“She needs her hand held,” I said about a local official with thin skin and a capacity for dwelling on slights, both real and imagined. It’s a somewhat condescending remark and one I’d made not just about that person, but others in my sphere of late with high-maintenance needs. We do it a lot in my business: smooth ruffled feathers, work to gain trust, go the extra mile to establish a good source for stories.
No wonder we become cynical.
But I don’t take my job home. Summer hours stretch brightly into bedtime, relaxed, golden and seductive. There’s more living to do beyond the confines of the office and once I’ve wrapped up my professional responsibilities, I get after the living, whether it’s the pleasant drudgery of chores forsaken during the workweek, a languid afternoon of bocce with the Dearly Beloved, or, as I found myself one peerless Sunday morning, clinging desperately to the side of a monstrous mound of moving rock.
I love the exertion that comes with hiking. And, I consider it a summertime requirement to get above treeline at least once. The Hawn Mountain Trail fit well into our Sunday plans — it’s a short hike, located nearby and it fit my requirement that it be above-treeline.
On the map, the trail up Hawn Mountain looks innocuous enough. Switchbacks climb gently and one simply scampers to the top on hand-laid stones. That’s right. Hand-laid: It’s a privately maintained trail, one of several that lace an exclusive enclave dotted with monstrous houses that only the profoundly wealthy can afford. The stones are hand-laid. Believe me, on the Hawn Mountain Trail, it was a plus.
But what the south-facing slope of Hawn Mountain is, is a sinister heap of talus — Mancos shale, I learned — that shudders and creaks and has the power to kill. Somewhere, the stony linchpin of the whole mess is poised to tumble, releasing the entire slope onto an unwitting hiker (in all likelihood, me). With every step the talus shifted, echoing like crockery being put away by the wives of giants. Lower down on the mountain, I had been okay, but the level of concentration that went into every single placement of each foot was becoming taxing. I was pleased that, despite the inactivity of a desk job, my fitness level was up to the climb, but I was not having fun.
And still we ascended, one lazy switchback after another. The moving rock eroded my confidence and my breathing became short and raspy. I dared not look anywhere other than at the dozens of shifting, crappy footfall choices immediately before me. At one point the Dearly Beloved, hearing my panicked panting, stopped me, bade me center myself with some deep breaths and insisted I chew on a granola bar. His calm demeanor helped bring down my heart rate but fear gnawed without remorse. I could not take in the sweeping views without feeling panic rise and the sight of planes landing at the airport below — below, mind you — made me feel woozy and weightless.
We navigated another switchback before my knees became jelly again and tears threatened. I tried to imagine some great purpose that could propel me up that damned heap of slag but short of possessing a powerful ring that needed to be destroyed and being pursued by Gollum, simply achieving the summit fell far short of steeling my shattered nerves. I sat trembling on a slab of hand-laid stone and wept. Blubbering apologies, we turned back.
I would not have made it down without having my hand held. From the Dearly Beloved’s warm clasp flowed strength and balance and a semblance of confidence. We retreated down that impervious pile of death and into the trees where I was finally able to walk steadily, comforted by the beauty of that morning and my love’s patient support. I was silent on our way home, chastened and humbled and overwhelmed with gloomy thoughts like impending old age and how I’d wilted with fear.
Ultimately, I’d needed my hand held. I guess we all do from time to time.
A BRUSH WITH GREATNESS
I’ve never really enjoyed summer.
I guess living in New York City for two decades will do that to you. You could never escape the worst parts of the season: Inside, there were freezing, over-air-conditioned offices, while outside there was the constant, annoying buzz of those same air-conditioners, plus drenching humidity and the scent of fetid streets.
Even before that, growing up in Colorado, I had not enjoyed summer the way a child is supposed to. I was always restless for school to begin again. Yes, the outdoor concerts were great (living just a few minutes from Red Rocks spoils you). True, hikes in the mountains were sublime. But for me, summer boiled down to a period of suspended animation. We all knew it came and went quickly, didn’t we? And that the real business of living — of school, and studying, and striving for something (like it or not) was about to begin again soon, didn’t we?
Why not just get on with it?
Since moving to the Western Slope, I have found an anecdote to summer — a sign that lets me know autumn is on the way even before it officially arrives. It is Ericameria nauseosa, an ugly name for a plant that thrills me each August.
Better known as rabbitbrush, you see its brilliant yellow flowers along highways every year, beginning in mid-to-late August straight through October. Rabbitbrush is particularly prolific this year, blooming big along roadsides from Montrose to Telluride.
Yes, roadsides. That’s one of the things I like about rabbitbrush: you don’t have to go searching for it. It’s right there, in your face, announcing the arrival of fall. I recently did a little research about rabbitbrush, and everything I learned about it made me admire it even more. It’s a Colorado native, for starters. It nourishes one of this region’s most iconic unugulates — mule deer — and in the most important time of year, just before the killing cold sets in. As you might guess, rabbits eat rabbitbrush. And earlier in the year, it shelters nesting birds.
I admire rabbitbrush’s hardiness and resilience. It thrives in terrain (like roadsides) too forbidding for more delicate flora.
It is genuinely accomplished, not obnoxiously ambitious: “It grows faster” but also “competes less” with forbs and grasses than sagebrush after a wildfire, a Utah State website discloses, and is one of the first, most important shrubs to return after a landscape has been scorched by flames.
It’s beautiful not only in the wild, but at home, “one of the most ornamental and useful native plants for a Colorado garden.” How many creatures, plants, foods, or even humans do you know that are both useful and ornamental? In my experience, it is almost always one-or-the-other.
What’s more, rabbitbrush has been useful for generations: Native Americans used it to make chewing gum (despite the “nauseosa” in its name, it couldn’t have been all that sickening). Indeed, it was even a curative: rabbitbrush was used for cough syrup.
Rabbitbrush is all of that, and yet 10 months out of every year, you don’t even notice it (I also admire its discretion). The only time you really see it is in late August, when it glows bright yellow. Move forward — seek shelter, stay warm — or die. It’s what every living thing must do once the chill arrives. Don’t be fooled by that cerulean sky and warm sunshine, rabbitbrush says brightly. Look how brilliant my blooms are! And yet, I am a warning: Autumn is almost here.
As a kid, summer vacation felt like forever. The period between school years was full of adventures. We played in the woods until dusk, picnicked at the neighborhood playground and pretended our pedal bikes were motorcycles. It was a simpler time before the world wide web and social media influencers. We were more worried about whose pool we would swim in than going viral.
We lived for summer back then, when the world was barely bigger than our backyards. The night before the first day of school was the worst. My younger sister and I would cry and vomit because we were so depressed and anxious about going back to classrooms filled with other idiot children and ancient teachers who yelled at us for not knowing our multiplication tables or how to spell “Mississippi.” Why can’t it just be summer all the time, we’d ask our parents, who no doubt thought we were crazy, if not adorably innocent. At a certain point, not too long ago actually, I came to the realization that summer break was only three months, and that’s if there were no snow days to make up at the end of year. I felt cheated.
As an adult, summer is the season during which you continue to go to work every day like every other time of the year, but you can wear shorts, T-shirts and sunglasses, and the sun is still out when you get off and scurry to the bar for happy hour. Perks.
It’s also the season my family and I take our annual vacation. For the past four years, we’ve booked a tropical trip to the Caribbean. This summer we went to the British Virgin Islands, staying on the largest island, Tortola. The white sand and crystalline waters were a nice respite from the mountains. Vacation is a time for Red Stripe beer and burnt flesh, reading books on the beach and frozen rum drinks. It’s also an opportunity to learn about different cultures. The island lifestyle always appealed to me since you can seemingly hide away from the world in the middle of the ocean. But Mother Nature is inescapable. BVI was decimated by Hurricane Irma in September 2017. The effects of the Category 5 storm can still be seen everywhere. Marinas around Tortola are littered with ghost ships. A local told us the government rounded up all the useless vessels, pushing them to the center of the marina in order to clean them up later. Two years have passed, the local said, and they’re still there. No one cares or seems to notice the derelict docks anymore. Brewers Bay, a popular beach on the island’s northwest coast, is nearly abandoned. An outdoor grandstand and nearby food shack were flattened and left to rot. We walked among the ruins and shook our heads, then enjoyed having the beach to ourselves. I read Charles Bukowski’s “Ham on Rye” and laughed out loud at the main character’s misfortunes. At least I’m not covered in boils like Henry Chinaski, I thought.
We visited Sage Mountain National Park, the highest point of Tortola. The trail through the jungle was spotted with signs that explained how much damage the area suffered and asked for donations in keeping the park open.
A local worker who we met at the trailhead talked about riding out the hurricane in his boarded up house. He recalled how everyone in his neighborhood met in the street as the eye of the storm offered a short respite from the decimation, before running back inside as the second series of storms approached.
An elderly man, he said, hid in an overturned refrigerator, huddling over his wife, as the house around him was essentially blown away. We probably came off like privileged tourists in offering our condolences, especially since the U.S. Virgin Islands received aid before their British neighbors.
“It looked like a war movie,” the worker said. “There were helicopters flying in and out all the time.”
Many BVI residents went to St. Thomas for relief supplies, but were denied access until Americans were taken care of. There’s still a lot of work to do in both areas, as well as Puerto Rico; we had a layover in San Juan.
The trip wasn’t all doom and gloom — far from it — but seeing the remnants of Hurricane Irma and chatting with locals about their experiences stuck with me. I’m a journalist after all, so listening to and retelling peoples’ stories is something I’m inclined to do, even when I’m on summer vacation.