Thursday, July 29, 2010

And then I forgot the name of the mountain

Expectations are an interesting thing. A collaboration of past experiences and future hopes, expectations cast such a strong light on the present that no single experience can really stand on its own. But when experience surpasses expectations, those "ah-ha" moments of discovery stand as singular mileposts on life's winding roads. Take moving to western Montana, for instance. A nice place, I expected, but certainly lacking in the varied terrain of Utah or the vast sweeping wilderness of Alaska. Then I came to Montana, and I saw great gray monoliths towering over the prairie, I watched bears amble through the spruce forest and I stood on the edge of rocky ridges overlooking vast tracts of rippled mountains. And I thought, "ah ha."

That simple realization that Montana is in fact an expansive, wild and beautiful place has been continuously jolted by six weeks' worth of small discoveries. And still, my expectations remain low. Take the Bitterroot Range. Straddling the Idaho-Montana border, the Bitterroots are a largely undeveloped range, cut off by a wide tract of wilderness protection. From Missoula's low perch on the northeastern edge of the range, I pictured soft, rolling hills with lots of spruce forest. I thought someday I would plan a long bikepacking trip on the Bitterroot periphery, but for now, there was too much else to explore.

Then, Dave suggested for our weekly Wednesday night endeavor that we go for a hike instead of a bike ride. He's in heavy taper mode for the Butte 100 this weekend; I'm in light taper mode for TransRockies the following week, and I think we're both starting to wonder, "what next?" As I seem to do every late summer, I'm already glancing deeper into the mountains for quieter adventures and more distant opportunities. Wednesday evening seemed like a good day to walk into the Bitterroot.

Thunderstorms and humid heat followed us out of town and into the Bitterroot Valley. We thought lightning would chase us out of the high country but we went there anyway, climbing into the white pine forest and the cool air and the barren ridge. Clear sky opened up around us and Dave pointed out places that seemed impossibly far away — the Pintlers, the Swan, and the beautifully sculpted, unexpectedly rugged mountains of the Bitterroot. We spent at least an hour on the windless summit, 9,300 feet in the sky, watching warm light flicker across a wild expanse.

These peaks are called the Heavenly Twins.

It's these quiet moments when expectation shifts toward possibility, and an entirely new experience opens up. It's an experience anchored in neither the past nor the future, only the extreme present, when "ah-ha" is nothing more than a deep, satisfied, "ah."