The Toiyabes, the Virginia Range, the Ruby Mountains. I learned from my 7th grade Nevada history teacher, Mr Gandolfo, that the state has the most distinct mountain ranges in the U.S. The Pah Rah Range, the Jarbridge Mountains, the Clan Alpine. Basin and Range. Broad valleys of sagebrush flats, a fragrant plant community of subtle color covering vast fans of alluvial outwash thousands of feet deep riding downward on enormous slabs of the Earth’s crust. The valley edges contour almost imperceptibly up to meet the abrupt escarpments of fault block ranges pushing upward. These are deep and wide valleys alternating with steep and rugged mountains are where I first encountered islands-in-the-sky. Mountain ecosystems once connected in cooler and wetter times are now separated by inhospitably dry lowlands. Trees and mammals and reptiles, evolving separately become just different enough to earn new names. Maybe someday the climate may cool again and these cousins will mix, sharing what new traits they’ve acquired.
The Brooks Range, the Atlas Mountains, Annapurna Sanctuary. Throughout my travels, or while scanning over maps I can’t help looking at the different ranges of the world and wonder what secrets they might have, what hidden treasures are concealed in their folds and crevices. Mountains have complex topography that can only be hinted at when viewed from the flatlands below. Each acre of the Rockies has double the landmass of its prairie neighbor. Hiding behind all those ridges and inside the creases are pocket meadows, beaver ponds, rippling cascades and grotto waterfalls. The only way to know this is by going in and up. Standing knee high in the sagebrush below on a hot afternoon you might never imagine the cool aspen glades above in some hanging valley surrounded by cliffs and lying just out of your vision.
The Bighorn Mountains, the Absaroka Range, the Gros Ventre. When I imagined the Uinta Mountains of eastern Utah I pictured a broad hunchback of open country with low vegetation to match the rocky deserts to the south. What Rachael and I found was a cool and heavily forested extension of the greater Rockies with layered and pyramidal peaks. We spend three days hiking into the high country and it was a welcome respite from the summer heat. That heat below did generate some dramatic thunderstorms and we once again found ourselves in the midst of a hailstorm, this time with only the shelter of our nylon tent. It passed quickly though and the sun returned just in time to dry our gear.
The Sawtooth Range, the Calico Mountains, the Sangre de Cristos. A couple of days later while walking into the Wind River Range of Wyoming our discoveries were wildflowers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an abundance of flowers. They lined the trail often if a full variety of color or hillsides would be covered in an unbroken field of yellow or lavender.
The mixing palette included fragrance that shifted around each bend as different flowers predominated. Climbing higher into the deep canyon it was hard to resist the compulsion to see what the next bend might reveal but we had to turn back as the day was getting late. Fortunately we should have plenty of opportunities to see more mountains during the next couple of months as our path follows the Rockies into Canada and up to Alaska. There should be no shortage of surprises amidst those peaks.