But What If It’s Good?

Zach Miller writes about choosing to move on from caretaking at Barr Camp in Colorado.

By on January 17, 2020 | Comments

It’s been a quiet day at Barr Camp on the side of Pikes Peak in Colorado. Yesterday’s weather was quite mild, but this morning we awoke to a fierce wind and temperatures in the teens Fahrenheit. Typically we would see Nicole Norton, a local Colorado Springs resident, but we knew straight away that the high winds might change that. Sure enough, Nicole didn’t come and neither did her hiking buddy Kevin. After breakfast, I went for a short run up the Barr Trail. When I came back, I asked co-camp caretaker Scott if anyone had stopped in and no one had. Later that day, Scott hiked up to treeline and back. Still no one visited while he was out either. As the day wore on, we acknowledged that we might be in for a ‘zero.’ In Barr Camp speak, that’s a day with no visitors.

With evening settling in amongst the trees, I relaxed by the fire and gazed out the window. As the sun sank behind the peak, it sent waves of color across the sky, starting with yellow and giving way to pink. The change occurred quickly and before I knew it, darkness had engulfed the cabin. Lying in the dark, I thought about the future. I thought about this place, how I plan to leave it in the next season, and what that means for me.

A beautiful winter day at Barr Camp in 2017. All photos courtesy of Zach Miller.

Yes, I’ve told the powers that be, the ‘bosses’ of Barr Camp, that come spring I intend to move on from my caretaker role. This is a big decision. I started caretaking at Barr Camp with my sister Ashley in 2015, four-and-a-half years ago! Somehow I’m still here, though I’m not the least bit surprised.

I’ve talked about leaving for some time now, but not because I don’t like what I do. I’ve loved–and still love–my time at Barr Camp. Part of me feels like I could stay forever. I can picture it in my mind, me 50 years from now, a grizzled mountain man sitting on the front porch, making small talk with the passersby. Think of all the stories I’d have to tell! I’ve got so many from just four-and-a-half years. Heck, I have so many from 2019.

I’ve got stories of bears, moose, elk, bushy-tailed rats, spotted skunks, pygmy owls, and the pesky ground squirrels that everyone thinks are cute little chipmunks. I have tales of late-night rescue missions, ice battles with the creek to keep water running to the cabin in winter, after-hours door-knockers, forest-fire scares, and end-of-season poop scoopin’ in the compost toilet.

Then, there are the people. There’s storm chaser Tom and his wife Linda; early morning Nicole; sweet, sweet Ann; usually Tuesday Kathy; no-salt-in-my-coffee Craig and his lovely wife Hae (whose name is great because if by some chance I forget it I can just say, “Hey!”); Nutella Mike; Pat from the back; Paperboy Pete; Centennial Peak Tim; “Less Yachts, More People” Tom; biker Gardner; Ling and Larry the dynamic monthly summit duo; Pastor Kevin; beard man Jason; no spice Chris; Katie and her right-hand woman Tracey (two of the most baller women on the mountain); “What a day!” Linda; Sunshine Dave; and last but certainly not least, Craig the Walker. And that’s not nearly everyone. The list goes on, and on, and on.

Caretakers Nathan, Ashley, and Zach pose with Santa, er Brandon Stapanowich, after he ran spinach and ice cream up to Barr Camp for Christmas in 2016.

So, why leave? When a place and its people are so great, and the work so fulfilling, why give it up? That’s exactly why this decision has felt so hard.

I’ve gone through plenty of change in the past. After high school, I left Pennsylvania for college in New York. Pennsylvania was great but familiar, and New York was something new. Then, after college, I left the land for the sea as I took a job working on cruise ships. The sea was vast and intimidating, a gateway to unknown-to-me cultures and continents. After a year and a half on ships, I went to the mountains of Colorado, first to the base of Pikes Peak and then halfway up at Barr Camp. All of these changes were big and they all involved an element of risk. And yet, they were pretty easy to make. This one, this time feels different, I think because this place and its people are so, so good.

In 2015 and 2016, my sister Ashley, her then-boyfriend and now-husband Nathan, and I all served together as caretakers. For those two years, Barr Camp was a family affair. Then Ashley and Nathan left the mountain so that Ashley could pursue a master’s degree in social work at the University of Denver. I remember her seeming uneasy when she made that change, and I realize now that I was probably less understanding than I could have been. In the past, my view of change has been more like this: You make decisions. They aren’t necessarily right or wrong. They are just decisions. Things change, we move on, and our decisions become what we make of them. Perhaps now I am a bit more in tune with how Ashley may have felt. Some decisions are, indeed, simple, but once in a while a place, person, job, or passion carries so much significance that changing it feels scary and uncertain.

Zach taking one of many ‘long ways’ to town from Barr Camp on Pikes Peak in 2018.

Four years ago, Ashley dove into that uncertainty. She and Nathan moved to Denver and she earned her degree. Then, they leapt again, back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where Ashley and I grew up. And this past September, Ashley and Nathan welcomed their son Ansel into the world. A lot has changed for Ashley in the past few years.

At the turn of the new year, Ashley shared the following thoughts: “Maybe it’s still postpartum heaviness, but sometimes a new year feels daunting. It’s easier to fear the unknown than to hope. I find myself quickly jumping to worst-case scenarios these days. But last night, as the anxious thoughts started settling in with the sunset, as they began unfolding their chairs and settling down in my mind for the night, quietly reminding me of all the things that could go wrong, I found another thought sitting among them, a different one. One that whispered, but what if it’s good? So I let that thought speak for a change. What if Ansel starts sleeping through the night and somehow becomes even more pleasant? What if Mom retires and Zach’s foot heals? What if I work less? What if no one I love gets cancer? What if our winter weekend away has snow? What if we make it to Mont Blanc? What if I figure out where I stand on atonement theories? Or what if I learn to rest in mystery and grace? What if we make more friends and feel more connected in Lancaster? What if I stop having the Sunday scaries? … But what if it’s good?”

Zach in Barr Camp mode in 2018, washing dishes and icing his leg at the same time.

These thoughts–from the very sister with whom I got into this whole wonderful mess–ring so true. As I prepare to leave Barr Camp, I will remember Ashley’s words: “But what if it’s good?” What if I leave Barr Camp and get even more connected to my community? What if I see my town friends more? What if I visit family more? What if I travel more, run different mountains more, and explore more? What if I volunteer more? What if I write more, read more, and sleep more? What if I build an A-frame in the forest?

Even if we don’t have a looming life change, turning the calendar to a new year makes it easy to feel uneasy. But why? Why feel just the Sunday scaries when we could also feel the 2020 hopefuls? Looking back, there was one other decision in my life that has felt like leaving Barr Camp, shifting my main athletic focus from soccer to running. It was hard, because like Barr Camp, I loved soccer. I had done it for a long time, I worked hard at it, and it was part of who I was. And yet, running tugged at me. In the end, I left the good for the unknown and made the leap to running. And you know what? It was one of the best decisions I’ve made.

So, as I look ahead to 2020 and all that it may or may not hold, Ashley’s words fill me with hope. Sure, my injured foot is still trying to heal. Yep, I’m planning to leave all the goodness of Barr Camp. And yeah, I’m not sure where I’m going or what I will find myself doing next. But what if this is like leaving soccer to find running? Or Ashley going to graduate school to pursue another passion? What if I’m on my way to something better than I can yet imagine? But what if it’s good?

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you recently made a life choice that was particularly difficult? Either because what you were changing from was really good or what you were changing to totally unknown? Can you walk us through how the process went?
  • Do you have a change waiting in your future that looks or sounds like Zach’s move from Barr Camp? Can you share more about it?

Zach digs out from a spring snowstorm in 2017.

From left to right, caretakers Zach, Mike, Guillermo, and Jonathan pose for a picture at the start of 2020.

Zach Miller
Zach Miller lives in a school bus he outfitted himself. 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.