Kara Powis, MA
Kara Powis is a doctoral student at the California Institute of Integral Studies where she is persuing her degree in Humanities with a concentration in Transformative Learning and Change. Kara is formulating her dissertation question to encompass her passions of travel, ecology, cultural and the phenomenon of humanity by researching human being’s relationship with place. Kara has been engaged with Colorado for the past eight years by residing, playing, studying and working there. Kara also engages human communities through her vocation as a Sign Language Interpreter and her volunteer work as Youth Facilitator.
Being In Season:
A Weekend in the Wilderness
If you have ever ascended 2000 feet in fourteen miles, you know that the point of origin and the destination are two dramatically different worlds.
On Friday September 7, 2001 my partner, Kate and I set out from our home in Longmont, Colorado with a car full of camping gear and warm clothes to camp for the weekend at the base of the Indian Peaks wilderness. It was the last camping weekend of the season. In excitement and anticipation, we set off to grasp our last few moments in our favorite camping spot before the season shifted into a dormant hibernation of winter solitude. We drove a short distance along the high plains where Longmont is situated, passing numerous farms, fields and pastures. The towering crests of Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker, our nearest 14,000-ft. neighbors, stood before us as we drove west to the base of our ascent into the Rockies. The sky was azure blue with a dotting of pristine white clouds. The air was thin, cool and blowing lightly through the tops of the evergreens and changing deciduous trees that sparsely populate the landscape.
Between the town of Longmont and Lyons runs the Ute Highway, named after the native-american tribe that once made their home at the base of these mountains. The four-lane road abuts farms and fields that sustain themselves with the breading and boarding of dairy cows and horses, the sowing and harvesting of Echinacea and corn. The creeping boarders of each town’s limit are beginning to blur with the ever-increasing development of exorbitantly large single-family homes that could each house a small village.
One of the farms had a plethora of horses grazing its field that morning, which I found particularly captivating. The horses’ markings stood out against the green and tan of the fall grasses upon which they grazed and galloped. Their muscles shone under the sun as they grazed close to the property line fence that was only a few yards from the road. We were driving 40 mph and noticed the field itself was probably a gastronomical delight, for it still had some high dry grasses, low dry grasses and a variety of green grasses.
My attention turned as we came to the town limits of Lyons where two lots sit adjacent to each other that sell cuts of flagstone. One glance into the geological formation of this area and all the eye can see is the brilliant muted red of flagstone rock. I imagine the disruption of the earth’s crust millions of years ago when these mountains were formed. I imagine the glaciers that moved through the canyons with the ominous force of nature. I see at last glance, the piles and miles of flagstone that humans have excavated out of the belly of the earth with the desire to posses that which we deem aesthetically pleasing. I know that only a few miles up into the canyon we are about to enter is the source of the human rape-project or quarry as it is commonly called, from where all the flagstone slabs are excavated.
We turn onto the canyon road, where we begin our ascent. Here, nature dictates how humans make our imprint. The road has been built to follow the flow of the river whose source is a glacier thousands of feet above. Some modest sized homes sit along the bank of the river, abutting the rock outcrops. Humans have modified their domiciles to fit into the landscape, not the other way around. Those homes that have not surrendered to the landscape have paid the price- they have been hit by avalanches or flooded by the river and now lay in irreparable shambles. Every few miles there are antiquated abandoned homesteads that once housed the first appropriators of this mountainside. I make up stories about their lifestyle, what they were doing, pursuing, and questing. I wonder if they were going toward something or fleeing from something. Knowing how the climate of this area can shift and change without warning makes me think they were dedicated, to what, I’m not sure.
We pass the quarry. The mountainside is a gaping-wound bleeding red, mustard, pink, gray and white. The machines of destruction are hidden behind the trees, but with the deciduous leaves falling away, I can see through the gaps and get a glimpse of the yellow clawed steel traps that work methodically to dig ever deeper into the earth’s belly. I wonder when they will stop. When the mountain has been razed? Perhaps, they will go further, into the depths of the earth’s crust and hope there is more to sate their unquenchable lust for…what exactly? Images of abortion and hysterectomies swim in my head. Is the fascination/disgust/intrigue and horror with the re/productive system so titillating that it cannot be left alone? When does exploration become exploitation? The line seems very fine.
The air is changing. Surrounded by the metal and glass encasing of the truck, I can sense the crisp bite of the mountain air cutting through the canyon. The trees shimmer in the afternoon light and shadows are cast on the northern and western sides of the canyon, changing the rock from muted red to burnt orange.
We turn into our campground and creep slowly along the road. Our pace has changed. Together, Kate and I intuitively slowdown our breathing, our speed, our thoughts. We have arrived to our destination. My gaze becomes softer and wider. I take in the visual delights of our last seasonal pilgrimage. A few feet into the entrance of the campground a wooden bridge spans the river that led us here. I notice the water level is the lowest I have seen it all season- my barometer to the ecological state of this bio-region.
There are few camping spots available, so we choose the one that affords us our primary desire- optimum and amble sun exposure. We breathe deeply, tasting, smelling, feeling the emergence of winter before starting our homesteading. Our eyes are drawn to the jutting white capped pyramid of Mt. Meeker, which stands only a few miles before us. Sensing her strength and power, I feel humbled and cradled in her presence. Directly across from our campsite is a hill, covered by evergreens and aspens. The growth patterns of the trees are striking. The evergreens form a horizontal band from the ground up one-third of the hill's height. A clear line delineates the horizontal band of the aspens, which occupy the second third of the hillside. The top band of trees are evergreens which are dwarfs to their first third counterparts- indicating to me, the oxygen level on the hilltop is distinctively different from where I stand. Our campground sits at 7,500 ft. The height of the hill would only be a random guess, and I decide, inconsequential. It just is.
Kate and I perform the ritual domesticities of setting up a temporary home. We have brought more than usual knowing the weather at this altitude can change drastically and without notice in a moment. I work on erecting and securing the tent. I build and additional roof and wall with a freestanding canvas cover and tarp to insulate us and block the prevailing gale that has been predicted to rise this evening. Kate meticulously works to build a fire in the ever-shifting wind. Once our chores are completed, we revel in our accomplishments and sit engulfed by the sounds of our surroundings. I am most aware of the trees. Their movement in the wind catches my ear and I think of creaking bones, old stairways and haunted houses. I am cognoscente that the wildlife that was here only a month before has moved on or become dormant. A plump bluebird with eye-catching black markings sits on the branch of our nearest evergreen tree and watches us, watching him. His plumage indicates he has beefed up for winter. I imagine he is looking to stock up on the last morsel of human dietary contribution he can scavenge. Seeing we don’t have a donation, he moves on. Our next featured guest of the evening is a small gray mountain chipmunk. She first appears on the perimeter of our campground. Cautiously and furtively, she checks us out. Her movement patterns are erratic and quick. After disappearing briefly behind a shrub, she reappears and approaches our quarters more closely. Her movements slow and she takes her time in checking us out. As deftly as she appeared, she is gone.
Our campground hosts approach us, register our stay and warn us of the snowstorm that has been threatening to strike that evening. As they depart, Kate and I look to each other, look to the sky and speculate on the accuracy of the prediction. The sun is setting and the air is cool. However, there is nothing that resembles a cloud in the sky. It’s hard to believe it could change in a matter of hours. My experience and logic tell me differently. I have lived here eight years and know that climatic shifts occur faster than the human consciousness can adapt. Then, it changes again, just as your mind and body adjusts.
I play a game in my head. I look to the sky above Mt. Meeker and see if there are any clouds. The mountains are the fortune-tellers of the bio-region. If snow clouds are hovering above them, they will eventually drift to the low land and dump their precipitation in one form or another. There are none, so I suspend my knowledge and experience and decide the forecast is wrong- it won’t snow tonight.
The sun is falling quickly and we move in closer to our fire. Kate and I sit with cups in hand, on chairs that suspend us only inches above the ground. Again, I watch and listen. I am aware that I cannot hear the river that is only a few hundred yards behind us. The water level has decreased drastically since we were here in early August. The trees are talking again. This time, they are like children in need of attention. They drop leaves and pinecones intermittently, occasionally getting our attention by landing strategically on our bodies or in the fire. The smell of pine wafts around our heads as the fire smoke drifts with the ever-changing direction of the wind.
Night falls quickly and brings with it the chill of air only felt at 7500ft. We see the first star and make a wish. We ask each other our wish’s premise- temporal or ethereal? Mine is ethereal; Kate’s is temporal. I smile with an inner knowing, as I see her silhouette in the glow of the fire. We are each other’s- other.
We sit and talk quietly, sharing stories of travel and experience in places we have felt a pull, a call; an inner sense of home. It starts to snow.
Together, we collect what items we have laying around the campsite and put them in the truck. I don’t play the mental game anymore; Mother Nature has kept her word. Whether it will be a dusting of snow or a whiteout is anyone’s guess. The daylight will bring with it the outcome of the night’s trial.
The warmth of our human-made cave surprises us. The addition of a roof and tarp-wall increase the temperature greatly. In comfort, we sleep. A few hours later, Kate wakes with a full bladder and makes her way out of our cozy cocoon. Upon opening the tent fly, she sees the snow has lightly covered everything. I can sense the omnipresent moon-glow reflecting off the pristine snow. I feel at peace and fall back to sleep.
The next morning, we woke to the sounds of people’s voices and the light reflecting off the surface of our pale colored tent. Kate took the initiative and ventured out first. I laid languid, soaking up a few more minutes of semi-consciousness. Kate’s rapid cantor, expressing amazement disrupts the familiar sound of the tent and fly zipper. I looked to see what caused her excitement and before my eyes was a twelve-inch blanket of the season’s first snowfall. I gasped at the vision that lay before me.
I sat in the doorway of our tent, wrapped in my sleeping bag focusing my still dormant eyes upon a landscape of brilliant white. The evergreens continued to stand proud and tall, bearing the immense weight of the heavy wet snow. The aspens bent like crooked old men, with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Everywhere I looked, the living landscape precariously held its life in the balance between fragility and fortitude.
I imagined the river raising itself once again to meet the banks of its shores as the snow joined in its journey down stream. I wondered if the aspens and deciduous saplings would fight for their lives or surrender their fleeting existence to the new season. Clouds continued to loom above us toying with the continuation of this instantaneous transformation. The sun was working diligently to protrude through the whitish-gray sky but was shrouded by the determination of the precipitate billows which looked like they were going to finish the task they had begun.
The bird and chipmunk that visited us just a few hours earlier were nowhere to been seen. In the dark of night, I imagined they scurried to find solace in a warm, safe haven- wherever that may be. Human children found folly in every nook and cranny of the campsites. All things snow covered became their plaything. The game was human youth conquering the depths of the snow, which on them, came up to their waists.
Kate proceeded to go about the morning ritual of building a fire and making hot beverages. I moved as slowly and quietly as the melting snow. The heavy-wetness of the night’s fall crept its way through our boots, socks and up our pant legs. We surrendered humbly to the earth’s changing mood and decided our last camping trip of the season had ended.
We proceeded to pack up our abode that had faithfully sheltered us through the night’s storm and make our way back down the mountain. We said goodbye to our seasonal home, knowing we would be back when the snow had melted, the birds and chipmunks re-emerged, and the trees stood tall once again.
We meandered down the winding road, slowly descending to a mere mile above sea level, where we made our permanent home. Our eyes feasted on the serene beauty of the night’s miracle sating our senses. We delighting in the joy that filled us like children on a winter wonderland Christmas morning.
With each hundred feet of our descent, we saw the dramatic effects of climatic variation. Only a few miles down the canyon road, the snow had turned to rain. A few more miles down, the rain was fog and mist. When we spilled out the mouth of the canyon onto the Ute Highway, the only evidence left of our adventure was the cool damp air. Our once snow covered truck had cleaned itself off completely by the time we arrived home.
Our journey into the mountains felt like an ethereal sojourn into my imagination. Our wet garments confirmed my knowing of having slept in the cradle of the season’s initial transformation. A true miracle to behold.
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