It’s a lovely, bright sunshine day over quiet waters. As you look east, surprisingly, there’s no vessels of any kind on the vast body of deep azure blue; and there is no end to it. The sea alone is the horizon, and the sky is dotted with white clouds. There is no haze, typical of coastline vistas; the horizon is razor sharp. To the west, behind you, verdant mountains abruptly rise up into the coastal mist of clouds that form when they make landfall. The escarpments of land are clad with temperate and moist forests of beech, oak and conifers.
The water is salty, clear, and warm. Quiet waves roll onto the volcanic sand beach. On this exceptionally beautiful day, you realize that it would be a lovely place to spread a blanket, and listen to the murmuring waves spread across the multicolored sand. Various shells and pieces of broken coral are deposited on the strand at the margin between dry and wet.
As you stand ankle deep in the pleasing waters, you shake your head slowly in amazement. With disbelief, you acknowledge that this is Idaho.
Caryl and I have kids on our backs. Melanie is on mine; Abby is on Caryl’s. We are breaking out above timberline, fit like a black tuxedo collar across a white and barren ridge. The light colored rocks are abundant and sharp. Even though Melanie is of walking age, we are concerned that a fall would cut her hands, so in the pack she goes.
It’s a beautiful bluebird day in the Lost River Range. We know we are not going to make the summit of this massive and mysteriously named Invisible Mountain, but so far, it has been a relatively easy climb through green Douglas-fir and pine forests to get here. And quite abruptly, we break into the alpine zone, picking our way through krummholz subalpine-fir and limber pine. These are the stunted and beaten-down keepers of subalpine habitat. Only several hundred feet beyond them, no tree will grow. It is alpine tundra, kept that way by arctic conditions above that vegetative frontier. Krumholtz is a German-Swiss word, used to describe the grotesquely twisted forms that ancient, battered trees along the frontier become. Much like bonsai arboriculture, they are pruned relentlessly by wind and the gravity of rime, the ice deposition by fog.
But today, it is warm above timberline. Tiny plants hang on in cracks between the rocks. They are blooming on this June day, even though there are still great sun-cupped snowfields deposited over 12 feet deep just a few yards away on the leeward side of the ridgeline trail.
Those fragile plants have to bloom right now. Arctic/alpine plants such as these have very little time to produce seed; snow will commence again in August. They collect sun, voraciously hungry for photosynthesis, especially after being under snow themselves for 9 to 10 months of the year.
We stop for air. It is scarcer in these lofty heights; we are approaching 11,000 feet in elevation. Alderspring ranch is at 5000 feet, and though partly acclimated, we still are sucking wind. Wiggling kids in our backpacks make it no easier.
We turn to see from where we came. Our suburban is a blue speck on the pass below. Beyond, the jagged ramparts of the Lost River Range march on to its southern terminus where the limestone ridges tumble into an abrupt end at the broad valley we call the Snake River Plain. On the other side of it, Caryl and I spot a snow clad summit very faint and unimposing in the distance. It is the east boundary, the ruling guardian of the entire snake River valley: The Grand Teton, 136 miles away. His throne sits atop a long, uplifted elevated dais; the unbroken snowfields of the high Teton plateau. The whole massif glimmers like a mirage in the sun, despite the hundred mile view.
We resume climbing, clambering over the jagged rocks. It is now not hands free; we place our fingers on the boulders, steadying ourselves as we ascend. We gingerly grab handholds with our bare skin on the warm, sun bathed rocks. They are limestone, I think, as we pick our way through them.
And as I place my hand on the next rock, I see them.
They are like forgotten and now rediscovered glyphs of the ancient past. There are very un-rocklike patterns in the rock itself, shell-like, star patterns, and tube like renderings. They are ghosts, the skeletons.
Of coral. As in coral reef.
And we both realize that as we ascend amidst snow and alpine vegetation, in thin air, we straddle and pick our way over a vast undersea coral reef. The fossils are everywhere. Every rock bears a signature. We had been in them for some time, I think; it is just that one doesn’t look for coral at 11,000 feet. It is intriguing in the irony: to be so high, yet be walking on that which lived undersea.
I’ve always been interested in the stories rocks have in them. I’ve read many texts about it. I remember that this part of Idaho was underwater in a vast warm water ocean finger. And the print of the finger is still here, indelibly recorded in the rock of this landscape.
The geologic and paleontological record has enabled those who study such things to piece together a map of these ancient waters, and based on the fossil record, the vegetation and inhabitants of this part of the planet so long ago.
So when winter drags on, as it seems to at this time of year, I can step outside the ranch house and gaze at that warm sea in my imaginings. I’ll close my eyes, inhale the fresh air, and wiggle my toes in the scintillating volcanic sand.
Perhaps, in my mind’s eye I’ll wade, even swim in the warm waters, and beachcomb coral fragments. After all, we have oceanfront property here in Idaho.
If only I could ignore that subzero wind. And the driving ice pellets of snow, not sand, that it peppers my cheeks with.
Glenn, Caryl, girls and cowhands from Alderspring.
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