Is there anything more restorative than a walk in the woods? This past week I was able to hike for a few days in the area around Aspen, Colorado, and I lapped up every minute of it.
From loading my backpack for the day (does anyone else find this an oddly satisfying task?) to spending hours at a time with no other human in sight, I allow time to fade from my consciousness. I’m in a zone I can only find on a woodsy trail, and a Rocky Mountain high is a real thing (even without legal-in-Colorado help). I hike by myself the first two days and feel the deep joy of being out in nature, alone with my thoughts and the sights and smells of the mountains.
The aspen trees sport feathery leaves at an elevation of 8000’ but at 10,000’ they are still naked soldiers lined up in ranks up and down the sides of the mountains. (The aspens intrigued me; please indulge me this gallery of trees!)
Some paths are still blocked with snow, while others are beginning to grow a spring carpet of colorful mosses and tiny wildflowers.
The trails are wonderfully diverse; I start on a shaded path alongside a stream, emerge into some prairie-like flats, then climb on exposed red rock one morning.
A hike at a higher elevation begins at lake’s edge, climbs gently through dense aspen thickets, then rises steeply over rough root systems and rocks until I am forced to stop when the route is fully snowed over.
My obsession for the four days I am there is to get a great shot of the Maroon Bells, (supposedly) the most photographed mountains in North America. I go after breakfast one day, but the three-peaked mass is partially shrouded in cloud cover. They are visible – and impressive – but the color palate is drab and cold, with water, trees, stone, and sky all a similar dark gray-blue-green. I am not completely disappointed (and get in a fantastic hike on the almost-empty Crater Lake Trail), but I do have that familiar feeling of seeing my target mountain in less-than-perfect conditions.
I return that afternoon to find even thicker clouds, but the peaks and the swoop are in slightly sharper relief. I snap away, hoping the wind will die down enough to allow the iconic reflection of the massif in the lake. It is not meant to be, and I leave the White River National Forest feeling better about the clarity of my new photos but still not very satisfied.
Unlike my usual self, I decide I simply must have a better photo and set my alarm for 4:15 am to try to catch the sun rising on the face of the Bells. The next morning, four of us bundle up and head to the lake once more. Hopeful and shivering cold, we walk the shore of the lake, pacing up and down the beginnings of several trails, then set up with a few other hardy souls for the spectacle to come. The sky is clear and slowly turning orange behind us and pinkish blue in front.
Ten minutes after official sunrise, the crests ignite! We are all clicking away as the rosy light gradually lights up the whole face. Suddenly … jubilation! The lake grows still and flat, and the fire on the mountain is mirrored in the water. It is this amateur photographer’s dream come true, and I snap away with both Nikon and iPhone until my batteries fail. (I did say amateur.)
If you search for images of the Maroon Bells, you will find photos that blow your mind. Mine are no match for those, but I am happy with them, and happier still that I made the effort to capture to the best of my ability a place I may never get to see again. I was indeed jubilant as the rising sun hit those peaks, but the whole time I spent in the mountains was a source of deep joy that will sustain me until I can escape the flatlands again!