Impact

I was recently lying on the floor in front of the wood stove at Barr Camp where I live, doing my post-run core routine. My co-caretaker had just left for his run and I had the cabin to myself. It was a moment of quiet that I was savoring, but then the door opened and in came a runner. If I can tell the truth and even if it sounds selfish, I didn’t feel like being interrupted. But that’s not why I work as a caretaker at Barr Camp, a cabin located on the famous Barr Trail on the side of Pikes Peak in Colorado open to trail users, so we started talking.

My guest was excited to visit the camp and chat with me. He told me about how he had come to live in Colorado, how he was chasing “crazy dreams,” and that he wanted to come up and meet me before I finish working here in a few months. Before I knew it, I was really enjoying the conversation. This guy was enthusiastic, a go-getter for sure, but perhaps a tad self-conscious of his ambitions.

He reminded me of myself. Like him, I’ve had–and still have–crazy dreams. They are the sorts of things that make you self-conscious of what others may think so you tuck them away and keep them to yourself. Here I now was, face-to-face with a young man in hot pursuit of his goals, openly sharing his dreams with me, and giving me a chance to be a part of them. And to think that a few minutes ago, all I wanted was an uninterrupted core workout. You never know the direction a day can turn.

As our conversation came to a close, he asked for a photo. We took one on the porch and then he headed down the trail. Who knows what kind of impact I might have had on that young man’s life, but his warm and enthusiastic presence certainly had a positive impact on me.

A few days later, I found myself hosting a group of hikers from the Colorado Mountain Club Pikes Peak group. They arrived on a Friday evening and stayed for two nights. That night, I fed them all dinner and sent them off to bed. The following morning, I awoke early and was out the door by 5:15 a.m. for my run. It had stormed the day before and the trail was laden with fresh snow. As I trudged through the powder and up the mountain in the dark, my pace was slow and the effort arduous. I climbed for 55 minutes, making it just shy of two miles from Barr Camp. Breakfast duties called, so I flipped and headed back.

On my way down, I stopped a few times to snap photos of the beautiful sunrise. Breaking the trail had been hard work, but it was worth it to watch the mountain wake up. Enjoying the rising sun, I thought, The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese. The sunrise is the worm, and the cheese is the track I’m putting in for the hikers who will come later.

Back at the cabin, I put the coffee on and lit a fire in the wood stove. Then I cooked pancakes and served breakfast to the overnighters. After breakfast, most of the group shuffled out the door to go snowshoeing. They were the second mice following my tracks as they made their way to the A-Frame shelter just below treeline. That afternoon and evening, I cooked. Chili, cornbread, spaghetti, garlic bread, and cake filled the stomachs of the hikers that night. Around 9 p.m., they retired to bed. I took to the dishes, and then followed suit.

The next morning, I awoke early once again and hit the trail. This time I too was the second mouse, and I got all the cheese. And not just any cheese, but sweet, sweet seven-snowshoers-out-and-back cheese. The trail was amazing, and it felt even more amazing to move faster and unencumbered. In the days since, I’ve run the same route over, and over, and over again. The impact of their journey on me was significant.

In fact, the majority  of my runs from camp this winter have been on the Barr Trail above Barr Camp. Some days, like that Sunday morning, I run in the well-made tracks of those who went before me. Other days, I break the trail. Sometimes if feels like I’m always breaking trail. I put in the tracks one day only to have snow or wind close them shut. It can feel like a losing battle, but I have to remember that it all makes a difference.

The hard work of breaking trail makes a lasting impact on fitness. I don’t know what the training-equivalency conversion is for running uphill through energy-sucking snow at 10,200-plus-feet altitude, but I’m thinking it’s pretty generous. Additionally, it builds the track. Sure, the trail can sometimes blow shut and new snow falls, but the packed layers hold strong and give us a base for future travel.

I have been thinking about the concept of impact a lot lately. As I ready myself to move on from Barr Camp, I contemplate what to do next and the impact that it may have. I want to focus my efforts on running, but running is just a piece of the puzzle. A lot of other pieces surround and support that aspect of my life, such as where I live, who I spend my time with, and what sort of things I occupy my time with when not running.

It can feel a bit daunting, for Barr Camp set a high bar. On one hand, life at Barr Camp has afforded me the opportunity to serve, and thereby impact a lot of lives. Additionally, on the environmental side of things, Barr Camp has allowed me to live off the grid for the past four-and-a-half years. Water from the creek, solar power, composting toilets, wood-burning stoves, propane, and sharing all this with thousands of people each year have made up an infrastructure that has left my environmental conscience feeling good.

As I explore my options, I want to be mindful of the tracks that I choose to lay. What will my tracks do for others? Will they pave a helpful and generous trail? What about the earth? Can what I do protect and nourish it? If I build a cabin or buy a bus and travel, can I do it responsibly? If I fly to races and running events, how much will I contribute to the degradation of our planet? What impacts, good and bad, can and should I make?

From my position, it’s easy for this to feel like a losing battle. After four-and-a-half years of off-the-grid living in a nearly 100-year-old log cabin, most things feel like a step up in impact. No matter what we do, we are pretty much always going to impact something. Do we just give up, lock the cabin door, and finish our core routine? Do we quit breaking trail and let the snow grow impassable for everyone? No, I don’t think that is it at all.

So what I aim to do is to pay attention and be mindful of the tracks I lay. I aim to give the kid with the crazy dreams and the hearty snowshoers a trail on which to play. I also want to rise up, join the conversation, and let myself be positively impacted by the efforts of others. We can’t ever leave a perfect path of no impact, and nor would we want to. There is so much good that can be done through sharing our world.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What positive impacts have the people around you had on you recently?
  • Have you worked to reduce the negative impact you have on your world? Can you share a little about your effort?

All photos: Zach Miller

Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.

There are 4 comments

  1. Nancy Bradley

    Hi Zach,
    Not only are you a powerful writer whose introspection gives all of us much food for thought, but also you are a brilliant nature photographer. Impact is such a key aspect of life; I always associate that word with my husband who by his teaching, coaching and mentoring has impacted thousands. In your short life you already have consciously and unknowingly impacted a multitude of people. We are in that group whose lives have been enriched by our friendship with you.
    Fondly
    Nancy

  2. Mark Griffith

    Zach
    Every since seeing you race at TNF50 against Hayden, when your breathing sounded like a freight train coming down the track at full speed, I’ve been loved watching you run, amazed by your work ethic. And I’ve found that ethic mirrored in your work at Barr Camp (seen on your Instagram stories) and in this writing.

    May you find peace no matter where you live or run.

  3. olga

    Dang, as I was reading your story about a runner interrupting you, I almost yelled to my husband, “hey, Zack Miller wrote about your visit!”. Alas, my husband doesn’t fit the “young and ambitious”, though he definitely wanted to chat with you before you left. Great writing.

  4. Greta

    What Zach wrote reminded me of Horst Rittel (famous for his “wicked” problems) who recognized that even solutions to problems leave traces that cannot be undone…
    We pray the tracks we leave match those of the greater good, hoping to hear as we act how to go forth in the best possible way. Rah rah Zach, keep on keeping on.

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