The peaks, the clouds, the storms, the animals, the streams. A hummingbird, a pine cone, a bugling elk, white water, clouds forming in a valley far below, driving into the clouds. The wind sighing in the pines, the streams roaring and burbling, aspen leaves clacking together in the breeze, the sights and sounds of nothing man-made, the cry of an eagle soaring overhead, the land as the earliest explorers saw it.
Twisted, stunted trees and snags at timberline, pea-sized wildflowers adding dots of color beneath them. Strata revealed in rock faces, the gleam of iron pyrite in a pebble. The remains of a forest burned away 100 years ago, and still barren. The overwhelming size of the rubble and destruction on a valley floor as a result of a collapsing, man-made earthen dam miles up the valley — nature reclaiming her stream. Beaver dams and ponds in marshy areas, and with luck, a beaver.
A narrow, one-way, switchbacking road rising to the pass above, retracing a trail once used by Native Americans and scruffy mountain men to cross the Rockies. Driving or hiking, not flying, to elevations of 13,000 feet and seeing from there the depth and breadth and majesty of the valleys far below. Standing astride the clouds, high above the soaring hawks. Standing eye-to-eye with the greatest peaks in the Rockies as they parade south toward Mexico, north to Canada. To the east, the Great Plains stretch into the distance toward Kansas and Nebraska, the flatlands from which we rose, America’s breadbasket.
Later we’ll explore a deep, dim valley, so heavily forested that the sun often doesn’t reach its floor. We’ll walk the trail of thick, hollow-sounding newly formed earth and pinestraw, push aside branches of aspen, cross a joyous little stream by stepping from one stone to another. We’ll watch ouzel birds dart into waterfalls as they chase insects. We’ll sit under an overhanging boulder and munch trail mix while we wait for a sweet, cool, afternoon shower to pass, hoping not to get stung by the hailstones that come bouncing down the slope behind us. We’ll move on, and cross the same wandering stream again. This time we’ll stop by one of its quiet pools and see the flash of several small trout. We’ll toss in twigs and leaves and watch them dance away, trying to guess which current they’ll ride, which eddy will catch them.
Finally, at the end of the long day, back at the cabin, we’ll sit around a blazing campfire, toasting marshmallows, telling tales, singing songs, while the night chills our backs. Or we’ll just gaze silently into the hypnotic flames and remember. Eventually, exhausted and happy, we’ll crawl off to sleep, eager to go out and do it all over again tomorrow. While we still can. While it’s still there.