A day of backcountry exploring in the million acres of the Colville National Forest: My friend and I bounce along desolate roads, through a joyous riot of green life that strains and stretches under a sky cycling between moods of blue and grey. His sons and mine play in a bracing cold creek. We sniff at the pine and meadow grass, gape at the looming trees, and comment over and over to each other how beautiful it all is.
Branches scrape past our open windows. The wheel spins in my hands, back and forth, as we dodge jagged rocks that oil pan and tire manufacturers have cleverly placed in the road. The hills and ruts beckon us ever onward. While the boys play and fight behind us, my friend and I venture down branches of conversation as long and winding as the dusty miles now between us and the last town we saw.
We drive and talk, stop, and drive some more. We have a lunch of peanut butter sandwiches and cashews, bland and practical but eaten on a hillside with a vast reach of forest and mountains spread out before us. There aren’t any reservations for this restaurant; nobody is around for miles but the deer, moose, and coyotes that we saw running on and near the roads.
Over and over, I try to make my new camera capture the trees and flowers that are constantly framing themselves in my mind, and sometimes it seems to happen. Mostly, though, the images are jumbles of brown and green, stale flat echoes of what I experienced as my senses swam in three moving dimensions of summertime air, with all its scents, sounds, and breezes.
Warm sunlight turns to sudden rain. We come to damp dark woods that call out for a quick walk, and see toadstools under a cathedral of fir and cedar. All around us, new wood is silently forming beneath tree bark, by the ton.
The trunks thicken and push ever higher the needles that feed them, each tree clambering above the others to get at the day’s sunlight. Little of it will reach the ferns and spindly stuff on the forest floor, even when the clouds move on. Telephone poles contain the DNA of plants that have evolved to overcome that problem, thriving in the arms race for photons. The result has proved useful for a certain species of primate that would evolve much later to harvest them.
We wind up at a lake, too shallow and muddy at the shore for swimming. The boys run around instead, while my friend and I add footnotes to our daylong conversation. We operate on a much shorter timescale than all the mountains and valleys we have seen, and the topic of hamburgers in town comes up. We will be heading back soon, on fast paved road. Miles will come between our families again.
I stand before the grasses and marshy waters, grasping at the moment, drinking deeply of the cooling air. And then it’s time to go.