It rained on my birthday this year. The weather delayed my annual trek up to White Rocks. Climbing over wet trails and slippery scrambles seemed imprudent. I look forward to my ritual climb to the ridgetop on South Mountain where white sandstone pokes out like the bones of the mountain. It is coming back to this place that marks a year. It is also a chance to check-in on this section of my elemental landscape.
Fortunately the next day was Earth Day, one with an equal claim for going into the woods, and the weather was fine. I am pleased to report both my cardiovascular status and joints functioned well enough. Perhaps not the same as last year, but we have been cooped up dodging a coronavirus for over a month.
Although I’ve never been to White Rocks when it was empty, I thought this year, in the middle of pandemic isolation in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, we might have the place to ourselves. I was wrong. We found a fete on the mountain. My wife, my daughter, and I added three more to the scene. We pulled up to a full lot with cars lining the shoulders of the road. There was a young family finishing their excursion so we took their spot between two boulders.
This spring is different. For the last month, public indoor activities are closed. School is out. Offices are empty. Malls are shuttered. Theaters are dark. And typical travel is cut off. People have bunkered at home or, if they were lucky, they escaped the city and bivouacked at a country house. A pandemic is just the thing to force you look at your local landscape a little closer.
I like to think Earth Day brought families out for a dose of nature — and for a few it might have. But I think most people were just desperate to get out of the house, and a hiking trail was one of the few things available. Hence there was a parade in the woods. Climbing to White Rocks we passed families with school kids who were bounding around the slopes like it was recess. It was joyful to watch.
Except for groceries, this was our first venture out. We were careful to move off the trail and give descenders wide berth, although several of them didn’t really seem to care whose viral cloud they got into. But for the most part it was as though strangers out in public for the first time didn’t know the new rules of engagement. Greetings were exchanged in hushed tones, as though conviviality might be contagious.
Spring this year was unusually cold and the woods were behind the season. The understory was just showing it’s first russet tones as leaf buds broke open on the berry bushes. In the canopy, catkins hung on the bare branches, but the views across the valley were unobstructed. The natural landscape goes on indifferent to pandemics.
We loitered at the top, taking photos and admiring the views. As we began our descent, waves of young people crashed onto the rocks. Maybe in high school or maybe in college, their virtual learning was apparently over for the day and they were congregating in the only public place open. I credit them for staying away from us, but they were hanging in each other’s space. We hastened our pace. I consoled myself that it was good to see people enjoy the mountain. There aren’t a lot of options this spring.
This was the summer I was finally going to take three months and drive to California and back, inspired by Steinbeck in Travels with Charley. Although really the plan was for newly retired Grace to travel with me, so perhaps more like Teale’s Journey into Summer.
Camera and laptop in hand, we would have stopped for a week to visit our grandsons in Saint Louis. Then we would have loaded up with provisions before we traced the Missouri across the Great Plains, turning west to witness Devil’s Tower. We would have wondered at the deep geology of Yellowstone. After admiring the tufas of alkaline Pyramid Lake and the coolness of fresh Lake Tahoe, we would have headed to Carmel-by-Sea and watched the sunset over the Pacific. On the return we would have caught the sunrise through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, then savored the spice of Albuquerque in the cool night after the waning sun lit up the Sandia Mountains. We would have veered off road in the Ozarks to sleep under the stars on our return to base camp at the gateway to back east.
But those landscapes will have to be explored and photographed in a future summer. With a pandemic raging on and no sensible or safe management plan in sight, it makes no sense to take off to parts unknown. Besides, a major joy of exploring landscapes is meeting and talking with the people who are a part of them. This will be impossible this summer.
What I do have are my local landscapes. While I will not be exploring novel places for the foreseeable future, I will take a deeper look at familiar ones. Landscapes have many uses, are constantly changing, and hold deep history. Simple stories layered over the land reveal its complex narrative. Our personal places always deserve a closer look.