Autumn In The High Country

I wrote these lines almost exactly three years ago following a backpacking trip, and I am publishing them now with slight modifications.

During a trip to the San Juan Mountains in September, my husband and I are reminded of the splendor of different regions of our state, and of the grandeur of Colorado’s high country. Perfect conditions prevail. Cool nights alternate with sunny, warm days. Unlike during the more temperamental summer season, we have little reason to fear violent afternoon storms.

Our three day backpacking trek takes us through different life zones, from the montane to the alpine. At the start of our journey, we are surrounded by our favorite trees, aspen, dressed in their autumn finest. Golden and orange leaves quiver in the occasional breeze and create an impressionistic painting, and a lovely symphony. Wide-open basins and tundra habitat greet us above timberline. At this time of year only a few lone blossoms remain of what a few months back must have been a sea of wildflowers, but the fall foliage with its muted hues of greens and reds holds its own appeal.

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Burbling sounds and still-luscious green ribbons in the otherwise withering meadow alert us to the presence of flowing creeks. We try in vain to determine their source, all of last winter’s snow having melted, and they seem to pour forth directly from the mountain. As we take a rest near one of the brooks, we are reminded that humans are not alone in relishing creature comforts. Yellow-bellied marmots, year-round denizens of these elevated regions, stretch across boulders, basking in the sun as we do. Soon they will retreat to their burrows for many months of hibernation. Picas, always on the move, scamper among the boulders. They alert their brethren of our presence with piercing calls while they watch us warily. I assure them that they have nothing to fear.

With increasing elevation we emerge from the cirques and our views expand. Row upon row of peaks appear, their façades a polychromic palette of grey, ocher, green, and red, extending from one mountain to the next, as though an artist has wielded her whimsical brush across the flanks of this rocky world. Along the horizons we marvel at the seeming de novo genesis of clouds. One moment the celestial sphere is entirely clear, the next a fluffy array of vapor appears, and soon the Columbine-colored skies are dotted with towering layers of condensation. The cloudscape inspires us to let our imagination run free, and to discern forever-changing shapes drifting above us.

The higher our steps take us, the smaller we feel, but also the more exalted. We are thankful to live in majestic Colorado, where we have access to incredible land- and mountainscapes that engage all our senses, and that make us feel particularly alive. The challenge lies in preserving and sustaining our sense of wonder and el(ev)ation once we return to our mundane routines.

Click here for the German version/bitte hier für die deutsche Version klicken:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/10/09/herbst-im-hochgebirge/

A Late Summer Getaway

As we hoist our heavy packs onto our backs, the last vestiges of clouds dissipate. The sky gradually returns to its proverbial azure hue, after being obscured by smoke and haze. The presence or threat of wildfires in the American West, and the bans on open fires and flames that characterized much of our Colorado summer, have been lifted, and we jump at the chance to escape for a short stint. Rain at our planned destination delayed our departure by two days, but now we thank those showers for having cleared the air, and for having created the piney, fresh fragrance that envelops us in the forest.

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Our goal is to reach the Lakes of the Clouds in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. After driving 100 miles southwest from Colorado Springs, we reach our trail, where wind whooshes through conifer boughs, and aspen leaves dance in the breeze. Most are still green, but a few are turning, harbingers of approaching autumn. The rocky path takes us higher and higher, to three alpine lakes nestled in a wide mountain basin, at an elevation of approximately 11,600 feet. After five miles and roughly 2,500 elevation gain, we set up our tent.

     We have longed for Colorado’s tundra, famous for its wildflowers. Our years-long drought has lessened their bounty, and we are here late in the season, but some colorful blossoms still enliven the scenery. The lichens and shrubs that cling to the rocky slopes are already assuming their autumnal, rust-colored sheen, and drape the mountainsides in velveteen blankets.

Even though this is wilderness, animals are habituated to human visitors, as the lakes are popular not only among hikers, but also anglers. A female deer appears out of nowhere and munches grasses close to our tent, seemingly unafraid; a well-fed ground squirrel watches us filter water from a lake; chipmunks forage through our camp, in search of dropped morsels of food. We listen to the chatter of squirrels in the trees, and to the high-pitched calls of marmots and pikas in the surrounding rocky crags.

Few people have made the trek this week in late August, and the campsites are scattered enough to enjoy a sense of solitude. The languid hum of insects and the chirping of birds accompany us through the daytime and complement the constant background music provided by a waterfall cascading down a cliff face within earshot of our site. At night, we see the pinpricks of myriad stars, fewer when the moon vies for attention, more once it goes to sleep. Other than short excursions into our environs, we laze – read, write, follow the arc of the sun across the firmament. Stretched out on our backs we observe the celestial dance of the clouds: tendrils of vapor approaching, linking hands, letting go, drifting apart. Like high-altitude lizards we luxuriate in the warmth, and revel in the colors of late summer, grateful for glimpses of nature’s benevolent face.

Click here for the German version/bitte hier für die deutsche Version klicken:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/09/11/ein-ausflug-im-spatsommer/