There’s an elk in the photo below. Just left of center is a tiny sliver of snow, all but hidden by the slant of the ridge which travels out to the left. The elk is the dot just above the rightmost edge. In the photo it is watching Mike, John, and Kevin, who were 50 yards behind Tom and I, a bit more visible sauntering through the scattered subalpine fir. We presume this to have been the lead cow, wise and soon to be wizzened scout for the herd which never came, as this our only elk of the trip took 90 seconds to consider us, the mile distant threat, and turn back to the west side of the mountain.
The tarn shown below defies all expectation. The cliff out of sight and on the left drops over a thousand feet to the tundra below. The pass behind me, where we camped that night, is 300 feet above the water. This photo was taken in early August on a year with a late spring, which means that at 8000′ the almost immeasurable snow which must have accumulated had perhaps six weeks prior to this to be liquid. The clear, grey high water mark was 6 vertical feet above the present level, which would seem to mean that, had we arrived a month later, we might have found no water at all. Which at the end of a long day, and a 20 minute coda of unexpected beargrass sidehilling, would have been inconvenient.
The subtle dark mark at 8 o’clock is the outlet, where the water flows a few feet out of tarn before gurgling down out of sight. Judging by sound, at the rate of several gallons a minute, evidence of this huge limestone ridge eating so many signs of life quickly.
Nietzsche wrote “And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”
We know where the abyss is. Had you jumped the first 600 feet would pass in a whirl, in air only, before a bounce; ledge, boulder, or wall sloping out, likely at a speed sufficient that even the bears and the magpies would have little interest in the pieces. But the abyss is also behind you. A mile of dirt and occasional trees and stacked limestone bricks like plates in an archeological site, a by human vision geometric slope. Its extent is uncarrying, and is so beyond noticing tired feet, sore shoulders, missed expectations as to point, after little introspection, to the abyss being nothing, never having existed, without us.
When we take it home, and it hides so easily amongst a world where habit cloaks the extraordinary, when will we find it next?