Summer's Waning Days

And the Poverty of my Imagination

How short is summer?

Wasatch-Cache National ForestBy the calendar, it is no shorter than any other season: 92 days. And certainly, the notion that summer is bounded strictly by the solstice and the autumnal equinox is little more than a scientific estimate. Indeed, let it be known that today, August 22, 1999 at 3:30 in the afternoon, on the north slopes of Lion Hill in Ophir Canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains I found what I believe to be the season's first yellowed aspen leaves.

Now true, though these leaves were perfectly yellow and falling to the ground, they were the leaves of an aspen tree which did not look particularly healthy; this tree had few leaves to begin with. In addition, it was the only yellowed aspen tree that I saw on the entire hillside, a hillside that encompassed, in its 2,000 vertical feet, several life zones, biomes, and vegetative habitats. Save for a few drying-out Gambel's oaks, this was the extent of color. Yet, I am not fully prepared to discount these leaves as a false sign to autumn.

I never fully understood the power of the change of seasons until I moved to Utah. In south Texas, the change in seasons was merely a suggestion, really; humidity there had a way of dampening even the meteorological fabric of the geography. In Utah, like the lone yellow aspen in a broad meadow at 7,400 feet in a lonely canyon, the change of the season is a breath-drawing force. It starts a month or more out, and suddenly one day the new season is a wave of morning light on your face and you say "Oh my God, summer's over."

Ophir Canyon, a Land Rich in Gold

Today, in Ophir Canyon, there is a rain shower. No thunder, and not much in the way of downpour, this is simply a shower from unorganized moisture in the middle atmosphere that, hitting the mountains, bubbled into a cloud and, to rise, released the moisture as rain onto the range's west-facing slopes. Out over the Rush Valley you could see wavy hot waves of heat, and no clouds. In Ophir Canyon, white clouds with pregnant blue bottoms drifted over Lion Hill and Porphry Hill and sort of got stuck against Flat Top Mountain, which is something like 10,400 feet high and not far above where I stood, wet and shivering, looking out at a fair portion of the world.

Such atmospheric disturbances are about the only reason that large numbers of people - if you call two million a lot - can live in Utah. The mountains are too high, too rocky, or too snowy to live in, so Utahans live in valleys. But the valleys are dry - maybe 15 inches of precipitation a year, half of that coming as snow, and even at double that barely enough to farm on or drink from. It is the mountains behind town - nearly every town in Utah is at the mouth of a canyon and the base of a mountain - that collect rain and snow in bits and pieces like today's storm. The mountains hold the waters in lakes and streams, waterfalls and underground rocks and slowly leach it out to the valleys. Were it not for these mountains, Utah would be a very poor place indeed.

It rained for about 45 minutes this afternoon, long enough for me to get discouraged and turn back, long enough to turn the trail to mud, long enough to send the few meadow-grazing cows under trees for cover, and long enough to let Porter - who I'll remind you is all white - get filthy. It is hours later now and he is still muddy, but bit by bit it falls out and into the carpet. In the rain's breeze came the tinkling clatter of still-green aspen leaves, the dry rustle of oak leaves, and varying smells from juniper, pi´┐Żon, and sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata.

The last wildflowers are barely hanging on. Parsnip still waves stiffly in the breeze, protected from the rain as it is below the canopy of the aspens. The bistort is completely played out - only a black cone remains where once the small white flowers were. Showy goldeneye, a persistent, plain, and rather common yellow flower, are still common, as are dandelions. Heartleaf arnica, another yellow, common and plain flower, is hiding beneath the spruce. There was showy daisy, which has narrow purple rays and a velvety yellow pistil, and a similar-looking thickstem aster, which is shorter and has more space in between its petals.

In a dark forest were a few pathetic-looking pale purple ballhead waterleafs, flowers that usually pack it up in late June. Finally, there was a tall flower - it looks more like a sagebrush, really - which was not yet in full flower. It was either a skunk cabbage (it looks nicer than it sounds) or some sort of mullein, which is supposed to be good for your respiration if you smoke it. But I couldn't tell which is was, and my field guide is more for armchair botanists than someone out in the field, battling rain and mud.

A Mountainside Speaks Many Languages

Mountain LakeOK, part of what I was doing up there, I'll admit it, was scoping out back country ski terrain. This is something I do each end-of-summer: walk the mountainsides, looking for smooth north-facing bowls, jagged couloirs, avalanche paths, and convenient trailheads. I did, on this hike, find what I suspect will be some very nice north-facing glades about 2,000 vertical feet and three miles from a plowed road. Not bad.

I'll admit, though, that it still is summer, despite the yellow tree, the afternoon rain, the budding mullein, and the poverty of my imagination.

As Porter and I descended the mountain we walked out from underneath the rain and back into sunlight, and the raspy sweet smells of sage and what I always think is a wild arugula, something sweet with that nutty smell. I've looked for the plant I smell all over after rain, but have never found it. At the truck, the road is still wet and slippery, and in four wheel drive we cascade down the mountain, slipping forwards, sideways and, once, into a rut and on three out of four wheels. Back to where the dirt road meets the paved road, the river is full and fast again, filled briefly with a summer shower.

If you've got questions or suggestions for someplace to visit, write me at Otherwise, I'll see ya on the road!

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