What's that sound?
Water. Running water.
I'm standing on this piece of rock on the Red Ridge and I'm hearing running water. This piece of rock where I've dumped the ashes of a friend, where I've kissed many a pretty girls, where I've stared North at night in meditation, where I've cried over some of those pretty girls gone, where I've hung prayer flags in the daytime and made prayer towers in the night... This piece of rock. I stand today in the drizzle and fog and I hear rushing water far below me. Never in my twenty years up here have I ever heard that.
I've got to go down and see this, I think.
Going Down is not just a mosey down a trail or a gentle bushwhack through a forest. It'll start with about a mile of steep trail, followed by about a half-mile of sliding down the side of this mostly barren mountain, a mountain that burned bad in a big fire not long ago.
It's been almost two years now since the Aspen Fire that roared through the Santa Catalinas. Most of Summerhaven, the little village over to the South and a couple hills away, has been demolished and is now being rebuilt with new log cabins that are twice as big and half as nice as what stood there before. The pie place is still there, making the best Blueberry pie south of Denver, but the old lodge is a just a memory and a cement foundation.
Just minutes ago, I was walking on the Red Ridge trail to this piece of rock and noticed that the Forest Service is clear cutting some acreage along the trail, cutting down tall dead trees. All I can figure is they don't want a dead tree to fall on someone hiking. Shit, hiker beware is how I see it. It's still a sad sight and a sight hard for me to take, with the Three Surrender trees now fully dead and much of the area around me here, black and gray. But there is this small Ponderosa to my left that has held prayer flags in the past, that serendipitously survived the big fire, and below where I'm getting ready to hike to, I can see more green in the pines than I expect. And I'm walking in fog.
I love fog.
I once lived for a year in the early 1980's, in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Boone, North Carolina, at a crossroads called Rutherwood. One morning I awoke to fog so thick, I couldn't see the trees outside of my living room window, trees that were only 30 feet away. I worked as a magician for a while at Tweetsie Railroad, a theme park up in the hills. I smoked too much dope, drank too much Scotch and after a while, just wanted to die. But it wasn't the fog's fault. The fog and the snow and the hills and the wind probably helped keep me alive. That and a good friend named Tom Motoda, a mandolin player in Boone. Long story. Mostly Rutherwood taught me an appreciation of good thick fog and a hatred for mice.
Fog is an extremely rare occurrence in the Sonaran desert, but on occasion in the Sky Islands mountains of the Southwest, there is fog. Fog is probably the wrong word for I'm experiencing here, for fog refers to droplets of water vapor that have settled low to the ground. The fog on Mount Lemmon today isn't about settling water vapor. It's because a cold front of rain is moving through, the mountain is taller than the storm, and the clouds are slamming into the mountainside. Fog with attitude, with swirling motion and rain attached. Not the lazy fog of the Blue Ridge, that mostly just sits there. This fog has places to go and people to see, and it's getting late for me. Time to beat feet, if I'm going to get down to that roaring stream and then back before dark.
Most of the ground hasn't recovered since the Aspen Fire. Some ferns, some thorn bushes, some holly growing from the roots of dead black trees, but no small trees, little grass, and no pine needles at all. Patches of snow are here and there from last month's storms and the footing is slippery. Not because of the snow but because there is nothing but earth and rock under my feet. No life on the ground. The rain has picked up. No matter. I have my stocking cap on, my dad's wool gloves and my fiberfill jacket, with the Brownie over my shoulder. And rainwater may actually help the Brownie 127, not hurt it. Not like what moisture can do to the Rollei. It's a great freedom to not have to worry about camera equipment for a change.
Off the trail and I'm mostly sliding down the mountain now. Place my boot, slide about a foot in the wet loom, take another step and slide some more. The rain is really coming down. Simply glorious. Joyous rain. (Long time residents of the High Desert never curse the rain. It's a blessing to us. You can always tell a new weatherman on the local TV news whose from back east, who describes rain as 'bad weather'. They don't last long.)
The roar of water increases and now I can just begin to see the white water through the tall pole shapes of the dead Ponderosas. Not much farther now. But I can't help and project a bit and think how this hill is going to be a bear to climb back up, after my little visit to the falls below.
Sooner than I thought, I'm there, a place where two small gorges meet to make a larger stream. The going is still slow and tenuous, the footing bad. I take the left fork. I stop, take off my gloves and drink from the stream. The water is clear, cold and tasty. A group of waterfalls to the left crash over some blue gray granite boulders, rocks that are usually dry or covered in deep snow most of the year. Not today. The sound of big water is always healing to me, me and millions of others around the world, I suspect. It creates a calm in my mind and soul, not unlike the waves on a beach or the flicking popping of a campfire. Me and millions of others.
I take a few shots with the Brownie. I name the falls Resurrection Falls, after my hopes for renewal for this burnt out forest. The rocks are slick from the rains and I step gingerly, as I jump back and forth across this stream. Then I light and sit and close my eyes and let the sound of the water do its magic. I feel a little resurrection in me as well.
Another hour later, I'm back on the Red Ridge trail heading up toward my truck. Still a good mile to go, but I'm on the trail now. The bushwhack wasn't hard but it wasn't easy either. Many baby steps up that hill. A pause now and then to catch my breath. My heart pounding hard but in a good way. My head empty of thinking. Only focusing on where my feet are and the occasional look upwards to see if I'm heading right. Now on the trail, my heart still beats hard but a little slower. The endorphins have kicked in. No worries.
And now with this long slow hiking uphill from the stream, I notice something that I hadn't notice before. Many of the Ponderosa pines that I thought were dead aren't. I look high up into the treetops and I see green, lots of greens, mixed in with the blackness of the dead trees. One tree here, dead and gone. Yet two trees over, a pine that's burned 3/4's up its truck, is coming back with new bright green needles at its top. There's another and another. Many more Ponderosas, that I thought were dead or dying are slowly coming back. Scarred but alive. I smile and lowering my head away from the falling rain. And I haven't been this happy on Red Ridge in over two years.
A half hour, and I'm close to that Piece of Rock that has seen ashes fall, kisses made, and prayers delivered. Just a little below the Rock now, to the left. At the Three Surrender trees.
I shoot them before my hike down to Resurrection Falls, but I wanted to see them one more time before I leave today. I watched them die a painfully slow dead the year after the Fire. And they are still dead, but the fog is lovely around them and thick in the forest behind, and the rain feels good on my face. Patches of snow are here and there. A few Ponderosas just down slope from them are popping with green tops. I don't feel as sad as I had in times past for these three old friends, for I can see today, that the forest is coming back.
Then a surprise in the silence. A bird's chirp. A small finch off in the fog. A couple of more chirps.
Maybe two finches.
I smile and sigh.
The birds have returned to Red Ridge.
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