Somehow it is summer again, and already the days are growing shorter. The seasons pass in time-lapse speed, blending hot and cold, wake and sleep, falling leaves and swelling buds into a hodgepodge collage in my mind where real-time seems composed of past, present, and future all at once. For just a moment, I want to hang on to something, I think, as I park my truck near the base of one of Montana’s tallest mountains. I want to grab on, dig my heels in, and strain – however futilely – against this rapid passage of time. I want to experience a moment… the moment… fully aware of its own unique place in this whirlwind of progression.
I grin, and then, prone to indulge a rather dry sense of humor, think I’ll experience plenty of moments heaving myself up the side of this gargantuan upthrust of granite. If I really want to slow things down, I could wear new boots whose gift of blisters would no doubt force me to contemplate each step. No, I decide, the metaphysical in me must be reined in. I lace up my old, well-worn hiking boots and lean into the slope.
The first hundred yards, as my lungs fight to fill against exertion and oxygen-deprived air, are always the hardest and should, if my reasoning stands, also be the longest. Perhaps that is so, but they melt away behind me, gone before I’ve even taken notice. Drawn to water, either through a life-long love of fishing, the few degrees difference in temperature its flow and trees overhead may provide, or an ancient, instinctual understanding of its life-endowing powers, I meander to a tiny stream. Not much more than the downhill remains of some hulking snowbank high above, I figure. Just enough trickle to pull me in and make sure I’ve got a roadmap to 11,000 feet. In its babble, it seems to speak a one-word direction: up. Lifting my head, I glance that way to where jagged rock meets cobalt sky. It should take me a long time to get there, I hope. A very long time.
Determined to be fully cognizant of every second, I accomplish exactly the opposite, finding myself in an open meadow of wildflowers without the slightest idea of how I got here beyond some vague understanding that I’ve been walking quite steadily for the better part of… I check my watch….an hour? I look at the blinking seconds and say, “You’ve played a nasty trick on me you, bastard. Now, set that hour back a notch and behave yourself.” Predictably, the watch continues ticking. Forward.
Fine. I’ll just sit down right here in the middle of lupines, mallows, asters, hawkweed, and balsamroot and soak up this pallet of color. I begin looking for a bee-free place to do that – to attempt being unaware of more than my immediate, gorgeous surroundings - when a sphinx moth whirs by my head and begins hovering over the yellow blossoms of prickly lettuce.
To hell with rest, I think, digging frantically through my pack for my 300mm telephoto. I snap it on my camera and begin hunting the sphinx, circling to get the sun at my back, ramping up my shutter speed in an attempt to freeze his hummingbird-like wings. I follow him from blossom to blossom, shooting as fast as my D500 permits, and in the span of – well, I guess I have no idea – stack 260 photos into my SD card. I review enough of them to be certain there are keepers in the bunch, then resume the uphill trek.
Much of the Earth hides itself from all but those who explore it. We few willing to look know that the prairie isn’t flat, the desert holds a surprising diversity of life, the cold, north woods of winter are never completely empty, and that mountains in Montana sometimes take their own, sweet time rising to the sky. This one is doing it by degrees, I realize, ascending in steps comprised of steep grades and flat benches totally obscured until someone scales it. Driving by on “the road,” I’d never know. I’d give it a glance and believe it takes a steady up-angle to its summit.
On one hand, I’m happy for the respite these miniature plateaus offer, while on the other a continued grade of just under cliff would stretch this hike out. Really make me appreciate this long block of time. Doing my best to slow thing down, I intentionally choose the steepest route to where the mountain evidently benches again, kicking my toes into the thin soil, trying to think about each and every footfall.
How am I supposed to do that if this ruddy copper butterfly, one of my favorite species, insists on posing for me? I dig out my camera again and follow its rapid flight, spending another unknown amount of time chasing it around a clearing until I’ve got enough photos of it with its metallic wings spread to be certain there’s one in the bunch I’ll be happy with.
“Be gone, you distracting, time-eating thing,” I eventually say as it zig zags through the branches of a fallen fir toward more flowers. I debate packing my camera away and then, resigned to Nature’s quite obvious interference in my plan to draw this day out, decide to carry it in my hand.
Back at the stream, without the faintest idea of how I’ve arrived here again, I follow it through jumbled boulders and the tangled remains of shattered trees borne down at the height of snow melt a month ago.
From the upstream side of a virtual logjam, a golden eagle flaps skyward just as the smell of death hits me, the rancid odor of decay fanned fast my way by beating wings. I freeze, all at once a boy again on the banks of a marginally larger stream in Northern Vermont smelling the dead dog before I saw it, its hair lost to the process of natural recycling, its purplish skin covered in iridescent flies. It was 35 years ago, but today, as I turn away from the stench, it was mere moments earlier.
This time it’s an emaciated bear cub, dead two or three days, the victim of a natural world whose system of perpetuation involves making damn certain only the fittest consume the resources. It’s a program which has worked for a few hundred million years, but I can’t help wondering if this bear’s mother had another cub? How long she might have stayed by this one’s side? What she felt when at last the same nature which would not allow this bear’s survival, which eventually turned bear to eagle, told her to walk away? As I walk away, I feel eyes on me – as though the universe is watching. Checking to see how far along I am on the journey to my own recycling.
“A ways off,” I say out loud, as much to reassure myself as in response to what I’m feeling. By way of reply, I see the shadows cast by the boulders around me are longer, the sun is a bit lower, and the eagle is now a speck on the horizon far to the east.
My legs ache as I force them up and ahead at double time, hurling myself onward. It’s a dull pain I know wouldn’t have been there fifteen years ago, and when I stop to rub them I can’t help smiling, giving another nod to dry wit, thinking perhaps the lengthening shadows were enough evidence of my finite life and that the point was made quite well without this additional aching.
I continue climbing, walking hard into late afternoon – certainly not early evening – passing fewer Douglas fir, more stunted spruce, and eventually putting all timber save squat, sub-alpine fir, behind me. I’m near the tree line now, that perfectly delineated height above which nothing relying on a trunk will grow. Here, in a wet meadow swarming with mosquitoes and awash with wildflowers, I come face to face with a sow black bear and her cub, both so intent on feeding they don’t notice me. I have no way of knowing if she is the mother of the dead bear I found far below, but if she is I’m glad to see she had twins. I watch them for – what seems a long time – the cub snapping the heads off balsamroot, the mother digging under stones, the pair walking away together, an unmistakable look of wonder in the young bear’s eyes.
After they’ve angled down the mountain away from me, I repack my camera and set my sights on the summit, still some 800 vertical feet above me. Patches of snow cover much of the ground here, packed hard to ice by wind and weight, receding only inches a day. I wonder when the bottom layer of snow fell on the largest patches? Decades ago? Hundreds of years? Or, at the very bottom of the deepest snow fields is there mammoth hair, trapped in the bed of an Ice Age elephant like the elk hair that remains after they rest in the snow today?
Where there isn’t snow or rock, there are flowers. Every inch of moss, every bit of grass, and every plant I see sports a tiny, colorful blossom. There are only two seasons up this high, one much longer than the other, and all around life is making the most of summer. That goes for mosquitoes, too, and with each step I drive a hoard of them from the ground. There aren’t many visitors to this part of the mountain with sufficient blood to entice the feeding frenzy that I have, and as I swat at my face, rub the backs of my hands, and continually brush at the thin cotton of my pants I’m torn between allowing a few of these insects what may well be their only meal and attempting to eradicate every last one of them. I strike a compromise, pulling a long-sleeved shirt and light gloves from my pack. The mosquitoes fortunate enough to find bare skin now are free to drink.
I suppose the sun arcs across the heavens at the same consistent rate it’s done for millions of years. Today, the first I notice it falling more southerly than a month ago, it seems some civilization far to the west has fastened a hawser to it, yanking it furiously out of my sky and into theirs. It’s plummeting toward the horizon now, and I need to reach the top of this peak for one of the photos I’ve come to get. It will be a foot race between our closest star and a man going uphill with a pack, but fortunately for me I don’t have far to go.
I splash through a seep full of diminutive lupines and common arrowleaf, cross a slide of car-sized granite boulders, and haul myself up a snow chute to the crest of this mountain in time to catch the sun suspended between a line of evening clouds and more snow-clad peaks miles west of me. It hangs in place long enough for me to choose my wide-angle lens and frame one picture before saying goodbye, the world around me clinging to a golden light for the briefest of moments after it sets.
My attempt to draw out this day’s length has failed, but I’ve come here for the night, too, and perhaps during this blue hour between light and dark I’ll be able to feather the brakes of time. I need to drop back down almost a thousand feet into a rocky bowl where a lake not entirely free of ice glows pale blue and the Milky Way will rainbow across its surface after dark.
My legs are thoroughly tired now, reminding me again that harnessing time is an endeavor we’d better not pin our hopes on. They burn as I turn them down the slope, protesting with uncomfortable pain my decision to take them directly back the way they’ve come.
“Not exactly the same way,” I say out loud, bolstering my resolve to keep moving if not their desire to take me.
I begin carving a new trail off the mountain, skidding over snow, picking my way down a talus slope of crushed stone, fighting through a stand of alpine fir with trunks more pitch than bark. The scars of life in a hard place.
In the same way I found the little stream I followed earlier in the day for the second time, I arrive at this lake with a jet-lag sense that yes, I covered ground and time to get here, though I can’t really say how much of either. I set up my tripod on the edge of a high cliff overlooking water and ice, attach the panoramic head which will allow me to keep a level horizon shooting the span of the night sky, screw on my full frame Nikon D810, check my compass to verify where I’ll see the Milky Way, then make my way down to the shoreline at twilight. A cluster of boulders juts from the surface a few feet out, four white granite rocks and one pink and, because I like the unusual – especially if it has a flat surface – I sit down on the pink one and watch brook trout rise for flies all around.
Their feeding is not as well-mannered as the big brown trout who gently sip an insect from Montana’s rivers. These fish have precious few fly-filled evenings to feed and go at it with gusto, launching themselves fully from the water. As far as I can see across the surface, trout are splashing. It’s a sight my father would have enjoyed, one we’d have talked about on frigid winter nights as this lake rests below three feet of ice. Perhaps we would have made plans to cast our own flies to them on another summer night like this one. Once more, the unsettling feeling that the harder I try to slow things down the faster they move washes over me.
And now, just as the heat of the day begins sliding from my rocky chair, the first star appears, a pin of light in a silver sky. I rise, and a brook trout over a foot long torpedoes away from my rock, a dark shape vanishing into dark water all below a darkening sky. For as vast as the Montana sky is, I'm always surprised at how fast twilight fades. I'll reach my camera above me before I need a flashlight, but only if I leave right now.
Halfway between the lake and my camera, under the protection of a small outcrop, a lone, yellow columbine is blooming and beckoning. Very well, I decide as I unpack my D500 and frame the shot, color against dark.
Now comes the night. Objects on Earth relinquish their hues and definition while celestial wonders show their own. Planets glow, meteors flare and leave momentary signatures of fire, and faint stars pulse red and blue. I can see the galactic center of the Milky Way beginning to take shape in the south, but the line of low clouds I saw at sunset is drifting in front of it and my picture will have to wait.
Nothing to do but sit here and be patient. Listen to the crickets and distant calls of an owl, feel the breeze generated by ground warmer than air, watch a train of clouds slowly chug away to the east. I close my eyes, only for moments I believe, and when I open them the entire sky is clear.
It takes seventy minutes - by my watch - to shoot the panorama I want, 96 images of sky, 12 of Earth. I'll blend them later and end up with something I hope represents what I saw. Something beautiful I can share with the world. But that's down the road. Right now, there are six minutes left to this day before another is born and I've got some long, downhill miles to walk. I light my path with the beam of a powerful headlamp, illuminating fifty, narrow feet of rocky terrain. I'll cover it and thousands more before I sleep.
I wonder as I walk if I'll ever come back to this particular place? Wonder if I'll return and fish for the brook trout or bring a macro lens and photograph wildflowers? I guess I can if I want to, I think, though much of my life has validated Frost's observation that as way leads on to way we are rarely back.
"Well, I'm here now," I say, aware that this day's life has dwindled from six minutes to a few seconds. I pause to look west, imagining a faint glow from the sun like the trails of the shooting stars I saw.
"Goodbye," I whisper.
* If you like night photos, please see my latest Milky Way image, At Black Butte at Midnight. You can view it here*
You should also look at Big Sky Nights, another new Milky Way picture