by Robert Roehl, Jul 13, 2019
It was my first time off in a long while, since I took this job, and I needed to get away—from the people, the pace, the noise, all the tensions of so-called civilization. The opportunity came up unexpectedly, so I had no plan for where to go. It was early autumn and as I headed into the mountains, I thought of Aspen. I’d never been there but it was famous, apparently, for the vast and verdant forests surrounding its vicinity. I’d seen a postcard somewhere; the sky too blue, the leaves too bright, the scene idyllic. Obviously enhanced, but still. Maybe the leaves would be turning. I had my camera.
On the open road I drove and drove, the urge to get away compelling me; one more push against fatigue, against giving in, letting go. The first time I let up was atop Independence Pass. A biting wind against my exposed skin shocked me. The air was hard to breathe, the terrain rocky, treeless, barren under a gray sky. Latticed ice trimmed the shores of two glacial ponds. The vista was breathtaking, but without a coat, I got back in the car. Coasting down the backside of the pass, my mind wound down some as I took in the mountains rising above me all around, their sheer scale. I wondered now, finally, where I was going and why. What was I looking for? If I had the time, what would I be looking for?
Coming around a blind switchback deep into the valley, a thick growth of aspen trees burst upward on either side of the winding pavement just as sunshine broke through the clouds. A massive expanse of older, white-barked trunks supported a canopy of leaves high above, perhaps 50 feet or more. Translucent yellow and golden leaves flickered—literally by the millions—in an invisible breeze. This must be it, I thought, feeling a smile. I edged the car onto the narrow shoulder.
The forest floor dropped off steeply from the edge of the road. Only it wasn’t a floor. It was an umbrella-ed field of oversized ferns, mostly maroon-leafed in their autumnal prime. Needles of light managed to pierce the canopy above, dotting the ferns like laser beams. It really was like the postcard, only more so. I’ll never forget the first time I beheld this lush, radiant, jungle-like scene, this—to me—miracle of Nature.
I grabbed my camera and plunged in. The fern branches hit me thigh high, waist high in places, obscuring almost completely the mossy undergrowth I trod on. The rustling breeze, the earthy smells, the heat and light pervading this wildly ordered beauty truly overwhelmed me. A memory of childhood rapture rose up inside me, the only feeling I’d ever had that compared to this sensation of wonder. And the impulse to capture it, perhaps also childish, impelled me to start taking pictures. Everywhere I looked, a thing of beauty.
I became aware of a certain ambiance that evaded my lens: the space between that you couldn’t actually look at, yet abided above the ferns and below the over-arching, yellow leaves. Only the tree-trunks themselves inhabited this region, rising upward like natural stanchions, their glowing whiteness pretending to be the source of that eerily soft light. The space itself could not be captured, but my compulsion to do so drove me on, to and fro through this dense, shimmering expanse. And even as I pursued it, the light transformed as dusk settled in, uncovering again and again new layers of “never seen that before.” I nearly stopped when the auto-flash started coming on, but even that exposed new landscapes, experimental portraits against a backdrop darkness that the ferns and tree-trunks fronted. By then, I could hardly see to load my last roll of film. And that’s when I realized I was lost.
I stood at the bottom of a steep ravine, a shiny black spring gurgling at my feet. I wanted to capture that, too—its reflections, its craggy course, but… Looking up, the canopy of leaves that had been a wonder of texture and light was now an encroaching overgrowth of grayness. Through gaps in the foliage, the last traces of pale gray-blue skyline glowed from behind a distant mountain ridge—to the west? The south? I couldn’t tell. My quest to capture this wilderness beauty had been mindless, instinctive, ecstatic—timeless. My thoughts awakened to the fact that I hadn’t tracked my route, had abandoned any orientation to where I’d come from. No landmarks, no game-trails, no breadcrumbs.
I started climbing, hoping for a view, adrenaline laced with fear fueling my muscles as I scrambled through the ferns’ choking thickness. Persistent inner voices kept telling me it wasn’t that bad, I wasn’t that stupid, this couldn’t be happening to me. All the while, the evidence mounted against these paltry persuasions: no hint of an opening between the hovering ridgelines, nothing familiar around me, hardly anything recognizable as my eyesight failed in the darkness. My anxieties built towards panic as I resisted the possibility, the likelihood, of spending the night in these blackening woods with no food, no warmth, no direction towards the known.
I struggled lamely to restrain this inner, animal fear even as it compelled me thrashing heedlessly through the undergrowth, up one hillside then down the next. Sweat turned cold beneath two thin layers of clothing as I faced again and again the fact that I was making no progress, finding no signs of civilization, whose squared and well-lit grids of predictability I now longed for as home, imagined as my only chance for survival. Huffing and panting in the thin air, my heart pounding in my chest and my head, my eyes squinting with strain, I had the odd thought that I’d give myself a heart attack. I’d die there, in the middle of nowhere, never to be found, my corpse a meal for scavenging coyotes and a murder of crows. I couldn’t dismiss it. I couldn’t calm myself down.
As I crested the next ridge I lost my balance, tumbling blindly backwards. My head glanced off a tree stump as I landed awkwardly but softly onto the mossy ground. My limbs were shaking uncontrollably even as I lay there, nearly upside-down, waiting for the buzzing in my head to subside. My muscles contracted with fear, I couldn’t curl forward, couldn’t pull myself up. It was like those dream sequences where you’re floating, absurdly, just above the surface, unable to make contact, unable to run away.
It wasn’t exactly a voice in my head, but the message came through. My body refused my panicking self, and I saw it let go. And I saw myself lying there, as if it were someone else.
I’d never faced death before, never really thought about it. Why would I? No one does, apparently, unless you grow old or sick. Or something like this happens. I lay there seeing it, more real than anything I’d ever known, the most important thing about life itself. One day would come when it would be my last day on the planet. The next day, the earth would turn, morning would dawn and everything would go on like normal—the whole huge expanse of humanity, of activity, of life on the planet, even the solar system, the entire universe… And I would not be part of it. This fed my fears for an instant, but even that I saw fall away. I wouldn’t even get to suffer that any more. I was in control of nothing. I gave up, gave in, I accepted it. I had to.
I lay there, still alive. And I wondered—in some entranced, inward-facing intensity—how did I get here? But not just here today, at the end of this comic/tragic chain of blind impulse, bad timing and happenstance, but all through my life—a whole life that could end this way, here and now. On the surface, this grand picture appeared as a succession of random events strung together with no more meaning or intention or planning than this given day—no difference, really, except in scale.
There was life—a humming of life inside me—that connected it all, that had always been there. A power that had been given to me without, at first, any sense that it was mine. Not that I deserved it or earned it, or controlled it. I saw that force of life beyond me, going on before me and after me; and my self just the smallest, incidental blip in the midst of those forces of creation. Somehow it had momentarily peaked, pinnacled, culminating in the form that I had been given. I was overwhelmed with something like gratitude, just for the seeing of it. And for being exactly where I was supposed to be.
My breath had returned as if from some outside source, my panting lungs filling up finally; I knew what it meant to “catch my breath.” My tension-locked limbs had relaxed, letting go of their traction-less struggle. I felt both removed from, and deeply aware of, my body. It was not the end. I was still alive. And I knew how to go on, even if only for a few minutes more.
I opened my eyes, surprised to find I’d shut them. The dense darkness all around me was not that dark. There were stars. Everywhere. There was a boundless backdrop of stars, a twinkling expanse of pinholes that put the treetops in relief opening up the dome of sky above me, above the ravine, above the entire valley. Yet again the expanse and scale of Nature made itself known to me. And the trees cast shadows. And so, light.
My thinking returned with a quiet clarity. I could parse out, now, the panicky thoughts from the knowing what was happening in me. I could move again. Had I been unable to move? I rolled sideways, lifting my feet until gravity and momentum carried my legs overhead in an easy backward somersault. From my hands and knees I reached out to the nearest tree and pulled myself up to just above the ferns. I was here and, apparently, I was going to see what would happen next.
The starlight haze outlined the nearby hilltop in an exacting, black profile. Stepping lightly now, carefully, like an older man, I made my way to the top. From there I could see the profile of distant mountains as well. And across the next ravine, from behind a higher ridge, a gray light radiated stronger than the stars. I headed towards it. Descending into a steep ravine, into deeper darkness, fear rose up again and I had to just take it in.
I came across a stream, perhaps the one I’d straddled earlier. Stepping over it with the contrasting black of the ridgeline above me, I climbed another hill—slowly now, able to gauge the strength of my legs.
At the top was a flat area, a small plateau. There was a path there. A man-made path. Not a path—a bike path. A paved bike path. I didn’t go a hundred yards before the source of light appeared through the trees. It was a streetlamp, installed above a bench, facing a manicured pond. Through, and just beyond, the thinned out aspens on the other side there were houses tucked away, two or three of them, with porchlights, and porches and neat steps leading up to them, and windows squared and rectangled and well lit.
Somewhere behind me, I’d lost my camera, the case, and all the film.