He’s a half switchback ahead of me. Hanna is running back and forth between us in some attempt to either speed me up or slow him down, thus bridging the gap between us. She doesn’t like when her people aren’t immediately around. She stops halfway between us and gives me that look. “Really?” She sits, almost patiently, waiting. Her breath is little clouds in front of her wet nose. I’m not in a hurry though. I’m in a winter wonderland and enjoying every kind of sensory overload. The sun filters down from the tops of the aspens, through ice crystals and loaded snowy branches to meet me in dazzling brilliance. The air is crisp. Sparkling lights pop all around. It could be millions of little diamonds, and I’m a pirate drooling at my loot. I watch my steamy breath in front of me, more little clouds from the little engine that could. I think I can.
We’re snowshoeing up a favorite trail, Elbert Creek, which is just a few miles south of Purgatory Ski Area. It’s a quite vertical two miles up to a Forest Service cabin. Cabin is a bit of a stretch. We’ll call it a Forest Service structure, our usual destination. This will take us an hour. For the moment there is a trail, but soon we will be breaking new ground. It’s early in the season and with only a few snows to date, the path is still fresh. Crunch, crunch, crunch. My aluminum shoes slap a rhythm. You would think I’d know exactly how many switchbacks until we hit the top and head up the valley, but I don’t. Maybe eight? This track feels a little off from the hiking trail, off-piste, but whoever gets there first gets to set it, and the rest follow. I catch a glimpse of his yellow jacket ahead. He rounds the corner.
I like this alone time. It’s good noodling time. I watch Hanna. I think about making an animation of her running willy-nilly ahead, her little feet post holing every once in a while. She stops to smell something. I think about little characters that fall out of the sky around her as she trots along. First a snow bunny, she jumps and lunges at it above, then a Christmas present floats down with bubbles. A large cat stealthily crosses her tail, she sits comically quiet pretending it’s not there. I think about a large stag leaping over her head, and a little bluebird companion that sits on her head. Larger than life blue snowflakes drifting down, bouncing off of her. I have the entire animation scripted. I ponder an overlay of the actual trail, so I stop, take off my gloves and take a few photos. He’s another half a switchback ahead.
Crunch, crunch, crunch. I continue up. A light breeze swirls around me and up through the trees. It lifts a dusting of snow, forming a faint white whirl through the remnants of dried autumn leaves. The whites and icy blues merge with the pale grey and white trunks. Black eyes peer out from each tree. I ponder the aspens. What an amazing tree.
Fun fact: Did you know that one aspen tree is actually part of a larger organism? An entire stand is considered a singular organism with an extensive root system, and there is a stand in Utah where an estimated 47,000 aspen are all part of one stand. It may be one of the largest singular organisms in the world.
I crest the top of the switchbacks and ahead I start to see the collection of aspens of unusual shapes. Some have a perfect loop in the trunk. One grows straight up then turns a 180 and straight back down. One can’t decide which way to grow and makes a zig-zag. He’s waiting for me at these trees, because each time we get to them we discuss what the heck. Was it a massive snow year, and the juvenile and noodly trunks were twisted this way and that? Were they underground, part of the root system then decided to be trees? It’s curious. We discuss how like life these insane trees are. One day you’re going straight ahead and then something happens that causes a course direction change. You get pulled this way then that, and again you’re moving in a straight direction. Or you’re doing one thing then have a complete reverse decision and head in an opposite direction. But guess what? You’re still a tree, and you’re still growing! You can choose to be the best at everything you do and just keep adjusting as you go. It makes me think about how we are truly all connected, all of us organisms. I smile, drink some water and put my gloves back on. We’re close to the turn around point.
Hanna is sniffing frantically under the snow. Does she smell the roots that spread across this hillside, all connected in one big happy life structure. We’re more resilient in packs. She knows this. It takes many of us a little longer to figure this out. As soon as there is movement, she snaps out of her reverie and is on her way with us, closer together. A little organism of three, but with roots that reach in many directions to the rest in our little pack. This makes me happy to think about.
We’re on untracked ground now, and the going is a little slower. We stay together as we work our way up into the shadows. The sun has dropped behind the ridge and with it the temperature. The colors shift to darker blues and greys, my breath becomes more opaque. We quietly observe a variety of animal tracks. Maybe a rabbit here, a deer there. This one could even be a cat. We’ve seen frighteningly large scat up here before, and there’s no reason to think she has moved out. I assume this cat is a female, and this is her turf. The scat a little reminder to all who pass that she’s here and aware. On your way, nothing to see here. Keep it going. I wonder what I would do if she strolled across our path, and I run through my inferior knowledge of what you’re supposed to do. Act larger than you are? Wave your arms or do you play dead? I can never keep them straight. Strength in numbers.
We reach our destination, and I slog off through deeper snow to try and find a place a little more packed down to pee. Always an issue with us hydrators. He’s waiting for me, adjusts my constantly twisted pack straps and we’re off back down the trail again. The down will be quicker, but not that much. We pass the aspens of unusual shapes, we pass the tracks, we make it back to the packed trail, and down through the grove. The sun is off of this hill now and there are no longer sparkly ice crystals to distract me.
My head turns to food and warmth in the near future and I pick up my pace. Maybe a little barn sour to get back. Hanna senses my pep and matches me, thinking I’m playing. She pogos up and down a few times inquiring if I have any snacks. I offer her water from my tube. We both trot along, trying to keep pace with the longer legs ahead that slowly are pulling away. She takes off after him, and for one more moment I am alone, breathing in new awareness of all we have. We’re billionaires.