In The Field: Autumn, season of humility and melancholy in the High Country
Editor’s note: Read for columnist Mark Palz’s musings on the East-meets-West clash of living and playing in the Rocky Mountains.
On Aug. 15 I felt a cold wind cut through the valley, something that I hadn’t felt for several months. I sadly recalled that it had been only several months since I felt that chill — not the great span of seasons people at lower elevations experience. Locals may joke that we have only winter, mud season and construction, but in our own way we have the four seasons. The unique and varied lengths of these seasons can cause a range of emotions, including humility and melancholy, and have us struggling to keep up.
Specifically, the summers are short enough to create desperation in our actions. We try to get out as much as possible, have weekends filled with festivals and engagements, with shows at Red Rocks, and sporting events that pile upon one another until no date on the calendar is left blank.
These shorter seasons create a melancholy for what we are about to lose, especially if we feel we didn’t get to enjoy the season fully. A local knows that the warmth is fleeting: When Shakespeare wrote that, “summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” he didn’t know it would resonate with us so well. Our summer flowers are but brief splashes on a palate that is otherwise only greens and browns. Our aspens glow bright with the yellow light of fall, but only briefly. Winter may bring a single storm with wind or snow and rip the delicate leaves from their branches overnight, and, with that, our monochrome winter is here to stay.
Living for winter
As winter is our longest season, most locals have their winter world figured out. They know how to wake in the morning and take inventory as they rush to first chair — the list of necessities, from hat and goggles down to boots and socks — and rarely is it that one forgets his or her season pass or gloves, because it has become routine day in and day out. This is when we are most “dialed in,” when we’re deep into a season, our minds and muscles relaxed after having been used for month after month. Our minds are in tune with the trails, the weather, the crowds. Our bodies know what to do. Everything feels natural.
For Summit outdoor enthusiasts, this is when our adventures are at their best. Every movement, every article of clothing, every piece of equipment contributes to that perfect feeling. A mind and body finely tuned — every piece of gear in its place.
Friends with the uncomfortable
One reason summer breeds conflicted emotions is that it feels as though one finally gets comfortable with a season — and then it’s gone. I am finally dialed into to my surroundings, mentally and physically, and I have fine-tuned all of my world and my equipment.
This idea of flow is important to athletics, and it is important in Summit County — to have minimal distractions and to perform tasks at optimal levels. Having flow takes time to master, but it is also fleeting if we step away for a time. Just when we have enhanced our confidence on a mountain bike, or feel at one with our fly rods, or whatever endeavor it is, the changing of the seasons reminds us that it will not last. Equipment needs to get swapped out for other equipment and the learning starts again.
The most obvious example of this is winter. The first few weeks of the ski season are filled with fumbling: crowds awkwardly vie for spots in line, skis and boards knocking into people with alarming frequency. Accidents happen out of unbridled excitement and a reckless desire to be just as connected with the mountain as we were the last day of the previous season.
Personally, this happens several times a year, and it is humbling to realize that my body needs time to remember. If I have not fished for some time, my fingers feel as awkward as a bricklayer’s trying to thread a needle. I cannot tie tiny knots or hold tiny flies. My first awkward casts send errant flies into a bush behind me rather than the pool in front of me. During the first week of the ski season, my snowboard feels glued to the snow, my legs heavy and slow. This is my body constantly readjusting, starting over through the seasons, relearning what I had become an expert at only half a year before.
Being “dialed in” takes years of practice. It takes finding which regiments work and which behaviors need to become rote behaviors. It is mastery over all conditions and variables.
The frustration lay in these times when we must begin again. Hunters may have an acute understanding of terrain, having walked it and studied it for years, where elk are prone to be, but they need time before the season to prepare. Fly-fishermen may have certain waters dialed in, knowing which pools and pocket water have been most productive, but each needs to hone the cast again. Skiers and snowboarders may know certain back bowls like the back of their hand, knowing how much snowfall is needed before dropping this cliff or descending that chute, but muscle memory takes time to return at the beginning of a season. It is all part of Summit’s cycle of seasons, and I always find summer the hardest to leave behind.
As fall arrives I’m again starting over, getting my gear ready, replacing anything that is too damaged or broken to actually work. I’m running through an inventory of what is a “need” and what is a “want.” I’m changing my wardrobe, my outerwear, my fly boxes, my sleeping kit. The end of summer reminds me that even though I may have finally figured out exactly what I need to fish, to hike, to camp, to bike, it is all about to change, and I will begin my process of figuring out how to get my outdoor life dialed in again.
This feeling is always near because the seasons will always change and I will always have to return again, at least briefly, to these moments of humility, of beginning again.
Mark Palz teaches writing and literature at Colorado Mountain College. He is an avid outdoorsman who has also taught fly-casting for over 10 years, starting at the Orvis School of Fly Casting in Manchester, Vermont, briefly at Colorado Mountain College and presently with Breckenridge Outfitters. He lives in Frisco.
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