In the pink sagebrush dawn, a herd of better than thirty brown-hided antelope stare at me from a hundred yards. I slow when my jeep makes the turn and they dart off as one, like an earth-bound flock of brown and white starlings locked in formation. They're soon lost on the featureless plain. Speeding back up, the four wheel drive rumbles down a mud road, crosses snow still left from winter in patched places, powers through, and then after miles of prairie flat, comes to the trailhead on the western slope of the range. I unload my pack, hiking poles, strap on gaiters.
Soon, I find myself on a flat-rooted, forest trail, winding through conifers on a blue morning: Mountain Hemlock, Englemann, Alpine fir and mostly Douglas fir, a lumbered tree, the winter buds still brown, but starting to come in blue-green on the tips with new growth. The air smells of fresh pine. I'm hiking through dense forest on both sides, new green moss, ferns opening up; and sometimes Aspen groves, early blooming, virid, leaves fluttering in the light wind (like a woman’s tongue say the indigenous peoples). The cool wind blows on my face, down my back.
The snowpack was heavy this year, six feet or more, and hasn’t melted off, so still dapples the trail, the woods. I have to go around or over tree trunks fallen or swept by avalanche, the house-wide path crossing the trail obvious where the snow simply plundered its way through, hundred year old trees cast aside in the violence of the slide. Where snow covers the trail I place each boot, leaving my imprint, but mostly the snow is gone and I step or sometimes leap over puddles or small streams, crystal clear to the bottom.
The first miles are easy hiking, level, but I need to cross the South Fork and the stream is rushing high in the spring runoff; the Forest Service bridge is wiped out where the trail crosses. Down stream, I see a tree fallen across, and make for that, bushwacking.
Climbing on the tree trunk, it seems steady, twelve inches wide, and I use my hiking poles to keep balance as I cross, placing each point before taking a step along the thirty foot length. The loud roar of the stream is below, the water white, unrelenting, tumbling over rocks, and a mist covers my face as I cross.
Once over and back to the trail, I start to gain more elevation with switchbacks, and by afternoon I am above the tree line, craggy rocks rising on my right, scree, granite peaks above still covered in snow. The falloff on the left is covered with spring flowers on the steep meadowed slope in the sun, scarlet of Indian paintbrush, purple lupin, and yellow arrowhead. No one is on the trail. I sweat now in the afternoon sun.
Then the real climb begins, and I lean in, not hard, balance the push, gain some breath. When its too much I ease up, steady, a physical balance. A pace.
On a turn, I take my pack off, twenty pounds, pull out a water filter, squeeze out a draught into my mouth and look off and below—surprised how far I’ve come. I try to see where the jeep came off the plain. There it is, a little to the north. I remember the draw where I saw the antelope, still in the dawn, then sprinting after seeing me. It seems like a long time ago. Across the flat sagebrush expanse, the Stanley Basin, and then the string of the White Cloud Mountains, twelvers, some thirty miles away, horizon to horizon in a curve, ridges finite in the dry air, snow-capped.
Above the last switchback, just where the trail cuts through the saddle over the pass, beyond the scrub oaks holding the wind, lies the lake; diamonds floating, flashing in the sun, the water almost still. And it's what I’m after, what I came for, there by the shore. It’s below now where I came over, where the mountain runoff enters the lake. The water from the South Fork spools off to the side in its own hidden little pond, a basin, and lies quiet. That’s where the rainbows rise, tapping the surface, ripples making circles. They hit on the midges; cruisers looking for a meal, striking, holding.
I unpack my rod, reel, five-weight line, and hold a pattern when I cast a Griffith’s Gnat, a Whoolly Bugger; maybe a Prince Nymph, sometimes a San Juan. I find a gravel bar, a hole, a change in bottom, and the line stretches out, loops, falls gentle—and the strike hits. The rod pulls hard to the right, the line makes a sound like ‘zzzzzit’, riping out as the fish runs, pole bent almost back on itself, a strong fish. I play it back some, tension on the line, let it out, then back again; the fish tires in the game.
Three fish are kept, most released. The keepers are fifteen inchers, slender, iridescent pink, and with a red line down the silvery sides, a greenish tinge. Black spots are on a dark blue olive back. They’re slick to the touch but have no smell, clear eyed. The head and tail come off with a knife on a flat rock, then gutted. I filet off the meat and store it in a clear plastic bag.
The land is silent, no boats on the water, no tourists hooting or howling, no dogs chasing—which only sharpens the sounds: an evening grosbeak claiming title to my ground, the high wind through pine, my boots on the path, my breathing.
I lay out the pale-yellow tent, pound stakes for the corners, run the poles through, and bring it up. After covering the tent with the fly, I throw my sleeping bag through the zippered door and stow the gear bag. There’s time before dinner, so I go to the shore, strip down, and step awkward on the small round rocks, gray, in my bare feet, bottom pads hurting, arms out for balance, and step into the water. The water is cold, but with a sharp exhale I move off the shore and dunk in. A few strides, then tread water; I feel the ebb of the flow through my fingers, the water smooth, warmer now, legs kicking through cool silk. Once back on shore I towel off, dress, and my clothing feels warm and clean against my skin, my back, my thighs.
Across the lake, a black bull moose stands large against a white snowbank on the water's edge a half a mile out. The spring antlers are starting to come in. The animal moves off into the low green willows. I wish I’d brought my binoculars. Beyond the willows the land forms a bowl, a stadium, as it rises a few thousand feet, scree covering the slope, cliffs form beneath spires of granite, snow in the channels.
I lose my sun as it falls below the peaks to the west and I’m in shade now. I chill quickly, and behind me the sun makes an alpenglow of rose and copper against the top horizon of bare granite mountains.
Gray clouds move in and push out the pink-blue sky. It darkens. I crawl into the tent and lie on my back with my head against the gear bag and listen as the wind comes up, gusting through the pines, more a whisper than a rush. I can smell the rain coming, pungent. And then the drops hit on the fly of the tent making small popping sounds, a solo drummer; each drop slow, hollow, and singular. The drum picks up the rhythm like a concert, from slow to steady to fast, and along with the now vibrating beat, the wind flutters, then shakes the sides of the tent, like a flapping sail. As the squall moves through, the rain falls loud on the fly with the beats merged in a frenzy, indistinguishable one from the other. But then the rain recedes as it came, the beats slow, slower, until the drops peppering the tent play out and stop. I exit the tent and the blue evening sky is back, the air cool and clean, a caress.
The stove’s in my pack and I pull it out along with the pan, spark the blue gas and the rush of flame hisses, hot. Some butter in the pan melts down and I place the filets one by one, making sure they don’t fold on one another. I turn them with my white plastic fork and they sizzle and I can smell the butter against the fish.
At a high mountain lake, a man who lost his days in better and best, who spent the greater part in commutes and TV, who finds himself with not much ahead; now has dinner on a plastic plate between two logs—the trout; tender, sweet, flaked white—and for the first time, in a long time, says to himself, ‘I feel alive’.