Fear and Contemplation
Trillions of vapor droplets drift across Colorado’s great southern valley. They meet the uplift of the Blood of Christ Mountains. Heat rises. Energy builds. Light dances across the sky. The Heavens roar. The life force of Earth falls to the ground and the Wilderness rejoices.
I’m in my tent high in Southern Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains counting the seconds between the flashes and the booms. At least ten wicked bolts strike within a mile. I fear the lightning. I haven’t always, but a few high country electrical storms have heightened my sense to the danger. “When I hear anyone say he does not fear lightning, I still remark inwardly: he has never ridden The Mountain in July,” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.
Awareness of my own mortality is further enhanced by the passing of my Father not three months ago. As the rain pecks at the tent I think back to two days before he left this world, with his family there by his side. He looked pleasantly amused about something, and with bright eyes and a clear voice he said, “I can see everything from the top side now and I’m okay with it.” It was a profound thing to say in my Dad’s typically understated way. He was okay with it… It gives me great comfort to know that he was “okay” with dying. We all are dying. The question is: how are we living? But, I still fear the lightning.
My Dad taught me how to live much the same way he taught me how to build a proper campfire when I was little. There are many methods to building a campfire, he said. The method chosen matters little as long as the fundamentals are adhered to. The first thing a campfire needs to thrive is good fuel. Education is our fuel and my Dad taught me by example the value of a lifelong commitment to learning. A campfire will quickly extinguish itself unless given plenty of space to breathe–too little oxygen and the fire is smothered. This is personal freedom. My Dad taught me the importance of being my own person and charting my own course in life. To keep a campfire burning brightly it needs tending. Not too much or too little. A campfire needs a patient and watchful tender who knows when to help it along and when to just sit back and enjoy its beauty and warmth. My Dad showed me how genuinely receiving and giving guidance with our loved ones provides our lives with greater meaning and purpose, making us brighter, warmer people.
My Dad also instilled in me my love for simple, unpretentious, travel. By the time I was fourteen I had visited 40 U.S. states but had yet to fly in an airplane. Our way of travel was the open road by day and sleeping under the stars by night. It was bologna sandwiches, chips and a Coke for lunch. It was searching for the best campsite and burning marshmallows over the fire. I loved it all. My Dad never ventured from the road or the campground. That my Mom did. She brought me my love for the wilderness–casting lines in creeks and climbing peaks.
This is all reflection and contemplation which one tends to do much of after losing a family member. One of the many reasons we need wilderness is because it is a place for contemplation. Contemplation without noise. We go to the wild to get back to basics. To reflect. To contemplate. It makes many of us better people. It helps many of us heal.
A Valley High
My campsite in wilderness solitude is on the edge of a high little valley a few hundred vertical feet below North Crestone Lake. It is a wonderful place bordered on each side by rugged peaks. Open meadows are perfectly complimented with stands of spruce. A little stream flows quietly through the middle, clothed in yellowing willow. At the head of this little valley a two hundred foot waterfall provides its calming melodies. The falls commence with a straight drop over a rock ledge. Then braids of white dance among boulders and shoot over slabs. At bottom the falls is swallowed up by the green valley floor. I sit here in this valley after the storm with the soft rush of the falls to my right and the retreating rumbles of thunder down valley to my left.
A Wise Old Fish
A big trout cruises the lakeshore casting distance from the rock on which I sit. The water is so clear and still that it almost looks as if the fish is suspended in air, gliding along like a colorful miniature blimp. It’s a cutthroat–I can see the crimson cheeks and heavily spotted tail. It’s about sixteen inches and shaped like a football. I cast to a point about six feet in front of it, couching to stay below the trout’s line of vision. It seems to turn its head ever so slightly in acknowledgement of the enticing meal ahead. But, it continues along, slowly, wisely. I try again and again until I nearly drop my lure right onto its head. The cumulous clouds are building and it’s time to head back to camp a mile down valley. I decide to give it one more go, but by this time I’m rooting for the fish to win. He’s earned my respect. Once again the wise one passes on my offering. I give my friend a salute and silently wish him well. I can still see him swimming peacefully along as I look back down to the lake from 100 feet above.
A School of Foolish Fish
Back from my walk to beautiful North Crestone Lake, I still have my heart set on trout for dinner. The little stream in the valley is filled with multitudes of brookies. But, it’s difficult to fish because of the willows. On the trail to the lake I noticed a very large pool near the bottom of the falls about a quarter mile up from my campsite. Dozer and I make our way over. As I creep up behind some willows Dozer tromps to the tail end of the pool for a drink and spooks a half-dozen trout. I follow the fish with my eyes as they dart to the head of the pool seemingly in military formation. More fish come into view. As my eyes adjust I see no fewer than 30 trout. I figure this pool must be the last good spot for a trout before the 200 foot barrier of the falls. It’s the end of the line for them so they just congregate and vie with each other for food. With every cast I catch an eight or ten inch brookie. I let them all go until one finally swallows the hook. Dinner.
My Wild Neighbors
My campsite seems to be a crossroads for many of the valley’s residents. Turning from my gaze upon alpenglow on the high peaks, I see a snowshoe hare, still clothed in brown, sitting and staring at me ten feet way. It stares for a few more seconds and then bounds away daintily under the boughs of a small spruce tree near the campsite. There is an unusually dark colored marmot who makes its home under a rock slab near camp. It suns itself on the rock most of the day, occasionally sending its shrill whistle sound across the valley. Under my “kitchen table” rock where I choose to eat lives a chipmunk who likes to poke its tiny head up over the edge of the rock to see what I’m up to before scurrying away. A family of six grouse pay us a visit each afternoon. I discover them when Dozer unknowingly wanders into their personal space. Grouse will let you (or your dog) get very close to them before erupting into a racket of beating wings and chirps. Dozer, startled, jumps straight up like a spring then gives a huff (the poor dog is mostly deaf and half blind with a broken sniffer… but his joints and muscles still work like a puppy). The next afternoon I see the grouse again on the ground. Six of them, silently blending in to the grass before they finally take flight to roost in the nearby pines.
My Dad was always curious about trees and he was particularly fond of the aspen which makes its most glorious displays in the state of Colorado. Every fall photographers and sightseers head to the Colorado high country to see the brilliant gold of the turning aspen. The Elk Mountains, Northern San Juans, and parts of the Front Range are particularly well known for aspen viewing. The Sangre de Cristos are not. So, I was surprised to be hiking through one of the biggest and densest aspen forests I’ve ever seen on the western flank of the Sangres. From the trailhead near the “new age hippy” town of Crestone all the way up to about 10,000 feet was almost entirely aspen. It was still a green forest in late August with just a few leaves here and there on the higher trees just beginning to turn. Hiking back down through this forest of aspen I looked for the appreciation that my Dad saw in these trees. Perhaps it is because they are an anomaly–a high country deciduous tree in a world of dark green conifer. The leaves are light green (or bright gold in fall), the bark is a delicate and smooth white. They grow faster and live shorter than pines. They grow from root, not seed. They are an anomaly and yet what would Colorado be without its aspen? They are an anomaly, a bit like my own Dad… And, what would I be without my Dad.
Thank you Dad. I love you.