I am a desert rat and have since childhood mouthed dialogue about the beauty of the mountains vis à vis the desert. The mountains generally have no sand and wind that drives the sand and pits the paint job on your new Mercedes Benz, no short-legged plants, no spiny cacti, but trooping phalanxes of spruce and fir and pine. But here I am after a life lived and I’m still in the desert. The mountains are close, but I still hover around the roots of the big sage, the bitterbrush, the winter fat.
Once it was mesquite and palo verde and saguaro and Indian wheat. The names have changed but the milieu remains the same. Relatively dry, relatively warm. Big open vistas, a certain beauty to the landscape, even if it is harsh, or its ambiance is harsh.
Yet the harsh nature of the desertscape is no more dangerous than what one encounters in the pine-clad high country to the north of Boise, Idaho, where we live. I’d say fifty below is harsh even if it inhabits the pristine beauty of a winterland of ice crystals and frozen mist and miles and miles of spear-point spruce sheathed in an armor of ice. Maybe that is why I stick to the lower extremities of earth.
Regardless of my obvious preference for desert climes, for six years I lived in the high mountains of southern New Mexico and the legacy it left me, among other things, was a love for the turning of the leaves. Once I read an essay in The New Yorker Magazine by Stephen King about “leaf peepers.” When I saw the title I was curious about leaf peepers and what kind of insect they might be that sat on leaves and peeped their lives away in search of sex, breeding and compliance with the ultimate command to all life on earth: survive. When King described the leaf peepers, I was surprised to find out they are the people who come to Maine to watch the colors of the maple trees change from green to red and gold. As I read that article, I knew right then that at heart, I was a leaf peeper. I admit it. I am a tourist of foliage, a consumer of ripe reds, and orange tones that look like phosphorescent tints, and rusty hues that are redolent with memories of old Caterpillar engines left out in the rain for ages.
Two weekends ago, Betty and I, along with friends, ventured to Sun Valley, Idaho for a number of reasons, one being to take part in leaf peeping. We arrived on a Thursday evening and were disappointed with the color, but it was spitting a mixture of rain and snow and there was snow in the high country and I figured as soon as it cleared off, the frost would arrive and then the color change would accelerate.
On a Saturday morning that broke clear and fresh, we pulled out before sunrise and headed north out of the Wood River Valley, over Galena Summit and down into the Stanley Basin. As we broke over the summit, the Sawtooth Mountains on the west of the basin and the Boulder-White Clouds on the east reared up with their high shoulders, their peaks covered with fresh snow. The sunlight was just breaching the dawn and lighted up the peaks of the Sawtooths snaking from south to north. Sawtooth is an apt name for the peaks that remind one of the saws lumberjacks used to employ to knock down the big trees, long before chain saws showed up. Saws with large, sharp teeth that could bite into live wood, or flesh.
Fog and mist and nary a hint of air pollution hung in the air. Pronghorns grazed in the pastures of cow and sheep outfits with names like Busterback Ranch and Stanley Basin Ranch and Sawtooth Mountain Ranch.
I love aspen and learned it I suppose from the huge groves that cape the cold sides of the Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico. Aspen grow in huge gangs there, and love places where the snow gets deep and stays deep into the spring. Elk and deer and black bear seem drawn, as do I, to the groves.
When autumn arrives, the trees know (do they know like we do on some epistemological level?) that they need to go into survival mode to make it through winter. The green color in the leaves vacates and leaves the underlying golds and reds behind. The sugar in the leaves gets trapped and the frost, when seared by sunlight, reacts with the sugar and the leaves take on even more brilliant hues. This is what I adore, this chemical reaction turned into art….art….art.
When I was young, I went on camping trips with the Boy Scouts up to Holly Lake in the White Mountains of Arizona. It was usually August, so the leaves had not changed by then, but I still wondered at the way the Rocky Mountain Maple leaves reminded me of Picasso-like hands and how the sunlight caught in the dimples of the aspen leaves and shimmered as they quaked in the alpine breezes. (The locals called them “quakies.”)
One summer as we loaded vehicles to head out of the high country, we discovered a porcupine climbing an aspen. Since porcupines tend to be nocturnal, I suppose it was climbing up to find a notch in the limbs to sleep the day away, or maybe it was headed for an aspen leaf breakfast. I watched with…with…with what….horror? as some of the bigger boys bombarded the creature with stones, then large rocks and big rounds of aspen we had cut down for firewood. I recall the porcupine fell to the ground and I refused to look at it as they laughed and finished it off. I walked away and got in the back seat of an old green Chevy Suburban and we drove out of the mountains, back into the Sonoran Desert.
But on this latest leaf-peeping trip of a couple of weeks ago, the violence of humanity was not so readily apparent. Nestled in the coves, the rincons, the draws of the mountains and foothills lining Stanley Basin were stands of aspen in varying degrees of leaf peeper heaven. Yellow, gold and a red tints that seemed to capture all the glitz of Times Square as they shined at us, neon-like, as we drove the road toward Stanley. And they shined something else at us, a promise…a promise of more color to come.