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The news from 12,000 feet

2017 August 4
by Rachel Turiel

“We’re going into the eye of the teeth,” Dan tells me as we ramble up the forest service road, motioning towards the heavy, grey clouds ahead. I think he’s mixing metaphors, or anatomy, or something, but, it’s true, the sky has dropped, storm clouds knocking around in all directions.

We miss the storm somehow, and find a sweet, secluded spot to set up camp for two nights, the time-carved humps of Hermosa Peak rising up in the front yard of our view. There are no trailheads or 14-ers to draw people, and it’s quiet here. The kids are on a double sleepover, and I tamp down my Mama-anxieties by reminding myself that everyone is exactly where they want to be this weekend.

Full disclosure: we traded a WWII era rifle for this canvas wall tent, which makes waiting out a thunderstorm (with woodstove, New Yorker magazine and coffee) extremely pleasant.

We fall asleep to rain, wake to ravens. Our first morning, we consult the map and make a plan: up this forested chute, under that talus slope, up through the last trees and then popping out into the alpine. This is exactly what I want my 45 year old body to be able to do, I realize as we cinch up packs and set off early, hoping to spend as much time as possible above the trees before the afternoon storms auger in.

We scare up three fat grouse, watch a family of five weasels scamper and twist like furred-snakes with feet, hear coyotes yipping, fall in love with all the flowers, get busted by pikas who stand sentinel on their rock piles eeep-ing at us. We spot five sleek, orangey-brown bucks, a herd of over a hundred elk on a distant ridge, and four big bull elk napping by a snow patch.

Dan moves—quiet and alert—like there could be an animal around every bend. And, sometimes there is. We scare up a doe from her bed in what Dan calls a “juicy meadow.” Dan motions across the lush, greenness of it, red and orange paintbrush confettied throughout, and asks, “Doesn’t it sort of make you wish you were an herbivore?” Dan marks up his map with notable info, like: “wallow here,” “juicy meadow,” or “flower city,” the way others might make a note of a great vegetarian restaurant when traveling somewhere new.

At 12,000 feet, looking out onto the panorama of San Juan mountains, we make our own weather forecasts: Raining on the La Platas; high pressure over the Sleeping Ute; storms building over Lizard Head; moisture pummeling Grizzly Peak.

Why is our human eye so attracted to mountains – to these uplifted and eroded rocks?

At 12,000 feet, the spruce and fir trees are smaller than humans, the willows smaller than my hand.

There are no trails; we navigate our route based on weather, wildflowers and elk.

The sky lifts and we lay down in a patch of flowers, boggling over the questions of life. Like, if no matter is created or destroyed, from what does a seed become a towering spruce tree? Why such breathtakingly specific diversity of lifeforms – the feathery petals of paintbrush and the tight, circular disk of a sunflower?; the floppy petals of sneezeweed and the cylindrical funnel of bluebells? Why does arnica always bloom in configurations of either 1, 3 or 5 flowers? Why is my mind so drawn to wildflowers that I want to roll around in them, get their scent on me?

WHO CREATED THE FLOWER WE CALL ELEPHANTHEAD? AND WHY?

Back at camp, we make a fire, crack beers and consider the thousands of conversations we could catch up on from the past 12 years. Instead, we opt for what’s alive in us right now (Weasels! Sore muscles, epic-ing over everything, the holy simplicity of this moment). Grey jays call from the thicket of trees above us. Robins congregate in open spots. The sun closes up shop on another breathtaking summer day, trading places with stars.

Related posts:

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. Mary permalink
    August 4, 2017

    OH! You are using my brain-heart as you write this, so close is the connection I feel with your adventure. May your boots be dry and fit well.
    Love you!

  2. shadymama permalink
    August 4, 2017

    this made me cry. which – ok, FINE, i do easily – but still-
    xoxo

  3. ellen permalink
    August 4, 2017

    It worked to cut and paste the URL in Firefox but not in Internet Explorer. Such beautiful photos…the mountains continue to delight and feed people with beauty and peace.

  4. Kathy in Michigan permalink
    August 4, 2017

    Heartbreaking and uplifting. Brings me to tears, I miss this place so much. The mountains are calling… Thank you for taking me there, if only for a moment.

  5. gretchen permalink
    August 4, 2017

    is there a word in another language for the urge to roll around in wildflowers?

  6. Aunt Jan permalink
    August 4, 2017

    The link worked with a click with Safari on my iPad. I can’t decide which is more beautiful, the gorgeous pictures or words. I have always been a sucker for wildflowers, mountain views and written magic. Thank you for such a lovely dose of all three. ❤️

  7. Melissa permalink
    August 4, 2017

    I got your link in my email, and it worked great. Such breathtaking wildflower and mountain pictures!

  8. Ellie permalink
    August 4, 2017

    The link worked, but your email still ended up in my “Promotions” folder, where I hardly ever go :(
    Breathtaking pictures, and the writing is even better.

  9. Dave Brown permalink
    August 4, 2017

    Thank you for opening my heart to “the holy simplicity of this moment” tonight.

  10. Rachel permalink
    August 10, 2017

    Hurray for elephant head flowers! I was so happy to find that such a thing exists, to the point that I recently sent an email with pictures of them to a friend who needed cheering up…because who can’t be a little excited that we live in a world with flowers shaped like tiny colorful elephant heads??

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