I spent a night and a day in Loveland because I was waiting for the weather to change before I went into the mountains; the day before the road had been closed due to snow. Loveland is just a sprawl-town, but from there the Rocky Mountains dominate the sky. I drew another house and the next day was beautiful and warm, and as the day wore on I saw some of the snow fade from the high peaks.
As soon as I left the suburbs the earth opened up with a silent thunderclap and I rode right up the throat of Big Thompson Canyon. To either side of me sprang up mighty sheets of jagged, spiny rock twisting their way to the sky. It was late in the day and dark at the bottom of the canyon where the road and river wound, but above me the rim was lit and glowing with needles of golden stone. I rode upward in shadow until I found a place to spend the night.
In the morning my bag, backpack and bike were covered with thick frost, a serious frost with many textures, leaves and fur and hard nodules, beautiful but discouraging. It was hours before the sun was high enough to fall down over the canyon walls and melt it off so I could continue up through the town of Estes Park and into Rocky Mountain National Park.
Once inside the national park it was as warm as summer and a gorgeous ride. While the snowy peaks rioted all around the horizon, the sun on the aspens painted dazzling streaks of yellow on the lower slopes. The aspens are like birches with platinum skin and their leaves have turned a brilliant canary yellow for the fall; gathered in shimmering groves amongst the dark spruces and pines they seemed to pour down the mountains and break over and around the angular evergreens like water over rocks. The slightest breeze made the leaves tremble and flutter so that from a distance the bright yellow patches scintillated, crawled with motion, pulsed with light.
Fall is yellow here. As I hiked up to Andrews Glacier I’d periodically enter an aspen grove and be bathed in glowing yellow light. I didn’t think a hundred shades of yellow and green could be so beautiful, but they are, an exotic foreign cousin of a New England fall that clearly carries the same royal blood.
At one of the lakes along the trail there was a Trout Parade: every ten feet along the shore I could see a rainbow trout swimming in the clear, shallow water, each between eight and ten inches long. It felt strange to actually see wild fish since they’re normally such a mystery, living in a hidden world until they appear miraculously on the ends of clear blue lines. They move by flying or levitating but seldom rise above the level of our feet; there was a medieval cult that believed it was ok to eat fish since fish did not have sex and were therefore holy, created and stocked by God — sounds good to me, I can’t picture fish having sex either. If they’re going to just swim around out in the open, thought, pretty soon they’ll be as mysterious as squirrels.
I almost didn’t find the glacier. When the trail opened up onto a field of huge jagged boulders I could see a great mass of snow hanging high on a slope to my left. I couldn’t see any other likely candidates, but fortunately a neuron fired somewhere and I scrambled up the steep talus slope to my right. When I pulled myself wheezing over the top a green glacial lake appeared before me and the glacier rose up behind it in all its vast white bulk. Unlike snow that sits on whatever’s available and mimics the forms beneath, Andrews Glacier had its own shape, its own massive curved body that slithered down between the slopes. In the middle it rose in a mighty hump, and over the water it stuck out a wide curved lip as though to take a sip. Why worry about alien invasion when there are glaciers in our very midst, unstoppable monsters who could rise up, multiply and grind everything to dust like they’ve already done so many times before? I walked on the glacier some to show it who was boss.
In the late afternoon sun the lower elevations of the park were all spun from ancient metals: copper, gold, bronze and tin in everything, in the many shades of the open grasslands, in the turning leaves and in the rocks. I expect autumn from the trees but in grass it is surprising, and I swear the tumbling outcroppings of mountain rock have taken fall colors too.
On one coppery grass plain were elk. One group was hidden in the distant trees but the other herd was right out in the middle by the stream, about a dozen elk presided over by a bull with a tall and glorious rack of antlers. Every few minutes he’d bugle, a high thin sound but with rich undertones as if he wasn’t getting it quite right. It did sound kind of like a bugle as blown ineptly by a small kid, but it managed to be beautiful sound anyway and carried all across the plain. Sometimes his call was answered by another unseen bull, probably from that other herd, but nothing seemed to come of it — either they saved it for another time or they resolved it with sound.
I’d met some great people hiking earlier, but when they turned back before we reached the glacier I was forced to choose between human companionship and a large piece of ice. I chose the ice without even blinking, which has got to say something about me — but to my good fortune we bumped into each other later and they took pity on me and bought me a beer and some pizza, a holy combination. Estes Park is overrun with animals: first we saw three deer standing on a streetcorner, then later we saw a whole herd running through the streets downtown, then later still a bull elk with a huge rack of antlers stepped out into our headlights right in front of us. We stopped in time but the car behind us got rear-ended; no one was hurt, though, and it was only a rental. Then we snuck into and prowled around the sprawling red-roofed Stanley Hotel where Stephen King lived when he wrote The Shining.
Right now there’s a wide, bright halo around the moon, a hoop or cold crown that dimly illuminates some of the high, thin clouds that pass through it. It signifies ice in the sky.