Snowline

Every spring, an itch crawls through my bones. As the snow recedes up the mountains, I look furtively out the window, an exile scheming my way back to them. Morning rises bright, musical, and inviting. The birds paint the branches: the bold yellow-orange body and black and white wing patches of the evening grosbeak, the yellow breast of the western meadowlark singing on fenceposts, the bright green of the hummingbirds buzzing by, even the stark contrast of the orange and sky-blue lazuli bunting up in a juniper tree. Yet there I pace through the kitchen, trapped in a desperate calculation of exactly how many miles are open on the running trails, versus precisely how low the reaches of skiable corn remain. Must go high. Must go fast. Must make it hard.

Like an overwhelmed toddler, I huff a great sigh. Since I can’t settle on either, I resign to pack up a simple little daypack with a journal. If a moment of grace passes through my mind, I will toss in some colored pencils and a field guide, too.

On days like these, I’m likely to head toward Redstone, bump the car up a half mile of road, swinging the wheel right and left around the rocks, and park at the East Creek trailhead. I jump out and set off fast, pumping my arms up the steep switchbacks through the forest, determined to find where mud ends and snow fills the trail, to resolve whether I should have been skiing or running, somewhere else, somewhere other than here.

As my breath gets heavier, I scale back my pace a little, begin to look around. The yellow flower of a heartleaf arnica gleams from the dark, needle-strewn forest floor. In the wet places, where the snowmelt runs downhill through some sun, my legs brush past mountain bluebells covered in dew. I grab a leaf or two to munch on. The taste reminds me of fresh spinach. In the shade of the conifers, I find bright red and yellow western red columbines and think of the crowns of tiny kings. By now, I am pausing more. Where the trail meets an open meadow, I stand awhile to drink my water and look across the valley to the folds of the Thompson Divide.

Onward. Find snowline.

I march at a good pace for a while, my head on a swivel, looking at branches, flowers, birds, and the dramatic, deep-red rock formations that jut out high above the town, getting closer to me all the time. Soon, a smile spreads across my face that will not leave. I find the energy to skip and run up the trail. I sing to the sky and the stream and the sun. The hike that was my consolation prize in this middle season takes on new life.

Finally, I reach the meadows leading to the upper bowl. As Old Man Winter curls his long fingers back up ridgeward, all the beauties of early summer emerge in the snow’s wake. Where the trail turns mucky, I keep my feet directly in the mud so as not to disturb marsh marigolds. I round a corner and pass through a corridor of deep blue monkshood, noble and prayerful as they are, and purple larkspur. There are delicate white globeflowers emerging from a shrinking patch of snow.

Up one more rise, and there it is: winter obscuring my summer trail. I walk across the supportable snow, soft on top, for a few minutes, feet sliding side to side, jolting periodically when one leg pushes all the way down. Water sloshes around my socks. I stop, look up to the basin that curls above me, and raise my arms in a salute to that place where the cold lasts a little. With a slight bow, I decide to call it a day.

After a few more quiet breaths on the dividing line between the seasons, I turn back. I find a sunny rock, open up my pack. I might spend an hour or more journaling, gazing out from this high perch, drawing and imagining. Maybe in a few weeks, when I could be running some ridgetop, I’ll come back here instead just to check in on whether my friends, the funny pink-violet elephant’s head and western yellow paintbrush, have returned to the alpine zone.