Sunday, July 26, 2015

Blue Lakes, Mt. Sneffels Wilderness

The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share.
—Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

Upper Blue Lake basin

Biologists go to mountains to study altitudinal zonation, ecological islands, and endemic species. Atmospheric scientists gather data on lapse rate, wind shear, and microclimates. Hydrologists measure snowpack and monitor water quality; geologists identify minerals and explain orogenic processes; geomorphologists speak their own language of horns and arêtes, monadnocks and flyggbergs.

What, though, of the phenomenology of altitude?—the sensation of standing in the hot desert, looking longingly up at green-shouldered, snow-capped summits; the response to peering down from a tree-lined ridge, seeing the land beyond open and brown out; the experience of ascending a ravine or ridge, feeling the terrain become more treacherous, the air thinner and colder? Measurements and explanations aside, what do people see, think, and feel when transitioning from close, cosy forest to open, exposed tundra to rock, snow, ice?

"MT. SNEFFELS WILDERNESS: Uncompahgre National Forest" ... "NO CAMPFIRES"
I’ll leave it to others (David Hinton, Robert MacFarlane, and Peter Matthiessen, for example, whose Hunger Mountain, Mountains of the Mind, and The Snow Leopard are, respectively, three of my favorite mountain-books) to write about the challenge of the climb or the particular joy felt upon arriving at a summit. Rather, let me share my thoughts from a hike the week after Wetterhorn. (Minimal rants about trails, signs, and disrespectful visitors in “wilderness,” I promise.)

The setting: Blue Lakes Trail, a popular route in the San Juan Mountains’ Mt. Sneffels Wilderness, Uncompahgre National Forest, just west of Ridgway, Colorado. A Friday, mid-July. Cool morning; clouds building; forecast for afternoon storms.

View toward Blue Lakes Pass from County Road 7 

The road to the trailhead winds up a scenic valley, passing through aspen groves and open meadows en route to a craggy wall of snow-laced peaks.  Four years ago, I’d taken a photograph from this road—a generic “Colorado mountains” image I’ve used in lectures to illustrate phenomena like altitudinal zonation and features like cirques—and was somewhat surprised and intrigued to recognize the very spot at which I’d stood. (This set the tone for the entire hike up to the lower lake—I kept encountering spots I remembered, kept remembering moments I’d forgotten. The trail was littered with memories.) After parking in a dirt lot (not quite big enough to accommodate the 40+ cars that were jammed in by mid-afternoon), lacing up my boots, and strapping on my pack, I started up the trail.

The air was cool, the ground soft. The forest was damp, pungent with the scent of pines, grasses, and fresh dirt. Shafts of sunlight cut through the trees. For a while, a stream tumbled merrily alongside, but then the trail turned away from it and began switchbacking up the slope. Then all I could hear were my own footsteps and heavy breathing. Surely, birds were singing and branches must have been shuffling in the breeze; I think I passed some colorful flowers? But, honestly, I wasn’t paying too much attention—part of my mind was in the past (Was this where we’d stopped for a rest and a chat?; Was that where we found the first patch of snow?) and part of my mind was on the future (Would Lower Blue Lake be as blue in mid-summer? What would the view be like beyond Upper?), leaving little awareness for the present. This is typical of my time in woodlands. At best, forests make me introspective; at worst, bored. Tree after tree after indistinguishable tree.

A few tenacious patches of snow

Up I went, hiking hard and fast. Through a meadow (brief views down the valley and up toward the summits), across a tributary stream (exercise in rock-hopping), and back into the forest (this is where we found the first patch of snow!). Eventually, the flower-filled meadows started getting wider and the treed areas smaller.  Past a waterfall and one of those intrusive and ineffective “Keep Wilderness Wild” signs, I was at Lower Blue Lake. The water was indeed blue, the shores snow-free (unlike the first time I’d been there), but a half-dozen bright tents stood out along the water’s edge, so I turned away and continued onward, upward.

Aptly-named Lower Blue Lake

The trail led me across the outlet stream, through more trees, across a talus slope, and along a ridge with views down to Lower Blue Lake.  I’d been expecting to encounter krummholz—a land of stunted, gnarled trees typically found high up mountain slopes—so was surprised to turn a corner, ascend a saddle, and find myself in Alpine tundra.

Tundra!  The “land above the trees!” The “treeless plain”! After spending several hours sheltered and blinded by the forest, I’d finally emerged into a landscape where I could see, I could breathe.  Granted, I could also be seen, be buffeted by the increasingly gusty winds, burned by piercing sunlight. Openness, rawness—this is where the hike started to feel real.

 Unlike the Alpine zones in the Adirondacks, which are situated at the summits of the highest peaks and thus afford views out over a sea of state-designated wilderness, this tundra was tucked low on the mountainside.  Instead of looking down and out, my eyes were drawn upward—up across rolling hills carpeted with low shrubs and singing with flowers; up to another Blue Lake and, sliding into it, patches of bright snow; up, up steep, rocky slopes finally to, waaaay up, toothy pinnacles and peaks, beyond them nothing but sky.  Although I’d intended to just sit by the shores of Upper Blue Lake for a while then head back down, I caught that urge to keep climbing.  The tundra drew me out, the mountains up. I wanted to see the view from the pass.

The trail wound alongside a small pool and waterfall, then to the edge of the Upper Lake (also very blue.)  From there, it began ascending a series of steep, geometric switchbacks. (A hundred paces one way; stop, gasp, turn. A hundred paces the other way; stop, gasp, turn. Repeat.)(Admittedly, that pattern soon became: fifty paces, stop, gasp…) The pass didn’t seem to be getting any closer, but I was slowly earning way above moss and into pure rock. The switchbacks got steeper and narrower, eroded in some patches. A section or two of scrambling, a pause for pikas, and the pass almost seemed achievable.  By this point, the wind was biting and I sorely regretted not bringing better gloves. My lungs and legs were burning and I was probably hungry and thirsty, but thought only of what I’d see on the other side. Up.

Up! As I crested the pass, a wide valley unfurled beneath me—Yankee Boy Basin. Mt. Sneffels towered over it, snow and rock streaming down its sides into brilliant green patches of vegetation below.  Standing there, drinking in the scene, gasping for breath, and half-debating whether or not to continue on—summit Sneffels! My first 14er!—I was startled to hear a voice call “Hello!” from behind a big boulder.  Turns out someone was already there—a guy waiting for his friends to come down off the side of Sneffels.  As soon as he pointed his friends out to me, I began seeing other figures moving on the mountain. And in the basin.  Ant-like lines of brightly-clad, eager peak-baggers streaming along what was presumably the main approach and bottlenecked at a scree slope.  Oh.

“Aiming for the summit?” the guy asked me. “No, no thank you,” I decided, “I’m happy to make it here.”

Taking a cue from the marmots basking by Upper Blue Lake

And I was.  That was enough up for me. After chatting briefly, I nervously eyed the thickening clouds and began the descent, stopping only to eat a brief lunch and spend a few moments basking, marmot-like, in the last of the sunlight and solitude on the shores of Upper Blue Lake.  From that point on, the sky was cloudy, the trail crowded, and, of course, I was back in the trees. Sigh.

Yes, Peter Matthiessen, I know that “the beauty of this place must be cheerfully abandoned, like the wild rocks in the bright water of its streams.”  

The descent always seems longer, though. The return to the real world feels more deflating than exhilarating. Part of me wishes that I could just stay above treeline forever. It’ll have to be enough, I suppose, to know more about the mountains—to have more first-hand knowledge of altitudinal zonation, atmospheric lapse rate; streams and rocks and arêtes. Better yet, there are now these memories of the experience—the flowers, the breeze, the brilliant blue of the lakes. 

Columbine -- one of many thousands bobbing away in Upper Blue Lake basin

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Uncompahgre Wilderness

But in the name of the mountain gods, let us also preserve some remote areas, difficult of access, demanding of their few visitors -- Laura and Guy Waterman, Wilderness Ethics

View toward the Uncompahgre Wilderness, up the West Fork basin
What better way to celebrate Independence Day than by venturing into one of the freest, wildest, most untrammeled areas in America?  Planning to make good use of an extra day off, I packed up my tent, sleeping bag, pad, filter, campstove, rain gear, first aid kit, notebook, camera, etc and headed off for the Uncompahgre Wilderness (chosen for its high elevation and, key for a holiday weekend, relative unpopularity.)

Before describing the adventure that ensued, an important stipulation: I am what’s called a “wilderness purist.” Although not as eloquent as John Muir, as acerbic as Ed Abbey, nor as accomplished as Laura and Guy Waterman, like them, I believe that wilderness areas are absolutely crucial to the well-being of all lifeforms (including humans) and will thus do my best to ensure that they’re kept truly and wholly wild. I don’t see it as just a matter of my own “wilderness experience,” though I do generally seek solitude and “primitive and unconfined recreation” (no phones, radios, or, god forbid, GPS devices. I feel guilty for carrying gear made of synthetic materials, not to mention my camera)—I would rather that no people be allowed into an area rather than see a proliferation of signs, trails, lean-tos, rangers, and/or other modifications that disturb wildlife and diminish naturalness. [Deleted: the beginning of a rant about / passionate plea for purer wilderness, including lengthy citations of researchers, land managers, and poets, and strongly-worded opinions on everything from wildlife management to guided recreation to the recent National Wilderness Conference, which I found rather disheartening. Suffice to say that if you want to get me thoroughly riled up, just ask about the slow, steady de-wilding of wilderness.]

Headwaters of the West Fork of the Cimarron River -- appropriate setting to begin my annual re-reading of Laura and Guy Waterman's books

Anyway. Back to Uncompahgre.

Slightly delayed by road construction, I made it to the National Forest a little later than I had hoped, but still with plenty of light left in the day.  Following directions I’d found online, in concert with an old road map I’d borrowed, I found my way down Cimarron Road, around Silver Jack Reservoir, toward Owl Creek Pass, and onto West Fork Road with no trouble. (The drive alone was beautiful, once I swallowed the irony that my wilderness weekend required 50-odd miles of driving each way.) The car did a noble job of getting me most of the way toward the trailhead, but I had to park it at a sign reading “RECOMMENDED: High clearance, 4WD” and continue on foot.  Less than a mile later (time to begin getting used to the weight of a full pack), I reached the West Fork of the Cimarron River, which was raging with snowmelt.   Hmm.  While prepared for snowpack and rainfall, I hadn’t considered this possibility.  I strapped on high gaiters, then paced back and forth along the bank, contemplating the crossing—hoppable for the first half, but requiring a plunge up to my knees across the thalweg. This shouldn’t have seemed too bad (especially after some of the stream crossings I’d seen in Denali), but oh I hate flowing water, especially at the very beginning of a trip.  Rather than risk it, I decided to head a bit upstream, hoping the channel would widen out to a safer depth.

West Fork of the Cimarron, still dauntingly rapid and deep.  (If you look really closely, you'll note the sign at the edge of the meadow -- just looks like a post from here.)

An hour later…
Having found and lost several game trails, clambered over and around fallen trees, fought through brush, splooshed (as softly as possible) across bogs, and traversed slippery stream-edge rocks, I was still on the wrong side of the river, which was roaring even more loudly than before.  I could see some sort of sign over on the trail side, and assumed it was the Wilderness boundary, meaning I’d barely bushwhacked a mile and a half. Still holding out hope that I might eventually be able to cross the river (and that I wouldn’t twist an ankle, having already fallen a couple of times), I continued my clamber/fight/squish/traverse up the valley.

Another hour later…
Having just gingerly crossed a wide colluvial fan, I paused to rest and contemplate the ring of mountains rising up ahead of me.  An unnatural vertical disrupted the view, though—a metal stake hammered into the river bank? Odd.  Looking around, I saw another off to the east, on the other side of the (still uncrossable) water, then another, with something posted on it. With a sinking feeling, I realized that I was just now reaching the Wilderness boundary—it must have been the trailhead I’d seen earlier. There was still a long way to go.

The sort of stuff I was trying to navigate. With a full pack.
On it went, then: terrain getting ever steeper and more rugged; bark-beetle-felled trees getting ever more numerous and treacherous; me getting ever more exhausted and uneasy. Thrashing and bumbling through the forest with my stupid heavy pack, I felt more and more like an interloper than just a genial “visitor.” Though trying to tread lightly, I wondered how deep an impact I was making—broken branches, squished plants, so much noise.  Since it seemed unlikely I’d make it to Wetterhorn Basin that day, I wondered where I could, if I had to, set up camp and, in turn, what greater impact that would make.  I wondered what I would do if I slipped and sustained a more serious injury.  In short, I was wandering alone in the wilderness. 

It wasn’t comfortable, but I was earning my way through it.

Four hours after beginning the bushwhack, I was able to (nervously) leap across the stream and join the proper trail. By this point, I was far toward the headwaters of the basin, where several rivulets tumbled off rocky ledges to join what would eventually become the West Fork.  The forest began to give way to Alpine tundra, landscape opening up to afford spectacular views of craggy, snow-laced mountains; shadows softening into the glow of late afternoon; wilderness, wilderness.

Nearing the headwaters -- and nearly able to cross the stream!

This is also where I encountered the only people I’d seen all day—first, a friendly couple who’d day-hiked up to see waterfalls; then two guys who came racing down a snow patch and continued onward, dogs lolling at their sides. After a brief chat with the couple, we went our separate ways—them to check out the snowpack a little higher up before heading back; me to drop my pack, thoroughly satisfied with where I was. 


I chose a flattish, somewhat protected spot to pitch a tent, hopefully out of view of the trail (not that I expected any more hikers), then settled in to eat dinner, contemplate the mountains, and watch dusk rise up from the valley. As the evening grew later and shadows more pronounced, I felt what Rick Bass describes in The Wild Marsh as "a strange and unreplicable mixture of happiness and despair and dreaminess and urgency." Peace, solitude broken only by the occasional whistle of a marmot. Trickle and crash of waterfalls all around.  Cool breeze, bright moon, I didn't ever want to go to sleep but once I did, slept well.

The next morning, I woke late (for me) and stayed bundled in my sleeping bag, watching sunlight spill down the far slope.  Finally, I scarfed down a cold breakfast, bundled up my tent, laced up my boots, and began hiking, as much to stay warm as to see how far I could get.  Within a half-hour, I was sliding and post-holing through knee-deep snow. To make matters worse, the sky had quickly turned from benignly blue to pale grey to darkly overcast. It began to sprinkle.  After floundering over to a big boulder, I stopped to don a raincoat and pull a cover over my pack.  Although I’d intended to continue upward to see if I could traverse the snow-filled cirque and still somehow fight my way up to the ridge toward Wetterhorn Basin, I was at that point (and for the next half-hour) perfectly content to nestle into the rock and watch clouds skim past (a la Summit Stewarding in the Adirondacks.)

View from my boulder

Eventually, I decided I’d better begin the trek back down the valley, saving the ridge and basin for some slightly-less-snowy future weekend. (Though tempted, I felt it unwise to continue into the melting snowpack alone and unbalanced with heavy gear. There's a place for humility in mountaineering.)
On the way back, I was able to take the trail—no reason to bushwhack. Oh, it was lovely!—I didn’t have to think where to go, just followed the well-trod path through the forest and across the rocks.  Fallen trees had been cut to ease passage, and there was even a stretch of tidy bog bridges!  Along the way, I crossed paths with several groups—mostly day-hikers, and one group of four overnighters who’d hoped to get over to Wetterhorn Basin.  (Curiously, nearly all of them commented on the fact that I was a solo female backpacker.  It’s sort of sad, as well as interesting, to note how rare a phenomenon that is.) I made it to the wilderness boundary in less than an hour, then to the trailhead soon thereafter, where I signed in and out simultaneously. When I came to the spot where I’d originally decided not to cross the river, I splashed bravely and blithely across, not minding wet boots at that point.  Another mile or so down the road, I was back at my car.

Beautifully-maintained trail

How I loathed this sign, part of me wanting to say that hikers who don't know and follow principles of Leave-No-Trace have no right to be in the wilderness; another part of me fuming that whoever wants to "Keep Wilderness Wild" ought to realize that cutting trees and erecting permanent signs despoils the illusion.
But then, this past weekend, just after I encountered another of these signs in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness, I saw no fewer than six (!!) groups who'd set up camp next to the trail and/or directly on a lakeshore or streambank.  One group had pitched their tents practically underneath the sign, clearly indicating that they don't care a bit about regulations, principles, ethics, or wildness.
Oh, Laura and Guy Waterman (and Aldo Leopold, John Muir, etc), "Is this possible? Can we do the right things by the mountains? Can we preserve the spirit of wildness?" (emphasis added)
As I later explained to a friend, the return trip was “Sooooooo much easier! And admittedly more pleasant… but less wildernessy.” Upon reflection, I should be glad there are opportunities for both kinds of experience—that places like Uncompaghre boast a whole lot of wilderness, with only a foot-trail or two winding alongside the rivers and up to the peaks.

(But then there's still that fierce little voice in me, and hopefully many others, howling that wilderness should be kept truly wild, natural and free.)

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Sun, Bones, and Stars

In the reprieve at the end of a day, in the stillness of a summer evening, the world sheds its categories, the insistence of its future, and is suspended solely in the lilt of its desire
— Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Hot sun setting over a hazy, distant Grand Mesa

“Hot,” read the weather report, along with a graphic of a blazing sun. In fact, the last week in spring, it read “Hot. Hot. Hot…” with a row of several suns blazing away. I’d never seen NOAA issue that forecast before, but they sure were right. After an off-and-on rainy, stormy stretch, temperatures suddenly soared and sunlight beat down through near-cloudless, hazily blue skies.  Although mornings were cool and evenings positively luxurious, midday temperatures were rising to the mid-90s, maybe breaking 100.

Yes, yes, people in Phoenix or L.A. surely scoff at mere 2-digit temperatures, while those in Atlanta or N.Y.C. note that dry heat is quite different from sticky, suffocating humidity.  I’d agree that 90-something really isn’t too bad for an hour or two, but when my job requires me to clamber around exposed cliffs, wind through breezeless arroyos, and just generally be outside, hiking through rugged, remote, entirely waterless and mostly shadeless (not to mention trailless and radio-signal-less) country all day long, well, then, it was hot.

Red Rock area Wilderness -- a very different corner of the park few visitors (and rangers, for that matter!) ever see

Remnants of a wildfire from the 1990s.  It takes a long time for anything to grow here.

Not that I’m complaining.  I absolutely love my job. As a physical science technician (doing paleontology), I get to go to beautiful, truly wild corners of Black Canyon National Park—places few people ever go—and, more importantly, do so in the name of resource stewardship and science. (Inventorying and monitoring fossil localities.) In fact, until I pause for water and/or to check a map, I barely even notice the scenery or the wild life therein—my attention is wholly focused on the rocks.  Rather than marvel at aesthetics, I read outcrops in terms of lithology and depositional environment.  Rather than navigate optimal routes, I gauge cliffs in terms of millions of years.  Eyes peeled for fossils—invertebrate traces!  Leaf impressions!  Oh, that signature purpley-pearlescence of bone!—I hike with purpose. 

Not a fossil!  Modern mule deer, bone bleached by the sun

Okay, so I do pause to notice some spots of beauty (and to try not to step on them.) Claret cup cactus.

Some days, though, the search is fruitless, the terrain exhausting, and/or the weather downright brutal.  By “some days,” I mean Wednesday June 17th.  After four hours out in the Red Rock Wilderness—assessment of two known localities and survey of a surprising and stunning sandstone-lined slot canyon—I was fried.  Thirsty, burning, exhausted.  I pulled myself out of the canyon, collapsed in the shade of a scraggly juniper, and, alternately studying my map and squinting at the topography, realized that it would be foolish to try to get to another locality, still miles away.  Instead, I began planning how to get out of the wilderness area.  In the midday heat, it took all my will and energy to wind up and down the clay-paved and prickly-pear-studded hills and drainages of the Morrison Formation, make it up and over a steep, crumbly ridge of Dakota Sandstone, then trudge all the way back to where I’d parked the car on BLM land.  South-facing, burning white rock.  Wow, it was hot.

The sort of "trails" I follow, courtesy of mule deer and, in Curecanti National Recreation Area, bighorn sheep.
Once off work, I planned to take a shower, eat, and get to sleep early.  Instead, I ended up joining a group headed into town for open mic night at the local brewery.  (Mmm, sipping a deliciously cool IPA on the back patio while people strummed guitars and the heat of the day lifted into dusk = pure contentment.) By the time we left town and began winding our way back up the road toward the park, the sky was inky black and peppered with planets and stars. New moon. Cool breeze. Perfect almost-summer night.

A sign reading “ß TELESCOPES” greeted us at the entrance to the campground/housing.  Telescopes?, I wondered, then remembered hearing that Wednesday marked the start of the park’s annual Astronomy Festival, scheduled to feature several days’ (and nights’) worth of astronomy-themed talks, demonstrations, activities, and, of course, star-gazing parties. Night skies aren’t a natural resource that most people think of as needing protection (the heavens aren’t generally seen as a fixed part of the scenery; darkness isn’t a natural or historic object, much less a living thing), but with the continued proliferation of light pollution, national parks have become de facto dark sky refuges—some of the last places in the country where people might have a chance to see the Milky Way. In fact, there are such things as “International Dark Sky Parks” and the National Park Service has a “Natural Sounds & Night Skies Division,” responsible for inventorying and monitoring these intangible and invaluable resources (More on natural sounds some other day).  

Although I’d always appreciated the starry night skies at places like Petrified Forest (oh, the Perseids!) and the Adirondacks (the whole universe, reflected in the calm waters of Heart Lake!), I know next to nothing about what I’d been looking at. Sure, I’d gone through an astronomy phase as a kid, during which I’d learned to identify a handful of planets, constellations, and asterisms, but Mercury, Cassiopeia, and the Dippers are far easier to recognize when all other pinpricks of light are swallowed by the orange glow of pollution.  Here at Black Canyon, there are stars everywhere—hundreds, thousands, even, shimmering happily away. What are their names? What are their stories? Awed but daunted, I’d never tried to learn.

On this night, feeling refreshed by the cool air (and visit to the brewery), I decided to follow the “ß TELESCOPES” sign. It directed me to a clearing above the campground, where I heard voices buzzing excitedly away. Having not brought a headlamp (with red light, to protect night vision!), I couldn’t see exactly what was going on, so I just stood at the edge and tried to take it all in. From what I could tell, there seemed to be six or seven telescopes set up and several dozen people milling about, gleefully discussing what they saw through the eyepieces.  “Galaxy!” and “nebula!,” they bandied about familiar terms, alongside, “star cluster!,” “M-3!,” “M-51!,” all sorts of “M”s. My first impression, then, was of tremendous enthusiasm; my second and third, of a whole new vocabulary, used to describe a world (or worlds, universes) entirely unknown to me.

“Have you seen Saturn yet?” one of the park rangers noticed me lurking on the periphery and didn’t recognize me in the dark. He invited me to join the star party, first spotting Saturn (“Wow!” I gasped, startled by the signature rings) then getting a glimpse of Jupiter and its moons in a tidy row (“Wow!” I cheered again, no other exclamations any more capable of expressing my amazement and delight, “Wow!”) With that, I was hooked. I spent another hour up there, meeting the volunteers who were generously donating their time, equipment, and expertise to the Festival. I returned again the next night, and the next, and bought new guidebooks and star charts in an attempt to learn some of the identifiable features and key vocabulary in this new (to me) field of science. Although still unfamiliar with the astro-geography (where, again, is Lyra?) and astro-history (who, again, was Messier?), I feel a kinship with, if not true comprehension of, the astro-paleontological scale, for lack of a better term—when people speak of features 37 million light years away, I can think, aha! The Eocene! When that light was emitted, tiny anthropoids were still scrambling around the forests of Asia and early camelids were just beginning to coevolve with American grasslands! (I have no idea what was happening at Black Canyon, since there’s no rock record from that epoch.)

See the fossil?  (Leaf impression, preserved in a slab of early Cretaceous sandstone)

As with fossil-finding, I’ve discovered that star-gazing makes me feel extraordinarily fortunate and grateful to be in the right place at the right time. When I’m out scouring outcrops and come across a delicate plant or piece of bone, I’m amazed by the confluence of factors that go into that moment—rather than decay or be destroyed, the remains or traces of a living organism had to be entombed in sediment, lithified, remained safely buried for millions of years, even while landforms were tilted or folded or eroded, then be exposed in the very same century (or in some cases, the single season) I happen to be out looking for them; I, in turn, have to happen to be in just the right spot with the right light-angle and in the right mindset to glimpse the texture or pattern of life.  Although the stars are always there for anyone (who happens to live in a place with dark skies) to experience, seeing them is to glimpse light that has traveled for millions of years across thousands of trillions of miles, just to be here now.

(“Maybe we have lived only to be here now,” Barry Lopez quotes a shipwrecked companion of Rockwell Kent in Arctic Dreams.)

Eager to avoid the forecasted “Hot” of Thursday June 18th, I woke at 3:30 a.m., stepped out into the cool, starry pre-dawn morning (not long after the astronomers had packed up their scopes, it turns out), and began walking the park road.  A few miles in, after my eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness and before birdsongs began to break the silence, I rounded Pulpit Rock and suddenly heard the roar of the river reverberating up from far below.  It was a striking moment—the Milky Way still streamed across the sky, shimmering past constellations whose names I’d learned and forgotten just a few hours earlier; the river continued to cut into the 1.7 billion year old bedrock, following the course it had carved 2 million years ago; and there I was, a lone little person perched on the rim somewhere between deep time and deep space, pausing in that moment to try to understand what it all means.

Meanwhile, in the words of Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), “the planet whirls alone and dreaming.”

Stars gone; sun ready to peek up from behind the West Elk Mountains

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Black Canyon, Part III: Sitting

“Fragrant grasses and white clouds / hold me here. / What holds you there, / world-dweller?” – Chiao Jan, Inscribed on the Wall of the Hut by the Lake (translated by J. P. Seaton, The Poetry of Zen)

The juniper sets a good example: find a beautiful place (in this case, along the Rim Trail, facing upcanyon), then dig in
“What are you going to do today?” people keep asking.  It’s a perpetually interesting question in a place like Black Canyon, where beauty and adventure are just a short drive and/or hike away.  Park Service folks often head down to Ouray or up to Grand Junction, maybe all the way over to Moab on our days off.  (I did that last time I was here, plus Buena Vista, Denver, Yellowstone…) This morning, though, having returned from my sunrise walk, I now sit in the front window, eating a cinnamon roll and sipping coffee, gazing out across the mesas and mountains and nearly cloudless blue sky, wondering, what am I going to do today?  It’s going to be a lovely day and I don’t want to waste a moment of it.

On Friday, anxious to stretch my legs after spending half the week sitting inside for seasonal training, I walked the whole park road again.  Didn’t see anything new, but it was a lovely cloud day—stratocumulus breaking open to reveal a sweep of incoming cirrus. Yesterday, I aimed for East Portal (the only place in the park where visitors can drive a steep, windy road down to the river and the country’s first major diversion dam and tunnel), but didn’t quite make it to the bottom before a thunderously dark hailstorm chased me back up.  Admittedly nerve-wracking (not to mention the bear that popped out of the brush only a car’s length away), but also exhilarating. 

Today, then—what to do today? Although, as usual, I feel obligated to do something exciting, meaningful, and/or  memorable, really all I want to do is walk to the canyon’s edge and sit.  
Sit and listen, sit and look, sit and feel. The birds, the river, the rock walls and the space between them—these are best experienced from a center of stillness. 

Yes, I think I’m going to go sit today.

Important point: find a beautiful place... with enough water (and soil), then dig in 
Some of the best moments I’ve had at parks—the richest, the deepest, the most transcendent—have occurred when, or perhaps because, I’ve been doing nothing but sitting.  Sitting at Pintado Point at Petrified Forest when the sun slipped between dark clouds and the horizon, illuminating everything but the basaltic neck of Pilot Rock.  Sitting on my little cedar-draped island in Tongass National Forest when a loon’s melancholy wail echoed through cool, thick mist.  Sitting on Primrose Ridge in Denali when a caribou trotted boldly across the tundra, curious to know who I was and what I was doing there. Sitting atop Algonquin Peak in the Adirondacks when the cloudbank lowered to leave mountain-islands poking out of a sea of white.  Sitting by the shores of Heart Lake at the Adirondak Loj when the landscape was so clearly reflected in the water that it was hard to tell which was the real world and which was the mirror image.


Rim Trail juniper catching the rising sun

For all my praise for walking—the rhythm, the freedom, the promise of new sights—it’s only when I stop moving that I fully feel a part of a place.  It starts with heightened perception: in the exact opposite of zazen (seated meditation), when I sit outside, instead of freeing my mind from distractions, I become more acutely aware of my surroundings. I begin to recognize how the world is changing around me—I see light move between cracks in the canyon, smell juniper baking in the hot sun, hear the soft rustle of wings when ravens stop craawing and soar away.  Then, like Ed Abbey in Desert Solitaire, I start to “feel myself sinking into the landscape, fixed in place like a stone, like a tree, a small motionless shape of vague outline, desert-colored, and with the wings of imagination look down at myself through the eyes of the bird, watching a human figure that becomes smaller, smaller in the receding landscape...” Eventually, if I sit for long enough, the concept of “I” wholly dissolves into what David Hinton describes as “Presence in all its silent radiance” (in his beautiful, beautiful, insightful and luminous “Field Guide to Mind and Landscape,” Hunger Mountain): “there is no ‘I’ perceiving, there is simply perception, the opening of consciousness become[s] wholly [that which is perceived].” In my case, I become wholly rock, juniper, raven, air, light.

View of the chasm from the visitor center, sunset

View from my front porch -- rays of light before the storm clouds fill back in

It’s a fleeting presence, though.  Inevitably, it starts to get hot. Or cold. Noisy. Boring. The spell breaks and I return to “I”-ness, feeling self-conscious and guilty for just lazing around. Shouldn’t I go for a real hike? Shouldn’t I leave the park one of these weekends? Shouldn’t I be writing or preparing for autumn? Am I squandering the summer, missing something important? I can’t sit for a full hour without anxieties and desires creeping in, or what Hinton knows as a “restless hunger” and “dragon-nature,” as in: “thoughts, feelings, memories, desires… [that] all keep relentlessly appearing and evolving and disappearing into the forgetfulness that is the texture of our day-to-day lives.”

On that note, right now, shouldn’t I be outside? The sun is only getting higher and hotter, the sky a hazier blue; it’s time for me to finish my coffee and head to Rock Point to sit and see what the day will bring.

View downcanyon from the Visitor Center, river glistening in the gathering dusk

[Addendum: I began writing this last Sunday, but before I could finish and post it, headed out to spend the rest of the day walking and sitting and walking again, including a guided wildflower walk during which a volunteer ranger pointed out several dozen species that I’d never before bothered to notice. Larkspur! Claret cups! Tiny little white somethings whose name I’ve already forgotten!  

It’s now the following Saturday. I've returned from a pre-dawn walk all the way over to High Point at the end of the park road, leaving in the coolness of dark, following the dim light of the Milky Way until it was superseded by an assertively orange-pink sunrise, getting home just as the hazy sky has begun to bake.  Along the way, I paused for a soft half-hour at Rock Point again—bright sun, long shadows, cool breeze, river rushing and foaming far below.  One raven sat with me, silent.]

Rock Point (aptly named)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Black Canyon, Part II. Walking

Better to idle through one park in two weeks than to try to race through a dozen in the same amount of time.
—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Post-storm, pre-sunset walk out on East Portal Road (light breeze, cooler air, grouse booming at me from the brush)

It’s a privilege, I know, to get to live in a national park. While others have to fly or drive from far away—or even just up from town—to experience the landscape I see from my front porch, I can just step out my door and be in what Congress agreed is one of the nation’s most important and/or scenic places. [Side note: that’s also a liability.  I meant to write letters last Friday, but found myself repeatedly dashing outside whenever I glimpsed something beautiful through the window, i.e. dawn walk! Cloud walk! Noon walk! Mist walk! Rainbow-at-sunset walk!... I’ll contemplate the significance of that later. In the meantime, apologies to everyone who didn’t get so much as a postcard this week.]

Rainbows at dawn!

Full moon at dusk!

More than the accessibility, I have the luxury of time.  Time to slow down, time to relax, time to reflect, rinse, repeat.  Rather than desperately try to plan which trail to do and which overlook to stop at in the course of a few hours—or, worse yet, to try to race through all of the short hikes and cram in a stop at every overlook, plus maybe a ranger program and of course a look around the Visitor Center—I know that I can always wait and do something another day. Equally as importantly, I can return to do something again another day—experience it at a different time, in a different mood, with different weather.  (It poured all Saturday.  After a week of blaring, bleaching sun, I thought it was lovely to see the canyon alternately obfuscated and gleaming wet, exhaling mist, but also feel sorry for the visitors who stood at the rim and saw nothing. They’ll know its mystery, but not its distance or depth.)(Interesting, will they remember the place in terms of other senses: the roar of the river, the pungent wet sage?) 

Clouds swallowing up the canyon...

...And the canyon, belching out clouds

I’ve known the canyon in the rain, then, and in the snow, and with the sun beating down.  I’ve watched light slowly creep down the cliffs at dawn, and darkness rise up much more rapidly at dusk. I’ve seen afternoon cloud-shadows skitter across crags and linger in crevices.  I’ve smelled serviceberry bursting into bloom and felt the whoosh of cliff swallows swooping too close to my head. The last time I was here, I met a mountain lion, who paused to glance unconcernedly at me over his shoulder, gave his thick tawny tail a sinuous flick, then padded softly away into the unforgettable morning.

All of this happened while I was out walking.

Rim Trail on a rainy afternoon

I love to walk.  It’s my meditation, my celebration, my favorite means of exploring the world. Everywhere I go, I walk. Walk around cities, walk around parks. Walk to explore and, more often, walk the same routes over and over again, day after day. There’s comfort in the rhythm, freedom in the familiarity.  Instead of concentrating on navigation (Where am I? Where am I going? How do I get back?) and/or trying to sort through a barrage of new observations and sensations, I can turn my feet and mind loose, leaving them open to any and all psychological and/or environmental subtleties. Granted, some days, I’m wholly preoccupied with work or other concerns and hardly notice where I am.  On other days, though, I brim with curiosity—will the clouds build and break into rain? Will the snow finally stop and open into sun? Will the dusky grouse be there and, if so, will he boom at me from the bushes or puff his tailfeathers in silence when I approach?

In the three weeks I’ve been here, I’ve walked the entire park road—over to High Point and, yes, down to and back up from East Portal—been twice out to Painted Wall with stops along the way, once each just to Chasm View and Rock Point, looped Oak Flat three or four times, gone up the hill by the entrance booth just about every morning (looking for that mountain lion!), and taken the Rim Trail to Tomichi Point more times than I can count.  I have no idea how many miles that adds up to (not to mention long days hiking around the backcountry for work), but I’m pretty sure that I’ll wear through yet another pair of sandals this season.

Overlooking the San Juan Mountains from a gap on East Portal Rd.

Seeing me striding along the shoulder of the road, several visitors have kindly stopped to ask if I need help or a ride.  “No, thank you,” I tell them, “I like to walk.” (“Yes, even in the rain,” I assured a nice couple from California last Saturday.)  Several more have expressed surprise or admiration at my mode of transportation. “Thank you,” I tell them, “I like to walk.”  (It’s nothing special, I don’t tell them but I could, it takes no skill or special equipment. In fact, it could free you from what Ed Abbey calls variably your “metallic shells” and “back-breaking upholstered mechanized wheelchairs”—allow you to encounter the park firsthand, eyes and ears open, legs swinging, heart pumping, breath steady, except on some of the hills.) I dare not launch into Abbey’s full Desert Solitaire diatribe:
Look here, I want to say...look around; throw away those goddamned idiotic cameras! For chrissake folks what is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare? ... roll that window down! You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it...take a long quiet walk straight into the canyons, get lost for a while… stand up straight like men! like women! like human beings! and walk – walk – WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!
But I do wish that more people would walk. 

Again, I know that because I’m living here—I’ve been here before and have another whole summer to explore—my plans can be flexible, my pace measured.  And I’m also desperately, delightedly aware that this country is rich with beautiful and unique parks, monuments, forests, rivers, refuges, seashores, etc.—it would be impossible to travel to, stop at, and truly see them all.  But if people are going to take the trouble to turn at the brown sign and drive the narrow, windy road from State Rte 50 up to this park, hopefully they’ll have the time or inclination to park their car at the Visitor Center and walk the trails, walk/run/bike/ski/snowshoe down the road, and/or really stop at any of the overlooks (I’ll write about that next.) Anyone would need at least 3-4 hours, preferably a day or two—enough time and at a pace to let the landscape awe, then change, then cut.

Painted Wall freshly washed and gleaming with light

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Black Canyon, Part I: Driving

What one thinks of in any region, while traveling through, is the result of at least three things: what one knows, what one imagines, and how one is disposed
—Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Where tumbleweeds go to die (Cimarron National Grassland, southwestern Kansas)

Disclaimer: Although I enjoy the autonomy afforded by an auto-mobile, I hate to drive and do anything I can to avoid using my car.  Poor thing has been parked for most of the winter, only for me to, mid-May, test its squeaky brakes, give it new tires, and ask it to carry me halfway across the country.

Another Disclaimer: Although I usually avoid interstates, preferring to meander along backroads and “blue highways,” I wanted to get back West as quickly as possible.  My car and I zipped mind-numbingly across 600 miles one day and 700 the next.  Aside from visits with family and friends, we barely stopped or slowed until past Salina, Kansas. Once the landscape began to unfurl—aah, open plains undulating beneath a broken grey sky—we escaped from I-70, cutting more leisurely southwest towards Elkhart.

I think this is my final Disclaimer: Although I hate interstates and really, really hate driving in cities / anywhere there’s traffic, I do thoroughly enjoy rolling along empty roads, windows open, car filled with the scent of sage and songs of meadowlarks.  U.S. 56 is now my second favorite drive in Kansas (behind Rte. 36)—mile after mile of windmills and pastures, punctuated only by the occasional intersection or town, all exposed to that indomitable sky.

My car and I were aiming for Cimarron National Grassland and the Santa Fe Trail. Luckily, I’d scribbled down directions to the Conestoga Trailhead—gathering dusk plus poorly-marked roads plus entirely unmarked turns would have made the spot to find otherwise. The USFS website had given me the impression that this was a popular location, but there were no signs that anyone had been down the rutted road for weeks. I had the whole place to myself—just me, my car, some livestock, and several gas wells humming away on our public lands.

I spent a cramped night in my front seat (I’d had neither the time nor desire to pitch a tent), then woke with the sun, or rather to cattle curiously mooing at and rocking the car.  My plan was to hike for a few miles out and back—not the entire 19 mile trail, but enough to stretch my legs and get a feel for the landscape.  After getting my pack ready and signing in at the trail register (first person for 2015—do people not use the trail, or just not sign in?), I set off.

I didn’t make it fifty yards before I lost the trail. There was a lonely sandstone marker, then nothing. Um. Knowing I was supposed to head westward, I just started wandering, keeping an eye out for prickly pear and, eventually, another stone marker.  Then I repeated the process all over again—wander, watch, aha! A marker! (At least, in grasslands, it’s easy to roam and hard to get lost.)

I felt vaguely sorry for tromping around so widely--the sign at the trailhead had asked me to please stay on the companion trail so as to not damage the historic Santa Fe Trail itself. But, then again, the "historic fabric" was pretty well ruined by the dozens of gas wells (plus wellpads, roads, etc) visible from each trailmarker.
 Maybe a mile later, a stone marker tried to send me right into a fence and tidy field.  There was a gate nearby, and, at its foot, broken signs announced private property and politely asked hikers to secure the gate behind them.  Looking more closely at the signs, I realized that they hadn’t just fallen—they'd been very purposefully cut. That decided it.  Feeling lost, unwelcome, and increasingly indignant (“I have a right to experience American heritage,” I held an imaginary conversation with the sign-cutter, “and explore public lands”), I turned around and headed back to my car, skirting yet another herd of curious cattle en route.

Less a matter of "Please stay on trail" than the message "You're not welcome here; Please go away"

"Who are you?" mooed the cattle, investigating the interloper, "And what are you doing here?"
Fine. So much for Cimarron. On to Comanche National Grassland—my main destination. For years, I’ve been hoping to hike to Picketwire Canyon, home to one of the largest dinosaur tracksites in the country, preserved in the same geologic formation (hooray, Morrison!) in which I’ll be working this summer.  I’d tried to visit the locality four years ago, but my low-clearance, front-wheel-drive sedan had been thwarted by thunderstorms/diverted to Vogel Canyon—a nice enough, though dinosaur-trackless, area to hike. This time, my only-slightly-higher-clearance-but-AWD Subaru and I arrived eagerly at Comanche early afternoon. We proceeded to navigate the rough, muddy road, growing increasingly nervous as the local radio station forecasted several days of rain.  Judging from my odometer, we made it within about 2 miles of the Picketwire Corrals (which are, in turn, 3 miles from the trailhead) when we encountered an impassable drainage—over half a foot of standing water, with thick oozy mud on either side.  

Um.  Option 1: try driving through (and, almost surely, get the car stuck; ruin the road.)  Option 2: park and hike the 5 miles to the trailhead then the 5+ miles to the tracks, hoping to make it back before storms and/or dark. (Darn it, I was going to see those tracks.) Option 3: Option 2, but starting early the next day. (I wanted to actually study the tracks, not rush in and out.)

Sigh. Opting for #3, I turned around and, on a whim, decided to return to Vogel Canyon.  I’d never expected to see the spot again, but at least it afforded an area to park and a trail to walk. I was surprised to find my memories of the place vivid—yes, this was where I’d lost the path before (and again); yes, I remember the curve of that cottonwood; wow, I photographed the sign from the exact same angle, emphasizing the daunting sense of space.  The last time I was there, though, I’d witnessed a transcendent transition from late afternoon to soft dusk to brilliant night, with a spectacularly fat full moon illuminating every dusty shrub and distant mesa. On this evening, thickening and lowering clouds cloaked the sky, convinced me to spend another night curled uncomfortably into my car, and, worst of all, portended rain.

Along the Prairie Trail, Vogel Canyon Trailhead (Comanche National Grassland, southeastern Colorado)

Sure enough, it started pouring at midnight. Waking to the pounding on the roof, I wondered whether I’d be able to get as far down the road toward the tracksite trailhead. As it continued to rain the rest of the night, I sleepily began to worry that I’d be stuck at the Vogel Canyon parking area.  When day dawned bright and new, I strolled out to see the prairie, fresh and alive, only to realize that the road was pure mud—boot-sucking mire, difficult just to walk on. There was absolutely no way my car would get out to the tracks; it was barely (nobly!) capable of slipping and splattering the several miles to solid pavement.

Beautiful morning!  Until the mud tried to swallow my boots, then my car
Relieved, but also tired, stiff, and disappointed, I drove to La Junta and rewarded my car with a tankfull of gas.  From there, I gave up on adventure—plans to visit Great Sand Dunes, Durango, and Silverton shriveled.  Instead, I decided on one last push—300 miles to Black Canyon.  The drive was uneventful, the scenery spectacular.  My car made it through narrow Canon City, over Monarch Pass (complete with a sparkle of snow flurries), into Gunnison, and from that point into ever-more familiar terrain—along the shores of Curecanti (hello, reservoir! Hello, Dillon Pinnacles!), past Cimarron (hello, train!), up the winding road to the park quarters (Grizzly Ridge! Green Mountain! The West Elks, and, of course: hello, Canyon!), where it’s been sitting ever since, resting and slowly sloughing mud.

Five days.  More than 2000 miles.  Traveling far and fast, only sometimes stopping to visit new things, what did I actually see of the country? My impressions and now my memories of each place are dependent on the time of day and weather while I was there, and, more subtly, my expectations and my mood. To me, Cimarron = cattle, gas wells, and a forlornly trailless trail; Comanche = muddy defeat. All of the Midwest = Interstate. Everything west of Gunnison = old friends.

Spiraling in and slowing down, I’ve now had two weeks to revisit most areas of the park and, better yet, have gotten to explore on foot. More thoughts, observations, and photos to come.