Hiking the Lines of the Earth

Paul Miller

A few weeks ago I rode home in a wind-blown drizzle, the derailleur of my bicycle freezing and my toes turning numb after only a few blocks. But worse than icicles forming on my nose was the sight of low, gray gauze covering every inch of the mountains. I could imagine what was going on underneath the cloud cover--the wind a frenzy of chill and snow whipping through river valleys and mounding halfway up the trunks of pines. Late-season snowstorms make it hard to remember what it was like to hike in the mountains in T-shirt and shorts.

I get a little more crazy every spring waiting for snow to melt, anxious to return to the mountains with Annie, my wife, so we can spend days lounging on the clean sweep of alpine meadows, scattering our voices to the warm wind. My boots still have dirt on them from hikes last summer, but those days seemed far away, untouchable through thick, frosted storm windows.

At home after that cold ride a few weeks ago, toes nicely warmed, I wondered aloud whether it was too soon to look at our maps and plan for summer hikes. Never, Annie said. It's never too soon to look at maps.

From under the bed I pulled out maps that were sandwiched between two big sheets of cardboard. I came across the Isolation Peak topographic map, one of the most mangled I own, showing the Rocky Mountains from the huge East Inlet valley to the ragged spires of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. On the right side of the map, east of the turquoise thumbprint of Bluebird Lake, a small "X" had been penciled below a contour line marked "10,800."

I made that mark some time ago--was it the summer of '91? I spent three days camped on that "X" with Annie. The site was a tiny, flat clearing above the rushing water of Ouzel Creek, eight miles and a world removed from the parking lot. That first evening low clouds kept pouring over the Continental Divide like a sinister waterfall while we set up our tent, and before long rain came in sideways, upways and downways. Our tent leaked in two corners, and hypothermia skulked close by, but my mood didn't darken completely until I dug out the map and ran a grubby finger over the elegant, sinuous contour lines we'd probably never see become real rocks and ridges.

The next morning I opened one eye cautiously, wondering what was wrong. All night squalls had whipped the walls of our tent, but now something was missing. A minute later I opened my other eye and realized what it was-- no wind, no rain, no noise at all. I zipped open the tent and my heart soared into a blue, washed sky.

We ate breakfast fast and headed into the wild, working our way through soaked, knee-deep grass and across loose rubble to the flank of Mahana Peak. After crossing a remnant snowfield we stopped near a small stream filtering down from the tundra above. The air was so scrubbed and flawless we could almost pick out bird notes floating over Kansas.

A thicket of crimson king's crown invited us to rest for a moment. I dug out the map and saw contour lines convulsing across the page like seismographic marks of an earthquake, and suddenly the soaring walls of rock across the valley had a name--Ouzel Peak. By simply lifting my eyes from the page, the two dimensions of the map transformed into shadows and dustings of snow that highlighted every tower and rampart, every smooth slab and rubble-filled gully, every razor arete and fractured granite block.

We continued north, descending from the round summit of Mahana. After a half-hour we reached a flat alpine meadow, where Annie settled down for a nap. I couldn't sit still, though, and found myself scrambling in a rush up the east side of Isolation Peak, a monolith of the Divide, not having the slightest idea how close I'd get to the summit.

In 45 minutes I hit the top, 13,118 feet closer to heaven, and spread a grin across the entire western half of the country. A few steps from my toes the mountain fell away so steeply I felt my groin tighten. Wind-driven ice sculptures from the storm the night before were poised on boulders above the abyss, and as the sun warmed the rock the sculptures broke and fell for long seconds before tinkling to pieces far below. The sound of the chiming ice merged with the croak of a raven, its black wings rippling in currents above the meadow where Annie napped. The green speck of Annie's jacket blended with lichen-covered rock and mats of alpine sorrel, and for a moment I thought how funny it would be to fly after the raven and talk him into dive-bombing the hat tilted over Annie's eyes.

Wisps of clouds started forming to the south in the valley between Ouzel and Mahana peaks. Even in my stupid glee I realized we had to get out of the high country and back to camp before the clouds turned serious. An hour later I met Annie beside the icy, clear water of Isolation Lake and we slowly worked our way south, losing altitude with each step as clouds thickened and swirled around us. We heard the sound of falling water but we could see no farther than the low-growing junipers that scraped the sides of our boots.

But somewhere on our descent the clouds parted like a curtain on a stage, and for one long moment we could see a rock wall soaring hundreds of feet into the sky, streaked with water and dressed in hanging bouquets of deep green moss. Jewels of rose quartz and mica shone on the wall, and we stood silently, Annie's hand nestled in my pocket, until the clouds descended again and the wall vanished. I wondered, when we moved down the valley again, whether we'd hallucinated, the vision had been so fleeting.

"Hey, I have an idea," Annie said, startling me. I was surprised to find myself in the living room, sitting in a chair. The Isolation Peak map slid to the floor, so worn along the creases it folded itself in half, then half again.

Annie was lying on the carpet, maps spread all around. "We should go here," she said, finger tapping against a topo. "We've never been there."

I lay down next to her and looked where she was pointing. The furnace mumbled to itself in the basement, and it was warm and comfortable in the living room, but I wanted to be in a leaky tent in the mountains, waiting for a storm to ease up.

"Here," Annie said.

I looked closely at the tapestry of contour lines fanning out and crowding close together, weaving past unnamed river valleys and phantom rock walls drifting in clouds. Her finger moved over miles of unseen terrain.

"Yes," I said.

I was there already.

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©Copyright Paul Miller