by Emmy Savage
The following account is part of a series about walking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as spiritual practice. This fall, I will be doing more hikes and writing about them when the weather is cooler and more stable. The beetle kill devastation on the Willow Lake hike is heartbreaking but it is still a beautiful hike and probably at its loveliest in September and October when the Aspen begin to turn and the Willows in the upper valley are turning from green to russet and ochre. Father Eric Haarer, Connie Bielecki, Sarah and I did this hike a year ago in September and went all the way to the upper lake.
Willow Lake, July 17, 2017
Today I have a visitor from Maryland and we are hiking to the top of the falls above Willow Lake. It is going to be a hot day—eighty-two degrees—with thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon. We leave the trail head at 7am and hope to avoid the latter if not the heat. We make good time, stopping now and then to talk with other hikers and members of the Rocky Mountain Field Institute who are camped at the lake for a month in order to build a new trail to Kit Carson’s summit. We arrive at the lake at 10:45 and stop at a sunny rock to eat our lunch and gaze across the lake to the falls. There is no denying that today the beauty of the lake is compromised. The trees on either side of the valley below the lake and those surrounding it are now about eighty-five per cent dead or dying. I apply a kind of mental filter so that I see only the beauty of the rocks, the sky, the peaks, the low-lying vegetation, the surface of the lake with its mountain colors of blue and grey and green and white.
After lunch, we begin the ascent to the top of the falls. Thanks to another summer project by the Field Institute, there is now a new trail across the boulder field on the north side of the lake and we climb rapidly and with ease. At the top of the falls we come to a shelf of red conglomerate and cross the rushing creek that drains the upper lake and valley. Now, far above tree line, we are removed from the devastation below and can only rejoice in the staggering beauty of the fourteen thousand-foot peaks, the bluest of blue skies and the radiance of water and light. My friend takes pictures while my dog, Sarah, and I nap before we begin our way back home. As we leave, I only minimally register that Sarah doesn’t drink at the creek. Nor does she drink much at any of the small and large tributary creeks we cross on our way down the trail. She doesn’t even drink at the last crossing before we begin a series of switch backs through the tinder-dry dead and dying forest. Shade is minimal. I think about a book I am reading that claims trees are sentient beings. If they are, I think, this beetle kill blight must be a terrible way to die, sap oozing from the trees’ sides like blood and tears. From time to time we stop in what shade we can to cool and rest. But Sarah is not behaving like she normally does, she’s not running ahead to find shade and wait for me to catch up. She stays right at my heel and seems oblivious to whether we are in shade or sun. About the time we descend to the last switch back above the meadow all the clues and warning signs come together. I stop and turn and find Sarah glassy eyed. She begins to stagger and convulse. I grab her and between tears and sobs, I hold her until she quiets. I offer her water but she refuses to drink. I pour my remaining water over her head and carry her down to the creek. It is hot and buggy but I don’t feel either. I stand her in a quiet pool under the Aspens and at last she takes a long drink. Then I scoop water onto her head, her shoulders, her back and belly and then she gives herself a shake. The way back up to the main trail is steep and hot and after I carry her a short way, I have to put her down. But she seems okay now and slowly the three of us piece our way across the last glaring shade-free stretch until we come to the top of a rise and enter forest again, such as it is, and descend the last slope to home. Behind us we hear the rumble of thunder and it begins to rain. By the time we are back at the car, we are soaked to the skin but I don’t care if I’m wet. Sarah has revived, her temperature lowered, and she seems like her old bouncy self.
After the 1938 New England hurricane tore through my grandfather’s farm and ripped down the old growth trees that had stood for centuries on his family’s land, it was said he never went up into the west wood again. After this hike, my heart is also heavy about trees and about almost losing Sarah. It is a heaviness I can’t shake. But I plan to take my son up above Willow Falls when he visits this fall—to visit that radiant place one more time. On Transfiguration Sunday Father Eric talks about radiance, about how we must come down from the mountain and leave the radiance behind us. But we can still carry it in our hearts, he says, it can still light our way home.