Mountain garden: Discovering grace in the great northern wilderness

Photo Credit: Al Lehmann

Mountain garden: Discovering grace in the great northern wilderness

👤Al Lehmann 🕔Aug 04, 2014

There it was, word for word,

The poem that took the place of a mountain…

-Wallace Stevens

It was another perfect Saturday among the many this summer. Early sun glowed through the large firs at the side of Rob’s yard and colourful flowers lined the driveway and the pebbled sidewalk leading to his front door. “God I love flower gardens,” I thought to myself.

The smell of coffee welcomed us through the screen door before we knocked.

Rob was pouring the steaming fluid into his thermos bottle. “Want some?” he asked, as we let ourselves in. But we were in a hurry to go, this being our second hike in two weeks. Kelly was already in the living room, retying his bootlaces for the second or third time.

“Kelly’s looked up the turnoff on the computer,” Rob informed us jovially. “Once we find it we’ll have to hope the CRV can get us up that old logging road. We’ll find the trail once we’re up 1,000 feet or so. Then we’ll head for alpine on foot.”

We piled our gear—climbing poles, packs and bear spray—into the vehicle and buckled up. Our conversational drives to the trails are nearly as much fun as the hikes themselves. Today’s impromptu subject became the true meaning of “grace” and how that word relates to “gratitude.”

For 15 minutes the CRV rolled smoothly down the highway; then we turned and rattled onto the logging main, heading into the backcountry. The secondary logging road was right where the map had indicated. We turned onto the narrow track and began bumping our way upward. The road ascended in switchbacks, occasionally yielding spectacular views out over the Kleanza Valley. The old bridges looked rickety from the approaches, but they were solid and reliable. Finally Kelly called out, “There. Just before that next bridge.” He pointed at a small pine where a pink ribbon was tied to a branch. “That ought to be the trailhead.”

Rob parked the CRV and we retrieved our gear. In moments, half the mosquito population on the mountain seemed to have sensed our arrival and for a minute or two the sounds of slaps and muffled curses and the scent of bug dope floated in the morning air. Rob fastened his gaiters, murmuring, “It might get wet up there.”

Swinging up off the road, Kelly found the trail, barely visible as a path but locatable by the ribbon markers that we trusted to mark the easiest route. The trail was rudimentary at best, often obstructed by blown-down evergreens or intruding undergrowth. Hiking upwards was just short of bushwhacking. Perhaps one or two other hikers had been through in the past week.

Sweating and breathing heavily, after an hour and a half we broke out of the forest into steep upland meadow, thick with moss and grass. Much of the ground was squishy with the last of early summer’s melt-water. Footing was somewhat treacherous, and we were grateful for the hiking poles that stabilized our footing.

The old-growth timber was giving way to sub-alpine species: stunted firs and spindly pine, wild grasses and fewer mosses and ferns than below. But the meadow wildflowers really caught our attention.

“Who put this garden here!” exclaimed Rob. Balancing on his hiking pole, he gestured at the profusion of wildflowers spangling the subalpine slope with colours—red, white, yellow, blue and purple.

We were all agog, gaping at the display. Columbine Canadensis, with its characteristic red petals surrounding yellow stamens, drooped coyly amid hosts of white and yellow daisies. Spikes of lupines stood out among lower saxifrage. Pink and white paintbrush quivered beside our footfalls. Innumerable daubs of colour and white speckled the mountainside.

Rob’s exclaimed comment was a bit of irony, and none of us was genuflecting to some mythical religious designer identified by Thomas Aquinas. As the Zen master says, the world is its own miracle.

I thought of the French writer Stendahl’s assertion that, “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” We were happy and on some strange level suffused with existential gratitude: our consciousness of bloodbeat and stretched muscles, of sweat and hunger, of the pleasures of light and colour and of cool, fragrant air.

Ed stopped repeatedly to unpack his camera, snapping shots of his friends amid the natural splendor. I captured a few images on my iPhone.

Slogging carefully up the slope, we finally emerged into the alpine and made our way to the spine of the ridge. An immensity of sky spread above us, piles of cloud, torn with blue and irregular sunlight. Someone had erected a small cairn on a secondary ridge a couple of hundred yards away. Beyond the main ridge, three or four stream cuts gurgling with melt-water from higher up tumbled toward the far valley, splitting the uneven terrain into green segments. Purple heather hugged the steep hillsides. A marmot whistled from a nearby boulder.

We gazed back the way we had come, across the Kleanza Valley to the rougher east-facing mountain slopes a half dozen miles away. Wild cloud scraped across the peaks, casting irregular shadows over the forest and the aged clear-cut scars below. To our left, a few hundred feet above us, the final peak beckoned.

Slinging off our packs, we collapsed onto the heather, digging out roast beef sandwiches and water bottles. Rob passed around some seaweed. “Salt?” he asked. Kelly snapped apart some dark chocolate and offered it around.

Looking upslope over our shoulders, we debated whether or not to leave the peak for another day. I checked the time. No, the peak would have to wait. It’s not going anywhere, I thought to myself. Besides, walls of grey mist were advancing and retreating unpredictably along the shoulder of the mountain below, teasing us with the threat of a fog-shrouded descent. We carefully gathered our wrappings and stowed them in our packs.

“Hallo!” called a voice from up the slope. We turned to see a husky man in his mid-40s and an adolescent girl, lithe as an antelope, climbing down the hillside toward us. They had bushwhacked up via another route and, after relating their experience and consulting his GPS equipment, they decided to come down the potentially easier trail with us.

Our descent went more quickly, landscapes reversed, gravitational challenges requiring other postural strategies. Several of us slipped in the wet, laughing at simple tumbles that as easily could have resulted in a sprain or broken bone. “Lucky this time,” someone mentioned. “Stay careful,” another cautioned.

We regained the road after an hour of endless downsteps. At least there were no serious blisters, and the odd mosquito bite and some sore muscles would prove a simple price to pay for such an experience.

It was quieter in the vehicle on the way home. Not all thoughts need to be spoken, I thought to myself. I rubbed a stiffening knot on the front of my thigh.

Later, sipping scotch on Rob’s deck, Ed said, “Make sure you send around your pictures.” The mountain had been beautiful. I looked at Rob’s garden hollyhocks and the mixed herbs, lush within their raised bed. Yes, very beautiful. A garden of grace.