Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rocky Mountain interlude (Part 12)

The marmot’s posture said it all: torso draped over a fallen log, head resting on its front paws, eyes slitted to the early morning sun. Too weary to lift its head or run from the idiot snapping its picture, it was the very embodiment of overindulgence. I felt the same. It was time to go home.

But first was a quiet interlude, our first and last for this trip, a two-night stay in a very nice house back in the woods above Estes Park with an extensive deck overlooking feeders whose occupants were montane species new to the trip: pygmy nuthatch, black-headed grosbeak, mountain chickadee. Our hosts, Dwight and Linda, were not only blessed with an extraordinary amount of patience to handle three increasingly-surly codgernauts, they were both gourmet cooks and wine lovers and we ate and drank accordingly. Plus she kept the coffeepot going.

Without the need to drive halfway across a state as we had done everyday for a week there was time to relax, but on a rapidfire pace merging our two passions, photography and birding. We began at the Horseshoe Park area where a dam bursting in 1982 deposited an alluvial fan heaped with splintered trees and stones the size of cars, a ghostly scar yet to heal. Dropping from a rocky ledge in a whitewater foam, the Roaring River spilled out into broad grassy meadows thick with elk including young ones we were careful to avoid. It was here that Jim found a red-naped sapsucker, a lifer for him, itself a flood of excitement replete with shouts and gesticulations of a nature sufficient to alarm bystanders, some of whom eyed us warily as if we’d gone batty or might even pose a danger. Unimaginative boobs. In the rapids below the falls we watched the antics of a dipper leaping into the current like some northern form of penguin though on a vastly smaller scale. 

But then this place was all about scale, something a ranger told me at the visitor center. People tend to think in present time, in generational time, he said, when nature thinks in geological time. Not in a matter of years or even decades but in hundreds and thousands of years. Millions of years. The forests so blighted and dying were merely a part of it, an ecological blip and no more, and not for the first time. The ponderosas would fade and something else would replace them, probably lodgepole pines which require fire to scarify their seeds and make them viable. And fire would come, the ranger promised; that, too, was guaranteed. In a hundred years the western forests would look much different and yet be healthy and vibrant, a transition reaching beyond our own short lives. His calm matter-of-factness allayed my fears, reminding me again of how short-sighted I can be. When these woods are again healthy I shall be dust.

Some of our leisurely haste could be attributed to a looming sense of finality. After all, this was our concluding moment to bird, to photograph, to take in the majestic scenery and capture it for our departure and beyond. This is where the road had taken us; by evening it would be finished, the hours remaining no more than an extended run for home. The realization whetted our appetite for more, and as we wended the winding roads of the park we each followed our own vision, Jim and Chod the narrow view with their long-range lenses, me a broader field with a superwide lens, Chod taking off after a coyote, me after a butterfly, Jim taking it all in with a solemnity almost spiritual in measure, his pale eyes offset against a sunburned face and a shock of hair as white as the snows on the upper peaks of the Mummy Range. 

The end came later, when we reached the house and packed our bags and stowed them by the door, and sitting down to a wonderful meal with the wine flowing and conversation and the bittersweet surety of closure and new friendships. 

But the true end occurred at an alpine lake at the end of the road, with storm clouds seething above the rocky crags of Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak, the steely-gray waters rippling in an icy breeze. We parked and slipped into our jackets and entered a lodgepole forest half in dusk, the trail drifted in deep snow softly glowing in the twilight, the air sharp with the scent of pine needles, and at last broke out onto the pebbled shore of Bear Lake. I spotted a boulder jutting above the shallows and made my way to it and crouching down framed it within the eyepiece with the lake behind and Flattop Mountain a stark monolith and snapped the shutter on what would be the final photo of the trip.

That evening I phoned Lori and her voice possessed a frailty I’d not heard before. She said lightning took out the furnace and air conditioner and the stereo as well and more violent storms were predicted. And already the western skies were black, laced with lightning, thunder rising from the earth itself.

One more day, I said. 

Hurry, she whispered, and as the line went dead the night gathered about me like a mantle of crows summoning the storm, and if I heard the coming tempest in that dark, dark night it was not something dredged from desperation or loneliness but merely prophetic.

(To be continued)

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