Monday, September 20, 2010

Silence

NOTE: This essay is brand new, and gives an account of a walk through the Wilderness north of my hometown. The trip occurred in late October of 2008.



~Introduction~


T
he Weminuche wilderness has an area of almost 500,000 acres; it is the largest roadless tract in the state of Colorado and is still one of the wildest places in America. Its terrain is marked by deep river canyons and high volcanic peaks, many of which are named only with numbers, if they are named at all. It is a sanctuary and a haven, a place of solace and solitude. Lakes sparkle like jewels from glacial cirques gouged from the mountainsides and chest deep wildflowers sway with the wind in late summer. The occasional poisoned stream or tailings scar mars the otherwise pristine talus slopes and testifies to the past presence of man even here in the wild heart of the Colorado mountains.

Legends and ghost stories abound amongst its lofty peaks and deep defiles; tales of lost Spanish gold mines and Indian massacres; of hikers, hunters, and trappers who walked into these hills and were never seen again. It was also here that the last Colorado grizzly was killed though some claim that they still see fleeting glimpses of a great bear in the high valleys, or deep in the spruce forests below. Some old timers still swear that they can hear wolves howling on nights so cold that the very air seems to crystallize and freeze. It is the high country, it is the wild country, it is truly “the West”.

As much of its area lies above 12,000 feet in elevation, it is open to human passage for only a brief window of time each year, starting in late June and ending with the early snows in mid to late October. After the first snow is when the Weminuche is “locked” for the year; the passes are choked with snowdrifts and scoured by howling winds. The chill of winter has begun to descend the valleys and the herds of elk wend their way into the lowlands to live out the winter months in a milder climate.
~

It is late autumn in Durango, a town in the valleys far below; the oaks have turned to a dull brown and the aspens on the mountainsides are a vibrant and sparkling gold. A chill can be felt in the early mornings but frost is gone with the sun and the days are still quite warm. Bears have started to become a nuisance and the local newspaper is printing a “bear tracker” on the back page cataloging their last known locations. Change is on the breeze and that first gleam of snow on the distant peaks of the Weminuche testifies to the coming of the winter cold. Not that that is such a bad thing; when the hammer falls most durangoans just shrug, put away their mountain bikes and kayaks, and pull out their skis; swapping life jackets and paddles for parkas and poles. Autumn is the mountains is the in between season, the “shoulder” season: it is too cold to paddle and not cold enough to ski. Hunters prepare to venture into the high country in search of elk and deer and it is on the last day before the start of first rifle season, just a few days after the first snow, that my dog, Zeb, and I cross the boundary of the Weminuche, and walk deep into the mountains.

~I~

My truck bumps into the parking lot at the Pine River trailhead in a cloud of pale dust. Just north of town, this trailhead is a major staging area for many expeditions into the wilderness. It is quite a scene, in the foreground is the dusty pasture of a nearby ranch with cattle moving across it in small clusters, but behind it, the cliffs of the Pine River rise sharply and curve away into the distance. I look down at Zeb who regards me questioningly, legs quivering in anticipation of our upcoming trek, and I tighten my pack straps. I take the first step, always interesting with a loaded pack, and stride into the trees, Zeb trotting behind me, tail high.

The first mile takes us past the pasture along the fenceline. After running into several cows, I leash Zeb and we continue on. The fence veers right into the forest and out of sight. We continue forward until we see a sign that reads “Weminuche Wilderness”. We take a first break behind the sign. The Pine River Valley is wide with steep walls, we stay in the trees on the northwestern side. The trail begins a slow ascent and passes several heavily used campsites. We take another break at the Junction of the Pine River and the Emerald Lake trail. The climb continues, and the sun begins to sink, the cliffs casting long shadows across the meadows by the river. Three waterfalls descend on my right, across the valley, falling from heights that glisten like diamond in the setting sun, remnants of that first snow plainly visible on their flanks. After a brief descent, Zeb and I encounter a hunter scouting for elk in an Aspen grove, he is excited about the opening of rifle season the following day. We talk briefly and I describe my destination for the day. He laughs and says I have a long way to go. I just smile and continue on. The trail turns to switchbacks, winding through smooth, polished granite, and I encounter two men on horseback, also hunters. The horses shy slightly at my unexpected presence and the men acknowledge me briefly and ride on into the fast descending night. They are the last human beings we are see.

The withered husks of summer wildflowers nod and quiver in the chill breeze as we pass through another aspen grove, its pale trunks made eerie in the vanishing light and the wind knocks loose a shower of golden leaves. The leaves seem to whisper to eachother and the forest presses close. Daylight is almost gone now, and I stop to listen-to nothing. It is completely silent here in the valley of the Pine; a ringing silence but not an oppressive one, it is interrupted only by the occasional moan of the wind in the heights. The mountaintops still glow slightly, despite the darkness of the valley floor. Suddenly a ghostly granite spire looms before me and I do not even need to consult my map to recognize it. It is the “Pope’s Nose” and though I have never seen it before, I know it by its reputation as a landmark and highly technical climbing area.

A post is sunk into the marsh before us and reads “Flint Creek” in worn, barely discernible lettering. A trail, scarcely even a deerpath, takes off to the right and Zeb and I follow it. It soon winds into a spruce forest which is entirely dark and although visibility is still good outside, I switch on my headlamp to better avoid any surprises. All sound is muffled by the fragrant trees and even our footfalls make only the slightest hiss on the accumulated needles of yesteryear. I grow hopeless of reaching our destination of “Barebottom Park” before complete nightfall and begin to look about for a good campsite. I locate one in a small grassy clearing punctuated by several ancient Douglas fir trees. It is cold and damp and after failing to locate sufficient dry tinder, and wasting a few matches on tinder not dry enough, I give up the idea of having a fire and light my tiny camp stove instead. I put water on the stove to boil, and go to set up the tent which is a pyramid design with only one pole; this done I take out my chair and Zeb and I sit in the dark. I wish I had been able to start a fire, not for warmth, but merely for company. Although the warmth would be nice too, I think to myself as I snug my down coat tighter around me.

But I do have company, Zeb is my company and I pat him on the head. This causes him to turn around and whuff steamy dog-breath into my face. Still company though. The only sounds are the moan of the wind and the hiss of the camp stove, punctuated by the occasion contented sigh from Zeb. The clicking of the pot lid signals to me that my water is boiling and I pour some into a mug for tea and measure out enough to hydrate and cook my little package of beef stroganoff. Not haute cuisine, I suppose, but it tastes fine and it warms me up.

I shut off the stove and listen to Zeb crunch his kibble while I sip my tea. I am comfortable and content, but my hackles are up for some reason. I am not afraid but I am entirely alert and am made aware of my frail humanity by the sea of unknown and unseen wilderness which surrounds me. I finish my tea and hang all of my smellables in a nearby fir to distract the black bears, maybe even the occasional “ghost” grizzly. The darkness presses in on all sides and Zeb raises his head occasionally to growl at unseen stirrings in forest. I sink into fitful sleep curled around my hunting knife with my dog at my side. A good day.

~II~

The dawn arrives slowly in this deep valley and it is cold. As I pull on my clothing, I can see my breath which rises with a hiss, stirring the hanging crystals of frost on the underside the nylon. I emerge through the flap and look around while Zeb wanders off to mark this strange, new territory. We are in a small park near the banks of Flint Creek. The Pope’s Nose rears directly overhead on the opposite bank, the sunlight illuminating the pale granite with an ethereal glow. Talus slopes lead downward and away from its flanks and it is ringed with a grove of shimmering golden Aspens. The dark spruces, so forbidding in yesterday’s gloaming, stand in a fragrant line, ringing our meadow, closing around the trail that I will walk today. But now, I take a moment to enjoy the sweet morning in the meadow. The air smells of spruce and of snow; willows whisper on the sides of the creek, their leaves long since fallen and washed downstream into the Pine River.

The creek provides the only sound, the soft, swift murmur of water sliding over ancient glacier-smoothed stones. I lay out the tent in a patch of sunlight to dry and turn on the stove for tea and breakfast. Zeb returns, wet from a swim in the creek, and I scratch his head while pouring him his morning ration of kibble. I pour my tea into a metal mug and sit on a stone to think. In the stillness, I look up the valley which curves away to the Northwest, and see the route in my head. My mind is swimming with names; go northwest to the headwaters of Flint Creek and then drop into the drainage of Rock Creek, bypassing Rock Lake and continue until you reach the confluence of Rock Creek and Vallecito Creek. From there work your way over the mountains North of Vallecito Lake, through the abandoned settlement of Beaverton and down into Elk Creek drainage. Walk until the confluence with the Animas River and climb the opposite side of the gorge until you reach Molas Pass.

This is how directions are often given in my state; always a series of passes, drainages, and basins. You can go two directions, up or down, and flat terrain in the San Juans is rare. I mix some oatmeal and look at my map, confirming my route with the impersonal maze of brown lines. I look around the park one last time and sigh; time to get going.
~

My backpack does not feel as heavy as it did the last time I hiked this wilderness, years before,as a teenager. Now, after a summer of honing my body in the mountains of Wyoming, the pack weighs comfortably on my shoulders. I shed my coat and stow it away, shivering with the sudden cold but knowing I will warm up once I start walking. Performing a final sweep I look back at my camp. No sign remains of my passage; even the soft grasses that I slept on last night I have gently tousled with my hands. The sunlight is streaming into the valley now, the granite flanks of the Pope’s Nose are a brilliant white-gold.

I walk into the forest and the murmur of the stream vanishes as the air grows close and gently fragrant. My footfalls are nearly silent on the carpet of fallen needles that line the trail. I wend my way through the dark trees for awhile and then I emerge into a shaded meadow, the valley is narrow here and the meadow is still cold; frost lies here and there in the hollows beneath sticks and rocks. The plane of the meadow is steeply tilted, hugging the southern wall. It is probably the result of an old rockslide. The talus and scree have been ground and dissolved into soil by soft-colored lichens and then covered by plants and grasses in great numbers; by wildflowers waist deep in the height of summer which are now reduced to dried, withered husks by frost, flattened and shivering in the morning chill. There are tree stumps here, sheared off at the level of the ground, testifying to the occasional avalanches that scour this slope in the months of winter. The long months of silence whose coming is now overdue; months that are not wise to gamble with.

The trail stays in the forest above the creek, eventually climbing onto a granite bench above the canyon. It is a long, slow climb and I am soon hot; Zeb is panting behind me and I can feel his warm breath on the backs of my legs. We stop for a break between switchbacks and I pull out some water for us both. The creek roars in cascades far below and the wind sighs in the treetops. I am exhilarated by my surroundings and feel content traveling alone through this vastness of wild country.

We have been gaining elevation fast and the heat of the climb soon vanishes as the sweat chills on my back. I shiver and put on a coat while looking up to check the sky. Nothing, just ragged, wind ravaged cumulus clouds, moving fast. It is getting close to noon and I look at the map, hoping that we are getting closer to the pass at the head of Flint Creek. The trail descends back to the level of the stream, and crosses it via a shallow ford. Snow begins to appear in the shadows between the trees and the downcanyon wind is icy on my face.

Peaks crowd in closer their north faces, now visible, are covered with a blanket of snow that highlights every crack, crevice, and dihedral with a white rime. The trail climbs again and the creek can no longer be seen or heard. Zeb and I walk beside a small alpine tarn; Flint Lake should be appearing any time now and after that, the pass. I check the map again, Zeb goes to the tarn to drink water. I stand up and put the map back, pondering what I just learned from my map-viewing. I turn off the trail, my back to the tarn and walk through the trees over a small rise. Flint Lake appears suddenly and I am giddy with a sense of discovery. The lake is backed by a wall of volcanic cliffs and ringed by dark spruces and pale Subalpine Fir.

Its surface is still, the trees like statues; nothing stirs and nothing breathes. I drop my pack and sit down, Zeb lays down beside me. I listen, and hear nothing at all. The silence is complete; it is the silence of a land waiting for winter to descend, the silence that comes when all creatures not sleeping deep beneath the ground, have fled the heights for the shelter of the valleys. They know that to stay here is to die. This is the silence that snow brings on still winter mornings when a fresh icy blanket has fallen overnight and all the world is remade. Only, there is no blanket of fresh snow here, it is as though the silence has arrived first and is setting up as the vanguard.

~III~

I eat a little food, and give Zeb more kibble; the altitude robs me of my appetite. I check my water, good until later, no need to fill up yet. The sun beats down, momentarily warming me, in this place on the still lakeshore, sheltered from the wind. Looking at the forest around the lake and the types of trees present there, I judge that we are very close to timberline. Once out of the trees and exposed, the wind will have no mercy.

I load up my pack and call Zeb who gets up to follow me. I know he is getting tired, but he is loyal and unquestioning. The trail ascends gently through the remaining bands of trees. There is snow now, in the shadows and hollows, it is only ankle deep, and nothing to worry about as of yet. The trees disappear as we come along side the burbling waters of Flint Creek, barely a tiny rill this close to its headwaters. Looking at the snow crunching beneath my feet, I realize that I have seen no boot-tracks in this canyon, no sign of human presence at all. That means that no one has been in this canyon for at least a week or more, since the last snowfall.

The only tracks on the trail before me are the sign from one lone Elk; these tracks are fresh. They show that the Elk was in no particular hurry to go anywhere, it was walking, not running, but it did slip a few times in the powdery new snow. But it was not simply browsing for food, it was headed somewhere, probably down into the canyon of Vallecito Creek, where I am hoping to sleep tonight. If it is an Elk, traveling alone during the rut, it is probably a male; perhaps one too young to have its own harem. That would explain why it is wandering around up here above the trees while its larger brethren strut and prance in the valley below, bugling and charging eachother.

I wonder how fresh the tracks are, they seem undisturbed by the wind, despite the powdery nature of the snowpack. I scan the scene before me. This snow choked valley is of dark stone; the floor is wide, flat, and polished smooth by a long vanished glacier. Peaks rise to the south and the volcanic cliffs to the north. The only vegetation are small krumholtz of white pine and windblown willows. The entire pass is a tableau, a picture with no movement; no sound at all. But suddenly something stirs to my left and I look up, startled. It is a young Elk, a bull, perhaps a year old; he is no more than 50 feet way, by a small lakelet. The water reflects the peaks behind the bull and the clouds that are sweeping across the sky. For several electric seconds I lock eyes with the maker of the tracks while Zeb looks up at me, oblivious to the third person in this scene. The elk snorts and takes off at a trot. Zeb never sees him. I silently bid him farewell and wish him the best of luck with the ladies. The broad floor of the valley at the pass is studded with tiny lakelets and pools, all reflecting the sky like diamonds. In places where the smoothed rock has been exposed, the snow has melted off from the sun’s heat. I make for the highest of these areas and drop my pack. My body tired but my soul energized.

The view is breathtaking, behind me the valley of Flint Creek curves downward and away to the southeast, crowned by the gentle white slopes and occasional cliff band of Mesa Lato. The cliffs ringing Flint Lake are visible in their entirety, as is the lake itself. To the northeast, the legendary Rio Grande Pyramid rises with the riven cleft of La Ventana, the window, just below it to the south. Stories of Ghost Grizzlies and Lost Spanish Gold surround that peak in a fog of mystery; one of the last grizzlies in the state was killed down Snowslide Canyon, across the valley from the pyramid, and a canyon that curves up around its icy flanks is named Rincon de la Osa, the corner of the bear. I long to explore it someday; I know it will only be a matter of time before I find my chance. But not now, I need to find a way down from here and make my way to a place where I can camp without freezing.

I turn the other way and look west, down Rock Creek Valley. It drops downward in broad, sweeping steps of wide meadows filled with brown frost-killed grasses. Rock Creek flows down in wide, regular meanders, sweeping around boulders and piling underneath cutbanks, before joyfully throwing itself from the shelf and out of sight into the canyons below. Rising above the valley, across Vallecito Canyon, is the massif of a peak called “The Guardian”. The name is appropriate as it the eye is drawn to it while it looms protectively over the entire scene. The walls of Rock Creek Valley are a chain of peaks, some named, most not. At its head, nearly at eye level with me, it Rock Lake, the source of Rock Creek, which hangs like a sapphire on the breast of the mountainside. After a day and a half of climbing, I begin to descend.
~

The late afternoon sunlight shafts deep and golden into the valley; the snow is knee deep on the shaded trail and covers all but the tops of the small stunted willows that grow here at timberline. I pass the fork to Rock Lake, were it summer or even earlier in the fall, I would consider passing the night there, but as it stands now it is simply too high and too cold. I keep walking downward. The forest deepens again and the trees grow tall below the windswept pass. The air is sweet and pure, crystalline and cold; winter air. The willows are as high as my head now, and the trail has turned muddy. I have left the snow behind me, up above, and now stride through the wide meadows of golden grass that I had seen from the summit.

Rock creek sings softly underneath its cutbanks and the wind moves the trees back and forth on the fringes of the meadow. Here and there massive glacial-till boulders rest in the midst of the grass, like forgotten toys dropped unnoticed by a young child. Talus slopes protrude from the treeline in places, reminders that geologic change is ever present; rocks slide and fall from the pressure of freezing and thawing or simply the weight of countless years.

When they finally succumb to gravity’s irresistible pull, entire sections of cliff give way in a cacophony of dust and thunderous sound. The rocks come to rest in a bed of shattered trees; the air smells of crushed pine and flint, and the silence takes control once more, the only trace of the closeness of the fall being the sunlight shafting through the motes of dust that shimmer in the air as they drift slowly downward. A slide unseen by all but the birds and the deer browsing in the meadows; they look up startled for a moment, ears swiveling side to side and they see at the fresh, white scar on the mountainside before going back to their forage. Another day in the mountains.

I have learned to age rockslides, not to a certain time, but whether it is new or old. Most of the slides I see in rock creek are old; the stones are thick with lichen and Pika haypiles poke out of many crevices. In the summers you can see these tiny lagomorphs going about their harvesting, squeaking their alarm call once an unknown presence is detected. They are here now, but they are asleep, they know that winter is coming to these mountains. New slides that you occasionally see, are of sharp, shattered rock. The stones and boulders are naked and pale; it all looks as though it has been recently dumped there from a quarry, freshly delivered.

The trail drops off of the bench and, off to my left, the creek does as well unseen in the darkening forest. Overhead, the clouds swirl and race across the sky, shredded to pieces by a swift and frigid wind. The trail descends in long switchbacks now in the forest, now crossing a talus slope. Zeb follows at my heels quiet, obedient and tired. Take off my pack briefly and sit down on a boulder, pulling out a clif bar, which Zeb and I split; I pour him a small pile of kibble as well which he chows on hungrily, using his wide, pink tongue to get the last few stragglers into his mouth. Finished, he resumes panting. I pat him on the head, he’s a good friend.

We are nearing the confluence of Rock Creek Valley and Vallecito Creek. The spruces, while still plentiful, are now interspersed with small feathery pines and needles lie thick upon the forest floor, muffling all sound save the clear rush of Rock Creek, which is visible once more, below and to the left. There are good campsites there beside the creek, but I want to reach the confluence and camp somewhere near the headwaters of Vallecito. Daylight is gone from the valley, but the peaks still shine with alpenglow and the Guardian looms massive and mysterious before me, gleaming in the last rays of the sun.

The confluence is reached and the trail begins to climb again, this time up the canyon of Vallecito Creek. It is an long valley of wide, steep meadows interspersed with copses of tall Blue and Engelmann Spruce. Some aspens shiver nakedly on the slopes, leaves gone, swept away by the scouring wind. The glow is gone from the peaks now and the clouds are beginning to thicken; the wind starts to howl. Something is changing. I shudder. I see a nice grove of spruces above the trail and decide they would make a nice place to camp. The pack is dropped with relief and I set up my tent in a clearing among the tall trees. A herd of elk moves slowly on the opposite side of the valley, and the bull bugles to his small harem. Zeb looks up alarmed; he has never heard a sound like this before. The elk move on and he puts his head back between his paws, snoozing a little.

I boil water on the stove for dinner and tea, and sit in my crazy creek chair watching the last light fade from the valley. Dinner is cooking in the package, and I cradle a mug of hot tea in both hands, watching until finally all vanishes in a cloak of dark grey, the summits disappear and the world shrinks down to my little clearing. Soon, all that is left is the glow of the stove and what small details my pathetic human eyes can make out around me. I click on my headlamp and eat my dinner, another tasty creation like last night’s feast. Zeb munches on a substantial mound of kibble and a few dog treats. It is beginning to get cold and I finish quickly. I go to hang the bear bag in another grove nearby and Zeb and I relieve ourselves one last time before getting into the tent. The wind is howling in the tops of our spruces but it is quiet down here in the tent. I slide into my sleeping bag and Zeb curls up against me. I throw a second liner over us both and try to fall asleep thinking back over the glorious things I had seen today. The elk begin to bugle again and Zeb growls at them sleepily. Soon we both drift off, exhausted. But before I fall asleep, I hear a rustling and hissing sound on the sides of the tent; it sounds almost like… snow.

~IV~

The next day dawns grey and cold. Some snow has fallen during the night, but not very much, and has accumulated in small windswept swirls beneath the trees. The sky is heavy and leaden and the air smells of coming snow. The hammer is ready to fall; I need to get out of here before it does. I pack up hurriedly and eat a clif bar while Zeb inhales more kibble. I throw on my pack and half-trot, half-slide down to the trail. We soon come to a small, clear rill and fill our water from its tiny cascade. The copses begin to thicken and merge, the meadows giving way to forest again. We see several harems of elk across the valley and think of the hunters who are gearing up far below. Best of luck to them, all the elk seem to be up here. The clouds have begun to swallow the summits of the surrounding peaks. The Guardian is no longer visible behind us and a slow moving fall of cloud is beginning to pour down the valley from the flanks of Storm King Mountain. The forest here is ancient and silent, the trees are huge and towering. Wind stirs their tops high above but leaves the floor quiet. It is open and lit with a uniform pale light, the floor is a carpet of spongy mosses and low shrubs, it is surprisingly open. Here is a forest that has known very little of humans. It has not felt the sting of the logger’s axe, nor the cold rush of its fires being extinguished by the well-intentioned Forest Service. This was a forest that burned regularly and was thus kept open and healthy, a hall of giants high in the mountains. The trail winds up and away and I follow with Zeb, who has been running from tree to tree, barking at squirrels.

Vallecito creek tumbles in a clear and chilly stream between cushioned mossy banks. Stormy Gulch flows in from the West and I begin to ascend to the East, along the banks for Nebo Creek, back above the trees up into the high country. The sky is beginning to darken and the clouds roil thick and menacing overhead. Occasionally a burst of “corn snow”, as hard as small stones, will pelt me from above the treetops. The pellets of snow make sharp dull sounds as they hit my rain-shell and pants and slide down in with a rustle on the nylon; it is too cold for them to melt on contact. The creek rushes off to my left, I hear the dull roar of an unseen falls or cataract somewhere off the trail. I drop my pack and wander over some of the mossy deadfall and granite boulders with Zeb. The fall is about thirty feet of freefalling water where Nebo creek drops from a granite outcrop. I sit on a stone at its head and look at it for awhile. The air is full of sound: falling water, water striking rock, water lapping gently against the creekbanks, water sliding over smooth stones; all of these combine into an all-consuming cacophony of noise. Such a marked contrast to the complete silence of the last few days; it makes me almost uncomfortable, as if something could walk up behind me undetected, I felt suddenly naked without my sense of hearing.

The spray from the falls chills me and I get up from my rock, and stretch a little; my body is tired, these last few days at altitude have been punishing. I can feel bruises blossoming on my hipbones and my feet ache from striking the stones of the trail. I stagger on, my stride becoming longer and less pained as I warm up again. We cross the creek, barely a trickle now, and pass the junction for the trail to Nebo Pass, above us to the East. We continue north toward Hunchback Pass. The forest is of Spruce and Subalpine Fir again, the hall of giants left behind in the glacial canyon of Vallecito Creek, along with the bugling Elk and the looming, ever watchful, Guardian. The trees begin to thin and shrink again as we approach timberline for the second time in the last twenty-four hours; looking back I can see down the thickly forested slope which we had just ascended this morning, and on down Vallecito Creek. The valley floor is a carpet of dark trees, giving way to the rockslides and aspen fringed meadows near our resting place of last night. Rock Creek pours in from the East, and the valley winds and curves away into the distance. Chains of high, icy peaks loom over the valley growing higher to the south of “The Guardian which now seems to be in the foreground. It is silent again, save for the hiss of lightly falling snow, its white curtains trailing up and down the valley, gently brushing the ground like icy fingers. I can see all the way to glacial cirque at the head of Stormy Gulch, from this cold and lofty place, I can easily imagine the glaciers, giant rivers of ice filling these valleys; grinding, shifting, and warping the stone into these gentle “U” shapes, leaving glacial boulders sprinkled about the scene for emphasis, as a reminder to those here now of the way of things back then, in that cold and distant time.

On some of the smoothed rocks up here above the trees, I can still find scrape marks, places where the stone appears to have been clawed by some gigantic beast; but I know that it was the glaciers that caused these strange furrows. They were made by stones picked up by the ice and dragged along the rocky floor of the valley, writing the tale of their passage as surely and neatly and a stylus makes its mark on tin. It overwhelms me to think of this, up here so high and cold, surrounded by this primordial masterpiece of wilderness. I think of the mountains being born by fire, in series of overlapping calderas half filled with crystallized flows of basalt, punctuated by the shattered and twisted sediments from an ancient sea, now long gone, whose tiny creatures occasionally emerge from their tilted beds, petrified and perfect. After the fiery violence of the volcanoes was at last stilled and the plates ceased their thunderous grinding far below, the icy sea of the glaciers swept down from the north, as slow and gradual as the volcanism had been wild and sudden. Ice sheets covered everything here, growing and retreating over the course of countless millennia. Dire Wolves and Giant Short-Faced Bears roamed the lowland forests of evergreen, in the shadow the lifeless, ice covered heights, and great condors descended from the clouds to feast upon their kills.

As the glaciers retreated, they sculpted the rocks into smooth and sharpened forms; horns, valleys, cirques, and couloirs. The tortured landscape honed by the incredible weight of an ocean of ice; a landscape now static but for the slow inexorable decay of water and gravity wearing it away bit by bit. The trees sprouted tall and healthy from the fine soils at the feet of the retreating glaciers, some died out in the lowlands as the world warmed again but many survived up high. In some valleys in the heart of the Weminuche there are still islands of the ancient, ice age trees; remnant populations of Limber Pine or even Larch. My botany professor once told that there are mosses found growing at the snowline here that are normally found no farther south than the provinces of Canada.

It is said that Alaska is a glimpse of what it was like after the last Ice Age, when the glaciers were in retreat, and leaving vast wild tracts of smoothed stone and taiga behind them. Some say that the humans killed off the superpredators in America after the last Ice Age, and there is much to support that theory. But still others say that the predators followed the ice and the cold to the north as their habitat grew too warm and game too scarce. There little to support this theory, merely a conjecture really, save stories and tales whispered in an awed hush by the Native Peoples of the North; tales about a vicious bear half again as large as a silvertip Grizzly. A bear who is said to still live in the high, icy canyons ringed by nameless peaks; a huge, dark bear, with a short, cruel face.
~

So much has happened here, I think as I look down the valley, toward the sculpted peaks of the Needles Range. It is a story that makes me feel humble and small, like the sensation of falling one gets when gazing at the stars; it is the feeling of touching something infinitely greater than the self and, I firmly believe, it is one of the myriad reasons we still, and will always, need the wilderness.

~V~

I continue on, the wind, harsh and chill on my face, is peppered with driven snow and my gloved hands tightly grip my trekking poles which I use to catch myself when I slip on the wet rocks. Zeb walks behind me, subdued by the climb and the cold. The trail is deeply eroded here and it is like climbing in a dry creekbed. The tops of the alpine willow on the trailsides are nearly at eye-level and I can see a few of their silvery leaves which still hang stoically onto their wind-tortured boughs. The valley is wide, sloping, and treeless this close to the pass. The peaks are entirely hidden by snow and cloud, but the saddle of the pass hangs in full view, glorious and unattainable. I am at nearly 13,000 feet here and the air is thin; it catches in my throat and even deep breaths feel shallow. I gasp and yawn in order to get enough oxygen to my tired muscles to propel me upward to the saddle.

But this is to be expected, and all I have to look forward to after this pass is a stroll across a small basin and a leisurely descent into Elk Creek, where I plan to camp tonight. Once I am off this pass, I am home free. However, I cannot shake a feeling of unease, that in this cold, unforgiving, and unfathomably ancient place, I have missed something crucial. It feels as though the icy jaws of winter are closing on top of me and each snowflake falling around me seems to reinforce this notion. I am covered in nylon shell from head to toe and my clothing is warmly layered. My feet are a little cold, but the rest of me is as comfortable and as well prepared as I can muster. Down below it is still T-shirt weather, and it is this picture of warmth and comfort that I am dwelling on as I reach the crest of the pass.

The cloud ceiling lifts for a brief second and Zeb and I stand ankle deep in a crusted and corniced drift of corniced snow, gazing out at the scene. A huge basin spreads out at my feet and the trail is barely discernable 2000 feet below me as a brown thread winding through ragged snowdrifts. Kite Lake hangs just below my eye level on the far Western side of the basin; sparkling blue and diamond-shaped. At the far northern edge of the basin is a second, higher pass. It is unnamed, which is why I missed it on the map before, but I see it now, covered in snow and wreathed in smoky wisps of cloud.

I look away and look back, trying to process what I am seeing here, trying to accept this new turn of events; it’s difficult to myself understand, what with cold, altitude, and exhaustion dragging at my faculties. Finally I put my map away and start my descent into the basin. To the Northeast I can see the deep defile of Bear Creek curving toward its terminus where it feeds into the newborn Rio Grande, out of sight in the cloud shadow. Far to the East lie the three forks of Ute Creek and the Rio Grande Pyramid above them, partially hidden my view by a nameless crag.

I descend in a tangle of willows and knee deep snow, my gaiters keeping the powdery crystals out of my boots. Zeb marches through the trail I broke and seems fine. I keep going, eventually dropping below the snowline. A four wheel drive road comes in on my left and terminates at a US Forest Service Sign proclaiming the place a trailhead. The sign is riddled with bullet-holes. Frozen bootprints and beer cans are scattered here and there, occasionally punctuated by a bloom of toilet paper. These telltale signs of humanity seem jarring, and discordant, after two days in such deep and wild place.

The paths which I had trod over the course of the past few days seem to be located outside the normal flow of time; such places have a deep and unexplainable power. I have heard and learned much concerning the deep wildness of these mountains in these past few days. In the long silences of this place I can hear the mountains speak, or sing. It is a deep thrum of a sound, felt more than heard. It is layered within the silence, and flows like an underground river beneath it; inaudible but palpable like the slow, steady beat of a ancient heart; yet also smooth and rushing like the wind in the fragrant treetops or the clear, icy streams laughing in their stony beds. It is in these moments of silence when the song most is deafening, like an orchestral crescendo that moves you to tears and leaves you crying like an idiot there in your seat. It makes me want to jump up and shout praises to the sky; to release my woes and concerns on the spiraling winds. But the music is so riveting and vibrant I don’t dare interrupt for fear of missing something vital. Something which may never come again.
~

Where I stand now, in Beartown Valley, I am just outside the borders of the Wilderness. It is the site of a century old boomtown, long since gone bust. People tried here, they created a place that would insulate them from the howling Wilderness about them and, in the end, they failed. Beartown and other sites like it, scattered here and there, stumbled upon when least expected; tell me that there are still some places over which we are powerless, and where our authority has no weight. There are still places like this one where the ancient song can still be heard; there are still valleys with no sign of humans, ringed with peaks that have no names. I wonder if the people here could hear the song which played all around them, did they think it was gone with the building of their town? Were the last of them shocked to realize that, even as they left the valley for the final time, the song continued unabated; ushering them quietly down from the place where “man is a visitor and must not remain?” I nudge a beer can with my toe, and look down the valley where the road disappears. It looks so tiny compared to the mountains which flank it, and I take heart in its smallness. Maybe this place will stay wild for a good long time yet. Perhaps it will go on as it has for so long; maybe buried by glaciers once more, or again torn asunder by the fires which still smolder silently beneath the surface.
~

I the turn my back to the trailhead and walk past the windswept snag of a long-dead spruce; I feel better once the damaged sign and small, windswept piles of trash are behind me. The wind howls through the basin but the snow as ceased briefly. Gritting my teeth, I begin again to climb. My calves burn immediately, but I ignore them, walking onward into the wind. The trail creeps up a sculpted gouge in the side of the basin toward the distant pass. I pass a gutted miner’s shack, another symbol of the transient role we play here in the heights; and another reminder that I don’t belong here either; with winter breathing down my neck.

The trail curves upward and gains the ridge. It is snowing again, harder this time, driving blindingly into my covered face, working into every crack and crevice of my clothing, slumping off in great sheets from my chest and thighs. Along the ridge, the trail is marked with snow poles and between gusts I can see one tall pole standing guard like a sentinel on the summit. Snow is over my knees and I post-hole through the frozen crust with every step. Zeb walks in the powder behind me, in snow up to his neck. A resigned feeling of fear enters my benumbed brain; I know that if I stopped there on the pass, I would likely die there, frozen in an icy pose of defeat.

I shake my head, to clear it, and snow falls in a shower from my parka hood. I am not beaten, nor defeated, I am simply tired. I had roughly 8 miles at my back since morning. I forge ahead, faster now, trying to warm my leaden limbs. Abruptly, I almost run into it in the gale, I arrive at the tall pole. A carved arrow points down and to the right. On the slope below me, which is scoured mercifully clean of snow, I see a series of switchbacks descending into another deep valley bounded by peaks and clothed in swatches of dark forest. I am looking down into the canyon of Elk Creek, I am to camp here tonight if I make it so far. I leave the nightmare of the pass behind me and make good time on the solidly constructed switchbacks. My feet are wet and sore from the miles of post-holing, but naturally, Zeb seems no worse for wear. I slip below the ceiling of clouds and see the glimmer of the El Dorado Lakes off to my left, encircled by dark stone walls.

~VI~

I reach the base of the switchbacks and take off my pack. The storm blows around above me, but I am safe here, for now. The silence resumes and I sit and listen, exhausted, to the song. I wish I could fall to one side and that the earth would swallow me up, that I may sleep in comfort and nothingness, covered in the thick cloak of my exhaustion. But instead I stagger back to my feet and continue down the trail. The northern face of the canyon is still covered in snow but the deep red willows of the southern slope are exposed in brilliant contrast. A pale miner’s shack stands stark against the willows and their footing of dark stones, its tin roof intact in places, rusted through in others. I take a single picture, of the willows, the shack, the cliffs and the clouds. It is one of the only pictures I take. I continue down and the snowmelt fed rill I had paralleled from the shack fell away into a deepening gorge, becoming a shouting series of cataracts. Down on the valley floor a side canyon entered and met abruptly with the valley floor. Its sheer walls stood before me rising over 2000 feet from the valley floor like dark mirrors or the open gates to a city far greater than anything built by the hand of man. Drawing even with this mighty opening I could see three sharp, craggy summits, which had no names, simply the numbers “One”, “Two”, and “Three” on the map. The tiny stream running between the great walls seems dwarfed into insignificance by their proximity as they loom above. As always, the silence reigns supreme.

I am once again in the trees, enjoying their smell and their company. The trail drops to the valley floor and I leave the huge gates behind me, I look back and see that they have been swallowed by a curve in the canyon wall. Would they still be there if I turned back? I hesitated for a brief moment before plodding on ahead. The valley opens suddenly into wide, flat meadows, and I cross a stream flowing down from a high valley to the north, water collected in the summer months in the Verde Lakes, which sit ensconced in a basin of nodding wildflowers. I know the flowers are now dead, and shriveled, but the summer memory sits in the front of my mind, warm and awash with color.

Piles of glaciated stones lie at random here and there on the brown valley floor and Electric Peak looms off to my left, high above. Zeb trots ahead and I take a final picture. A distant wail pierces the silence as effectively as a gunshot and I am startled by the sudden discord. It is the whistle of the steam train which runs north from Durango to the tiny mining town of Silverton. I see a wall of grey cliffs at the far end of the valley, marking the confluence with the Animas River which parallels the train tracks. If I can camp near there tonight, I can make it to my destination of the pass the next morning with plenty of time to spare. I am so tired.

The valley flows downward in a gentle slope, punctuated by broad shelves of stone which I have to descend in short series of switchbacks. Aspens begin to appear again and add their pale grey to the dark green of the spruces and the golden brown of the dried grass in the meadows. I come alongside a lakelet near the trail and stop to stare. The water is still and silver, the reflections are sharp and clear. The sky is a uniform white and the scene before me, perfectly mirrored in the water, is incredible. Electric Peak rises in the foreground, like a buttressed turret of a long decayed fortress; its summit is jagged and crenellated against the sky. Just behind it is the toothy ridge of Graystone Peak and dominating the left side of the view are the mirror-image peaks of Vestal and Arrow, their curved, sweeping ridges perfect and opposite copies of one another, scraped to an identical smoothed angle by the same tongue of ice, sharing it as surely as twins share a mother’s womb. All of this sparkles in the tarn before me and the spruces quake at my back; the song is so strong here I can scarcely keep it together. I am afraid I may lose myself in it, spellbound and awestruck, kneeling by the water’s edge, giddy as mooncalf and yet somber as a church-mouse, eyes staring into the middle distance; heart and soul borne away by the music. I shake myself free, the cold brings me back and I realize my feet are still wet and freezing in my boots. I reluctantly leave the majesty of the reflected peaks behind me and listen as the silent music fades away beneath the rhythm of my footfalls.

The valley enters a canyon again, and I see where the trail has fallen away into the creek. A fresh blaze across the rushing waters signals that I must cross. I look down at my already soaked boots and walk straight into the water, balancing with my poles. I continue walking on the other side, only to be faced with three more crossings in quick succession. I begin to realize that camping will be cold tonight and tomorrow morning frigid with my wet feet and tired body. I try not to think about it too much and walk into an aspen grove. I am almost to the Animas River, and the leaves are still vibrant and golden on the trees here, falling in waves of gold as the wind sighs between the pale trunks.

~VII~

It is quiet and serene here; the air is heavy with the smells of wet bark and leaf mold. The trail emerges from the trees and the Animas River roars beside me. Next to it, the cold, iron rails of the Durango-Silverton Railroad gleam dully. Their right angles and order sudden and harsh to my eyes, their presence told me that I departure from the Wilderness was imminent and I knew then what I had to do. I would not camp tonight. According to my calculations, I had walked nearly eighteen miles that day, and I know that Silverton lies six more miles up this cold and impersonal track. Looking at the sky I realize I have perhaps an hour of daylight remaining to me. I look down at Zeb and say “Are you ready, buddy?” Not waiting for an answer, I step on to the tracks and begin to walk.

Darkness comes swiftly to the depths of the Animas River Canyon; the water, poisoned by mining upstream, slides over a stony bed that is colored dull and sickly orange. The train tracks sit on a shelf above the river, crossing it occasionally on low trestles. Zeb and I make good time, counting rails and watching the grey light fade from the walls of the canyon. Soon it is fully dark and the river glints darkly beneath me as I shakily cross another trestle, focusing on placing one foot in front of the other. The pale blue glow of my head lamp throws a pool of light and shadow before me; the rest of the world is inky black. The wind blows but the clouds are beginning to shred overhead and the air grows colder. Zeb navigates the trestles with no false steps or mistakes, he is obviously tired but he continues to show himself as a matchless hiking partner.

The canyon opens into a wide valley and the lights of Silverton spread out warmly before me, ringed by dark, looming mountains. I pass through a still train yard and turn onto a dirt street. Some houses glow with the warmth of humanity, the smoke trailing from their chimneys smells delicious and inviting. Before we step into the harsh glare of a street light, I leash Zeb and we walk on out of the dark. Only the Brown Bear Café stands open and inviting and I tie Zeb up to a bench outside on the street, promising to be right back. I open the door slowly and step inside in a swirl of cold and dark into a place of warmth and light.

~Epilogue~

The café is full of people and sound and movement ceases entirely as 40 pairs of eyes turn to look at me in silence. I am standing in the doorway, haggard and exhausted, my pack looming over my hunched shoulders. I feel lost and bewildered, blinking there in this sudden brightness but, despite my strange entrance, the waitress does not even break stride when she strolls up to me and asks if I would like a table. I say that I would like that very much, as well as some food, and a beer, as well as some water for my dog outside. The sound of my own voice is strange in my ears. She helps take off my pack and sets it in the corner. The locals return to their food first. The tourists continue to regard me quietly; it must surely seem as though I have fallen from the sky, and it certainly feels that way. I end up with a pint of pale ale and a bowl of rich French onion soup. Zeb sits outside beneath the bench with a bowl of water and a massive pile of leftover ribs the wait-staff gave him for his trouble. Before he tucks into the ribs, I kneel and cup his head in my hands, looking into his warm golden eyes. Did you hear it too? Was it really as grand as all that? I give a scratch between the ears and leave him to his meal.

My father arrives about an hour or so later crossing the same distance I had spent three days laboring through in an impossibly short time. I pay my check and thank the waitress, several of the tourists look up and two of them, a couple from Santa Fe, walk over to wish me well. I walk outside and put my things in the back of the car along with Zeb. I take a last look up at the dark winter sky and watch the frigid stars dancing overhead. Suddenly, despite the streetlights and buildings which surround me, I hear faint strain of music, which spins away on the cold wind, soon vanishing into the night as if it had never been.


I fall asleep on the way home…

1 comment:

  1. Are the bears a nuisance or are humans a nuisance to the bears?
    Sent you an e-mail with some additional comments, as well. To the address on your blogger profile...

    Cheers,
    Beau

    ReplyDelete

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