Up Where the Air is Thin

Article and photos by Jack Olson

Lupine on Shrine Ridge, Mount of the Holy Cross in background

Lupine on Shrine Ridge, Mount of the Holy Cross in background

Timberline. The most thrilling word in my severely challenged vocabulary. I didn’t even have a clue about this word until I moved to Colorado in 1965. I come from Illinois. We grew corn. We had flat. Timber was what we called woods.

Then I drove my old car out of the Midwest and settled in a Rocky Mountain state. A friend invited me to go on a backpack with him and some of his buddies. Gasp. Our elevation reached some twenty times higher above sea level than the Land of Lincoln. Worse than that, backpacking was uphill. With weight. What is this? Oh my, I only saw the receding backs of my friends. Huff and puff was all I could utter.

Parry primrose on tiny stream below Shrine Ridge

Parry primrose on tiny stream below Shrine Ridge

But time, effort, and perseverance swamped surrender and soon I welcomed the next climb to timberline. The travel editor of the Denver Post once asked readers to submit their favorite place in the world. My response, published by the way, was to be above timberline in Colorado in July.

Tall trees loom above as you trudge up the  trail, and then somehow they’ve grown shorter. Meadows sparkle with every color of the palette. Streams, which you first cross by bridges, and then a run and a jump, are now barely a trickle. Finally, oh, finally, trees are replaced by―sky.

Timberline, itself, is explorable. There are times when you want to just loll around for hours right here, even munch lunch. Trees hang on for dear life, searching for a foothold in meager soil and whipped by roaring winds. This is a magical land with bristlecone pines appearing like grotesque dancers.

Alpine forget-me-nots in Rocky Mountain National Park

Alpine forget-me-nots in Rocky Mountain National Park

Slowly continue your walk upwards and you enter a wonderland of tundra. Tundra joins timberline as my two favorite words. Grass, but not like you find in the city. Tundra is to city grass as green chile is to cream of wheat.

Take time. If ever you are going to take time. Breathe. Feel your breath. Look. See forever.

Arctic gentians, the last wildflower to blossom in the tundra

Arctic gentians, the last wildflower to blossom in the tundra

The tiniest wildflowers begin appearing just as snow melts off in May and early June.

Sprinkles of pink, blue, yellow, and ivory add color to what has been a brown landscape. But then, in late June and climaxing in July there’s an explosion of vibrant color. Alpine forget-me-nots are so blindingly blue you can hardly believe such a hue could exist.

Sky pilots in tundra on the Continental Divide

Sky pilots in tundra on the Continental Divide

Long days and warm sun encourage the largest alpine blossoms. Sky blue sky pilots tower maybe six inches above the now green tundra. Parry primroses, their toes in water, define magenta without access to a dictionary. But for me, and it’s strictly personal, the wildflower I’ve waited all year to greet is the alpine sunflower, or old-man-of-the mountain as some call it. More yellow than plain old yellow could ever hope to be. In places there are fields of them, and I know where they are, where they’re looking right at you if you walk west toward them in the early morning. This is pure joy.

Sunset from 12,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park

Sunset from 12,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park

Climb, or drive, to where the air is thin, to the height of our natural world. That area awaits us in the Rocky Mountains.