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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Nature's tenacity

The beauty just outside my door astounds me.
The aspen trees are having an end-of-summer celebration that colors our world gold.
I'm soaking up days like today with warm sun filtering through a yellow canopy.
This morning, K and I rolled out together, thankful for another autumn day on the trails. Another bout of winter is due to roll over us tomorrow so I'm savoring these relaxed and warm days. The specter of winter hovered over the mountains in the form of a curtain of clouds. But, gold patches, aspen groves in full cry, adorned the distant forests on the mountain flanks.
K and I stopped at a unique viewpoint, atop a jumble of boulders. She posed her sleek body, with an impossibly narrow waist (for a Labrador), in a precarious spot.
Then, she squinted in the sun as she looked at me.
Shortly later, we started toward home, and a rainbow appeared over the Divide. Rainbows seem like Nature's magic trick, creating a kaleidoscope of color floating in mid-air. I imagine my departed dogs waiting for me at the other end of the rainbow.
After I dropped K off at home, I rode solo to a favorite ridge. Suddenly, as I cruised along, a fierce wind hit me from the side, almost blowing me off the trail. The chinook wind, still blowing now, will blow the mountain's veil over us by tomorrow.
No matter what view I gazed upon, the clouds loomed but the beauty overwhelmed me. The yellow leaves in the photo below hung on willow branches. The willows have joined the aspens in the end-of-summer celebration.
During a recent ride, I found an almost complete cow elk skeleton. The skull and jawbone lay scattered near the main part of the body. Most of the main bones are still articulated although predators have eaten every morsel of meat from the skeleton.
Because it's rare to find both the skull and mandible from one animal, I decided to bring them home so that I could study the details. On one ride, I carried the jawbone lashed outside my pack.On my next ride, I carried the skull home with me.
I put the two parts together on my deck.
Understandably, R freaked out when he saw the huge ferocious looking head on our deck. He first barked while backing away. After regrouping, he sneaked forward to sniff it before scurrying backward again. Finally, he decided that, although it was spooky, the skull wasn't going to hurt him. By contrast, the easily flustered K has become accustomed to weird objects, like skulls, suddenly appearing in her world. She ignored it.
I plan to look closely at the skull and jawbone details, using my mammal book as a guide. I may blog more about its design in coming days.

At the end of today's ride, with a skull lashed to my back, I noticed a harebell wildflower still blossoming despite the freezes and snowfall over recent weeks. These papery thin flowers prove, over and over, that they are among the toughest flowers in our forest. They fight their way through harsh conditions to keep shining until they finally get pollinated and can reproduce.

It's rare to get a wildflower photo with yellow aspens in the background but it's appropriate that it's a tough and beautiful harebell!Seeing the tenacity of nature leads me to ask questions about my own life. While a flower's life goal is obvious, a person's is not as obvious. What are we meant to do with our precious years on this Earth? Are we obligated to use the unique gifts that we're given or can we follow our whims toward happiness? For me, these are deeply personal questions, as I ponder my future. I've walked away from a calling that was based on a natural intellectual gift. Now, I'm searching for what's next. Immersed in the mountains, thoughts about the 'purpose of life' drift and curl through my mind triggered by nature's power, beauty, and tenacity.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The alpine spirit

On our second full day in the Aspen mountains, we drove down a valley away from Aspen early in the morning. The sun hadn't yet crested the eastern wall of the valley so it illuminated only the top half of the western wall of the valley.
We parked at the base of a 4wd road that climbed inexorably toward the sky. I planned to climb at least to Taylor Pass (about 12,000'), and if I had enough time, I hoped to explore terrain beyond it.

We were the first on the trail and the views awed me right from the base.
I had hoped to take K on her 'birthday adventure' on this day but I still felt that she wasn't ready for a long excursion. Her energy levels keep rising but she still needs to gain about 6 lbs (10% of her body weight) to fully regain her pre-pancreatitis form. In a photo that I took today, you can see that she still looks too skinny, even for a physically fit Labrador. Her vertebrae protrude like bumps on her back. I'm keeping her relatively sedate until she regains her lost muscle and fat. So, on that morning in the Aspen mountains, I had canine company for the start of my ride. The canine duo sprinted back to me after ranging too far ahead during our romp up the mountain.
Soon, however, I was on my own. I fell into a steady climbing rhythm, enjoying the silence of the mountains and the smooth effort of pedaling up a relentless mountain. Suddenly, I realized that I'd fallen almost into a trance, enjoying the hard work of pedaling but completely immersed in the alpine world.

I passed through an avalanche zone where a tremendous wall of snow accelerated down the hill and flattened an aspen grove during a recent winter. Some aspens were uprooted or snapped but others bent like pretzels without breaking. The lucky flexible trees dominate the foreground of the photo below.Nearby, the devastating avalanche spared some trees whose yellow leaves framed a sawtooth mountain ridge.
As I continued pedaling toward the sky, the terrain opened up as I approached the thin air zone that stunts trees and then a little bit higher where no trees flourish.
Riding my mountain bike in this alpine world rearranges my brain's circuits, eliminating extraneous thoughts and narrowing my focus to the tundra around me. The starkness and harshness of the mountain world, devoid of wildflowers in the autumn, is part what I love.
Once I reached the barren and treeless zone, a Pika's squeaks caught my attention. Occasionally, I'd catch a glimpse of a small rabbit-like form disappearing under a boulder.These astonishing animals survive the frigid, windy, and snowy winter in the alpine zone by collecting and drying plants during the summer. After the plants desiccate, pikas haul them underground into their dens. They spend the winter wide awake in their snow-insulated dens, burning calories almost as fast as during the summer, and eating their supply of dried plants. Earlier this summer, I found a 'plant-drying' site heavily laden with King's Crown plants, a favorite meal of pikas. An industrious pika had cut down all of these plants and dragged them to this sheltered but sunny spot. Within the same boulder field, I found a few other drying sites.
On my ride near Aspen, in contrast to the pikas, marmots had already begun hibernation. No marmot warning whistles met me as I passed through talus fields. The only music was the squeaks of the pikas.

In the alpine zone, the road pitched toward the sky like a rock-strewn wall, and I pedaled laboriously, barely staying upright at times. I inched upward, shifting my weight almost behind my saddle to keep traction with my rear tire. Finally, when I emerged at the Pass, I gazed at the new view to the east.I lingered at the pass only briefly. A fierce and chilly wind ripped through my thin jacket, and my fingers immediately began to freeze. I have Raynaud's syndrome so even my fleece mittens with chemical handwarmers didn't keep my fingertips warm. To fight off the chill, I climbed some more, up the nearest mountain and looked down at the pass. The 4wd road that I'd just ridden is in the middle of the photo just before the first chasm leading down to the right (toward my van).
In the other direction, scattered trees survived on a nearby slope that was tinted red with wildflower leaves. Snowy mountains towered in the background.
Finally, my time was up, and I started rolling down the mountain that I'd just climbed. This view shows the gash, cut over millennia by a creek, that my dirt road followed.Although the high sun now touched every iota of the valley, my frozen hands began to dominate my thinking. The lack of work in downhill riding combined with the pressure of braking turned my fingertips sickly white. I had to stop every few minutes to try to shake some blood into my fingers. When I rode, I could barely feel my fingers, making it difficult to modulate my braking.

After a long descent, I approached the valley floor through towering yellow aspen groves. My fingers were starting to warm up. I quickly forgot about them as I reveled in the glorious autumn day. No doubt, the alpine journey had reset my brain's circuits, leaving them in a happy state!

Monday, September 28, 2009

An Aspen sojourn

To my friends who I made worried with my 'radio silence', I'm sorry! We made a last minute decision to go visit the mountains near Aspen. Because both humans in our family had tooth infections last week, we delayed our decision to flee the Front Range until we both felt better. Two people with intense toothaches sharing a small camping van seemed like a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, we both felt better, suddenly, on Friday, when our antibiotics finally did their job.

Before we departed, I loosened up my back with a short ride. Below, K glided through an aspen trail. Our world seemed gilded with gold.On our drive to Aspen, we traversed Independence Pass, over 12,000' high. The barren beauty reminded me of the arctic tundra. Due to the snow covering, I had an instant of wondering if we would freeze in our van even though I knew that we'd camp at a lower elevation. I shouldn't have worried - we were snug and cozy.We had a gorgeous weekend of warm sun and breath-taking views of endless aspen groves.My husband ran a trail half-marathon on Saturday morning, and I took the dogs for a hike during the race. We parked our camping van next to a trailhead, and R watched my husband don his running gear. R launched into a frenzy of caterwauling, howling, trilling, and barking that would put a Sibe to shame, and then my husband departed without him. Yes, I had to try to control the crazed running dog who had been deserted by his erstwhile running partner.

I walked over the trailhead and was dismayed beyond words to read the sign saying that dogs had to be leashed on the trail. I've written before about how the puppy-like R has trouble with leash walking when he's excited - and on that day, he was completely maniacal after watching my husband leave. During our leash walks on unfamiliar trails, he normally barks shrilling, almost popping my eardrums, while simultaneously play-attacking K. So, when I saw the sign, I prepared myself for the worst.

To my complete and utter surprise, R behaved almost beautifully during our hike. As soon as he started his raucous barking within a few steps of the trailhead, I instituted a rule that I would walk forward *only* when he was silent. I pretended that I was a silence-activated robot that hiked when R was quiet and screeched to a halt when he barked. After about 10 repeats of my abrupt stops, R no longer barked. He hiked like the well-trained dog that he is, and he didn't even play attack K. Moreover, he remembered that he's supposed to sit next to the trail to let other hikers pass - and did so flawlessly. Wow - I think the boy is growing up!

We had a sweet and relaxing hike on trails lined by scrub oak with red leaves. The Scrub Oak acorns play a key role in helping black bears gain weight for the winter. I saw only a few acorns and began worrying about the bear food supply but a local hiker assured me that the crop had flourished. The acorns had already been snarfed by ravenous animals.The steep hike gave us almost perpetual breath-taking views of the nearby mountains. Some aspen groves sported yellow leaves but none as brilliant as our local aspens. I later learned that the wet summer caused a fungus to attack a lot of the aspen groves, not killing the trees, but blunting the yellow color and causing the leaves to drop early.Even the dogs, including the model-citizen R, soaked up the views.A photographer with much fancier equipment than mine started snapping photos of my canine duo at a viewpoint. Then, he asked if I could pose the dogs for him. I was astonished - I know that *I* think that my dogs are gorgeous but a complete stranger seemed to agree. He said he'd email me the photos but they're not here yet. His photos were posed near the same spot as this one and were much better.In the afternoon, after my happy but exhausted husband returned, I decided to ride the same trails as he'd just raced on and meet him down in east Aspen. Ironically, he boldly informed me that it would be impossible to get lost, even for me, because the trail was so well marked. After confidently riding away from the van, I climbed straight up the Snowmass ski slopes, like my husband had said to do. But, the race officials had already taken down their trail markers, and, very soon, it was obvious that I wasn't on course. The hikers who I questioned had never heard of the trail that I sought.

At about this point, I was starting to have flashbacks to my long and lost day in the San Juan Mountains on our last vacation. I pulled out a map and my GPS, and decided not to move until I had a good plan. No more aimless wandering through the aspen forests.Fortunately, a pack of five mountain bikers appeared climbing up a slope. I quickly jammed my navigational gear into my pack and sprinted to catch them. I asked about the trail, and yet again, I was amazed by the kindness of strangers. This group of locals was planning to ride the same route as me and invited me to join them. Woo hoo! I didn't even have to think about navigation again that day, and I had the company of five fun mountain bikers. Here's a photo of two of them among the aspens.We rode a sweet, but somewhat technical and rocky, singletrack trail that connects Snowmass Ski Area to Aspen. Near an infamous 'rock garden' that I've heard has caused many bikers to crash, a funny sign stood. Actually, I don't think that my Dad would think that the vision of me riding past that sign was humorous - but he rarely reads this blog (I think).Our group easily cleared the ocean of rocks protruding out of the dirt, emerging into an open area where towering aspens met us.At the end of the day, I spun easily up to our van, having had a happy ride with a group of kind strangers through amazing scenery.My appreciation for the kindness of strangers was even more bolstered last evening when I received an uplifting email from the family whose lost dogs we helped find. They found someone else's lost dog just 4 days after being reunited with their dogs, and they worked hard to help return him to his human. For me, this summer feels like a long chain of kind acts, starting with that generous family who helped me when I was lost in the San Juans. It's almost like a relay race where each kind person passes the baton of kindness to the next person in need.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Yellow aspens and snowy mountains

What a wildly vacillating morning on the trails. When K and I first set out, the sun glimmered faintly among the pine trees so I pedaled up a steep trail to our lookout. During the climb, the clouds closed in, and alas, I could barely discern the outline of the mountains in the sky.I could tell during our climb to the peak that K had regained another byte of energy today in her slow recovery from pancreatitis. She zoomed, zipped, and leaped over small boulders. Her energy, combined with great news from the vet yesterday, made me smile. K's blood tests showed no signs of diabetes, a disease known to follow pancreatitis. The reason for her frequent urination was simply a urinary tract infection - a fixable and not-too-serious condition. I was very relieved.

To celebrate, we enjoyed a longer mountain bike ride than we've been taking lately. We rode through a pine forest, and when we passed an opening in the trees, the resplendent mountains appeared like a mirage.
After a bit more pedaling, we celebrated that the snow hadn't ripped the leaves off of an expansive aspen grove. As we stood near the grove, snow flakes first drifted and then pelted out of the sky.
We turned around to hustle toward home. But, in the blink of an eye, the sun rays warmed us so we stopped in the midst of glowing aspens.We enjoyed a flowing and relaxing ride home, with K galloping effortlessly by my side. I'm so happy that she's on the mend.

After I dropped her off at home, the wild weather continued. However, each time conditions became nasty, I knew that the sun would shine again within minutes. What an odd day! It's as if nature cannot decide whether it's fall or winter.

I took a route with many views of the mountains, and I enjoyed every one. I appreciated the unique combination of autumn colors and snowy mountains. The snowy mountains will watch over us for the coming months but the leaves will be on the ground, buried under snow, soon.
As I rolled along a ridge, flocks of unfamiliar birds flew out of the grass like popcorn popping all around me. I didn't recognize any of these migratory birds passing through our forest except for one, the yellow-rumped warbler. It's almost impossible not to recognize this beautiful bird with its brilliant yellow rump flashing as it flies away. I see these birds in huge flocks in the fall and in much smaller numbers in the spring. During migration, they fly long distances at night, averaging 55 miles/night in the fall and 190 miles/night in the spring. Those vast distances astound me. These warblers must stop-over in our area for refueling during the daylight hours - which is when I see them.

From the ridge, as I watched the birds, I noticed my favorite landscape combination. A delicately adorned aspen tree with a snowy mountain as its background.Finally, as I homed in on my house, I sweltered in the warm sun. I was dressed for the 28 degree snowy air that met me at the start of my ride. Despite being tired and hot, I noticed a new mountain perspective from a trail as familiar as the rooms of my house. It's funny how I can ride and hike past a spot for years, and then suddenly, it looks unique to me one day. The 'unique' view is captured in the photo below.
I arrived home tired and happy. What a beautiful place I get to live. And, two warm and wonderful Labradors greeted me at home!