I made the mistake of checking my email in the morning. A message seemed to close off one possible future while opening another. It was on my mind as I started hiking. There was a fork in the trail after about an eighth of a mile, and I had spent the previous couple weeks mulling over which way to go: right to a more secluded, lush basin, but with limited day hikes to high, alpine lakes; or left to a better known creek with multiple options for long, exploratory expeditions. I had chosen to take the right route, as I could use some calm and aspen shade, and every year I do these trips with extensive hiking that leave me inspired but tired. But my head was down thinking about how these futures could unfold and I never saw the early fork in the trail.
When I came to the first lookout point, I saw the view I had seen on the web that let me know I had accidentally taken the left fork.
I'd been considering this area, but decided on the right branch for the solitude and aspen. I spent an hour scrambling like a headless chicken trying to get over a serious ridge to the basin I had planned to be in, basin of solitude, basin of respite. I spooked a grouse and that grouse spooked me. I said, "This is ridiculous. It's not safe. I have a son to return to and more to do in this life." So I'm camping along the creek this time.
Aside from the humility, I can't be too disappointed by this creek spot — waterfalls, cascading peaks, and lush valleys. There were plenty of nice, shady, wooded spots to camp near the creek along the way. I kept hiking until it was open, I could see, and it was dramatic. The spot I set up camp isn't great — sloping and rocky, but otherwise just as I wanted. I found a barely level rocky spot in a small patch of lodgepoles up the side of the basin in a narrow drainage, and I cleared away some rocks, using one as a hand axe to break up and level the dirt. Ended up with just enought of a flat spot for one dude and enough time to enjoy the sunset.
I spent the next day exploring the local area and checking out the creek.
The planet is patient. The Earth system is aged. You can look up and see changes in the layers, temporal bands, rock strata. A white one is quite pronounced across four peaks here where I'm camped. Looks like it could be quartz or limestone, maybe even marble. The trailhead is just south of Marble, CO, so let's say it's marble. Marble is formed from limestone after being compressed under the immense pressures that earth brings. Limestone is formed when countless tiny organisms in the sea die and fall to the ocean floor — their shells are compacted into the stone, playing an important role in the carbon cycle along the way. So marble is beautiful stone formed from evanescent life under pressure. It is then turned into nice countertops and sculptures of proud horses. Here I see that band of marble span these four peaks, a big story told at a point in time. Either way, something happened then. Perhaps a biological event, perhaps volcanic, something distinctive. I guess I am within such a band in my life, separating larger phases, a distinct transition. Up and down these cliff walls are striations, micro and macro layers, ages and eons. It is always some now and it is always changing. I can't predict the weather in the next stage of myself, but several key factors will be different. I have to move faster than this. I must harness more. The planet is patient, but I find myself weathering much more quickly. The planet is patient, but I am not. I cannot wait eons.
The next day I hiked up into the basin on the ridge across the creek from my campsite.
We scout, traverse the land, scan the scape, scour for opportunities.
Here are a few views from part way up the ridge looking back toward the valley.
Clear shot of the marble time band.
Here's the view coming over the ridge to see spectacular water and wildflowers.
Water color like cyan that's earned a richer core through deep-time patience and enduring the grind of glaciers, a color that expresses the collected minerals of the basin while reflecting grass and sky
Around the lake looking back.
To smell these sweet (lilac/lupine) blossoms above an (azure/turquoise) lake at 12,000 feet with the calm song of a ceaseless waterfall fueled by the glacier melt of the holocene deep in an unnamed basin in the unfathomably intricate rockies is indeed a high mark in my life. This is what your life smells like, what the world smells like. Perched in the pocket of this drainage that only time and a living planet could carve, I sit with this view that keeps me turning, so grateful for my wife, my son, this life, this Earth. A tiny ant overcome by awe. Come on team humanity — let's make the most of this opportunity.
This is the state of our planet right now, at least right here. I'm not giving up on anything anytime soon. But I am going to work at my capacity for remedies to our predicaments.
Here's a view on the way down where the north and south waterfalls align. Tomorrow I'll head up the opposite side to explore that ridge and its lakes.
After the day hike, I close my eyes and see wildflowers all across my field of vision.
I'm camped where two maps meet. The lake I hiked to today is mostly on one, but has a fleck on the other. That's where I am right now. I know the detailed topography of where I've been', but I know I need to get somewhere new, somewhere uncharted. I don't have that next map yet. Which branch to take? Which map to make? I always hope to head out to the wilderness for a few days and come home with some deep insight, but it doesn't usually happen quite like that.
There was a fair amount of rain in the night, and it started clearing up for a minute in the morning. I pumped some water and had some breakfast before starting the day's climb.
Lush wildflowers and great views for the duration of the climb.
Another shot of converging waterfalls, this time facing the other way. A waterfall down a hillside is not a single entity. It is ten thousand nooks, a trillion tiny eddies, infinitely divisible pieces, patterns, and moments. And so are we.
Suddenly I made it over the ridge and was startled by how quickly I was presented with liquid distillation of the essence of this Earth.
Untold, incomprehensible beauty, frail hand with graphite, futile language lobe.
This is the water I've been drinking the last few day, my whole life.
The next several hours were spent exploring this plateau.
I can't believe these places exist, these colors are real. I can't believe my mind and senses.
This remarkable, ordinary basin with peaks and lakes that don't merit names, cannot fit within words. There are further steps to take, land before us, sturdy while unfurling, ample terrain to receive our feet. How to choose from so many opportunities?
Hike over this hill and that. Ingest blah after blah and all the meals. Endure astronomical #s of mosquitoes. These minor cuts on our hands they heal. Scraped shins are bruised but unburdened. And it rains and it rains and we are damp where we're not wet. It never quite opens, but there are these vistas, these beyond-the-width-of-your-eye-span landscapes telling us it is more and more than more than we could imagine. And if we hike and the mosquitoes and the hunger and the hills eventaually we see this. My son at home is more emerald and intricate than all these lakes and basins and everyday he needs a father. I must get home safely to love him and tell him about the hills and the vistas so one day he may see. There is more and there is nothing more and we need no more.
Every reaching blade of grass that passes water through the soil to spin out color and air, those very oxygen pairs that find the tiny pockets in our lungs to fuel our clumsy legs and place our feet back down where the ground has long been waiting
I am not a photographer and I do not seek prizes for what my phone does. But I will stand and take 10,000 pictures of the same thing until the battery is gone or the hard drive full in an effort to remind us all: look — right there — it is! it is! it is what we always suspect — everything beyond everything and it is right here where you are but also over there behind you and to your left (and right). You just can't take it in but keep trying.
We will struggle and we will make wrong turns. We will fail to anticipate the consequences of decisions we made yesterday, but somehow we will arrive in basins of undeserved grandeur if we just keep going, climbing, striving.
The fog rolled in. The rain fell harder.
There are these hidden places of great majesty, and when we glimpse them we know we are on the right path. We have to put in the work to get there. Come on team humanity, let's keep seeking. We're between maps, but we'll make the transition.
If you do these crazy and maybe stupid and unfathomable things, then you get to see. If you stand drenched in the rain and hungry as more clouds drift in, then you get to see. What do you get to see? Rocks and flowers and water. It's awesome. There cannot be more. It gives and it gives. There cannot be this much and yet we all know there is so much more.
I am wet past my thighs thick without words stunned again stunned. I have all this data on my phone so you can check if it's real. I don't need speech. You have your sight.
But then my battery ran out, so I need my words again. The loud, white Yule Creek turns around a granite wildflower corner as the fog lifts to expose an unnamed peak and just as fast it is again shrowded. More wildflowers, more waterfalls from waterfalls, more peaks emerging from and returning to fog.
Cursed dearth of electrons. I swear these peaks and ridges as they emerge from 2/3 a day in the clouds would've been the pictures to win awards and make my career as a photographer. Just imagine these same peaks and ridges from the 10^9 photos you just saw, but now glistening with rain, emerging from then hiding again as the sun teases the man, and the wildflowers and the waterfalls and the meadows and the lodgepole pines and the afternoon. If that damned android phone still had a volt these would have been the shots to convince you this Earth is really something keen. Oh well. Next year. Next trek. Try again and again.
Back at camp boots are steaming in the sun. And the mosquitoes and the sunscreen and the toil. It's worth it, son. Once a year, few dozen times in your life. See the Earth. Go right to it. Go right there.
Here's the recipe I know: Get up, tell your wife and son you love them and make sure they feel it. Fill your car with gas and drive a long-ass way. Park on the side of a dirt road, and cram a rock under your back tire just in case. Start hiking. Hike and hike and hike, then hunker down with some nuts under a space blanket while it rains. Hike, take your boots off to cross a river, get on all fours to drop your backpack below some fallen trees, then hike until the views are sufficiently spectacular. Look around forever for a place to pitch your tent — not soggy, not sloping, not too exposed, no nearby widow makers. Through force of will, turn the spot between a few boulders, a dry creek, and a lodgepole into your few-day home. Set up your tent, unpack all your stuff, move it around a million ways to get your clothes and sleeping bag where they need to be, food over there, bear-safe distance from your bed. Cook, eat, wash, pump water for the morning.
When the sun goes down, get in your tent, use your clothes under your sleeping pad to level out the spots that weren't quite right after the hand-axe terraforming. Lay there for a few hours wondering if the sound of the waterfall blowing in the wind is voices. Startle every time the breeze moves a twig. Fall asleep. Wake up. Put on sunscreen. Put on insect repellent. Get it everywhere. Use a bandana tied to a stick to get it in the middle of your back. Get that shit in your hair. The mosquitoes will still be everywhere, but they will only land on your eyeballs and you can blink them into oblivion. Spend a day resting your legs, reading about how the Earth works, taking pictures so that people will believe you. Remember, the goal is to show people that our planet really is this spectacular and to convince them to keep trying as hard as they possibly can. "Yes," we will all say. "Earth is worth all the work we can give." If you don't take too many pictures and scribble all day in a little notebook they will go on thinking our planet is just regular.
Eat, stretch, move all your things between pockets and containers ten million times. Bend over to reach for something. Bend over to get something else. Bend down a bunch more times and stay bent over messing with stuff. Think of it like doing a ton of deadlifts, but just the dead part.
When the sun goes down, repeat the tent routine. In the morning, drink some tea and then hike a thousand feed straight up to find a lake that will draw tears from your eyes and bring your knees to the Earth to smell purple flowers and somehow remind you how much you love your wife and son. Perhaps this lake will also make you feel hope that humanity has great triumph ahead. Come down. Eat. Move all your things around. Walk between your tent and your bear cannister a thousand times, forgettting something at the other place every time. Shit awkwardly in the woods.
When the sun goes down, get back in your tent and enjoy the next 10 hours with farts that somehow smell better than the food that made them. Wake up. Eat breakfast, drink tea, hike straight up the opposite hill, this time 2000 feet to the most spectacular chain of lakes that Great God could have stitched. Spend five hours walking through the wildflowers, taking too many pictures, and realizing in vivid color that this is it, now is the time, and these are the people. Feel again that ceaseless love for your wife and son that fuels you every day, and feel anew that hope that we, this great team of humanity, definitely do have it in us. Get soaked in the rain and views that your little mind simply cannot absorb, but take respite in the memory offered by your phone — until the battery dies. Try to write it down. Try to find some way to store this vision for your future self and others so that you and they will know immediately and forever that the unspeakable greatness that is always just behind or to the left of our tongue is actually just right there not needing to be spoken. Get back to camp. Move all your things a hundred million times. Read about how the Earth works.
When the sun goes down, stew in the incomprehensible greatness of your farts. Grab a pencil as a weapon when a trig breaks and you think it's a demon. Wake up. Drink tea. Load all your stuff into a heavy-ass pack and lug it over hills back to your car. Listen to Cat Stevens as you drive home. When you get there, tell your wife and son that you love them you love them you love them deep in your bones as deep as the valleys and perfect green-blue lakes. Tell them you can't explain why, but they are everything, right within arms reach. Show them your pictures so they will believe. Show them the wildflowers and the lakes and the radiant green everything and don't mention the farts because because she's never as impressed by your farts as you think she's gonna be. Show them and tell them and they will believe how much you love them and they will believe our planet really is this rich. And then make a blog post so everyone can see and all humanity will finally realize — thanks to this webpage — that there are a few hills to climb, but really we're gonna be just fine. Then wake up every day and do the things and all the toil because eventaully we will get there. And wake up every day and make sure your wife knows you love her, and act like it, do it, live it for her. And make sure your son knows you love him because how else will he know what this Earth is for? And next year choose a different wilderness and do it again.
One further note to myself: On your bigger life mission, you are not between maps. You have left one map and are without the next. You have the compass that digests your food and a 0.3mm pencil. You are a cartographer. Find your way, mother fucker.