The perfect day.
There are ten of us in a meadow on the Continental Divide looking for strawberries. Some are down on all fours and some are half humped over, but none are standing upright, so that it looks, especially in the gloomy blue dusk, as if some weird evolutionary regression is going on--something that happens only above 12,000 feet, perhaps.
This is pretty-boy country at the top of the world, with rolling meadows and horizon-vistas. The trail system here has gotten such heavy use--not just from backpackers but from our friends the horse people--that the trails are rutted ankle- and even knee-deep in places, and plumes of lunar dust rise in our footsteps. I feel exposed. I do not feel wild and I do not feel like this is wilderness. The calamitous scent of humans is everywhere: cigarette butts and matches and tin cans and toilet paper. I put on a brave face for Dennis and his students, who are attempting to repair and restore and learn about wildness in the West through Round River Conservation Institute. But inside I am heartsick.
We camp back in some old trees alongside a rushing clear river. It feels better back in the trees; it always does. This feeling of sanctity lasts about ten minutes before the next travelers come through. They set up camp on the other side of the meadow, about half a mile distant, but we can hear the clang of horseshoes and the aluminum doink! of bat meeting ball in the softball game, can see them rounding bases like crazy dogs chasing their tails, and that night we can hear them playing their trumpets, this Youth Bible Camp, and in my fevered half-sleep I imagine they are playing "Deguello," the Mexican call for "no mercy" that haunted the besieged Texans in the Alamo. Dennis' students were up at 4 a.m. studying the stars, and then writing in their journals by candlelight until six. By seven they had their breakfasts cooked, eaten, and cleaned up, and now, at eight, they are out in the meadow's tall grass doing yoga. Some of them are sitting on boulders with their legs crossed in lotus-yo-yo positions, holding their palms out to face the rising sun, while others are down in the tall grass doing perverse solitary stretching exercises, each of them stationed a long way from the others, so that anywhere I look in the meadow I see a bare leg sticking up, or a pair of exalted arms, or someone's pretzel-combination of both. It depresses me to see how adjusted everyone is. Not only are the students untroubled by the tameness of this open rock-and-ice alpine country, they are truly being made happy by it.
I feel like an old fart. My back's stiff, my knees hurt, my teeth hurt. Dennis' ankle is sore from his rugby days several decades ago. Dennis' son leaves our whiny mumbling to be with the students out in the meadow. He chooses hope, not despair.
Soon we are hiking through gentle forests, across meadows, gathering data to load into the computer. Instead of Clinton and Gore's information highway, I am on the fecal footpath. With DNA testing, scientists can identify species and determine family groups and histories from hair and scat samples. With other techniques, they can figure out the dominant vegetation in any season of any year, what the animals prefer to eat, and the moisture content of the soil. They can cache deep in the computers' humming bowels the story of Colorado's grizzlies, coyotes, lynx, black bear, and badgers. If it's brown and stinky, I pick it up and bag it.
Still I have to rein myself in. At one little pond, the marsh grass is writhing with newts. Rebecca sees me holding one and examining it, then photographing and measuring it, and then evaluating it, and she knows I'm thinking, "How can I get this little guy to crap?" and she says, "No, Rick..."
We wander, that first day; we stroll. We leave the trails but do not really find any wilderness. Even while bushwhacking, we keep coming across people trails. It's windy, and ravens drift overhead, circling, cawing as if laughing at us: "No griz, no griz." Or perhaps they are saying: "Look harder, look harder."
We descend a slope of wind-felled lodgepole, and come into a lush, oldgrowth fir forest. There's this one moment where everything conspires to feel more wild--the slant of light, the change in temperature, the sound of the creek, and other undefinable things--echoes and memories--all unprovable abstractions, but we can feel it, and we comment on it; it's as if we've crossed into some new and different country.
Another hundred yards, and we find a bear's day-bed in the ferns, next to an old rotting log. The sun's striking the orange, pulpy tear-away flesh of the log, and I lie down in the bed and pretend I'm a bear. The night before at the campfire, Dennis had told us that the best way to learn about the woods was to get down on all fours and sniff things. So we study the log; we crawl around as if it has somewhere in it the meaning of life. And we find one blond hair--possibly grizzly?--and one black hair--surely a black bear--stuck in the log. Still it doesn't feel that wild. The softball game's only two miles away! Most likely that blond hair is from the blond phase of a black bear.
That night, three German chaps join our campfire, uninvited. They come crunching through the forest and then pause at the edge of the firelight, lonely as hounds. They're part of an international conservation corps exchange program. They've been up here on the Divide for two weeks digging ditches and blasting dynamite; when we ask why, they tell us they're not sure. Then they ask where the nearest social life is. We laugh at them, which makes them angry or hurts their feelings; I can't tell. They ask what we're doing here. Looking for bear, we tell them. Now it is their turn to laugh at us.
One of the young men is holding a huge black metal box, an electrical apparatus that looks like a transformer, and I worry at first that it's some kind of detonating device. But, no, it's a radio transmitter. They've lost contact with a friend who has "gone up on the mountain to look at the moon."
"Can't he see it from here?" Dennis asks.
"He wanted to be like John Muir, or someone," the radio guy says.
The radio guy crouches, turns the black box on--a red operating light blinks brightly, like a lone evil eye--and he squelches the unit back to a dull crackle, murmurs something in German into the microphone, but there's no response. John Muir is lost in space. The mountain looms above us, arching to join the stars, the world of sparkling jewels, all of them so close that we can almost hear them shimmering.
"Call us if you need help," Dennis says, and the visitors understand then that they are being asked to leave. They depart, branch-crashing and limb-popping back into the night, radio crackling with static, and even after they are gone and an uneasy silence has returned, the hairs on the back of my neck are bristling.
The mountain that old John's thrashing around on up there is the one we were going to check out tomorrow. It's the one that yielded the grizzly hair to the man on horseback. They might as well be up there setting off fireworks, I think, and then I remember: They already have been. Really big ones.
That night, I dream a strange dream that's more like a vision. It has black bears in it, not grizzlies. Dennis is leading a long single-file group of us down a steep, grassy slope, somewhere in the West. We're about to cross a broad, riffling stream. When I look upstream, I see that two large black bears have also come out of the woods, and are standing in the middle of the river. We stop to keep from frightening them, and the bears turn and leave the river and run back into the woods. Then Dennis and the students and I are in quicksand, and we've got to keep moving, and we do, and we get out of the quicksand.
It was a clear dream and, except for the part about the quicksand, remarkably relaxing; that next morning, sipping coffee with Dennis, I mention the dream. It seemed so real that I wonder if he dreamed it as well. No, he says laughing. "But I did dream you carried my pack out for me."
Moronically, I've lost all of yesterday's hair and scat samples. I thought C.J. had them, and C.J. thought I had them. They must have either fallen out of one of our packs somewhere back in the woods, or, more likely, are lying in the duff back there at the bear's day-bed where I was acting all foolish.
Two groups will go north and south over the top of John Muir Mountain, but my punishment is to repeat the past--to go back and look for yesterday's scat, yesterday's hair. Dennis asks Paul to go with me. Dennis has been telling me how pleased he is with Paul, who was quiet and shy when he first came out West and is now blossoming.
What Dennis means by blossoming is perhaps not what Paul's hometown Chamber of Commerce would. The conservative, handsome, clean-cut American proto-youth--he's only 19--is becoming a woods savage.
Paul and I strike out across the meadow, back toward Bear Creek, which in my mind I am sulkily calling No-Bear Creek. I admire Paul's cheerfulness. If he is discouraged about not getting to go with the others, he doesn't show it.
We angle our way through the brush, up and over ravines, through forests, back to where the old day-bed is. We drift into the shady glen of magical woods. The feeling's there once again: it's a special place, somehow; a 50-acre sanctuary of wildness within the wilderness. That's one of our Euro-white-trash elitist slide-rule-minded weaknesses: thinking that to be worthy of the name all wilderness must be absolute and peak. Then wilderness is a monoculture, too--just as homogeneous as the concrete jungle. Gentleness is an aspect of the wilderness also.
We find the film canisters filled with my samples resting in the day-bed like Easter eggs. While I am zipping them into the pack, Paul is poking around a rotting tree. "That's this?" he asks.
I walk over and examine the base of the tree, where quite obviously an animal has been tearing at it with tooth and claw in search of insects. "It looks like some big strong animal with a long snout has shoved his head up in here," Paul says, measuring the size of the cavity. " Something with blonde fur. " He begins pulling out wisp after wisp of long golden hair from the bark, where the bear's snout has pressed up hard into the trunk in a greedy, ant-licking tongue frenzy. "Could this be from a bear?" he asks, and I have to laugh.
The day swings, after that: it turns wild, as if curtains or blinders have been lifted from our eyes--or as if some spirit has turned us and pointed us in the right direction. And we're having fun. We cross a shady little jungle creek with a sandbar in the middle, a tiny little island beneath a 12-foot waterfall. It's cool and breezy at the base, where, with our hands, we sculpt grizzly tracks--big ones, 15 inches long--that meander across the sandbar before disappearing into the waterfall.
We cross rivers; we ascend cliffs. Paul's bear-tree discovery has filled us with a kind of wild helium. We now know we're going to be able to hike all day, to go anywhere and do anything that we want. We've fallen into a kind of slow-burning euphoria, where the spirit soars and the body asks not to be left behind.
We sit down to lunch on a rocky knob in a high, dry, sun-heated, swirling wind, and look at the rolls of mountains beyond--the green velvet hills above treeline, and the dark fir forests, with those magical blebs of slickrock granite dotting the forest here and there--little strongholds of mystery, little castles, where the earth's igneous spirits have come to the surface and revealed themselves. We point to the ones we'd like to go check out, and the ones beyond that, and then farther still, and we moan the eternal lament, that we wish we had more time.
We're becoming part of the mountain, part of the wilderness, part of the molten energy at the center of the earth on this, the perfect day; and everywhere we turn, the animals are coming to join us to reveal themselves to us. Ravens circle us out on the rocky point, and begin showing off, dive-bombing and acrobat-twisting, and then the swallows get into the act, swarming us.
We stand and stretch in the warm sun and decide it would be a sin not to spend all of this magic energy that's suddenly passing from the earth up into our feet and through our bodies. We feel obliged to dance like puppets until our legs are tired, and we can't dance any more.
We spread the maps out, three of them overlapping, and point to all the places we'd like to go, if we had an extra four or five days. We give them our own names. Dog-Face Canyon. The Paper Cliffs. The Jungle. The High Lakes Behind Us. The Bear-Trap Mountain. Owl Mountain.
We draw a route with our fingers that will take us to all those places, and we decide to go to all of them that day. I'd told Dennis earlier not to worry if we didn't get back in before dark. I didn't tell him on which day, though.
We start out at a quick trot down what is probably a centuries-old game path. There's coyote scat all up and down it. We jog through sun-shadow and sun-dapple. We stop at caves and collect white hairs--lynx? badger?--from each of them. We crest a mountain, and the lower end of the valley stretches below us. The fastest way across it and into the other mountains we hope to explore is straight down, over a couple thousand feet of cliff walls and wind-felled fir and spruce.
We spill like water over the mountain's edge; we plunge. It's too steep to do anything but roll and tumble, to leap and take flight for long stretches at a time. The phrase "breakneck speed" comes to mind; the pull of gravity is too strong to hold back. A few minutes later we are at the bottom, trembly-legged, panting, in a wet area among ferns and mushrooms.
We step out of the woods to cross the river on a broad, flat stretch of stepping stones. Something, as if I am owned by some other spirit, tells me to look upstream. There's a high wind in our faces. I look, and am confused at first when I see a big black bear standing there at river's edge. Everything is exactly as it was in the night-before's dream, except there is only one bear, not two. Everything else is freeze-frame identical--the shiny black coat of the bear, the expression of surprise on its face, the river, the mountains beyond--everything, so that I wonder, for a moment, if this isn't the dream.
The bear is only 40 or 50 yards away. Evidently our mad flight jumped him off his day-bed. He holds our stares for a second, then whirls and gallops back into the woods, and does not cross the river.
We do. It's time to climb again. The 2,000 feet we just pissed away must now be earned back, plus another thousand, up to 13,000 feet: and it feels good, following tenuous switchbacks through sunny, swamp-springy pockets of Heracleum, and dark, steep, fir forests, to be pulling our way up, as if to heaven. Our legs are burning so hot that it feels as if you could light a cigarette just by touching the backs of our calves. The earth's center is drumming louder, telling us to hurry, to see more, to see it all--telling us, with its pulse, the pace to match--and we give up on the torturous switchbacks and say, "Let's see what it's really like," and begin to climb, gasping, drooling, and sweat-slippery, panting like pigs, straight up into the shining sun, crawling up the mountain.
Whenever we stop to suck in blazes of bright, clean oxygen, each view below is better than the last--new valleys, new glaciers, new meadows. If there are not grizzly bears out there, then this is not a real world; it is all only a dream anyway and none of it matters.
But it is not a dream. Our lungs are flaming. How far have we gone? Maybe only eight or ten miles, with that many left. But so far it's been all up and down, and of the miles still ahead on our loopy route, all of the rest, except for the last one, will be on top of the world.
The afternoon becomes a parody of the Perfect Day. As we pant beneath a guano-streaked aerie at the base of a sheer cliff, a golden eagle drifts past, and utters something we can't decipher. Higher still, then, into the hidden lakes near the top of the world--boulder and tundra country. There must be grizzlies up here. The softball players are light years away. We hike the last, long, sloping mile to the crest. The sun is sinking like lead, becoming orange in the late afternoon. We trot. The wind is cold. One lone, slate-colored cloud drifts across the blue sky and spits corn snow down at us, then passes on. One last little pocket of Doug fir lies ahead of us, and beyond that the highest lake.
The spirit-juice is hot on the bottoms of my feet. As I walk through that last stand of woods, it compels me to tell Paul, "If we're lucky, maybe we'll come up on a herd of elk up here."
We come out of the trees, round a corner, and there they are, a hundred cows and calves belly-deep in sedges, sun-struck by the glorious butter-yellow light. They do not see us, and we watch them for several minutes as they drift like schooners through the high grass. Then the wind shifts and they catch our scent and begin to trot away, flowing like water away and over a pass, back down into the trees.
After that we're running again: loping like coyotes, as if we've escaped from something on this one day, perhaps our very own human skin.
Marmots dive into tunnels at our approach, shrieking like hawks. We're into the wildflowers now--lupine, columbine, gentian, penstemon, paintbrush, and the loveliest, most demure of the mountain flowers, alpine phlox. Glacier lilies. Spring was just here last week, and though it's late August, there's still the freshness.
We hike to the ridge's highest peak to get a good running start down the mountain's spine, pummeling and massaging it with our tiny feet. We peer over into the next valley below and listen to a pack of coyotes yip and shout into the shadowy gloom of dusk. "Call back to them," I suggest. Paul cups his hands, leans his head back, and cuts loose with a bowels-of-the-earth thunder-cry, a wolf howl that rolls out and echoes across the mountains and dislodges loose boulders from the ice-grip of glaciers and sends them tumbling down the sides of mountains. The sound rolls on and on, out and away from us, echoing off the Divide, and the coyotes, in the meadow half a mile below, fall immediately silent. We see their dark shapes streaking in terror for the safety of the forest.
"Oh well," Paul says. Long summer days and weeks in the mountains have given him a new power. His father has called Dennis two or three times to marvel at the change. I wonder if he has seen Paul's spirit necklace yet: the bones, teeth, claws, and feathers fastened on a leather cord around his neck. I glance at it as the setting sun casts an orange light on one of the coyote teeth. That'll be the big test, I think--what the father thinks when he sees that spirit necklace--what he thinks when he hears it clinking together, making bone sounds.
There is no doubt that Paul is going to use his new power in a good and kind and strong manner. His father should perhaps direct his next phone call to the mountains: should cup his hands and murmur thanks against a stone, or whisper into the water of Bear Creek as it rushes past, snowmelt on its way to the Pacific.
We roll on, loping. We're not tired, though we're a tad thirsty and hungry. We still have about a pint of water left, and in the bottom of my pack I have a little plastic squeeze-bottle of honey half a loaf of French bread.
With the fading light, we finally begin to feel a bit weary: it's like landing, like coming slowly back to earth after a long flight. We stop to rest on the ridgeline's halfway point, next to a wind-tossed lake at 13,000 feet.
Paul didn't realize I had some food left. He wasn't going to complain, but he's 19, right? He almost sobs with joy when he sees me pull out that battered length of French bread.
We smear honey over it and eat the bread in gobs, like clumps of wasp nests, and take tiny sips of cold water, and feel the strength come back; our legs desire the mountains again. "This is the best food I've ever eaten," Paul says.
We're sitting in the wind among pebbles and tundra, and a covey of mottled ptarmigan comes creeping past, completely unalarmed. Their mottle matches perfectly the background of the soil and rocks and lichens, so that when they stop moving, they disappear. How many tries did it take to get that right--to match the ptarmigans' individual feathers to the very soil on this ridgeline?
A flock of mallards comes jetting in, touches down on the lake; I've never seen ducks at 13,000 feet. They're heading south, maybe to Costa Rica or beyond. They've probably been using this lake forever, each and every autumn, across the generations.
We resume our trot. We pass the stretched-out gleaming skeletons of a mule train that must have been hit by lightning. The carcasses have been picked clean by ravens, coyotes, wind, and snow. We hurry on, running again, through the high lake country.
The sun has set as we finally reach the slot in the earth that we will descend. This side canyon will deposit us (if we have read our maps correctly) square into the middle of our camp.
The clouds above us are blazing orange and red and pink and purple. The mountains across the valley are flaming with alpenglow, and we stand there watching it for a moment, understanding that this is the last breath of our blessing, this day; that for a day, we were granted a leave of absence from humanity, but that now we must return.
We fly down the side canyon, hurtling down game trails in the dark. The moon is up quickly, and we race alongside a rushing stream that makes lovely riffle-music and eddy songs. Flowers blossom in the night, along the stream's edges. A night hatch of caddis flies rises spiraling and ghostly from one of the creek's deep pools, a shaft of tiny insects ascending a beam of moonlight, and in the eddy, little trout swirl and fin, chasing and leaping after these tiny angels. The canyon smells sweet with the scent of fir and flowers.
We plunge into camp an hour after dark; the campfire's been lit, and supper's being served. We eat a lot, and gulp water, and when all our friends ask how our day went, we tell them it was good.
To Explore and Enjoy
You might not encounter any grizzlies, but you can be assured of splendid wildflower displays, top-of-the-world views, and the challenge of ascending the Needle Mountains' 14,000-foot peaks and 13,000-foot passes on a Sierra Club backpack trip to the Weminuche Wilderness July 23 to 30. During the week of August 19 to 25, a naturalist-led group will explore the same wilderness at a more leisurely pace, following Turkey Creek to the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet. For more information on either of those trips, contact the Sierra Club Outing Department, 730 Polk St., San Francisco, CA 94109; (415) 923-5522. Ask about trip 95159 or #95193.
For armchair wilderness buffs, or for pre-trip planning, read Mark Pearson's The Complete Guide to Colorado's Wilderness Areas (1994), with color photos by John Fielder, from Westcliffe Publishers, P.O. Box 1261, Englewood, CO 80150-1261; (800) 523-3692. Pearson, a Sierra Club activist, has been exploring and working to protect Colorado's wild places for nearly two decades.
Also helpful for Colorado wilderness forays are A Sierra Club Naturalist's Guide to the Southern Rockies: The Rocky Mountain Regions of Southern Wyoming, Colorado, and Northern New Mexico, by Audrey D. Benedict (1991; $30, cloth; $18, paper); and The Sierra Club Guide to the Natural Areas of Colorado and Utah by John Perry and Jane Greverus Perry (1985; $10, paper). The last two books are available from the Sierra Club Store by phone at (800) 935-1056.
While local activists wait for a confirmed grizzly sighting, they are making sure the legendary predator's habitat is secure. The Weminuche Group of the Sierra Club is working with the Colorado Environmental Coalition to draft a "citizens' alternative" to the Forest Service's tenyear management plan for San Juan National Forest, which includes the Weminuche Wilderness. Still in the datagathering phase, these activists are already committed to protecting roadless areas, expanding existing wilderness areas. and identifying wildlife-migration corridors. To volunteer to help on the citizens' alternative, which is slated for completion sometime in 1996, contact Weminuche Group Chair Trevor Berrington at (303) 884-9697.
Rick Bass, author of Winter: Notes from Montana, The Ninemile Wolves, Platte River, and In the Loyal Mountains, is working on The Lost Grizzlies of Colorado.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related information; nature hike in the Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado|
|Date:||May 1, 1995|
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