps more than any other week in our lives, the quantitative yield (one brown trout and one rainbow, neither longer than 10 inches; a middle-of-the-pack race finish) took a back seat to the experience itself.

For every hour of suffering, there came a glorious reprieve, nature's version of yin and yang. Flicking casts at the edge of an alpine lake is a powerful, peaceful healer. So is camping under a full moon in the middle of nowhere, more bears than people in the surrounding lands.

We spent our third and fourth nights on open prairie grass at Camp Hale, a former U.S. Army base on the Divide where, in the 1940s, more than 14,000 10th Mountain Division soldiers trained to take down Hitler. My grandfather, Snuffy, was among them.

He is but a ghost now, but as my teammate John and I explored the same mountains he once roamed, spending our days and nights the same way he did 65 years ago, it was hard not to think about nature's enduring beauty and the way it continues to enrich our lives.

•Photo galleries: Part Three | Part Two | Part One