The last tongue of sunlight stretches across the flats along the bottom of the meadows, light green and yellow, warm, two miles long. Stands of tall spruce bordering the marshy grasslands have already turned dark green to black, the coming night sending its shadows in advance. Crazily dancing dust motes and mosquitoes are backlit by the flaring sun, then are swallowed by the night. The tongue withdraws, meadows grow dark.

It was the tall stands of spruce that first drew us here decades ago. My buddy Johnny Rotten had procured the use of a flatbed stake truck that could hold three cords of wood and enlisted me to help him harvest some of the dead timber along the fringes of the forest close to the road. In return I would earn our winter’s firewood. Johnny ran the saw; I helped bust off the side limbs and did the hauling. To this day, the smell of pungent sap stirs an instinctual call to action.

The chainsaw was a revelation, wood chips flying, slicing through trunks like butter. The previous summer we had cut our firewood with an old two-handled saw foraged from the basement of our ramshackle rental. With new handles attached, blade oiled and teeth sharpened, it wasn’t much slower than a chainsaw, and yes, the chips flew, but it took four guys to make it go, two pairs of sweaty fellows tag-teaming. This chainsaw business? Luxury.

We didn’t have to fall many trees; there were plenty already down, cured and ready to go, held off the ground by their branches. Once the truck was fully loaded with three-round lengths — roughly four feet — we’d trundle back to town, creeping slowly down the switchbacks to the highway. The truck was then parked in the empty lot across from the Buck with a sign that advertised “Dry Spruce, You Haul, You Buck, $35/Cord.” 

Johnny held court in the saloon, nursing beers, monitoring the truck through the window. When the truck was emptied, he’d come get me and we’d go back out.

One rainy Saturday in late summer we were almost done filling up a load as the sun set. Cold and wet, I was looking forward to a hot shower and warm bed at home when Johnny announced that we were going to spend the night down in the nearby ranching ghost town where his girlfriend was the cook. “But my gal’s expecting me back in town,” I protested. Johnny’s trump: “It’s my truck.” Down to the ghost town.

The old ranch camp was comprised of a half-dozen tumbledown cabins and a larger log structure housing a dining hall and The Silver Stirrup Saloon. The rough-hewn bar held the carved initials of cowpokes and sheepherders from past eras, and those, it was rumored, of a few desperados. The romance of their lifestyles, I’m guessing, is a myth. 

The main event of the place, though, was the hot springs pool housed in a rotten barn. It was here, homesick, that consolation was found, warming the bones, watching stars pulse through the cracks in the roof boards. Home in the morning, then, in clammy clothes, topping off the load on the way back through The Meadows, and there was wood for a wooly winter of powder days, sometimes-raucous nights, crystalline mornings shoveling snow.

Subsequent trips here were usually on mountain bikes, mapless, happily half-lost, following roads and trails, not knowing where they went or how they connected, but usually able to straggle home before dark, in so doing gaining a rudimentary grasp of the layout. One time, though, caught out by nightfall after an October circumnavigation of the local prominent massif, it was so frigid in the back of a pickup truck hitching home on the highway that I lay down on the cold metal bed and pulled my bicycle on top of me in a pathetic attempt to get warmer. It didn’t work.

Today, after a languorous morning, lazy breakfast, bird watching, we strolled along an old stock driveway, which predates the modern dirt road, through forests of corn lilies along the edge of the meadows, which stretched into the distant past. As on the nearby highway pass, drummonds along the forest’s edge, we were sure, held the ruins of paleo summer hunting camps, semi-circular blinds offering sweeping views of the sprawling open spaces where game would be vulnerable.

The wind kicked up and strange clouds — strange, but all too familiar — appeared as we continued around the shoulder of the looming mountains, ocher clouds that emanated from the ground, formed great towers, smelled of woodsmoke and soon swallowed us. All surrounding peaks disappeared in a brown soup and it didn’t take much persuasion to eat a hurried lunch, turn tail and backtrack toward blue sky.

Back at camp, the smoke clouds rolled through intermittently and kept us on our toes, prepared for an expeditious departure. A low-lying cloudbank far to the south bespoke a fire in Arizona. As the day waned and the wind lay down, though, so, too, did the smoke and a peaceful sunset was enjoyed, the evening drawn out as if reluctant to leave. 

This was the maiden voyage of an antique aluminum canned-ham camper-trailer re-furbished during the pandemic lockdown — a timely project — the accommodation, after a lifetime in tents, palatial. The bed was so comfortable we couldn’t sleep, and through the window watched a waning moon as it smiled and yawned.

As evening had lingered, dawn arrives early, chickadees fluttering in the grass for their insect breakfast, timeless dance, blue jay scolding from a nearby tree. The first tongue of pale sunlight reaching across the meadows reveals a dozen gray shapes to be grazing elk, one cow, alpha of the harem, chasing the others from a favored spot. As the sun rises they melt into the forest. Time for coffee. There is a skin of ice in the water bucket outside, winter, even as summer solstice approaches, never far away.

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