Above The Clouds

Maybe lockdown came a little early this year. Today it seems more like a January or February thing, but I honestly don’t remember how it goes. I just know that when the days are the short and daylight is at a premium, it sometimes seems as if we have drifted into some sort of eternal twilight zone down here on the valley floor.

On the worst days, it feels as if I can taste the air I am breathing. I don’t know if that is real or imagined. But I do know that the fog and smog or whatever it is creeps stealthily into our valley, curling and twisting through the streets, enveloping trees and houses, and swallowing the hillsides around town like a giant and malevolent runaway vine. First the mountains are swallowed up by the inversion, then the buildings down the street, and finally the street itself recedes into the mist.

When that happens, it is tempting to succumb to the feeling that the whole world beyond our little town and valley must also be shrouded in the same suffocating blanket of cold, stagnant air. And it is easy to imagine that there is no escape.

So, I am grateful to friend Patrice for suggesting a walk up Mount Sentinel one day last week that served to remind me that a few hundred feet above the gritty streets of Missoula, there is still a big, wide-open sky with air to breathe that tastes and smells like nothing but just plain cold clear air.

Lake in the Sky

Lake in the Sky

There was no hint of what lay ahead for the first few hundred feet of the climb. But it was clearly evident from the boot and shoe prints frozen into the ragged patches of ice on the trail that many others had come the same way since the last dusting of snow. Where the scattered sheets of ice were thicker in the trail, the human footprints tended to skirt slightly to the sides of the slippery areas in search of better purchase. It reminded me of the way a horse trail through a wet meadow can get wider and wider as one horse or mule after another finds the footing just a bit more pleasant and sure where none have stepped before. And I forgave myself for doing the same thing because I was not interested in doing a face-plant up there.

Because I happen to walk uphill at a pace that some of my best friends suggest is “slower than it is humanly possible to walk” I quickly began to fall behind Patrice. Soon, she was drifting in and out of the fog on the slope ahead, and then for a time, she disappeared altogether.

At one point, I heard the crunch of someone coming up behind me on the trail and I stepped aside to allow passage. A young fellow strode on up the hill past me, thanking me for getting out of the way and providing the usual comments on what a nice day it is, even though we were walking through what amounted to pea soup. Soon, he, too, disappeared into the mist above me on the trail, And I perhaps grudgingly admitted to myself that it really was good to be out, fog or not.

When the time came, it was not a matter of suddenly emerging from the fog into the glare of bright sunlight.. It sneaked up on me when I suddenly realized that I could make out the contour of the fire road that girds the west side of the mountain from perhaps one hundred yards away. I could see Patrice standing there, waiting. Another couple hundred yards up the trail and I could turn around and make out the shape of the entire Missoula Valley yawning off to the west and south. When Patrice was satisfied that I was still plodding along and not lost forever in the fog, she gave a wave then turned back to the trail to continue her climb to the top.

I stopped for a moment on the trail at the point where the stone marker proclaims the high water line of Glacial Lake Missoula. With the valley below filled snugly with soft white clouds, it was easy to imagine what that lake might have looked like. My mind drifted for a bit to thinking about what it might have been like to be out on that lake on fine sunny afternoon in some kind of floatable craft, perhaps a wooden shoe.

When I returned to the climb, I could see Patrice far ahead and the young fellow beyond her, nearly to the top. From then on, I enjoyed a

On to the top

On to the top

delicious feeling with every step and every breath in that clean December air.

Before I made it to the top, I met up again with the fellow who had passed us on his way up. This time he stopped a moment on his way down, smiled, and suggested: “It’s sort of nice to see what Lake Missoula must have looked like.” I allowed as how I thought so, too.

Patrice was waiting at the top.

When I suggested to her that the fellow who passed us both seemed like a nice enough guy, she agreed. “When I mentioned how the valley filled with clouds looked like Lake Missoula must have looked, he thought that was pretty cool.”

“Yeah, he told me.”

You can judge for yourself the next time you start feeling like the world is closing in on you down here in the valley. Just take a walk up that mountain and find yourself a patch of sky.




















1 Comment

  1. or drive to the east side of the divide where the sun shines

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