Inspired by the insane gorgeousness that is Colorado, the project I’m finishing up is set in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park. This is awesome for me, because whenever I lose my way with the writing, I can just take a drive up into the mountains and find what I need to press on. RMNP is, frankly, the most beautiful national park I’ve ever been lucky enough to visit, and its proximity to Boulder means I can really get to know what’s there–the grassy, river-cut valleys freckled by elk herds, the little hiking trails that become waterfalls during the snowmelt, the glacial peaks. I love it. It is one of the places that I feel completely at rest, even while I scramble, cursing, up a scree-strewn incline, or pick my way down a steep, flooded descent.
Last Friday, Jesse and I decided to drive over the continental divide. I can report that it is, indeed, fucking awesome. The road takes you up past the montane ecosystem through subalpine into the true alpine regions, so you really get a sense of the distinct environments in mountainous regions. The day we went, it was rainy and misty, which was fine by me. While we didn’t get to appreciate the views down the sides of the mountains, it was amazing to see clouds–giant, fluffy clouds, like you see from the ground–chasing us up and eventually enfolding us as we drove. The two times we got out to hike, we’d see wisps just drifting in front of our faces and alongside us as if it was no big deal to the clouds to occasionally take a day off and, you know, go on a hike with some people.
With the craziness that is the Gulf, the writerly people I’m fortunate enough to know have been talking about the environment quite a bit, and those posts, as well as the news cycle in general, have really gotten me thinking. Among the many notable things I’ve read, my dawgg John Glover speaks eloquently about BP, the spill, and responsibility; Jeff VanderMeer has also commented on the situation. I think what affected me the most, though, was not Jeff’s idea that we put all the BP execs in a raft and make them eat nothing but the oily flesh of dying animals (not that such a sentiment doesn’t match my own feelings on the situation), but rather, a quieter, more personal post he made, using quotes from Thoreau and discussing a favorite hike over at St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge.
The gallows humor found in the notion of taking a long drive to enjoy the environment is not lost on me by any means. All the same, I feel inspired to discuss the overwhelming wonder I felt when I was able to, via man’s genius and shame, the automobile, ascend in only a few hours up to the top of the world and hike through an alpine tundra. Taking the drive over the divide was an experience as transcendent as it was depressing. These alpine regions, which we documented below, are delicate, sensitive ecosystems which will likely be devastated by unchecked climate change; the pristine forests, which in some ways look like they did a hundred, or hundreds of years ago, are being eaten alive by the pine bark beetle–a beetle that, were the winters as cold as they once were, would not be anywhere near as able to destroy tree after tree after tree after tree after tree.
The rest below the cut–large pictures follow:
We took the Fall River Road (not Old Fall River Road, which only opens in July to one-way traffic) up and up, until we reached one of the many available pauses along the drive, an outlook over a deep glacial valley:
The brownish patches you see are the trees being consumed by the pine bark beetle. It’s not too bad here; it is, for some reason, infinitely worse on the other side of the divide.
We drove on from there to pull off and check out an old Ute trail through a subalpine meadow. It’s astonishing–subalpine and alpine ecosystems are so slow-growing that cleared patches can take 500 to 1,000 years to come back. Thus, it would be entirely possible to follow an old trail that looks like it was walked just yesterday and discover the ruins of a village that died out hundreds of years ago:
The vegetation here is adorably tiny: miniature ferns and wildflowers peek through the lichens and mosses, pinpricks of yellow and purple among a sea of green and grey:
Further up, you come to the true alpine regions. These harsh environments make for bizarre ethereal sci-fi landscapes of rock, lichen, and the occasional windbeaten bird or ruffle-furred marmot. Pikas, weasels, and ptarmigans are some of the only animals hardy enough to survive the intense UV radiation at this altitude; it is a place where, during winter, winds reach hurricane-force gusts of 150 miles per hour, and animals and plants alike are actually warmed and protected by the insulating snowfall.
The hike we took was paved; a lone strip in the wilderness, it was wheelchair accessible and peppered with little signs all about the environment and the unique challenges for the flora and fauna. Visitors are asked not to step off the trail for the same reasons I spoke of above–small disturbances take centuries to heal. You can see the color scheme of this place below: shades of brown and grey and mustard. I imagine it becomes greener during the six- to eight-week growing season, but for most of the time this tundra is not covered in snow, this is what you see:
Water is scarce, here, but a few pools reflect the sky and (I assume, on clearer days) the sun:
As it thaws and re-freezes, the permafrost pushes rocks upward to the surface, creating rivers of rock that snake through the tundra just like their liquid cousins:
After half a mile in, the trail terminates at a rock formation that provides only a little relief from the insane winds that buffet the tundra. The day we walked the path, it was so cloudy that the pass through to the other side of the valley took on the look of some weird portal between worlds:
Walking through, we discovered that June was not too late in the season for there to still be snow on the ground:
Jesse called to me then, wanting to take a picture. He walked beside me, holding up the camera to catch us both–but as I looked at the lens, I found myself distracted:
The intense winds create barren moonscapes, but in the lee of such large stones, life still thrives:
We were quiet, perhaps awe-struck as we walked back along the trail to the car. As we returned, I noticed a sign I’d missed. It had a sepia photograph of an old-timey car and several figures standing around, all as impressed as we were by what they were seeing. The text mentioned that when the road through the continental divide was first cut in the early 1900s, the workers were so concerned about damaging the natural environment as little as possible that they painstakingly covered the mountainside with thick blankets and other padding to protect against debris from the blasting.
The image of people–people, who, you know, lived in a time before women could vote–caring so much about keeping the Rocky Mountains safe made me wonder when we lost that aspect of ourselves, as humans, as Americans: the part that says yes, we will create a path where there was none before; we will alter our environment to suit our needs and wants–but damn it all, we will do it with an eye for those who share the earth with us.
Currently, folks are beginning to shoot a movie version of Atlas Shrugged. A bunch of the action in AS centers on Colorado: Galt’s Gulch is somewhere in the Rockies, of course, so it’s awesome to know that in the hearts and minds of Rand-fans everywhere, there is a little slice of heaven somewhere around here where square-jawed, blue-eyed assholes are strip-mining the mountains I posted above, sullying the waterways with industrial runoff and such. Indeed, even before one reaches the Galt’s Gulch section of AS, there are plenty of scenes in Colorado, where an oil industrialist is hailed and worshiped for ruining stretches of the landscape with his rigs (one of which he sets alight just to make a point to the pack of socialists in Washington).
Why am I talking about this? The images coming out of the Gulf of pelicans with oil-clogged wings are haunting and terrible. It’s incredibly disturbing to imagine the pine martens, bighorn sheep, bluebirds, and other creatures of Rocky Mountain National Park being similarly devastated. In a world insane enough to rocket Sarah Palin to political stardom so she can spout nonsense about how environmentalists are the real villains of the spill (they forced poor BP to drill off-shore when there are perfectly fine places to ruin on land, dontcha know), it’s not too far-fetched to see a future where the Moraine Valley of Rocky Mountain National Park is a wasteland, where elk struggle out of pools of crude as if they were not elk at all, but dinosaurs trapped in tar pits; where the hike above is no longer walkable due to the destroyed ozone layer burning away even the plants that evolved to live in a place with intense radiation.
We want everything. We do terrible things to get it. It is so very sad that it has taken a disaster as large as the spill in the Gulf to demonstrate that wanting everything and doing whatever it takes to get it, cost be damned, is simply not sustainable. And yet.