Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Wildflower Summer

Surprise Lake Trail, 4th of July weekend 

A few final photos from this summer, which was extraordinary in a few ways. I've had various passions at different points in my life -- ice hockey, kayaking, and dancing for a start. I've always loved nature too, and have backpacked for 15 years, usually at the rate of one or two trips a year. But this was the year I found places in the mountains that made me crazy (possibly literally crazy), and I didn't want to stop going back. I made eight trips over three months.

 On the Surprise Lake Trail

I don't have an addictive personality when it comes to substances (unless you count sugar), but I definitely do when it comes to activities. I am fortunate enough to be one of those people who gets a serious "runner's high" of endorphins from the right level of exercise. Running itself is usually a little too strenuous and doesn't exactly feel like ecstasy, but pushing up a steep trail under a heavy load happens to be just right.

And I am in love with color. It's one of the things in life that makes me most reliably happy. By the end of our first trip of the year, to Surprise and Upper Cataract Lakes, I was staring at the wildflowers around me the way a 1-year-old stares at strangers. Bug-eyed, fixated and a little alarmed. I was beginning to feel the agitation of addiction: This is amazing, I need to do this again as soon as possible.

Red columbine at Gore Creek 

As soon as I got back I asked for the next Monday off and went alone that weekend to another section of the Gore Range. I felt drugged for much of the weekend -- high, happy and energetic. Climbing up to Red Buffalo Pass from the south, my body was so flooded with endorphins I wanted to never stop feeling this good.

Paintbrush flowers in the Gore Range 

Me at Red Buffalo Pass 

I absolutely love passes, by the way. There is something about climbing up one or two or three or four thousand feet over the course of a day (or more) until you finally approach that dip in the ridge before you where the trail zigzags up through a carpet of flowers to... nothing. Pure blue sky. Finally getting to the top to see what's over the other side! And then down into a new valley with new weather patterns and different flowers.

Climbing up I'll be breathing so hard my own breath will chap my lips, sucking in and out, but the weight on my back actually feels good--or my ability to haul it feels good--makes me feel like Hercules. My legs take step after step no matter how tired they are. The air is so sweet and clear and the views make my heart ache. The combination of effort and beauty does something to the brain and body. I'm always trying to maintain it, like you might with a buzz after a couple beers. And of course it always goes away, and there are some pretty miserable moments backpacking too.

River crossing in muddy boots 

But I like the bad stuff too, usually, or at least some aspects of it. I love the intensity and variety of bad weather, how tough I feel when the temperature drops below freezing, how competent I feel when I set up a tent in the rain. And it's amazing to see what your body will give you if you just keep asking.

The only things that I don't like in any way are the stretches of real boredom (for every gorgeous mountain pass, there's a long stretch of miles through featureless forest), the inability to share truly beautiful things with someone else when I'l hiking alone, having to be cold and alone at the same time, and the fear of bears and lions in the night. But even those things probably have their lessons.

Taken by Kris at North Tenmile Creek 

If there has been a lesson for me about the fear of bears, it's that I have some choice in the matter of whether to be afraid.

I am often afraid at home in my own bed, or anxious, worrying about whether I'll lose my job or what this new pain in my ear means. The problem with being afraid at home is that it's easy. What if I have to go to the doctor again? There's the cost, and then I'll miss work. What if I'm not saving enough money? In my warm bed, it's easy to toss and turn, or turn on the lights, go on Facebook, get a snack, text my friends. There are a lot of choices for handling anxiety and they all either involve indulging it or distracting myself from it.

I am almost always afraid once dark comes in the woods. I lie straight as a rod in my bag in the cold, listening to the noises and thinking of the bear encounter stories I heard most recently (which people are always disturbingly eager to tell me when I talk about backpacking). A couple times it's been so bad that it's effectively panic -- pounding heart, racing thoughts, and of course a complete inability to sleep.

The thing is, at that point there isn't too much I can do about bears. I've already made my campsite as odor-free as possible and stored my food properly. What else can I do? I can't turn on the lights or call a friend, and forget hiking out in the middle of the night. The nylon surrounding me is no protection at all. All that's left is to lie there in the dark and either worry or not worry about bears.

That's the only choice. And faced with that, I reach a point where I decide not to worry. Yes, I could be attacked by a bear. If a bear does attack me, I'll deal with it then. And I go to sleep.

After managing to turn off my worrying mind this way a few times in the woods, I find myself able to do it at home, too. And in terms of the worry itself, there is no difference between a lost job and a bloodthirsty bear. It's all a lot of wasted energy over something that hasn't happened and may never.

(And if I need a little extra help, I sing.)

 Red rocks of the Maroon Formation on the way to Trail Rider Pass

 Headed toward Buckskin Pass in the early morning

There was another way in which I saw myself grow this summer, which was in letting things go before I was ready. My whole life I've had a childlike insistence that the good moments last as long as possible, until every bit of enjoyment is wrung from them. In the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, I took a side trip from my planned route to crest Trail Rider Pass. It was so beautiful, and the weather so far from threatening thunderstorms, that I sat there for two hours taking it in. It's hard for me to move on from wonder until I've had a proper amount of time to absorb it all--time for the immensity of the moment to fade and begin to wither into restlessness and complacency. Then I'll go.

Two days later, I crested Buckskin Pass under swirling clouds. It was even more stunning than Trail Rider Pass, one of the finest places I've seen in Colorado. It made my heart swell up with awe. How long did I linger? Two minutes.

Mountains hulking in the distance, from the trail up Buckskin Pass

 Carpet of wildflowers below the pass

It was painful to pull myself away from such an awe-inspiring place after only two minutes there. And it seems a damned shame. I may never see it again. But I knew what I wanted, which was to get down and then over the next pass before noon, because I know a lot of people who would be sad if I were killed by lightning in an afternoon thunderstorm.

I'm not sure I would have made this exact choice in the past. I think there's something entirely new to me and also a little wonderful about being able leave such amazement so swiftly and voluntarily, and so free of regret. I got to experience something I never had before. This was not a feeling of abundance, a feeling that there are infinite wonders and another will always come; I think that's asking a bit much! Rather, it was only a sweetness in moving on from something before it's worn itself out. To have a little taste, all of which was sweet, rather than a long meal whose tastes grow familiar by the end.

Color in Willow Lake basin 

This summer I would close my eyes at night and see wildflowers. It was like they were burned into my corneas. It was a mad year for flowers, thanks to the heavy spring rains.

To be up and hiking while the sun rises is a truly lovely thing, and in fact one of my very favorite things about backpacking is to be awake and present for every sunrise and sunset (whether the sun itself makes an appearance or not!).

Leaving Willow Lake 

Sunset rainbow at Meadow Creek 

I love backpacking so much that I don't understand how other people can't love it. I exhaust my friends, planning ambitious routes and becoming confused when they want to stop after five miles. It doesn't occur to me that it might not feel good to someone else to haul 35 pounds up 3,000 feet, or that it might be appealing to sleep in till 10 and miss the best part of the day. (Now that I'm thinking about it, from their perspective I probably seem crazy.)

Flowers in September, Never Summer Wilderness 

Seeing what's on the other side of the Continental Divide

I'm sure in coming years I'll find new things to be crazed and illogical over, like tai chi or salsa dancing. But for now, this is it.

I take so many photos partly because I love photography, but also because it's sad and lonely to see such beautiful things and not be able to share them with my friends. So these posts are one way of bringing people along with me. Thank you for coming!

Kris and the rising full moon, Mt. Evans Wilderness