Beyond the High Meadows

Text & photos by Richard Holmes

I felt it coming on the evening before, an unexplained restlessness. A familiar stirring. I realized then what it was. I needed an altitude fix––by hiking. I had to climb something.

So I set off this morning for the mountains and the trail to King Lake, my first sustained hike of the season. The air is clear, the sky is blue, but my mind is cloudy, perhaps from too much lower altitude inactivity. Within the first mile I begin to feel resuscitated, the clarity of my mind approaching that of the sky. A beautiful day. But aren’t they all beautiful at the higher altitudes?

A profusion of flowers greets me upon reaching the high meadows. Acres and acres of blue and pink and red and yellow––subtle hues vibrant in the morning light. The various greens from surrounding foliage are intense, almost blinding. 

More miles of hiking westward through fir and ponderosa forest, always upwards. I burst out into the open again––more wildflowers, a view across the valley, a distant hawk soaring, the trickling sound of a small stream.

Nearing timberline the trail steepens, and after a final surge past an unnamed tarn, then over a rise, I am upon King Lake––serene, quiet, welcoming. I stand facing across the lake as a chill breeze descends from the Continental Divide, a couple hundred feet above. Large patches of snow still cover the steep slope into the lake. I look up at the treeless ridge, and as I scan the horizon I seem to feel energy flowing into me, moving me, lifting me, carrying me to greater heights than where I am standing. I think I am receiving my fulfillment, my altitude need. I throw my arms into the air, like antennas, and absorb it all. 

Stepping over to the lee side of a rock, I remove my pack and sit down, looking back toward the direction from which I had come. The eastern prairie is visible far in the distance. Leaning against the pack I leisurely consume my sack lunch, my eyes traversing my surroundings. 

It’s restful up here. Most of me wants to remain, to sit and absorb the views, the rocks, the tranquility of the present. But a part of me wants to leave, to head back down––a destination had been reached.

This always happens. The romanticist part of me clinging to every wondrous moment––the realist part of me glancing toward the sky, surveying the threatening clouds, restless to hit the trail, to get out before the dim rumble of thunder comes close. The realist usually wins.

But not without a battle. The tarn I had passed draws my attention. I wander down to stand in the snowmelt feeding the small pond, and observe the flowers growing between rocks. Across the tarn a dipper dives under the surface––the expanding ripples glancing back from the water’s edge. In some willows a small yellow bird catches my eye. A tiny warbler? Still battling the realist I study it for later identification. 

Reluctantly I head on down, pausing occasionally to examine something along the trail, the romanticist still expressing his presence. Eventually, as the afternoon clouds and general fatigue move in, a desire to reach the car dominates whatever romanticism is left, and the feet obey the new master.

I know the trip is over when I unlock the car and sink into the front seat. But somewhere up there, beyond the high meadows, is a serene lake, a beautiful tarn, and a tiny warbler.