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The Scenic Route

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The Scenic Route

At the top of the world

Huckleberries. Ripe to 4,000 feet and rising quickly, royal little gems draw us into the high country. Up the trail they entice us, even while slowing us by their sweet presence, staining fingers, palms, tongues and teeth purely purple.

None are saved. We will not be back today—or tomorrow. Maybe on another week we will wend this way again, but there is no reason to do anything more than eat as many as we can and still keep our pace and make our date with that hunk of heaven on a chunk of rock we are headed for. Soon, they lose their immediate allure, morphing back in time to green, hard nubbins hiding in the leaves waiting for time and rain and sunshine to bring them on to edibility.

We climb through the harvest and back through time, on nearer to spring than we could have imagined yesterday, when we languished in the 90s and lower elevations.

Now, we move through patches of snow imbedded in new beargrass, Queen’s cup bead lilies, penstemon, even an occasional shaded trillium and into meadows full of that bearly-loved treat, glacier lilies. Stem first, we suck them in like green spaghetti until that brilliant yellow bloom tickles our noses on its way to being digested. A little sugar. A little pepper. Bitter and sweet, they mark the poignant regression of snowfields into summer at 6,000 feet.

The tepid air is full of subalpine firs’ syrupy scent, pulled by the sun out of forest-green needles and surprising marine-blue cones balanced like tightrope walkers on sloping branches. This covers the smell of our own, well-scented bodies as we climb through a rocky meadow made fiery by Indian paintbrush, punctuated by pungent white yarrow and triad-petaled sego lilies.

Afternoon brings the bugs. Black flies, mosquitoes, bumble bees, face gnats (I know no other name for them, excepted “damnable”) and a mostly benign variety of fly that tries to fool us by looking like a yellowjacket. We are also joined by the first of a succession of hummingbirds which all seem to think my red pack is some huge flower.

Now, we are in the rock—beyond the forest and in the presence of the core material of these mountains. Layer upon layer, slab upon slab, it climbs to the top of the ridge above; a stairway built for giants. We look up from our hunt for a campsite, squint past the various insects and an unconscious corporate sigh goes through the group. We flex our diaphragms mightily, as if we are trying to get a head start on the oxygen supply we will need to top that piece of stone tomorrow morning.

Camp. Three tents in a tiny meadow surrounded by trees and tiny, buzzing, six-legged, hungry, flying monsters. We cook and eat with one hand or the other waving in front of our faces. We utter occasional loud and random bad words and once in a while slap ourselves hard in the face, as if we are possessed. No one goes in early, despite the respite on the other side of the tent walls. There is too much to see in a place too beautiful to well describe without at least a million words, for there are at least a thousand pictures within a half-hour’s clamber of camp.

You can understand that kind of math, can’t you?

Night. Through fine-mesh, high-tech tent roofs, we keep an ancient watch. Big Bear keeps an eye on Little Bear, wearing Polaris at the end of its tail like a homing beacon. Cephus and Cygnus wave at each other from across the dome. Andromeda’s ancient old mum, Cassiopeia, cruises past, barely avoiding a collision with something completely new—a streaking International Space Station.

At some moment between old Sol and new Sol, an old maid of a moon, nearly gone into her dark side, slides quietly up out of the east and begins sneaking across the sky. Behind her come bright Venus and red Mars, riding into morning triumphant on the upraised arms of hunter Orion.

Morning. Cooking, eating, packing up, all the while waving like maniacs, we prepare ourselves for the ridge. Before the sun is too high, we begin our ascent; laboring up the giants’ staircase. A merciful breeze rises—sent by God, I’m sure—and the winged demons recede, though our hummingbird comes all the way to the top with us before handing us off to our next tiny escort.

We take a break. We take a seat. We catch our communal breath. It is, after all, a breathtaking place. The breeze stiffens and even the most stubborn bugs are blown away. Creation lays spread before us like the most delicious of feasts.

“This must be what they mean,” I think, “when they say, ‘Sitting on top of the world.”

Sandy Compton’s new book, Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth, ($16, 320 pages) is available at Vanderford’s in downtown Sandpoint, or can be ordered by writing to books(at)bluecreekpress.com.

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Author info

Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

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