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On Gudy: Inspiration from the “Mother of the Colorado Trail”

Gudy Gaskill, adventurer extraordinaire, is credited for making the dream of the Colorado Trail a reality. In advance of our trip around the Collegiate Peaks sections of the route, The Cairn Project caught up with her granddaughter, Heidi (Gaskill) Meierbachtol, to learn more about Gudy and her legacy – in her family and for women adventurers everywhere.

You grandmother Gudy is in the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame and a widely renowned adventurer and public recreation advocate. More personally, what is her legacy in your family?

She was always so full of energy, and her excitement for and enthrallment with the outdoors and other interests – watercolor, sculpture, flowers, and public service – was infectious. She rarely stopped moving, yet despite this she was also quite willing to slow down and share her knowledge and skills with others. She was a natural leader, and she was also quite stubborn!

In my family, her legacy is the memories of the special times we got to spend with her, letting her infatuation with new challenges or simply being immersed in nature percolate into our emotions and being. She taught each of us to appreciate our natural surroundings, to fight for causes worth fighting for, and that if there was something to do – get up and do it, whatever it might be.

We’ve heard some epic stories about Gudy’s upbringing. What can you tell us about her adventure roots?

My great grandfather (Gudy’s dad) began working for the Rocky Mountain National Park as a summer ranger in the early 1930’s, and he would bring his family to Colorado each year. While he was out working, I’ve been told, he would drop his kids off at different locations in the mountains and pick them up at the end of the day. Eventually, my grandma Gudy and her twin sister moved out west to attend Western State College (WSC) in Gunnison, CO.

While she was teaching German to help finance her college education, she met Dave Gaskill – her future husband. Legend has it he once belayed out of her classroom window while presenting a project, and didn’t return to class that day! They ended up marrying only after signing a contract saying they could continue to maintain their personal freedom to pursue their passions, as long as it didn’t harmfully affect the family.

Do you know anything about Gudy’s experience of being a woman in a male-dominated “industry”? Did she face unique barriers to her activism on behalf of the trail, and if so, how did she respond to them?

I don’t know any specific details, but she was elected the first female president of the Colorado Mountain Club in 1977, and I don’t believe it was readily accepted by some of the other members at the time. But she maintained her position and during that time, she heard about a plan to build a trail between Denver to Durango. She became involved in the planning process and without her help and perseverance, the trail would likely never have come to fruition.

The trail, now known as the Colorado Trail, stretching 468 miles between Denver and Durango, was once coined by Ed Quillen in Empire magazine as the “Trail to Nowhere,” but my grandmother continued to work with the thirteen different Forest Service districts, obtain funding through grants and fund-raisers, and secure significant volunteer help to finally complete the trail in 1987.

Male or female, it is an extraordinary accomplishment – she overcame significant barriers. Knowing her, once her mind was set on the idea, you’d have difficulty steering her in another direction, no matter who she had to go up against. She was a master at finding how to forge ahead.

Tell us about your favorite memory of spending time outside with your grandmother.

For me personally, I have fond memories of meeting her out on Colorado Trail work parties and ascending the 13,000 and 14,000ft peaks surrounding our camp; biking out to meet her at the Colorado Trail cabin above Lake City and then riding passenger on a harrowing 4WD road with her driving the pick-up in 2WD (she was in her mid-80’s at the time); skiing at Winter Park down the endless moguls; obtaining lessons in landscape painting; learning to make delicious food for 20 people in 30 minutes; and playing epic card games near the campfire (she hated losing, and would commonly make us keep playing until she was winning). We were never at rest when with her!

From the book Wild, to Outside Magazine’s Women’s Issue, to REI’s new Force of Nature campaign, we’re in a heady time when it comes to women and outdoor adventure. What would Gudy tell us?

Gudy would want you to take time to pause when you’re in a beautiful place. A stunning natural setting was one of the few places that could get her to slow down. She wasn’t one to target the FKT (Fastest Known Time), because it forces you to miss the subtleties in outdoor adventure, like the variety of wildflowers in a meadow, shadows casting off of mountains, wind whispering through aspen leaves, or the different rock layers trending in the hillside.

She wasn’t personally interested in trail running or mountain biking – I think she felt like you’d be missing those quiet inflections in the wild. She never outspokenly told me she didn’t fully appreciate my love of running and mountain biking, but I certainly sensed it when she spoke about the importance of slowing down to enjoy the outdoors. She likely recognized I still love being outside and was just sorry I was missing out on some of those finer aspects. She would also encourage you to learn the history, flora, and fauna of the area you were exploring.

How about you, Heidi? What does adventure mean to you personally, and what are your favorite ways and places to get outside?

Adventure means something different to me each day. During the week I am fortunate to live in a town (Missoula, MT) where I can zip out on a trail run, XC ski, or mountain bike ride right from my door and lose myself in the morning or evening glow, letting my work day and other thoughts or concerns slip away. Just being able to see a field or hillside in changing light or running into elk unexpectedly is an adventure during the week.

On the weekend, I tend to like to explore new areas or revisit fun routes I’ve come to love. Sometimes I prefer to go with friends, and other times solo. Whether it be biking up to the Rattlesnake Wilderness and then hiking or running into one of the mountain lakes or ridgeline traverses on ski or foot in the Swans, Missions, Bitterroots or other mountain ranges throughout Montana, I love getting out where I live.

Adventure to me is just getting outside and enjoying your natural habitat. Sometimes it’s an exhausting all-day or multi-day jaunt, and other times it’s brief chance to clear the lungs. Adventure helps center me for the more general day-to-day and fuels my appreciation for life.

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