Things unseen

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There are many places road should never have been built. Park Avenue and the Courthouse Towers in Arches are one. Yosemite Valley beyond El Portal/Big Oak Flat is another, as is the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Many Glacier valley would also be high on this list; digesting the view above should require that the 6 miles into the heart be taken at a casual pace.

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This mild year the road crew made short work of plowing, meaning bike access is easy. Ever the hypocrite I am. Gogo multisport junk show.

The winter campground is the summer picnic area/trailhead. I arrived on the edge of darkness, ate dinner in the shade of a tree, stashed my food in the empty bearproof trash can, and made a point to pitch the mid well, using all the guylines I’ve added on the windward side.  Last time we got pounded by wind and snow, and with a variable forecast caution is a good idea.

Around midnight I woke to flapping fabric and the hiss of wind driven snow.  I glanced out under the hem and saw an inch, accumulating fast.  I tightened up a few linelocs and reflected that my skiing ambitions would likely change as I went back to sleep.

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That proved to be the case.

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In the trees conditions were mild, but visibility was rarely more than 100 meters.  Guided by compass, I felt my way up and west as the clouds closed further.

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The light was flat enough that I almost bumped my head against Wilbur before I knew it was there.  Conditions down low were good, 4-10 inches of fresh snow over an often icy crust, but anything exposed was either windloaded or scoured bare.  Between that and the poor, unpredictable visibility nothing too far off the valley was getting skied.  I wandered around, got some good powder, enjoyed the scenery, and got pretty wet from the warm snow and occasional 50 mph gusts.

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The makings of a good day out, but not what I had hauled all that gear around for.  I retreated to camp, brewed tea, ate some cheese and crackers, and contemplated my fate.  The sun came out for 30 minutes, but another storm was unhidden up valley, ready to pounce.

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Warmed and dried a bit from hunkering under my serape with a hot water bottle, I headed up another valley to climb a steep rib and ski the other side, where I thought I’d find sheltered snow for safe and good skiing.  I did, but by the time I crested the ridge the blizzard had moved back in, with visibility closed down to 50 meters, aside from fleeting windows.  Having had my fill of mini-golf skiing, and quite tired from all the running around in the thick woods, I headed back for shelter.  Free of the burden of keeping sleeping and cooking separate in bear country, I sprawled out under nylon, brewed more tea, ate some ginger cookies, and drank my last beer.  No need to save it for dinner, as I was going home early.

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Striking the mid required a plan; removing all the downwind stakes first, then the center pole, then tying the windwardmost corner to my bike to keep it from blowing away as I pulled the rest.  Everything back on the bike, I stayed layered up and enjoyed a leisurely, tailwind assisted ride back out, plowing through the new drifts to justify bringing the fat tires.  (The Mukluk also rides well loaded.)  I even saw two herds of Bighorns hanging around the bare talus slopes.

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Soon I was back at the car, soon it was loaded, and soon enough I was back home wearing dry clothes, sore shins propped up on the couch.

I struggle with places like this, in the grand scheme.  Much as I’ve taken to skiing in the past four years, I still prefer walking above all other forms of outdoor locomotion, and thus it seems a bit daft to live in a place where planks are necessary 6-8 months of the year.  Yes the transience of summer makes it all the more manicly sweeter, but in the last analysis I always come back to feeling hemmed in by trees.  The east side here, with sage plains and wind tortured aspens, and the consequent open spaces, calls strongly.  But red rocks call even stronger.

That is the question of 2013: will we live in Montana for the next three decades, or move back to the Colorado Plateau for the rest of our lives?  Six months from now we’ll know.

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7 thoughts on “Things unseen

  1. I am taking a short break from my school today to do a little reading and writing. I found this gem in Stegner’s essay, “Thoughts in a Dry Land;” I think it resonates with many of your sentiments lately:

    “We are in danger of becoming scenery sellers—and our scenery is subject to as much enthusiastic overuse and overdevelopment as grass and water. It can lead us into an ill-considered crowding on the heels of our resources. Landscape, with its basis of aridity, is both our peculiar splendor and our peculiar limitation. Without careful controls and restrictions and planning, tourists can be as destructive as locusts—can destroy everything we have learned about the West. I include you and me among the tourists, and I include you and me in my warning to entrepreneurs. We should all be forced to file an environmental impact study before we build so much as a privy or a summer cottage, much less a motel, a freeway, or a resort.

    “…I really only want to say that we may love a place and still be dangerous to it.”

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