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A mountain meadow to remember

Peter Whitis

It is a magical place situated near the summit of our favorite family mountain climb. One year, I managed to record our hike with a cumbersome video camera; another year, the only souvenir was a snapshot of my two teenage sons sitting on a boulder and, of course, there were the triumphant photos of all of us at the peak. On one memorable occasion we tried to reach the summit before the arrival of predicted storms, and we got as far as the meadow before being pummeled by snow and hail. What I remember most about the meadow though, are the windswept waves of flowers ” reds, blues, yellows, magentas ” an ocean of moving colors.

But memories, even photographs, fade with time, and so several years ago, my wife and I, older and without children, decided to visit the meadow again. We started driving before daybreak and hoped to be at the trailhead by sunrise. The single-lane, gravel road to Notch Mountain past Minturn is eight miles of rocks and holes, a twisting, challenging washboard. Our headlights revealed steep ravines as we climbed upward. As Colorado backroads into mountain trailheads go, however, this one is considered fairly good. We arrived just as first light suffused the parking area.

Notch Mountain, 13,100 feet high, is an easy five-mile hike for an acclimated climber, a little harder for lowlanders. At 10,000 feet, where we started our trek, the air reaching our lungs felt pin-pricky sharp with exertion. An official sign informs hikers that they are in a wilderness area named for the Holy Cross Mountain, where snow-filled crevasses form a huge, white cross that is visible for miles. In the 1930s, thousands of pilgrims came to see the famous landmark.

The early morning chill left us as night-stiffened muscles warmed up and we established some rhythm to our gait. The cathedral ceiling of evergreen trees, the hush of the early morning forest, and the shafts of sunlight piercing our canopy created a spiritual mood that surely stirred the religious sentiments of those early pilgrims. We continued to climb, enjoying the solitude of the wilderness in spite of the physical effort.

The trail went gradually upward through the forest. We rested a couple of times. We were climbing to see again, to photograph and to sketch, the wondrous meadow of Notch Mountain. The sub-alpine meadow, at an altitude of 12,000 feet, has a reputation for beauty among the local backpackers who know far more about the area than we do. We climbed another 30 minutes over switch backs, going ever higher through the thinning stands of trees. We paused to admire glimpses through the Engleman Spruce of the mountain range in the distance or to identify a delicate blue Columbine, Colorado’s state flower.

Abruptly, the trail led us out of the trees onto the rim of the large hillside meadow we’d come to see. It is shaped like a giant saucer tipped on one edge, with the trail a thin crack curving from one side to the other. Above it towered the rock shoulder of Notch Mountain. A beautiful picture lay before us, difficult to absorb immediately. It was as if we had stepped into an impressionist’s canvas; acres of wildflowers of every shade, pushed by a gentle breeze, rippled through the field. This was how Dorothy must have felt as she entered the technicolor world of Oz.

Heavy snowmelt, spring rains, and ideal summer conditions had produced a rich and varied carpet of flowers. We identified red Indian paintbrush, pink elephant head growing on long stems with tiny elephant ears and trunks, blue harebells, violet monkshead, white American bistort, lacy yarrow, yellow golden eyes and alpine sunflowers. Identifying these old favorites made this garden spot more intimate. There were patches where one flower color or another predominated and at the patch edges, the colors merged like paints on an artist’s palette.

This was nature’s canvas of soil and water, air and light, bees and butterflies … and time. The season is short; time is measured here in weeks, even days. The canvas has to be painted in a month or two and then it gradually fades. At this altitude, the wildflowers must burst into bloom rapidly and attract, mostly by their bright colors, but also by their shape, the insect and hummingbird pollinators. Strong mountain winds have shaped this mountainside and the wildflowers have evolved leaf and stem systems that are toughened and more durable than their lower growing cousins.

Lying everywhere, as if a giant had swept crumbs off his table, are smooth, gray, granite boulders, some partially covered with spotty green and rust-orange lichen. We sat on one of them, as my sons had many years before, fixing in our souls this perfect place. Poets, painters, photographers, writers ” all have worked to capture the chromatic beauty before us. But none can fully capture the simple, holistic radiance of the meadow ” perhaps because one can’t convey both the silence and the minute bustling of the field, or the reverence one instinctively feels in trying to absorb the majesty of the mountain, the cerulean blue sky and the incredible carpet of moving color underneath.

We left for home with our photos, our notes, our sketches, but its essence remained behind ” except for the part of us entranced and renewed by the wildflowers in a mountain meadow.

Peter R. Whitis is a Wisconsin resident. He and his family have been visiting Vail for 30 summers. He is a retired psychiatrist, marathoner, writer and author of “Beyond Running: The Road as a Mentor.”


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