Paul Andersen: Fair Game
July 13, 2009
The East and West Maroon valleys offered glorious hiking last weekend. Rugged peaks were draped in wisps of cloud, the undergrowth was lush and tropical, and there was great beauty in a profusion of wild flowers.
Edmund Burke once described the difference between the beautiful and the sublime. The sublime, he said, is writ large in magnificent scenery. The beautiful is small and delicate. In these valleys, the sublime soared overhead in towering mountain peaks, while at our feet were the most artful gardens in the world.
Columbines sprouted in thick clumps across brilliant green meadows. Tinted blue, white, pink and red, they nodded in the gentle breezes that wafted their subtle fragrance. Paintbrush, delphinium, monk’s hood, cow parsnip, bog orchid, anemone, green gentian all graced our path.
My 16-year-old son and I led a small group of noted international wilderness conservationists to Crested Butte. Reflections on Thoreau and Muir were shared as if they were our mutual friends, which, philosophically, they are. Conjuring the spirits of these naturalists triggered rhapsodic paeans to the power of our vast western landscapes.
I was reminded of Bauhaus architect Water Gropius, who hiked Buckskin Pass in the 1950s and wrote of witnessing the great array of mountain peaks, then looking at the delicate flowers at his feet. “From these remarkable scenes,” Gropius said, “I feel a great stimulus of which I hope to make good use.”
On the West Maroon trail we gazed up at perennial waterfalls showering over bands of maroon sandstone. Crater Lake was full to overflowing with the runoff from high basins just now shedding the last of their winter snow. Stream crossings were intense through thigh-deep snowmelt tumbling in cascades of whitewater foam.
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We topped West Maroon Pass (12,500 feet) in the face of a black storm cloud moving up from Marble. Lightning arced onto Sheep Mountain, and thunder boomed across the emerald basins above Schofield. We hurried down and sheltered under tall spruce as a curtain of hail swept through and obscured the high ridges.
In Schofield, we met Dolly’s Taxi, with its traditional cooler full of beer, then got stuck in deep, muddy ruts going over Schofield Pass. After shoveling mud and pushing, we cleared the pass and dropped into the East River Valley, passing through the old silver-mining town of Gothic, where the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory has studied butterflies and bistorts since 1928.
Our dinner guest that night at the Slogar restaurant was Rod Nash, historian and author of “Wilderness and the American Mind.” Nash reminded us that on July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond to “live deliberately.” By excluding himself from holiday festivities, explained Nash, Thoreau waged a personal protest against America’s geopolitics, namely the Mexican War.
Thoreau wouldn’t have missed the Fourth of July in Crested Butte, with its funky parade, town-wide water fight, street dance, food booths, and one exuberant man offering “free hugs!” There are few more magnificent backdrops to a town than the stark peak of Crested Butte Mountain, under which we basked in high mountain moods.
Walking back to Aspen from Gothic, the morning sun shone brilliantly on the fluted rock face of Gothic Peak. We set off in cool, fresh mountain air, listened to the flute-like song of the hermit thrush in the piney-scented spruce-fir forests, identified every flower and shrub along the trail, and ate “glacier lily sandwiches,” a savory mountain delicacy.
We stopped for lunch in a high glacial cirque where storm clouds gathered over Copper Lake, turning the surface a dark, metallic sheen that was soon pockmarked with a pelting of hail and rain. Suddenly, the air turned cold and mist began forming around the high peaks, softening their rugged escarpments.
We hurried over the pass into a huge storm cloud that draped the East Maroon Valley in a gray cloak. Creek crossings were deep and fast, and we used a rope to keep our footing. The storm passed, and the sun broke free as we walked under blue skies through meadows white with columbines.
After nine hours on the trail, it all ended too soon, and we emerged from the wilderness tired, elated and grateful for the wilderness that so nurtures our souls.