Aspen trees are nature’s jazz hands. Why not pretend they’re applauding as you walk through a crowd of them in the breeze? They have other tricks: they deviously mimic the sound of trickling water when you’re in need. And they are bellwethers of fall: stray yellow leaves, then a riot of gold, then a carpet of it. I haven’t seen many aspen yet, but they turn out to cheerlead on the day I wander from the JMT for the first time.
A stand of quaking aspen, populus tremuloidus, is actually one organism, a clonal colony spawned by a single seedling. It sends out suckers that can grow over a hundred feet from the parent, yet as far as tenacious spreading species go, it’s not revolting like kudzu. Aspen is one of the first species to regenerate after a fire, returning kind shade to a burn area. And aspen are ancient: no one tree lives very long, but the root system can persevere 80,000 years or more, in the case of the Pando colony in Utah. That’s solid support to have in your corner.
Before I left home, I created a dozen side trips to lakes, hot springs, viewpoints, and interesting geological formations, using the amazing CalTopo website to print maps and calculate distances and elevation. Now it’s time to explore my treasure hunts, as many or as few as I like. Familiar nerves beset me the morning I step off the JMT onto a home-traced loop skirting several lakes. I peer at the map often, trying to obey the mantra “Stay Found.” (The ease of navigating the JMT and its connecting trails is a pleasant surprise, however; it was one of my chief worries pre-hike. Everything’s signed, and matches the map, and the openness of the horizon yields reference points in all directions. Mostly, I am giving and not requesting directions. Day hikers want to know if they are almost to the top of the climb. (Usually: no.) A weekend warrior thinks he’s at one lake, but he’s at another, and heads onto the wrong trail. But most thru-hikers have fine bearings.)
I follow my trail to Waugh Lake, which turns out to be a dammed reservoir set very low. Apparently this was visible from the last pass, but I was too busy experiencing altitude-induced stomach gurgling to notice. The shore is ugly, something that should not be seen, a cuticle pushed too far. The dam hums mechanically and is graced with several unused bags of Quikrete. I entertain Monkey Wrench Gang fantasies about undamming everything and restoring the cracked shore to forest. But I am not ready to jettison this side trip yet. The trail descends into a lush creekwalk, and suddenly beauty arrives: towering trees, aromatic greenery, soft trail, a sense of comfort. This is my zone.
In another mile, I spot colored tarps off trail. A lot of them, a large gathering, but no sound or sign of habitation. It’s appealingly spooky: another kind of colony, two dozen identical dome tents, flaps open, empty inside. There’s also a big tarp over some pots and pans, ropes and buckets and other miscellany strewn about. The nose solves the mystery: reek of horse poop = unused equine camp. The horse rapture must have occurred. I consider using one of the tents tonight, just crawl in and not bother pitching my own, but the musty smell combined with the even worse smell tips the scales against this.
(Tangentially: some horse lover needs to enlighten me as to the draw of horses on trails. I get the pack mule thing: that’s convenient. But for pleasure? To a hiker, horses mean dusty, rutted trails, getting off trail to let strings of them pass, stepping on and smelling dung — they poop constantly, do they not? — and finding yet more of it in what were previously nice campsites. Far as I can tell, the riders get less exercise and maybe no endorphin rush, and in exchange are six feet in the air, including on sketchy, scree-lined cliff-hugger sections where they trust their steeds to not slip, spook, or toss them. So… please explain, I am ready to listen and learn!)
I try not to show my overwhelming gladness at meeting two men coming the other way across a log bridge. I haven’t seen anybody since noon, and this solitude is new. The JMT at the beginning is like a pedestrian highway– busier than ideal, but this swings the pendulum the opposite way. Surroundings change as miles pass: the lakes are still low and dammed, but the views broaden and stun. I have entered another ecosystem, an Alice in Wonderland ecosystem of exaggerated sizes. Giant junipers twist in the sun, rising out of scrubby, dry slopes. And there, there they are: the aspen groves! They greet me, shining, and I wave back as I pass through their quaking tunnel.
Dusk is coming. Continuing on would mean pushing hard through a steep climb (though “not recommended for stock,” so no horse poo!) to reach camping at high elevation, possibly without tree cover. Or I could stay low, meander and take photos, and enjoy myself. I like to camp low. It’s warmer, and feels cozier. Is it bad to choose the comfortable, the reassuring? Should I be pushing myself always? I decide that a mix of adventure and comfort is fine, and turn back to camp on the creekfront property that gave me such good vibes. (Retracing even a few footsteps to camp in a pretty spot is something that never happened hiking with J. This is a new thing, and I don’t mind it.) I hope to see the other hikers again and possibly share camp, wistful for company, but no one is around. I pitch the tent by a boulder, to shield it from the evening breeze, and fire up the stove. A couple of rocks serve as a chair, and as the sunset pinks the clouds and the light turns gold, I lean back to doodle, with a soundtrack of creek music. It’s not bad, alone out here. There will be people later. In the meanwhile there are flower poems, chipmunk entertainment… and hordes of adoring aspen.