Fall is the shoulder season in mountain towns. But that doesn’t mean we lack things to do. Wood needs to be split and repairs must be made, all before winter arrives. Since we never know exactly when winter will arrive, this tends to create a sense of urgency. Thankfully, most days the colors above and around us help that urgency melt away like the snow will melt away, seven months from now.
Nature is wild. Maybe that’s stating the obvious, but sometimes you have to say it anyway. It’s frickin’ crazy what colors appear as the seasons change. When we came upon this scene early on the world-renowned Monarch Crest trail outside Poncha Springs, Colorado, I stopped in my track and admired the tundra like an alien. It was hard to convince myself to stop staring and start moving again, but eventually we proceeded, down the glowing mountain.
Sometimes I drool during a long mountain bike descent. I collect what I can at the bottom, maybe lick my mouth just to be sure the remnants aren’t egregious, then reflect on what caused the drool—usually some sort of physical and mental bliss on dirt. Involuntary smiling is another symptom of an awesome descent, as my old friend Ross demonstrates here in the middle of a peaking aspen grove this week.
Sometimes get into the car and just drive roads unfamiliar or simply unremembered perhaps from childhood past fading farms with ruinous silos collapsing into goldenrod profusions empty of monarchs what only last year or the year before were pastures for cow painters or fields of knee-high by the Fourth of July signs everywhere along the road this one says “1968 National Highway Beauty Award” hard to see that obscured by encroaching trees as is an old cemetery tucked in among thickening shade of ash and maple close by leafy-laned driveways to second homes of successful artists from the city before all opens out unexpectedly into expansive playing fields rising up from which a new regional high school at first mistaken for correctional institution after that hand-painted banner in front of a ramshackle farmhouse with yard cars the message “Make America Grate Again” till abrupt arrival at a sagging redbrick river town “Awaiting Restoration” according to notices in the vacant storefront windows nowhere around here to get a cup of coffee nowhere to go no more history so stroll along a weedy path to river’s edge where green signs mark “NYS Permitted Discharge Point” and in the park right next to that the annual “Blessing of the Animals” going on today pit bulls and kittens goldfish in a bowl one roly-poly child with teddy bear seeking priest blessings bestowed and thoughts of heading home but which way to go how about another unfamiliar this or that road past mothballed generating station until utterly turned around maybe get on the Thruway and pull into a rest stop we all know the way home from there.
Thirty years ago, my friend Charlie and I got lost while backpacking in the northeast corner of Yosemite National Park. It was all my fault but that’s a long story, almost as long as the “shortcut” I suggested we take that got us lost in the first place. We were committed and there was no going back. Anyhoo, at one point I turn to Charlie and say: “You know, this is someplace we’re never gonna be in again.” And he says: “Or anybody else either.”
High on one of the highest peaks in the Catskills, just below the summit, in balsam-brake and moss, close by Rip Van Winkle’s now-depleted spring, we came upon the wreckage. Broken wings, battered fuselage, relic scraps of metal strewn across forest floor—all that remains of the small plane that came down here in thickening weather one June evening half a century ago. Two lives lost, no survivors. Days passed before the crash site could be located and the bodies recovered. A report was submitted. Probable cause of crash: “Pilot in command became lost/disoriented.” This is the place. No plaque. No marker. No record of any names. Just the bones of Icarus picked clean.
About an hour south of Missoula in western Montana, the Bitterroot Valley provides a vast, quiet recreational paradise for those who live there. I passed through last week on assignment and got out for a sunset ride with a handful of locals. A nearby wildfire helped create the colorful sky.
For the last three months, the collies and I have grown accustomed to hearing the song of the wood thrush during our sunrise walks: one bird here, one bird there, each singing from his own leafy perch. I love them so, and I think the collies do too. But in the last week, the wood thrush song has ceased. The birds’ attention now turns to other matters. Before long they will depart for warmer places. I already miss them, and I think the collies do too. So when we got back this morning, I found a wood thrush video on the internet and played it. The collies barked for joy, and I think I did too.
This is what I think about when I’m sitting at my desk during the summer: wildflowers in an alpine meadow surrounded by big peaks. It evokes a sense of freedom unto itself. Running down a trail through said meadow only magnifies said sense of freedom. Last week’s circumnavigation of one of our local peaks proved that once more.
Some mountains are worthy of cross-valley staring. Mount of the Holy Cross, pictured above my friend’s head, is one. Even in late June, the famous cross on the 14,005-foot peak’s east face is clearly visible. It’s the same view pilgrims traveled thousands of miles to witness in the 19th century, and the best part about it is nothing has changed.