The snow has finally melted off our favorite trails, the alpine forget-me-nots are poking their brilliant blue flowers out of pincushions on the most remote peaks, and the smells, sights, and sounds of summer remind us we live in a truly amazing place. It’s the perfect opportunity to ask ourselves why we walk in the woods.
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The easy answer, for me at least, is that being in the woods allows me to feel as small or as big as my imagination will let me. Sometimes when I’m surrounded by towering aspen stands, looking out over East Lake Creek Trail or on top of Meadow Mountain, I imagine myself as an ant crawling across a backpacker’s leg as they sit and wait to catch their breath. After all, among the aspens all connected beneath my feet, I could be comparable to an ant making its way through mud crusted leg hair or that annoying space that sometimes develops between gaiters and boots.
Other times, I feel as big as the ponderosa pines that tower over Maloit Park or Twin Lakes. When I summit Notch Mountain or Holy Cross, I imagine myself as the adventurers who came before me, witnessing the mountain grandeur for the very first time. The sense of accomplishment is as great as the mountains are high and my chest swells with pride every time.
Sometimes, when my imagination is tapped out by overworked lungs, I rely on my senses to remind me why I walk in the woods. The smell of summer to me is pine needles, wafts of chokecherry or wild rose, tempered by the funk of over-used hiking boots and my sweaty backpack. The smell of summer is also the smell of fun, relaxation, and the anticipation of adventures to come over the next three to four months.
The sound of summer is the trickle and bubble of Cross Creek or the wet meadows squishing underfoot beneath Uneva Peak or traversing up Wilder Gulch. There are times when I’ve stopped by a creek for a drink and I think of the old compact discs that you could buy with tracks like “Rocky Mountain Stream” or “Bubbling Brook 2.0”. The sounds from the creek however, cannot be captured by a recorder and played on a sound system. The sounds of our trails cannot be replicated indoors. The babble, flow, and bloop of creeks are reminders that processes move on without us and thinking of the water we witness now, flowing through Moab, the Grand Canyon, and eventually into Mexico can spur my imagination back to thinking about my size and my place.
And finally, the taste of summer. The taste of summer is the taste of “caviar of the woods” or chiming bell leaves; the earthy taste of water filtered out of Piney Creek, or the sweetness of glacier lilies blooming near Bighorn Cabin. These tastes remind me that we’re nearing the time when our local porcinis, Boletus, are going to be poking their fungi fruits out of the earth near Lake Charles or Grouse Lake. Camp dinners, here we come!
I walk in the woods because, taken in concert, the woods arouse my senses and my imagination. Every sense is stimulated, stirring up a combination of nostalgic memories and an anticipation of things to come. My imagination can run as wild as the pea vines in lodgepole clear cuts and I can transport myself out of my daily life to places that are both elegant and primeval in character.
Peter Suneson is the Community Outreach Coordinator and manages the backcountry hiking and snowshoeing programs at Walking Mountains Science Center. He invites you out on the trail with him to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of our local trails (just not his boots!).