The first week
The snow unfurls in dancing figures.
A silver gull slips down from the west.
Sometimes a sail. High, high stars.
Oh the black cross of a ship.
— Pablo Neruda
The first real snow of the season (down to the townsite at 9400’; a few days prior elevations above 12k had been dusted in an afternoon thunderstorm) fell on September 23rd, one week after arriving, a Sunday. It was 5AM and I was walking Kate out to her car to see her off to Denver, where she was due for work later that morning, and I crunched something on the deck and laughed, because I had predicted it but without much conviction. After she left I stayed awake and read and then at first light tromped through the meadow, heavy and wet, to grab some photos of the valley newly writ white. The snow flew until around 8, when the sky cleared and I went for a run, fighting downed willows up to Copper Lake back into the clouds. A week in, when I run, my legs are still heavy with altitude, but I can control my breathing again and it is a joy.
As with the altitude I am undergoing a predictable period of adjustment to solitude, not in any true sense (there are still plenty of people tooling about the station and for the moment I can head to town whenever I like), but a solitude in spirit, where most of my day I am alone with my thoughts and whatever schedule I manage to impose on myself and I cannot fall into the flow of other people’s moods or routines. Kate is in Denver. Even the modest bustle of Crested Butte is 9 miles away. “Fuck writing,” Justin said, “I like stacking wood.” I like writing, but I see what he means, sometimes. Stacking wood is a guaranteed accomplishment, filling hours in that flighty schedule. Writing is not.
But there is wifi: all the hermitages of the 21st century have it, I am told, or at least when I skype with my monastic friend from his Thai seclusion that is the impression I get. The internet seems more finite from up here, however, and so I have been building back up my attention span to tackle books (please send me more). In the evenings I have been starting small fires when it rains, mostly for cheer, and reading The Eternal Frontier, Tim Flannery’s sweeping history of North America as an entity. The Rockies are geological latecomers, it turns out, at least compared to their wingmen, the Appalachians and the Sierra Nevada, born from the closure and uplift of an unprecedented marine fissure between the east and west coasts, the poetically-named (thank Canada) Bearpaw Sea. Which may explain why every restaurant in Crested Butte sells fish tacos.
Often, I just stand outside and look around. “The Valley,” as they call it (meaning Gunnison to Crested Butte, or I suppose Gothic) is broad and its slopes tapered, understating the prominence of the twelve- and thirteen-thousand foot peaks that crest it. There is a lushness here that locates the Elks in Colorado’s vague southwestern bioclimatic province: think the verdure of the San Juans, as opposed to Leadville, or the high Front Range. But it also straddles an ecotone, the sage of Gunnison melding with bands of aspen, pure clonal stands that are green and now yellow and soon brown against white, and then meadows of Englemann Spruce, the sage occasionally resurfacing higher than you’d expect. In the high tundra, and where rockslide and avalanche have left their mark, the earth is red against the green of forbes and grass cushion plants.
My neighbors: besides the maintenance staff and seasonally tardy researchers, twice in the evening I have seen a fox streak across the road, his red coat pixelated to my eyes in the poor evening light. He is getting bolder, they tell me, now that most have gone home.