Author’s note: It is important to note here at the beginning that I am in no way, shape or form a dendrologist. Not even an amateur dendrologist. I know nothing about trees or how they work. Add this to the long list of things I know nothing about.
A few miles up the East Tennessee Pass Road, which branches off U.S. Highway 24 as it snakes its way from Leadville toward Minturn, I parked my old LandCruiser (RIP), pulled out a camp chair and strolled into the woods to sit, smoke and ponder the cosmos, or at least my plebeian part of the cosmos. Though I am too often guilty of journeying internally rather than externally when I venture into the woods, this go-round, the bird-tweeting spring weather coaxed my attention outward.
Five strides before my contentedly reposing self were two lodgepole pines, each about 18 inches in diameter, each about 50 feet tall, that I would describe as otherwise nondescript, for no reason except there were many more lodgepoles of similar size close at hand. The bases of these two trees were close enough as they emerged from the soil that I wondered whether they were not in fact one tree that had split shortly post-germination. At a minimum, they must be siblings, birthed by cones dropped by a parent pine.
I have no idea how old these two lodgepoles were. Fifty years? Sixty? No matter their age, they had spent their entire lives side by side. Out of spatial necessity, the branches of both extended in every direction except directly toward each other. Proximity notwithstanding, they had each carved out their own light-seeking space.
About two-thirds of the way up, though, each trunk — until that vertical point, arrow straight — changed direction: At a very clear and simultaneous point in time, these two otherwise nondescript lodgepole pines interrupted their linear journey upward and started to move toward one another. It was not as though they were a certain distance apart at birth and, from that moment on, they grew inevitably and incrementally closer. No, each tree decided to adjust its respective course. There was no visual evidence of a lightning strike affecting their growth. There was no sign of disease. There did not seem to be an incursion from another tree. This seemed to be a mutual decision, one certainly not made in haste, one that would take many years to realize, one that would be mighty tough to undo. They clearly wanted to make contact and worked to achieve that desire.
And here’s the thing: Though I cannot so much as venture a wild guess how it came to pass that those two trees decided to one day in the far future (at least in terms of human perception of time and the movement of time) touch, and, though I cannot venture a guess as to, once that decision was made, how those two trees went about physically manifesting their course correction, and though I cannot venture a guess how long it had been between when that decision was made and when I found myself accidentally sitting beneath those branches, I do know this: Literally seconds before my arrival, those two otherwise nondescript lodgepole pines made contact for the very first time in their already long lives, lives that, god willing, will continue for many more decades. I mean: Literally, right then, right fucking then, the outermost atoms of the outermost parts of the bark of those two trees were tenuously exchanging their first electrons. Though their auras had almost certainly previously begun the process of overlapping and intertwining, they right fucking then began the process of actually conjoining.
I wondered what those first fleeting brushes were like. Did they blush? Was there relief? Was there joy? Was there disappointment?
Whatever there was — and I am sure there was plenty of whatever there was — I suddenly realized I was a voyeur, an uninvited guest. While it’s my guess that I was the last thing on the minds of those two trees at that moment, coming in apparent premeditated contact at long last, there was nonetheless a bit of understandable social awkwardness, like, after all these years, we can’t believe, at this much-anticipated instant, there’s a cigar-chomping reprobate unabashedly witnessing our first tentative touch.
Before sheepishly departing, I went over to those trees and laid upon them my own tentative touch. They felt very happy. They also felt happy when I left.
Some day, I will go visit them again, to see how things are working out.
Off to the side of a contiguous section of the Colorado and Continental Divide trails between Tennessee Pass and Turquoise Lake lies a blue spruce stump, and, scant feet from that stump, lie the recently chain-sawed remains of the tree that resided upon that stump. Now, I need to clarify the words, “off to the side.” In actuality, while the stump and the lifeless corpse of the tree that until recently resided upon that stump were in fact “off to the side” of the trail, the roots of that once-live tree grew in obviously fashion under the trail. Meaning, of course, that the trail was built atop the root system of this blue spruce.
I have worked on several volunteer trail crews, including ones organized by the Colorado Trail Foundation and the Continental Divide Trail Alliance (RIP). One of the great sad truths that is rarely articulated on trail crews is that a new section of trail spells doom for all trees that lie close to its tread. There are numerous reasons for this death sentence in the name of mountain recreation. When new sections of trail are built, vegetation is removed, which, in turn, causes changes in local microclimate, especially of the additional-sunlight-based variety. Even the best-built trails are conduits for erosion, which exposes roots. Thousands of passing hikers, bikers and horse-riders effect soil compression, which in turn affects the vascular capabilities of trees whose roots are unfortunate enough to pass beneath the newly laid tread.
The worst culprit, however, is simple trail engineering: Though specifications vary from agency to agency, from trail group to trail group, from forest to forest, they all have in common minimum height and width dimensions for trails. A standard is three feet wide — meaning 18 inches in either direction from the trail centerline — and six feet high. Cleared. Mowed. Chain-sawed. So that horses and mountain bikers and pack-laden hikers can more comfortably pass by. Tough noogies for the trees.
While the blue spruce stump showed signs of some internal malady, it appeared to be a relatively healthy specimen. It did not appear to present any imminent danger of rotting and falling atop some hapless hiker from Ohio. Almost assuredly, it was snuffed out, as so many trees are, in the name of fun and frolic.
Though I had planned a multi-hour jaunt, I opted to waylay my forward momentum for a few minutes. I sat upon the ground next to that stump and began the tedious process of counting its rings, which was a lot harder that it might seem at first blush because the stump was not symmetric. I was not sure from which of its irregular protrusions to begin counting. And my eyes are not what they once were. Despite a few false starts, I stuck with it. And, finally, after following rings from one protrusion to the center, then another protrusion to the center, I came up with: 180. That tree was 180 years old when it was killed by someone wielding a chainsaw so that yours truly and my backcountry ilk can pass unimpeded.
This tree germinated in the early 1830s. It took root when the Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress. This tree faced its first High Country winter in a forest we cannot now envision the year Chicago was founded. It was a sapling when Andrew Jackson won reelection. It grew toward the deep-blue Rocky Mountain sky when the Whig Party was given its name by Senator Henry Clay. It was an adolescent when Colorado was admitted to the Union in 1876 as the nation’s 38th state. It survived nearby Leadville’s rise to mining-era prominence because of its remote location and the lucky fact that blue spruce does not make for good firewood.
Through the thick and thin of historic and climatic vicissitudes, it survived, only to be felled in the name of the rosy-cheeked New West and its concomitant recreation-based economy/mindset. It was not sacrificed; it like uncountable trees before it that lived on what are now ski runs and groomed cross-country ski trails and sumptuous backcountry huts and big-box retail complexes and cookie-cutter subdivisions in Mountain Country, were murdered by people who extol viewsheds and the outdoor lifestyle and, yes, the very existence of the forests.
A few minutes after parting ways with the stump, I passed a woman backpacker headed the opposite direction. If I am able to do one thing in this world, it is instantly differentiate a long-distance backpacker from his or her weekend or even weeklong counterparts. Given the time of year (early autumn), I suspected this woman was a rarity: a Colorado Trail hiker going from Durango to Denver (most CT hikers go the other direction). Meaning: She was a day-and-a-half out from a rest day at Copper Mountain. I know that feeling. I understand how you’re so tired and hungry and filthy that all you can focus on is a bed, a bath, a beer and a plateful of greasy burritos.
It had been years since I last embarked upon a long-distance backpacking trip. Thus, there was no way this lady’s trail eyes could recognize that my now-flabby self has also hiked the CT, that I was a trail-tromping brother-in-arms. She had no interest in trailside chitchat with someone she rightfully perceived as a mere day-hiker. She wanted to know how far it was to Tennessee Pass. Nothing more. After I told her, I added that, around the next bend, she was going to pass a blue spruce stump right next to the trail.
“I counted the rings,” I said, as she moved briskly on. “There were 180 … that tree was alive when Jackson was president … ”
She did not appear to hear me. I have no way of knowing if she so much as glanced down at that stump as she passed upon a well-groomed trail on her way to the bright lights of the Mile High City.
About halfway up the Sallie Barber Trail (actually the remains of an old narrow-gauge railroad bed that once serviced the area’s insatiable lust for precious metals) outside Breckenridge lies a fairly obscure side trail, which eventually terminates at some an old mine site in such a state of decay that it can best be described as imminent compost. Such sites have always given me hope that, if the once-smoke-billowing heavy-industry remains of Colorado’s long-gone mining heritage can eventually reach a point of near-absolute decomposition, then, maybe, one day in the not-so-distant future (with luck, within my lifetime), the physical residue of the downhill-ski and real-estate-development industries that now scar and pollute the High Country will also rot away so finally and so absolutely that what little evidence of their existence might yet remain — maybe a single, fallen lift tower — will evoke nothing more from passersby than quizzical philosophical ruminations about ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
My acquaintance with this fairly obscure side trail consisted of two interrelated layers. First, I have always been inclined to venture away from the most-used paths, an attitude that has often put me at odds with those of my compadres who have been successfully indoctrinated by Leave No Trace. Second, I need to stress the words I just wrote: “most-used.” The three years I lived in Breckenridge — which, I should point out, were very enjoyable (I mean, how cool is it to call Breckenridge, Colorado, home?) — coincidentally occurred at a time of ridiculous, exponential, cancerous growth in Summit County, the nation’s largest ski county. At that time, the monstrous housing developments that now line French Gulch almost all the way to the Sallie Barber Trailhead were beginning to be built — a socio-economic reality that eventually caused my wife and I to bail on Breck and to move to the other side of the county, an act that, in hindsight, amounted to nothing more than postponing the inevitable.
When we moved to Breck, it was rare for me to encounter anyone on the Sallie Barber Trail as my late dog Cali and I busted trail through often-untrammeled waist-deep powder. In a few short years, it got to the point where it was rare to not encounter other skiers, snowshoers, bikers, hikers or four-wheelers upon that trail. Please understand: I am not misanthropic; I am not a hermit. I am a gregarious human being by nature who is of the opinion that the average person one meets on a trail back in the woods is decent, someone who is doing nothing more than what I myself am doing: enjoying the great outdoors. And, though there were of course occasional dour douchebag get-outta-my-way-type mountain bikers or skate-skiers who were “in training” or “working out” in such a way that it was obvious they actually thought their efforts were somehow important and beneficial to the greater world, almost everyone I ever crossed paths with on the Sallie Barber Trail was the kind of person I wish everyone in the world was.
But, fuck! There were just so many of them! Sometimes it gets where you can almost hear your inner being crying out for some goddamned backcountry solitude, which has become so rare in the Colorado High Country any more that it ought to be listed as an endangered species.
So, anyway, there’s this fairly obscure side trail, which I would never detour onto until I eyeballed the Sallie Barber Trail up and down to make certain no one saw my escape from the main route. And, for an entire summer and early fall, I explored the places where this side trail took me: mountain meadows, thick virgin spruce forests, flower-laden rivulets and magical hidden gardens where elves and faeries dwelled just out of eyesight.
And then the snow started to accumulate, which, when you’re prone to slinking about in places you would just as soon others not know about, presents something of a tactical conundrum because, unlike summer and early fall, where there’s snow, there’s tracks that you leave behind for all to see. When some otherwise oblivious soul is elbowing his or her way through the huddled masses on the main trail and notices snowshoe or ski tracks heading into the woods, an irresistible gravitational force often exerts an influence that, even though I wish it did not exist, I at least comprehend. You, as track-maker, know that you have just opened up a visitation-based Pandora’s Box. You know, if you leave tracks behind you in the snow, that you have let the cat out of the bag, that the next person is going to think there must be something cool up this fairly obscure side trail.
Your only hope is that the next big storm will obliterate any evidence of your passing.
That was a monster winter, the type of winter I fear now will only exist in memory. Thus, my last tracks up the obscure side trail were long buried. Less than 100 yards up, though, something else was buried: A pine sapling, maybe two or three inches in diameter and maybe 15 feet tall, lay completely across the trail. A baby. It had not successfully supported the recent manna from heaven; the accumulated weight of successive storms had pushed it over to the point that its chest was now brushing the snowpack. It was surely doomed, nevermore to regain its composure, with no hope of ever soaring toward the sky.
The important thing was: While bent, it was not broken.
This doomed little tree was part of a litter; there were perhaps a half-dozen other trees of similar size and girth close by. The litter was obviously too dense for long-term survival. There would have to be casualties along the line so that one, maybe two, members of the litter would survive to adulthood. And this doomed little tree was doubtless the first in a line of attrition that would eventually include the majority of its brothers and sisters.
Yet, it was not giving up without a fight. Despite its diminutive stature, it held strong against the weight of the snow that was slowly crushing it. A few little branches grew upward from the now-horizontal trunk. But, eventually, the weight would be too much. The writing was on the wall.
I do not know why I decided to try to save that little tree. For the rest of the winter, and into the spring, and even into the summer, I gradually propped that little tree to an upright position utilizing a series of longer and longer branches I found on the nearby ground. I would wedge one end of the branch into the ground, while pressing the other end into the rib cage of the little pine tree. I made sure to not act too abruptly, for fear of cracking its spine. Whenever I lodged a new branch, raising its height a bit more, I told it, OK, this might hurt a bit, but it’ll be worth it in the long run. By the time the flowers started blooming along the Sallie Barber Trail, that little pine was hardly distinguishable from its brethren. It had a few scars on its side from where I lodged its successive crutches, but those wounds seemed superficial. They looked like they would heal just fine. The little tree would never grow as straight as its littermates, but, a year after I first encountered its prostrate frame lying helplessly across the trail, the little pine could fully support its frame! There were no assurances, of course, but there was at least hope, which is all any living creature can ask for in this crazy, wild and unpredictable world.
Every time I passed that tree, I talked to it, the same way I would talk to a child who was recovering from a bad injury. I have no idea if trees feel pain. I have no idea if trees feel gratitude. For all I know, it had resigned itself to its fate before I ever passed it lying on its side in the snow. For all I know, it volunteered to be the first to go so that its littermates might stand a better chance of living in a densely packed forest. For all I know, it was already infected by a terminal illness and I was just prolonging its agony. For all I know, I fucked up the local arboreal gene pool for the next century. For all I know, I was personally responsible for the pine beetle epidemic and the bursting of the housing bubble.
Twelve years later, after having moved far away from the Colorado High Country, my wife and I were visiting our old haunts and strolling up the Sallie Barber Trail. We had a firm purpose: In my possession were the ashes of my late dog Cali. This is the very trail upon which we first came together as dog and human. My dog. Her human. This is the trail where she learned how to move through deep snow. This is the trail where she learned that, just because you can descend a steep embankment covered with four feet of powder doesn’t mean you can climb you way back up. This is the trail where she learned that, no matter what, I would always — always — climb down to help her, but only after she had exhausted all other options. And this is also where she stood watching and wondering while I worked for the better part of a year to nurse a little fallen pine back to life.
After we spread Cali’s ashes, my wife and I took a detour upon that obscure side trail. I had an old friend I wanted to visit. It actually took me several tries to locate the trail, for it had become overgrown, much to my surprise and relief. At the spot where that little tree stood with its litter now stood a half-dozen pines making their way to adulthood. I could not which was the little pine I had helped. I searched hard for residual scar tissue, a sign that I had once wedged branches under the little pine to force it upright, but there was none to be found. I searched in vain for evidence of demise, a stump or a corpse, but, again, could find nothing. I was hoping for a hug and maybe a reminisce. There was neither. How was it possible that I could not pick out that tree? Shit, who knows if that little pine was even among the grove I now faced? Perceptions can change in a decade-plus.
So, being unable to definitely say howdy to the little pine specifically, I instead said howdy, and maybe simultaneously good-bye, to a forest through which I used to often travel a long lifetime time ago, a forest that is slowly fading from memory — it from mine, mine from it — even as other forests, and other trees, far farther south, become more indelibly etched into my heart and soul. I wish I could say that the forest in which that little pine once dwelled, and perhaps dwells still, cared one way or another. I’ll never know. Because, like I said earlier, I know nothing about trees.
This marks long-time editor M. John Fayhee’s final transcriptural foray into the now-figurative pages of the Mountain Gazette. From now on, my meandering musings can be found at mjohnfayhee.com.