The String of Sapphires

This past week I went camping in the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana with my uncle, who recently retired from a career managing forests there and two friends of his who are ranch owners and have known and loved the Bitterroot their whole lives. We hiked up Chaffin Creek Canyon, following the stream to its source, 9000 feet high in the snow-filled peaks. As the journey progressed, I kept finding lessons everywhere: losing the trail but finding it again when you realize you just have to listen for the sound of water. Remembering how important it is to keep focus so you don’t lose your footing and injure yourself or send a loose rock down on your friend. Finding an amazing spot but not settling there because you know there is more beyond.

20046733_10154996169821429_1592475419193719059_n

The prize of this hike was a series of mountain lakes called the String of Sapphires because of their shimmering deep blue hues. Hardly anyone goes there. To get to them you have to scale a nearly thousand-foot cliff where a waterfall cascades over the side, and by this time you are already far up into the canyon and have been enjoying three beautiful lakes that are themselves worthy destinations. I looked up at what seemed to be the canyon’s rim wondering, where is all that water coming from?

Only one way to find out, and once up there you realize there is much, much more than what you saw from below. After a precarious ascent using any bit of rock, tuft of grass or shrub you can find for leverage, you breathe a sigh of relief to find more certain ground. You discover a skinny path to the waterfall behind waist-high snow sheets slowly detaching from the mountain. You get as close to the edge of the falls as your adrenaline allows and take in the view before following the stream up from there through lush, mossy meadows as it meanders from one small lake to the next. Each lake stair-steps a little higher than the last, and is fed by a charming waterfall you feel you could sit beside for hours. I knew I had to dive into one of those lakes, and I chose the third one, because it was deeper than the others and tantalizingly blue. I could hang out for about a minute in the lakes below, but these waters were fed directly from the snow pack, and I lasted all of about 5 seconds here. Lake #4 is big, and you think it’s the end, but then you notice more water coming over the 300-foot ridge behind it. Tired as you are, you dig a little deeper and continue up. You figure out a way around boulders the size of small houses and traverse large, open slopes of snow, planting your feet heel-first so you don’t go sliding down. There are no real trails here. You reach an open spot at 9000 feet above all but the scrubbiest vegetation. You’re standing on solid granite and quartz, kicking chunks of rock broken off by the freeze-thaw cycle at work for centuries in the crevices and cavities. You’re breathing hard but feel exhilaration in the views that go for miles to the left and right. Down in front of you, at last, there it is–the creek’s source. A big, blue alpine lake with no name, surrounded by a round, sloping, snow-filled granite bowl.

Beyond is yet another ridge. It’s the final one. Precipitous and jagged, it’s called “The Shard,” and it looms up another 800 feet, close to another mile away. Nothing grows there, and its stacks of rocks look like they could come crashing down if the mood hit. We want to go to its very top, where you can peer over into the next canyon, all the way into Idaho. But we are getting nervous about the time. The afternoon clouds are coming in, and we saw countless lightning-struck trees on the way up. And we could only imagine retracing our path down that cliff in the wet. So we’ll save the final ascent for another day, and in the meantime savor rich memories of amazing sights, great companionship, and an unforgettable experience.

Advertisements

A Gift

December 22, 2016

On this winter solstice, I’ve found myself meditating on what a tremendous gift our natural world is.

This August, I hiked up one of Mt. Mitchell’s main trails to the summit. I had arrived there several times before by bike and a couple by car, but this was the first time powered by just my own two feet. Mt. Mitchell is the crown of the Black Mountains and the highest point east of the Mississippi. With my 50th birthday a couple months away, I found myself magnetically drawn to this place. It was not the first time I would climb that majestic peak this fall.

28356236174_832a59eb50_o (1).jpg

While milling around among the crowds of people who had driven to the top just so they could take photos for Facebook, I spotted a side trail and followed it down the back of the mountain. As it meandered over rocky terrain away from the crowds, at some magical point I realized I was surrounded by the kind of silence that is defined by the absence of human noise. I was still under that dense spruce-fir canopy, but this kind of silence opened up space all around me. I had been craving this, without realizing it until that moment. I kept going. Soon I caught the faint, tantalizing sound of running water. I would have to venture off the trail to find it, and that’s exactly what I was going to do.

The sound got louder as I crouched and pushed aside branches. Louder still. Finally, the woods opened, and my ears were filled with the glorious chaos of a majestic crashing waterfall. Soaked with sweat from 10 miles of hard hiking, I looked down and saw my clothes as an outrageous burden, the only remaining obstacle between my soul and the perfect alignment with nature I had been closing in on all day. I left them in a pile. I stepped carefully over mossy rocks that had existed for millions of years only to find their way to those exact spots. What similarly mysterious forces smoothed my rough edges and brought me here to take note of them in this moment? I felt exhilaration as I slipped into that cold mountain stream. One day I might try to find my way back to this spot, but I knew without a doubt that this moment was as utterly unique as it was perfect. And that it was a gift for me alone.

Confluence

April 11, 2017

Yesterday I rode my bike through the rolling farmland north of Hillsborough. The temperature was perfect and the lush fields were bathed in the golden light of the late afternoon sun. I found myself headed to a place called the Confluence, where the East and West forks of the Eno River converge and the river builds momentum as it winds its way toward the town that settled its banks in Colonial times.

I turned my bike onto the gravel path that leads into the park and lifted it over the shiny enameled gate whose lock signifies that this place, a work in progress, is not yet open to the public. I bounced along on my skinny tires as churning and popping rocks and dinging spokes made music underneath me. I powered and slid my way up a hill where the road petered out and opened onto a wide meadow filled with lush green clover and grasses alive with buzzing insects.

279432_10150256455061429_5698971_o.jpg

Near where the gravel ended I spotted a dirt two-track road that led toward the woods. I continued pedaling. There were remnants of a rock foundation revealing someone had farmed this land in an earlier lifetime. The two tracks lifted and fell with the terrain, and as the road met the woods they flowed unevenly into a long dip whose rims hid the entrances from view. At the center of this dip someone had positioned a copious metal bench that looked fifty feet down onto the river as it formed a grand horseshoe. The bench bore a plaque dedicating it to someone who had known and loved these lands.

I laid down on the bench and looked up at the treetops swaying back and forth, the light working magic through the leaves. Then I closed my eyes and started to become aware of the sounds around me. The wind was bringing two layers of sound together–the wind blowing through branches and leaves nearby and the larger, more distant sound of the wind flowing over the treetops and encompassing the woods as a whole. Beneath me, rising up from the river, was the sound of a gentle rapid.

Then I began to hear something else. As the sound came into focus, I recognized it as something running or trotting. It was getting closer. What is that? It sounded too large to be a common woodland creature. It was too steady and light-footed to be a human. I sat up and watched as a beautiful brown coyote trotted through the woods past me on the other side of the road. As he exited onto the road about 30 feet away from me, I whistled. He turned to acknowledge me briefly before continuing on his way.

Soon after, I got up and continued on mine, feeling rich to live in a world that offers such beauty, and thankful for the mysterious and auspicious messenger it sent my way.