By Ian King
You hadn’t exactly been making tawaf, that great, frenzied, swarming circumambulation of the Holy Kaaba in Mecca; and you clearly hadn’t been doing anything quite like the Muslim Hajj, either. Nonetheless, in a limited, quasi-metaphorical way, it is the first pilgrimage-like parallel you draw when you reflect on your visit to Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in early September 2019.
The parallel with executing the Fifth Pillar of the Islam, admittedly, is far from apt in so many ways: you hadn’t been naked, as apparently some of the pious pilgrims making the Hajj perhaps had been in centuries past; you’d only leisurely lapped the “sacred site” once, not the requisite seven; you had perambulated clockwise, thus countering the religious injunction to go in the opposite direction; there’d been no imposing black cube, symbolically representing the House of God, Bayt Allah, that had been the focus of your attention; you’d been there in early September, a full four weeks after the eighth to the thirteenth days of Dhu al-Hijah, the month of the Islamic calendar when the pilgrimage is to be conducted; and, no-one had been frenzied, in spiritual ecstasy, but in fact had been in vacation mode: relaxed, casual, and—mostly—smiling.
So, what’s your gig, then? Why compare an otherwise casual stroll around a lake nestled in the mountains to an exulted spiritual experience? Well, the analogy is, on careful consideration, not a total stretch of the imagination, a case of poetic license completely run amuck. And you’re quasi-joking, of course, in a satirical way, finding amusement in making ridiculous comparisons about ridiculous human nature. But beyond the joke, experiencing Sprague Lake does have its uplifting moments, some of them that seem truly transcendental, taking you out of yourself and out of your materialist culture back home, almost, perhaps, touching the finger of Gaia, primal Mother Earth goddess.
Sprague Lake is a sizeable body of water, lightly rippled by the wind in a soothing way on the day you’d been there. Its waters are bounded by reddish earthen banks, with expanses of marshy grasslands cresting them until quickly giving way to thick forest just starting to yellow here and there with autumn’s impending arrival. In the distance beyond the lake, purplish-grey mountain tops appear above the tree line, caressed by a canopy of scuttling cumulus clouds on a breezy late summer’s day, and giving just a hint, perhaps, of boiling up into a thunder shower later that afternoon.
It’s a thoroughly iconic scene, an enchanting riff from Nature’s playbook, where bodies of water—babbling brooks, placid ponds, roiling rivers, serene lakes, and majestic waterfalls—surrounded by lush vegetation and epic geological formations proffer liquid life to and induce mystical reverence in our species. We intuitively feel these icons’ attractions and delight in their exquisite aesthetic appeal. And we know, too, as the cognitive scientists inform us, that our species has evolved to have this powerful attraction organically married to our brute material survival. Well-watered valleys with lakeside encampments are our evolutionary Gardens of Eden, where visions of earthly utopia were perhaps first imagined, to be imprinted in our memory banks ever since as deep, instinctual sources of profound emotional, and even spiritual, resonance. And the shots you’d taken of the lake that day, confirm the scientific claims.
There’s the lake itself, a vast mirror to the natural resplendence all around it. Its lightly rippled surface distorts the reflected images, but they’re pleasingly mysterious and abstract in an impressionistic way, like a Monet, perhaps, mesmerizing you with its scatter of multi-colored brush strokes. And the ripples’ varied refractive qualities play alchemically with the light waves, affording you with an artist’s palette of colors rather than just the monochromatic deep blue you’ve often naively assumed water to be. Near shore, for instance, where the water shallows, it takes on the hue of a dark brown shading to a golden yellow just a few feet farther out where the reflected marsh grass comes into view. It shines a lime-ish green in patches where mats of algae may have formed, a dark emerald green where the conifers are captured upside-down, and a bright yellow where the autumning aspens are feeling the change of the seasons. Then there’s an array of blues, of course—azures, turquoises, and aquamarines—but they’re just as likely to be reflections of the sky above as they are the emergent properties of the water’s chemical composition. Finally, you can detect ashy greys, dark purples, even near blacks, as the mountains in the distance are brought close, too, in the great reflecting pool that is Sprague Lake. It’s clear that Nature has taught Monet and his Impressionist friends well.
There’s even an unexpected aesthetic pleasure to be found in the mortality that stalks the lake. At first, you’re disturbed by the ashen death that blights the forests, semi-naked greying trunks slowly bleaching to a pale white in the withering sun and desiccating day by day, certain to soon reap a crumbling demise. Diseases you don’t know the names of, brought on by anthropogenic hubris and clumsiness or by the attacks of invisible insect power of species you cannot name, are spoiling the colorful show by taking the lives of the trees and draining the multichromatic vibrancy out of them. But then you compose through your camera’s viewfinder a couple of those hundreds of diseased conifers, and you find yourself capturing a morbid aesthetic that nonetheless pleases you.
At the edge of a cove you walk by, there are two fallen tree trunks lying almost parallel, side by side. They’re stripped bare of all foliage, looking deathly pale, just a few remaining branch stubs sticking out awkwardly from the once proud arboreal torsos. But from your compositional perspective, they’re perfect, and they give function and form to the living picture you want to capture.
The trunks angle into the shallow waters from the shore like two canoes about to be launched. They provide contrast to the fecundity all around them, and, by thrusting along diagonals into the center of the scene, they lead the viewers eyes to where you want them to go. The naked trunks’ straight lines also provide geometrical complement the curves of the shoreline and the roundnesses of the billowy clouds and the denuded mountain tops. Even in death, you realize, epiphany can still be had: Dead stuff propagating aesthetic beauty in a way you might not have expected, a sort of necromancy instigating the magic of artistic delight. This powerful dialectic between life and death intrigues you, and makes you, you hope, a better artist, and perhaps one day a better philosopher.
Verse 96 of the Third Chapter of the Holy Koran says:
“Verily, the first house of worship appointed for mankind was that at Makkah, full of blessing, and a guidance for mankind.“
Perhaps, you’d conjectured while taking photographs from the shore, the lake and its aqueous ilk are among our first houses of worship, too, full of blessings and wise counsel for a healthy, sustainable life. But you’d immediately thereafter felt a chill, had gotten goosebumped a little, as if there’d been a spooky ghost haunting you. In the experiential moment you’d accused the rising breeze for your discomfort, but now wonder if in fact you’d been agitated by an ill feeling, a shade of guilt, a touch of remorse. Just how much has mankind been taking heed of Nature’s sometimes subtle warnings, her primal blessings and wise counsel?
In the gaps between the trees and bushes along the shoreline, you’d spied other wannabe hajjis popping into view now and again, spoiling the scenery and blighting the pristine shots you’d wanted to take. A good many of your fellow circumambulators had been elderly or just taking their own sweet time, so they’d been slow to move on and get out of the way. Some had rested for too long, you’d griped, on the wooden benches dotted here and there on the lake shore; and those on electric scooters had taken up even more of your visual spectrum, making it clear that mankind’s industrial society had not been all that far away, but had been right there with you like an itching sore.
Indeed, as you’d tried to locate just exactly where you’d started out on the other side of the lake, you’d detected clear signs of the car park located no more than a few convenient steps away from the start of the trail you were on. It had been only half-hidden at best, waiting for its landscaped plantings to grow high and wide enough to provide full faux camouflage one day. And then, goddammit, your line of sight had been thoroughly insulted by the presence of blue plastic porta-potties, the blight of all human blights. You’d accepted that they were good things in an obvious way, but what else do humans have to bring with them to places like Sprague Lake? How long before mobile phone charging stations will be added to the list of must-haves-at-all-times? And now that you’d tuned in to the fact that artefacts of industrial modernity had been seemingly ubiquitous, a cascading avalanche of other such sightings had quickly confirmed your dispiriting hypothesis. Scales had dropped from your eyes and you’d been disappointed to see so much more clearly, some things being better left unnoticed.
In addition to the car park and the cars, your eyes hadn’t been able to stop telescoping on the last things in the world you’d wished to see right then. The litany you’d catalogued had quickly gotten depressingly long: the ugly, protruding dock; the trash cans; the power lines and the poles that held them up; the clear evidence of chainsawed lumber, some stacked up ready to be hauled off to burn in winter stoves; the unnatural placement of a post-and-rail fence and large boulders to mark the outer limits of the trail; the small man-made bridge built over the stream that flows out of the lake; the neatly raked gravel pathway, strangely hindrance-free; the customary steel pipe-framed wooden picnic tables; the signs and the information tableaux; the occasional piece of trash; and, of course, the people themselves who, dressed to kill at least color-wise, had stuck out like the sore thumbs they’d been, and who’d constantly, it seems, insisted on breaking ecological etiquette—feeding the chipmunks and ducks, and trampling on delicate flora or fragile geological formations they’d been told to steer clear of. By the afternoon’s end, you’d even started questioning the presence of the mats of algae on the lake’s surface: had they been natural, or the result of chemical run-off of some kind? You’d become, if only temporarily, a total cynic. Thoughts of making some sort of tawaf had dissipated into the ether; and whatever spiritual resonance you’d might have been feeling with the natural beauty of Sprague Lake had been rudely awakened, and your increasingly negative aspect had started to snowball on itself, getting gloomier by the minute.
Suddenly, you’d realized that your circumambulation of the lake hadn’t been your first crude attempt at tawaf that day, after all; the first, indeed, had been in that very parking lot that now seemed so offensive, although that earlier effort had totally lacked all pretense to spirituality, at least of the endearing kind.
Coming up from your lodgings in Estes Park, you’d followed a line of automobiles all seemingly bent on wanting to go where you had. They’d mostly followed the slow speed limit, but there’d been no hurry had there? In any case, the switchbacks you’d all had to carefully navigate as you’d progressed up the valley to Sprague Lake had offered increasingly spectacular views of the local geomorphology, vistas you’d wanted to take your sweet time taking in.
Your first sense of concern that the day might not continue in such a relaxed, expansive fashion had come when, just a couple of miles from your destination, a sign had invited you to “park and ride,” leave your car behind and take a free shuttle the rest of the way and back. The inducement had made perfect logistical sense, given the number of folks who’d wanted to visit the lake and the relative lack of parking opportunities up there. For a millisecond or two, you’d rationally subscribed to the sign’s compelling logic, but without too much further thought you’d let your self-interested emotions take over. You’d come from an all-consuming car culture; how could you have possibly left your vehicle behind if there’d been any chance that you’d—surely—have found a convenient spot at your journey’s end? So, you’d driven right on by the entreaty, as if you’d had the right to.
Problem was, you hadn’t been the only narcissist to do the same self-satisfying math; a whole herd of your sort had. Soon, you’d found yourself counting the cars ahead of you, as well how many had been coming the other way on their return trips, assuming that every exiting conveyance must have meant good news for you. The math had become ever more excruciating to perform, and you’d felt yourself getting on edge. A shuttle bus had been just ahead of you, and you could see that it was almost empty—as was the one that had just passed you coming down from the lake. Everyone, it had seemed, had been chancing their arm, just like you, a classic case of the “tragedy of the commons,” naked self-interest operating on a free resource being overwhelmed by its universal attraction, rendering hardly anyone at all better off apart from those who had already gotten to the lake and had snagged a precious parking spot. The thought of having to turn around at the lake’s parking area because it’d been full and be forced to come back down to where the shuttle bus took off from, had been disconcerting. Even though you’d been on vacation, time, that modern industrial sense of it anyway where “time is money” as they say, had still seemed to be of the essence when it clearly hadn’t been.
You’d finally arrived at Sprague Lake, keeping a wary eye on your rear-view mirror in order to monitor the cars immediately behind you. You’d just known that at least one of them would try to game you, if they’d gotten the merest chance. The stakes had been, ridiculously, that high. Entering the parking lot at a crawl so as not to miss any opportunity, you’d begun your first circumambulation, looking left then right in quick succession, then ahead a few spaces just in case you might have seen someone looking like they were returning to their vehicle, or, even better, a pair of white reversing lights suddenly flickering on, indicating imminent departure.
A first nervous lap had been soon completed, but, as you’d feared, you’d been completely out of luck. There’d been nothing for it, though, but to doggedly do a second go-round. You’d realized you were mildly sweaty, although the A/C had been on and the temperature outside not even 70 yet. A couple more cars had joined your circulating group by then, and one of them had been trying to park in a space that really wasn’t one. You’d hoped that a Ranger might have shown up and given the son-of-a-gun a ticket, boot him out of line and send him back down the valley, his grousing tail between his legs. But, for the nth time that day, there’d been no such luck.
So, on you’d trekked at a grinding crawl, your exhaust doing its dirty work on the mountain air. For a while the situation had looked hopeless, folks, you’d surmised, deliberately teasing you by feigning possible departure when all they’d wanted to do by returning to their vehicle was to retrieve a windbreaker or a poncho. The wind had picked up a little and what had looked like possible storm clouds had started to well up above the mountain tops. But then, a miraculous Red Sea moment had popped up right in front of you: a clear space of escape from frustration, as if Moses had just commanded it just for you as a special favor. You’d quickly occupied the miraculously vacant spot as if it’d been the best thing in the world to have happened to you that day. As you’d gotten out of your car, you’d caught yourself swaggering a bit and taking your time, an obvious gloat towards those still in search of nirvana. But you hadn’t cared; you’d been off to the races.
It’s only now, with 20-20 hindsight, that you realize what a complete idiot you had been that day, and that whatever spiritual sustenance you might gotten from imbibing the stunning beauty of Sprague Lake had been significantly off-set by your industrial intervention into its fragile ecosystem. The infantile frustration you’d felt concerning the securing of a parking spot and the amount of wastefulness and pollution that you’d dumped on the natural environment for the sake of your own convenience and me-first-ism had been bad enough, but the more you think about it all now, the worse the overall moral and ecological accounting becomes.
For starters, there’s the thousands of tons of asphalt that carpet the Rocky Mountains National Park with roadways having to handle hundreds of thousands of vehicled visitors per year, most in cars but some in motor homes as big as light commercial trucks. And black-topped roads at altitudes of 8,000 feet or more also suffer degradation from snow and ice during the long winters, necessitating major road repairs every summer season, resulting, in turn, in traffic jams that incur lengthy delays as the crowds swarm in and through the park, upping the ante of frustration and impatience to even higher levels than you’d experienced in just getting to Sprague Lake. The so-called “wisdom of the crowds” (the dialectical twin to the “tragedy of the commons”), the ever-expanding commercialization of the National Park system as a major tourist attraction, and the human yearning for the spiritual sustenance of the natural environment, you have come to realize, have brought a mini-Los Angeles with all its warts to the Rocky Mountains. Indeed, an LA look-alike, the ever-sprawling Denver, is only some 70 miles away from the park, if you ignore its suburbs and exurbs, and it’s getting ever closer to the treasured mountains literally by the day.
Then there’s the minor pathways, too. You’d think if folks really wanted to commune with nature, they’d perhaps pioneer it a bit more. You know, traverse the natural terrain as it is, clear their own paths forward to a degree at least, leave their cell phones and their headphones behind for once, if they could. But not at all. The trail around Sprague Lake has been levelled and smoothed, a graveled thoroughfare that gives good traction and doesn’t challenge soft-shoed feet. There’s a fence along one side of the trial, too, attractive enough in its rustic simplicity, but still another reminder (if we need one by now) that we’re not really outbacking it but are in a sort of scaled-down theme park experience where ease and convenience affords us not much more than a drive-through rendition of the real thing, which is over those mountains in the background, a place you know you’ll never go.
Then there’s the built wooden dock, cantilevered awkwardly some five or six feet, you guess, over the surface of the lake. You wonder why they’d even bothered to construct the thing, given that it doesn’t really provide much of an add-on to the Sprague Lake experience at all. Maybe it’s there to fish off, but you’d seen no-one doing so during your circumambulation. Folks had just ambled onto the decking, leant over the rail for a few seconds staring blankly at the water below, before shuffling off again, mentally making a quick note that they’d now been there and done that, for whatever it had been worth. To top it all, they’d painted or stained the wood a gaudy bronzy-gold so that, added to its jutting structure, the whole kit and caboodle had stuck out like sore thumb, especially in most of the shots you’d taken of the lake. Too bad you haven’t learned yet how to airbrush such blights out in Photoshop.
Still, like an ornate English country garden, Sprague Lake’s environs are more than pleasing to the eye. There’s majesty there, even if it’s been corroded a bit by Homo sapiens’ “improvements” that often end up delivering just the opposite.
But that’s the rub, isn’t it? How else to get millions to see the place, including those of advanced years with their need for ease and convenience, without the roads, the smooth trails, the viewing points, and—yes—the porta-potties? There’s a massive trade-off, you realize, in your being at the lake, one that perhaps just has to be borne somehow.
But for how much longer? The whole park system is being hoisted by its own pleasing petard: the very thing that holds its attraction for us—outstanding natural beauty—is being swamped and degraded by the very fact that we are thusly attracted to it. It’d be something of a compensation if there was an abundance of wildlife to see, but we’re in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction. And besides, many of the animals know better than to hang around places like Sprague Lake where our sort is now swarming like an invasive species, and the few that stay, well, you’re not sure just how “wild” they are, anymore.
Avian life is thin on the ground; next to non-existent in the sky. But Sprague Lake apparently has a few long-term residents. You’d kept seeing the same pair of Mallards pop in and out of view as you’d weaved your way around the shoreline. But they’d not been moving much, as far as you’d been able to tell. When you’d finally gotten close to them, you’d not quite been sure whether they’d been alive or just convincing wooden decoys. And whatever they’d stirred themselves to do—preen feathers, snooze, or dunk their heads into the water, rear-ends up in the air, looking for food—it’d been clear that they’d been fazed not one bit by your snooping presence. They’d been essentially domesticated, just like the chipmunk that had dared to try to snatch the snack from your hand. You’d even suspected that another pair of birds, perched one-legged on a log semi-submerged in the water like two ballerinas at the bar, had been deliberately hamming it up for you: Hey, mista, taka our peecture!
Not a lot of nature “red in tooth and claw” around Sprague Lake, it seems. Indeed, the most active animal in or on the lake had been a fly fisherman who’d been constantly casting and re-casting his line, a model of studied concentration or, perhaps, nothing more than a poseur for the crowds, like those ballerina birds. But despite the industrial tool kit he had attached to his vestment like a hanging garden of Babylon, and the waterproof waders that had covered his submerged legs all the way up to his loins like he’s some kind of Water Warrior, he’d been getting nowhere fast, with neither fish nor fowl having paid him too much heed at all.
You’d wondered then whether we were well on the way to sucking all the natural life out of the lake’s increasingly plastic ecosystem-cum-theme park, and whether we could arrest the decline somehow.
In some ways, though, perhaps it’s not all bad news that fauna, especially the more exotic kind for city dwellers, are relatively incommunicado, as it were.
You recall the day before visiting Sprague Lake, when you’d suddenly been forced to come to a stop on the road behind a stalled line of traffic. Your immediate response had, as usual, been frustration; more road works up here in the mountains than back at home, it had seemed. But as the line had started to crawl forward again, parked cars on the side of the road appeared, then folks walking urgently ahead, cameras and cellphones at the ready. Something had been up, that much had been clear, and the rubberneckers had been on the move. And, of course, you’d just had to join them.
Up ahead, another line of vehicles coming the other way had also stopped in their gawking tracks; and between the two lines of stalled traffic, to everyone’s delight, a steady of line of elk, mostly does and some young, had been crossing the road as if they’d owned the place—which, at least temporarily, they indeed had right then. The bull of the herd had been farther back, up the hillside to your left, still rounding up the few remaining stragglers of his harem. He’d been a dandy; a rack of antlers as big as you’d ever seen. He’d been bossy, confident, defiant, snorting and hollering in that signature elk way. And it had been then that the circus had started, transitioning quickly into a ruckus of sorts.
It’d been as if the Messiah had just returned, everyone wanting to get as close as possible to divine presence. The semi-mob had really hemmed in the line of elk crossing the road by then, but some in the crowd had even started to scale the hillside where the bull had been. It hadn’t been so much man communing with nature as man trying to corral it, as is his usual wont. Something inauspicious had seemed to seize the air: that guy creeping closer and closer to the bull, had he ventured a bridge too far?
But a Ranger had suddenly ridden to the rescue, perhaps not a moment too soon. The flashing blue light on the top of his vehicle had caught everyone’s attention, as had his booming voice projected from the loudspeaker housed in the cab. “Stay back!” he’d ordered. “Let’s move on, folks. Time to go.” The mob had been more obedient than you’d expected and had quickly melted away like scolded schoolchildren. Soon, the traffic had departed, and the bull and his herd had been finally allowed to go about their business. It’d not been the most endearing meeting of man and nature; who knows what the elk might have thought of it all?
But if I were to guess, here’s what I’d say they’d say:
It’s the new normal, man. Kinda sucks, but we’ve learned to live with it. We’ve kinda gotten used to you idiots crawling around, like a bunch of clueless sheep, all skittish and frantic but with a touch of excessive inquisitiveness that’s going to get us all killed some day. Everyone stays cool and keeps their respectful distance and we might all get by without too much harm. But maybe not. There’s more of you guys around here every year, and we’re feeling the pinch. Some of our old friends have already scarpered, it seems. The birds, man, where are the fricking birds? Re-read your Faust, man. Want to make a moral choice or just keep on with the same old tired bargain? Enough with eating your cake and wanting it too! Worlds are colliding, the center cannot hold.
Depressing, I know.
But if you really want to make tawaf or its equivalent, whether religious or secular or ecological, then you’ve got to stop going around in compromised circles and come in to land on the sweet spot that lies between your desires and that which your desires desire…
…if you can.
You’d do well to remember what happened to old Faustus. And to consider that this time around he, like you, risks taking the whole House of God down with him, too.