A Moment Too Fragile


     When I started on the trail, my mind was like a tangled fishing line—a mess of noisy thoughts about anything and everything, almost none of which had anything to do with going for a hike in the mountains. Distracted, I continued on until I began to climb a series of steep switchbacks and I noticed that my surroundings no longer looked familiar. I pulled out my topo map to find where I was, scanning it for a moment until I spotted the steep incline I was on; I had passed the turnoff by nearly a mile.

     I quickly turned around and after about ten minutes I got back onto the loop trail I was “supposed” to be on. Physically, I was feeling a bit tired, having gotten very little sleep the night before. As a parent of three young children, energy is a scarce resource, and today I had hardly any left to push myself along. My legs also felt weaker than usual; I hadn’t been hiking nearly as much this summer as I usually do, mostly due to an ankle surgery I had earlier in the year that kept me at home. I quickened my pace, not because I was in a rush–I had the whole day to myself to do as I pleased–but to try and wake my body up and get it into some sort of rhythmic motion.

     I had chosen to hike this trail after visiting a more popular lake in the area and finding far too many people there. I needed to go somewhere quiet to be able to sift through the commotion of my troubled mind. With this trail being a bit longer, I knew it would deter most of the crowd and I could find the moments of solitude that I so desperately needed.

     After an hour or so, I reached the place where I am happily sitting now; a less popular alpine lake that happens to have the same name as my son. It’s a clear, sunny day, very warm even up at this altitude, several thousand feet higher than the city I live in. There isn’t a single cloud floating in the deep cerulean sky. A couple of families are fishing for trout along the shore, so I head down the opposite shoreline towards a secluded beach on a large smooth slab of pristine limestone. Without any tall trees on this side, I am still exposed, but the distance between us–dampening the noise and blurring the details–will at least provide for a little bit of privacy and solitude.

     I set my heavy backpack on the ground and take off my sweaty clothes, laying them out on the boulders to dry in the sun. I will go for a swim here in honor of my one year old son, Clyde, who loves coming on hikes with me, but today has stayed home with his mother and sisters. I step into the chilly lake and wade out towards the center to deeper water, feeling it get colder and colder as I advance. As it reaches above my thighs, I feel a slight hesitation to submerge the rest of my body, anticipating the shock that the ice cold water will bring. Before I can talk myself out of it, I close my eyes and dive in. To my surprise, it’s not quite as cold as I had expected. I stay under for a minute or so, bringing all of my focus inward, before raising my head back out of the water. My heart is racing, so I close my eyes and begin breathing deeply until it slows down, embracing the feeling of the pure glacial water surrounding my body instead of resisting it.

     The jolt from the frigid water has now wiped my mind clean and I am brought into the crystal clear reality of the present. I have come to love jumping in icy lakes for this lucid state that it always allows my mind to enter. Now relaxed, my focus shifts to the magnificent world that’s all around me. I notice the dancing, golden lines on the surface of the lake from the intense sunlight refracting in the water. I follow large electric blue dragonflies as they fly all around me, swooping down just inches above the surface. Some of them are flying in tandem, their bodies connected in perfect synchronicity as they mate while still airborne. I watch this strange act in silence until I am interrupted by a splash, followed by some hooting and hollering. Someone caught a fish, a small brook trout with a red underbelly.

     After a while, I slowly swim back to shore and carefully tip-toe between jagged rocks out of the lake. I lie down, pressing my wet, bare skin against the sleek limestone, to bask in the midday sun. The radiant light fills my body with warmth and energy. I raise my hand to shade my eyes from the harsh, white light and look up at the sky. One small cloud is floating amid the endless sea of blue. I watch as it gently sails past until it slowly dissipates into nothing.

     A slight breeze kicks up and chills the small beads of moisture still left on my skin. It feels colder now than it did when I was in the lake. Once dry, I put my clothes back on so that I can continue to sit here in comfort, admiring my surroundings. I look down at the perfect cross hatching patterns of defined cracks in the glossy, polished limestone, glistening in the bright sunlight. Converging swirls of red, orange and yellow minerals in the rock resemble the post-impressionist paintings of Vangoh. As I remain still, small squirrels and birds begin to come out from under the dwarf pines behind me and casually resume their routine behavior, scavenging for bits of food and building materials for nests. Many different kinds of flies and bees are buzzing around but thankfully, I haven’t noticed a single mosquito.

     Looking across at the row of lodgepole pines along the opposing lakeshore, backdropped by distant mountain peaks, I think to myself, if I were to imagine some kind of paradise, it wouldn’t be much different than this. I’m not religious, nor do I believe in any kind of god at this point of my life. But if there were a god that made this world, then the devil would be the one tempting us to pour cement on top of grass, cut down forests, pollute the ocean, and decimate ecosystems for the sake of industry. Hell would be a noisy, crowded city. A dense, gray concrete jungle where only humans reside, where one can no longer experience the restorative serenity of the open wilderness. The words of a song that I’ve only heard a few times and have no idea who sings surface from somewhere in the back of my mind, “...so they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Whenever I have to visit a city because of friends, family, or convenience, I always feel a sense of guilt, as if I am in some wicked and immoral place.

     Today I’m very happy to be away from the city, disconnected from civilization. There is no cell service up here but I brought my phone along to track mileage, refer to a topo map to know the names of some of the lakes and peaks I have been passing, and jot down any important thoughts I might have. While a pen and paper might be more complementary to the nature of the setting, I find it painful to try and write by hand. I can’t seem to keep up with the flow of my thoughts while still writing them down legibly. Instead, I have been dictating certain ideas and phrases to my phone as it types for me, this way I can reflect on them more when I get back home. But each time I open it I make sure not to check the time. Time means nothing to me on a day like today.

     Once I feel ready to continue, I put on my pack and follow the shore of the lake, briskly hopping from boulder to boulder until I find my way back to the main trail. I continue to admire the marvelous beauty all around me as I pass dozens of lakes, ponds, and tarns of all different shades of blue and cross small, rocky streams meandering through open meadows. I notice elegant, flowy lines in wavy grasses. Red, yellow, blue, and purple wildflowers are all around me, most of which I recognize from my years of backpacking in these mountains. Being later in the season, they are now slightly wilted and dying off, but still beautiful nonetheless. Clumps of them are growing between sparkling, orange boulders covered in purple varnish and neon green lichen that are scattered all around. Small, delicate white flowers that I have seen all along the trail resemble the kind of lace embroidery of a wedding dress. I think I know its name: “Queen Anne’s Lace.” However, who Queen Anne was and what she had to do with the wild flowers of the Rocky Mountains I have no idea.

     I have all the equipment necessary in order to make perfectly technically sound photographs of the remarkable scenery that surrounds me. I’m carrying my tripod, telephoto and macro lenses, my camera, and plenty of extra batteries and SD cards in my backpack. Regardless of my intentions, I almost always bring some of my camera gear along, if anything just to have some extra weight to help keep myself in shape. While I haven’t used my camera at all, I am still practicing the most important principle of photography: observation–noticing all of the forms, patterns, and designs around me, appreciating the shadows and natural contrasts occurring between objects. This isn’t something that I choose to do, it just automatically happens for me. But even though I am thoroughly enjoying everything I am seeing, I feel no urge to make photographs today.

     In some instances, like when doing something special with my family, I’m reluctant to remove myself from the moment in order to document it with a camera. However, while witnessing a special moment in nature, I hardly ever find the camera to be something that pulls me away, and instead, it tends to bring me into it even further. I have found that through photography, as I take a closer look at objects and scenes, I can often find more meaning in them than I had been able to sense before, noticing their unique shapes, visual flow, and the remarkable metaphors they create.

     But today I’m afraid that if I try to put the four edges of a frame around any of this that I am witnessing, trying to compose it in a way that is visually pleasing, I may cause it to lose its significance altogether. The moment is far too fragile. I’m worried that if I study it too closely as I try to make a photograph out of it, I may pierce through the thin veil of wonder between us, and I am unsure I will be able to restore it to its original state; like examining a magic trick too closely to the point that you realize how it’s done and it can never surprise you again.

     If I focus on any of this too intensely, trying to arrange it into a composition, it just might crumble apart. I don’t feel like putting it under close scrutiny–judging it too harshly as to whether it can be a “good” photograph or not. Maybe on another day I could be in the right mental state to handle these scenes with the delicate hands that they require in order to keep them intact, but today I will spare them. I’m fully satisfied with what meaning I've already found in the experience so far.

     About halfway done with the hike now, I catch up to an older couple going at a slightly slower pace. Usually I would maybe only say hello, but as I walk past them I can somehow sense that we are vibrating on the same wavelength, with similar intentions for being here today. It’s a Tuesday afternoon and of all the things we could or even should be doing, we’re up here, breathing fresh air as we admire the marvels of the natural world. After passing them, I turn around and manage to say, “Aren’t we lucky to be here instead of in an office?” before getting choked up. They both smile and the man responds, “I sure don’t miss those days!”

"Dream Within A Dream"

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