Mountain Transitions by Jim Connor
Shrubs with sharp thorns dare to be the first to put out tender new leaves. Needle-sharp thorns may deter winter-starved browsers from stripping all the new leaves. Shown here is a gooseberry branch. Following closely with green is the Wood’s rose, Idaho’s only native rose. Jim Connor Photos
Fast water and slow fishing. Water was being released from the Mackay Reservoir last weekend in anticipation of impending snowmelt coming in a few weeks. It was nice to see water flowing in the river for a change, however ephemeral it might be. Jim Connor Photos
Burdock burrs await rides to new places. The burrs appear to be soft but bear many bristles that stick to animal fur and human clothing. They may cling for long periods of time and travel many miles before they fall out or the fur is shed. They can create wonderfully tangled masses in the coats of shaggy-haired dogs. Jim Connor Photos
Jim Connor Photos
Tiny yellow flowers cover vast areas of Thorny Bar this week. The flower cover rivals that of some of the well-known Southwestern desert flower shows. The plants are rather small and the flowers tiny. They are best viewed close up for the best effect. Jim Connor Photos
Magpies were full of cheer this morning. Perhaps they were expressing glee or joy. Had they found a newly born calf or its afterbirth? Could a freshly road-killed deer, pronghorn or skunk — still steaming in the cold — be lying along the highway? Sometimes, apparently, magpies sing together simply because they are happy.
The sky was lighted by a barely gibbous moon, still late in its third quarter, and Jupiter, brighter than any night star we can imagine, shone ahead of it. The pale light reflected from the snows of the Lost River Mountains that seemed very near in the pale light. The sky itself was nearly dark, but the first hints of dawn were showing along the ridgeline. Was it this cold dawning, then, that had been the reason the magpies had broken into song, a song not entirely without pleasing and melodious over- and undertones?
Canada geese flew over, calling loudly. They were moving this way and that: upriver and down, north and south and circling far over the dry steppes toward towering mountains. The mountains seemed to be so near…
Earlier, when the gibbous moon, waning, had risen over the mountains, more to the south, a bird commenced to sing in the tall cottonwood tree nearby. It is that cottonwood, alone among the others, that reminds me of a huge eastern white oak tree. All the others along this river resemble what they are: cottonwood trees. The bird sang briefly and only one time. Might it have confused the moonrise with a sunrise still hours away? Could it have been a wren, its song liquid and sweet?
Something had moved in the moonlight near the sleeping bag during that awakening. Turning to get a better view, I could make out the utterly nonthreatening shape of a bunny. Impending attack was not a threat, and I wondered, for the briefest of moments, whether it might leave me a basket of sweet chocolate rabbits and eggs. I have found no such basket but did find some usable charcoal briquettes scattered nearby for the fire. Were they there last night?
Last evening was clear and cold. A nasty breeze brought cold from the snowfields on the nearby mountains. The sky was bright blue without a hint of haze or cloud. A single contrail had evaporated rather quickly. The night would be cold but likely not below zero. It was April after all. The setting sun shone brightly on the snow, and it was very deep on the tall peaks. Once the wind stopped, the cold air would settle to the river below, the very river on which I was camping.
Some malaise had been affecting me during the afternoon, and my stomach had felt to be a tangle of ever-tightening knots. Was it a flu or food poisoning, I wondered. My keen brain had another suggestion: could it have been that entire package of mint-flavored chocolate cookies I had eaten while driving to this site? My dinner of celebration had little appeal once cooked, and I wrapped the cooked shrimp for breakfast if I survived the night. Survival was not my main concern but discomfort had been. I dug a pit nearby in anticipation of a long and unpleasant night.
I was chilled by the time I found my way into my sleeping bag covered with a second one. Lying down was not too uncomfortable, and I read until dark.
The car had come in quietly, and headlights shining on me caught my attention. Thus far, I had been sleeping comfortably. It was a small car, and the driver had likely been seeking a private spot to sleep and had, utterly without ill intentions, driven though the narrow, rutted track lined with thorny roses, gooseberries, dogwoods and willows. The driver had no way of knowing I claimed the spot for my place of sleeping off mint-flavored cookies. At least it wasn’t a huge motor home that would need setting up, leveling, the tipouts expanded, the generator started and the antenna aligned. It was good to see a simple car.
I have done it too: driven into an isolated campsite at the end of a rutted, brushy road to encounter solitude-seeking campers.
The driver, once seeing the site was occupied, tried to back out. The road was narrow and a challenge. He came back, looked things over and tried to turn around behind the Ford. Much to the driver’s consternation or even horror, perhaps, such a turnabout was lacking room. It was necessary to straighten out, drive further into my campsite with headlights wavering in the brush and trees and make a proper turn around.
I was sensing by that time that the driver was the more uncomfortable of the two of us. That driver was really trying to be as polite as possible, not incur my wrath or gunfire, and get out of my space as rapidly as he could. I have been there and could feel the sweaty palms and slightly sick feeling in his gut.
Likely, were things just slightly different, I would have offered to share my site with someone so considerate. Such a person could be besotted drunk, of course, and once he had declared his eternal friendship, he could be as hard to shake as an embedded tick.
The car finally got turned around and drove off through the thorns and willows. I could hear them scraping on the car. A sense of mixed feelings came over me. Perhaps the driver was an interesting person, one worth meeting. What if it had been a lovely and articulate woman driving across the country, trying to travel as cheaply as possible? We have those fantasies, and I have met a few of them during my years of camping out. But from the standpoint of such an ideal traveler, the form hunkered under the unkempt pile of bedding might well be stinking drunk, an escaped wife-beater. I could have been a clinging type and prone to latch on to her like a handful of starving ticks.
As the car moved on to a better road toward the highway, my guts decided to practice their knot-tying lessons. Perhaps that was from lying at a twisted angle trying to see the car’s motions through bleary eyes. My night visitor moved on, and I didn’t notice which way. I was trying to find a position that would ease the crampings.
Thus ended my first wakeup of the night. I must have found a relaxing position because I recall having no more discomfort during the night. By the time the moon was rising and the tiny bird sang, I noticed that I was quite toasty and warm. The ground felt soft through the pads. It was time to toss the second bag aside, and it was not below ten degrees.
By the time I woke the fourth time, the sun was above the mountains. Heavy frost had melted into water droplets on the sunward side of my bag. It remained as frost in the shade. A powerful hunger was upon me, and I ate cold shrimp before the coffee boiled. Magpies still called, and a woodpecker banged on a dead limb. Tiny birds flitted about, and a flicker called from high in a tree. Geese called, and a solitary one, flying low, honked plaintively. Geese do not like being alone. Mallards squawked and quacked from the river that roared with high water. The moon was still in the sky, but a ghost of itself; Jupiter was set or invisible. The charcoal briquettes burned for a long time, and I ate bacon and eggs with toast followed with a sweet orange.
The day progressed, and cirrus clouds moved into the blue sky. The morning had been so wonderful with air clean, sweet and cold — good enough to drink.
The really thorny shrubs, roses and gooseberries, were putting forth tender new leaves. The thorns perhaps deter winter-starved browsers — deer, elk, pronghorns, rabbits and to some extent moose — from eating all those new leaves at once. The new leaves were fresh, new, a prospect of spring in a landscape that still resembled winter. Tonight will not be quite so cold.