Did I really believe I'd get to this point and say to myself, "Here's a good spot to turn around. I've seen enough." No.
There's a lie at the heart of most of my hikes. The lie is that this brief foray into wherever will be enough. A few hours, a few miles and that will suffice. My mind will clear, my spirit will lift, my body will be invigorated by the clean air and ten thousand steps over unpaved earth. It's not true. At least not completely. My mind does clear, my spirit is lifted, and I'm sure the physical benefits are myriad. But if the point was to be in this place, to experience whatever this trail has carried us to, to devote however small a portion of life to existing here, then why on earth should we leave so soon?
This is not to say I dislike day hikes. Quite the opposite. I adore them. Maybe that's the problem. They come in neat little packages, contained within a day that is bookended by a comfortable sleeping arrangement and good meals that seem earned. They are tempting and irresistible. They don't require a big pack. If I weren't always bringing a camera along, my day pack would be terribly light: water, a snack, a map, maybe an extra layer, that's all. Day hikes give a sense of achievement: I went there and came back to tell the tale. They are miniature adventures. They have beginnings with some amount of unknown ahead. They have middles with strain, tedium, and unexpected encounters with beauty before the eventual arrival at some wonderful place. And they have a conclusion, a final chapter where sometimes the earlier steps are retraced and sometimes the loop is completed but always the journey comes to a bittersweet end where "I'm so glad I did this" is countered by "I wish I was still out there."
I'm standing at the midpoint of this day hike right now, as far away from the trailhead as I'll get today. Kathryn is sitting in the shade of a boulder back on the edge of the snowfield that I couldn't resist crossing. I had to continue, to carry on up the canyon just a little bit more, to postpone for a while longer the turn back towards the start, towards the end. Already I am dreading the departure. This is place I wanted to be today. Thoughts of separating so soon are hindering my ability to appreciate where I stand. Now is not the time for those thoughts. Now is the time to focus on here, on now. I want to drink this in, I want to remember every detail of this. I need this beauty locked in my memory before I leave Garnet Canyon.
Middle Teton rises at the head of this glacial track. A vertical, dark line marks its eastern face where an intrusion of basalt ascended though a fracture in the granite. It keeps catching my eye. It looks so unnatural, so geometric. I have the shrunken glacier I cannot see to thank for exposing it, and for revealing the canyon in the first place.
That glacier lies out of view, up in a hanging canyon above Spalding Falls, the feature to which I now turn my attention. The water drops in steps, cascading down from a gap in the trees, bending towards me, disappearing behind the plants that live in the talus at its base. Earlier, I held my hand in the same stream, lower in the canyon. The water was as cold as it was clear. Ten seconds of immersion was enough to feel the frigid pain, to respect the eternal winter that lies in the heart of the glacier that gives life to this dazzling ribbon dancing down to Bradley Lake. This water is fresh, released perhaps only minutes ago by the heat of summer. It may have been locked in the glacier for decades. I envy it, for it enjoyed a long spell here in this alpine idyll. It lingered through the seasons, through the years, resting in the embrace of these jagged peaks. It clung to the mountainside, persisted through the August sun and the January storm. It has spent more time in this place than I could ever hope to, but even so it is leaving now. It has no choice. A force beyond its control calls it down. It is bound for the Snake, the Columbia, and the Pacific. It cannot stay forever.
I know I must follow this water down the mountain. Like the stream, I cannot stay. But before I walk back across the snow to Kathryn, before we scramble back over the boulders and ramble back down the trail past the wildflowers and through the forest, before the end of another day hike, I want one more moment of wonder. Diligently, I pass my gaze over the scene, scrutinizing each rocky face. I stare up to the summits, snowfields, and passes that beckon me upward. My ears ring with the constance of the falls and the breeze that is stirring the low leaves.
A deep breath of mountain air, and then I turn down back the canyon.
Naturalist, Photographer, Cartographer