Loch Vale, Colorado, Summer 1957 --
We had extinguished the campfire early, and I had watched the blinking embers turn into mucky gray and black slosh. As the outcampers stumbled over the still-wet logs in the desolate blackness, the wind sliced through my jacket and sweatshirt, and I shivered uncomfortably. My arms clutched tightly against each other, and I was glad to slip into the tent to fumble for my sleeping bag.
For a moment I listened to the other girls, rustling the foliage outside; but I was in no mood for silly chatting or shrill giggles. It was just one of those unexplainable moods. All the strain of the day's hike was pressing on my mind and body. I was tired. And as I snuggled into my sleeping bag, a restless melancholy descended on me, and I felt an almost uncontrollable desire to cry. And yet, there was no reason to be worried or upset, except the old dissatisfactions and my situation at home-but then, that was not a reality at camp. I pulled my knees up to my chin and rocked back and forth.
I knew it was beautiful out on the lake. The moon would be quite above the horizon, directing its unearthly glow on the patch of snow beneath the peak. The trees would be distinct statues. There would be no breeze and no distinguishable sound. The sky would be silken with its thousands of tiny stars in their sable pin cushion. But--the ground would be wet and hard, and the memory of the cold made me start shivering again. With resignation, I arranged myself and reclined once more.
Scarcely had I closed my eyes when I recognized the sound of rustling footsteps, and Megan crawled into the tent.
"Oh, Sally," she exclaimed. "It is so beautiful."
"What?" I mumbled, trying to pretend sleep.
"I was out by the lake, and the mountains--oh, the moon and the trees! It was so weird-looking and so beautiful! Sally I almost came and got you because I knew you would love it."
"I wish you had."
As Megan arranged the backpacks for a spot to lie, I closed my eyes and tried to visualize the scene. It would be something perfect to describe--if only I could! I turned impatiently. It was awfully cold...
"I've got to see it." I wiggled out of the bag.
"You going?" Megan asked.
"I've just got to see it."
"It's really beautiful, Sal. You know, this is one of those times I could stay up all night and watch it."
"I'll do it if you will."
Megan hesitated just a moment, then jumped out of her sleeping bag, and grinned at me. "Get your sleeping bag, and we'll just do it!"
Before long, we were feeling our way over the logs, then the campfire remains. We were two silent forms, climbing down the ledge that was our campsite and up a pile of large rocks with the damp smell of moss all around us. Stumbling down to a slightly lower level, we paused.
"Ooooh..." I breathed.
Silhouetted against the sky were grotesque forms of dead or gnarled trees, reaching their horrifying arms to the sky in ghastly gestures. The mountains behind the preternatural figures provided light backgrounds for the jaggedly rolling rocks protruding before them. The straight trees--not of any kinship with the frightful ones--formed lone pointers to the sky. Ebony shadows threw patchy pictures on the rocky floor.
"Wait till we get to the spot," whispered Megan, eagerly pushing forward.
As we left the thicker group of trees, the lake began shimmering before us. Leaving our sleeping bags, we half slid down to a miniature peninsula. Water was visible in front and on either side. We stood rigidly, trying to absorb the majesty--each becoming slightly oblivious of the other.
I looked over the water to the mountains--three of them--and, between, to a monstrous scoop filled with snow. The colorless glare of the moon made the white a blinding fluorescent; of the mountains, shadowed outlines of gray. In contrast to the jagged clarity of the mountains was the velvet sky, its black deepened by the brilliance of the moon. And below the exaggerated shadowy crevices, the border of what were, in daytime, verdant groves of trees reflected itself on the glassy black and gold waters of the lake.
For a second I closed my eyes, knowing that when I opened them again, the unbelievable grandeur would be lost; but the full moon had etched its way into the mirrored scene, casting its radiance over the entire breadth of the water and causing even the ground beneath us to glow with a hueless light. A slight breeze had sprung from the high snow and tripped with a chilly step down the mountain and over the lake, producing rhythmed ripples that flashed softly with shapeless moonlight. The boughs of a wind-tortured tree rustled fitfully above our heads into whispers. Where the mountains ended was a black and rugged horizon, weather-beaten remnants of saplings from ancient days and hardy ancestors of the younger ones.
We sat on the barren patch of land and breathed the crisp, dry mountain air. From the lower vantage point, the trees seemed almost within reach of the sky, and--in their unproportioned height--etched above the stout mountains. Then the sky overpowered all else. Its true timeless depth fairly sucked the last bits of turmoil from my thoughts, and I felt a sharp sense of refreshment. It was in such a way that I found an almost complete absence of thought. The wholesome grandeur of the night made bitterness impossible. My worries seemed silly follies in the vastness of all nature and all life-giving forces, present even in the inorganic mountains. I sat as if in a trance--allowing myself to feel an inexpressible joy and an unexplainable comfort.
Megan sighed slightly beside me, then climbed the incline, and slid into her sleeping bag. For some moments I sat in my position; but finding the mood fading somewhat, I rose and stood again overlooking the lake. How long we had sat in meditation, I did not know. I half expected to see the moon creeping below the mountains, but the moon had made a barely perceptible step, and all was the same as before. The midnight breeze had strengthened to a harsh wind, giving me a sharp sympathy with the trees so unmercifully stripped of life; but the majesty still prevailed. I was, at that moment, the sole living spectator!
Life, then, was not so real. How important, after all, were city streets, hard with the bustling footsteps of confused persons; or angular buildings, tall like the mountains, but unfeeling and inanimate. Of what use was rain in the city, save to rush unfelt along the pavement or splash unwanted from the stucco walls. This was what man had desired--the result of hundreds of years of toil and anxiety to escape the crudeness of nature-to escape peace or understanding! What had he wanted? A world of granite knowledge? How many other people, I wondered, would know the consolation of the mountains.
My eyes scanned the sight again--still the same objects, and yet new with greater discoveries. The water was stilled in the motionless night; the three mountains stood firm, as they had for centuries before man and as they well might for years after. The moon continued its many-traveled path, never pausing to converse with the stars or the trees which begged its attention. And--how far away were the stars! Alone was the earth, and yet the earth blended perfectly into the small vision.
The mountains were foreboding, majestically thrusting their peaks upward. Forever the mountains remained, the same as ever, through the flaming screams of autumn, slicing howls of winter, tremulous breaths of spring, and quiet hush of summer. Steadfast mountains! They would forever be reminders of times past and beliefs to come. With each frail human who listened in revelation to their rock-bound silence, the mountains watched somberly with the wisdom of an ageless secret... And man had scoffed at the superiority of such a thing! Built his own mountains-narrow as he was narrow, just as the mountains were wide as their Maker is wide.
I clasped my arms against each other but this time because of the thrill of the moment, for I felt no cold. As I meditated on this, I turned and gazed once more at the trees. Despite their wildly expressive figures, even they were eternal pantomimes--telling a story so different from that of the mountains--at the same time, depicting despairs and contented resignation. Their forms composed a small horizon in itself behind me, as I turned to view the larger one.
There was no time when it was still definitely night, and no time when it was suddenly day. At first only hints of light played on the eastern horizon, while the west remained dotted with stars. Then the western stars melted into the black and soon into gray. The murky blackness of the lake rippled with tiny reflections of the coming light. The trees on the horizon formed even more startling outlines--black, almost moving with the story they told. Along the sky were ghost-like tree animals-sometimes graceful, more often angular with motions of longing or hysteria.
Gradually subtle hues of pink eased behind the trees--gradually, at first, and then blending upward until at some indefinite moment the gray turned to a delicate blue, the pink which had become almost red subsided to softer tones, and the once frightful trees were again rough and nearly ugly, save for the artistic curves of some of the rotting trucks or the suggestion of green on struggling branches.
Megan turned and smiled crookedly, half-sadly. "Guess we'd better go, Sal."
I returned the smile, and together we climbed up the slope and walked over the ridge to camp.