The natural world has always been a source of fascination for me. Some of my earliest memories are of trees and rivers, and as a child I think I enjoyed country meadows more than theme parks. Part of me is constantly drawn to the world that begins where our towns and roads end.
In the few years since I made the Western Slope of Colorado my home, I've had countless opportunities to explore this great wilderness. The easier trails served as an introduction to the Rocky Mountains. Pretty soon, I was standing on fourteeners (mountains over 14,000' high), and late last year I began to make my own trails.
This year, I'm in the best shape of my life, and that high level of fitness allows me to reach locations that I would never have attempted even last year. When physical abilities are no longer a limiting factor I can concentrate on enjoying the journey.
Once you're able to let go of all distractions, being in the wilderness is an immersive experience. I've you've followed this blog or my photography for a while, you'll know about the amazing sights to be found. Other treats for the senses are harder to describe.
Imagine standing on an isolated summit and hearing nothing but your heartbeat, or walking through the forest and hearing the sound of leaves crunching under your feet while birds call in the distance. Aspen leaves rustling in the wind, moose calls - the list goes on.
One vivid memory from this summer is the heady perfume from a carpet of flowering lupines on a previously unexplored (by me, at least) aspen forest. The strong aroma of juniper is familiar feature of the forest, while the tell-tale smells of elk or other wildlife can take some time to recognize but is perhaps more exciting.
In the summers, the wilderness offers up its bounty for tasting. This year was a particularly good one for edible berries such as raspberries and currants. I'm often tempted to try a few, but always leave some for the critters. Just like home-grown vegetables, wild berries can taste far better than those found at the grocery store.
As I negotiate steep slopes, I can't help but notice the seemingly infinite variety of textures in rocks and trees that provide good handholds to help me on my way. Next time you're in the forest, allow yourself time to relax and actually feel the plant life around you, from the chalky aspen trunks to silky petals to stringy lichens that hang from trees. It's one more way to connect with the world around you.
That's the five senses, but there's one more. Occasionally I've had the feeling that I'm not alone, even when I'm certain that I'm miles from the nearest trail or road. Years ago, that might have been cause for concern, but now that I know this place so intimately I am merely curious as to what (if anything) is out there. I hold my breath and stand still in order to listen for the slightest sound that will give away the location of elk, or perhaps a black bear.
It is often the unknown that can result in the most memorable experiences. I regularly study maps before trying a new route, but they seldom show enough to predict which amazing views I'll find from a new summit, or even the scenery that lies over the next hill. I will always remember the time I almost literally ran into a herd of elk during a snowstorm on a winter hike. I'm not sure which of us got the biggest shock!
When I'm in the wilderness, all I have to consciously think of is where I'm going and how I'll get back. Other than that, I'm free to take in the sensory experience that this amazing place I call home has to offer.