Get lost in a garden. It's is a good thing to do and this week I sought it at 13,000' in the garden of Fossil Ridge Wilderness.
We had just started a morning climb—my son, brother, and sister in law—when I encountered this mushroom, five inches broad and glowing. I nearly missed it because I was, well, blissed out by the field of wildflowers, loud in sun and wind.
At home, I've cultivated a garden in a pocket of sprawling urban corridor. I measure the space in feet, having worked every inch with my hands. In a wilderness, even one as compromised as Fossil Ridge, we have stated our intent to let the place alone. We will not develop it. We will leave it to retain and recover what it can of its essence of wildness. I get strangely happy, chuckle-to-myself happy, when I climb an old roadbed turning gradually back to foot trail—evidence of this imperfect but brilliant commitment we've made to the land.
Development is a well understood euphemism for extracting resources, reducing (or obliterating) species, building structures, commercializing, or simply privatizing what has otherwise been open for all to experience and enjoy. When Fossil Ridge was designated Wilderness in 1993, it put a modest but important 30,000 acres beyond of the reach of developers and back in use as a garden.
I call it a garden because it contains, as does my own plot, an essence of wildness, an interactive array of living things and landscape. Mine is cultivated, benignly developed as a productive oasis. Fossil Ridge is wild. The interactivity there is on a huge scale, broad in present scope and deep in history.
We climbed the lower slopes of this glacial basin, August snowfields still watering the meadows and gathering below into marshes, rills, and creeks, draining eventually to the Gunnison River. Our route ran right of the lake, up into the basin, then over the grey limestone shoulder on the right, clearly distinguished here. This limestone ridge is actually a Cretaceous to Jurrassic era seafloor thickly layered with fossils deposited 300,000 million years ago. Write that number out and compare it to our relatively puny human lifespan for a brain-numbing moment of perspective.
The banded red sandstone cap tilts above the fossil-rich limestone, courtesy of later deposits and uplift. I felt woozy from high altitude, but also from perceiving geologic time so astonishingly displayed.
My son and I summitted Square Top Mountain, the high crown of that sandstone cap, just before noon. I've learned to get off the peaks before 1 p.m., a common sense policy for climbers in Colorado in August—and one that proved wise on that day. We stayed barely fifteen minutes, watched white clouds grow purple bellies and gather together, gather speed and bulge toward our perch.
But that had been time enough to forget everything else, open every sense, and be present in that awesome coordinate of space and time.
From the summit one can see nearly half of Colorado's 14ers. Consider this, merely the eastern panorama.
Macro to micro, this watershed makes a garden here, and makes possible many gardens downstream. While no one who knows anything about water rights in the American West will say it's that simple, in concept, it is true. But let's not look too far downstream just yet. Consider these images; see them as I did, with no words to interfere.
Yes, it's a garden. I count myself lucky to have made the trip. I came back a better person for having walked through ankle-sucking meadow mud, up and back down ankle-turning slopes. I came back reminded of time measured not by hours but by eras, wherein seas rise and vanish, rock forms and rises, erodes and rises again, and tilts toward starlight exponentially older still by the time it lights a red ridge.