We have camped in a matted opening in forest. It’s a hunters’ camp. The fire ring is the size of a volcano. Smashed cans and other debris litter the thin grass. Deer bones are strewn at the margin of the opening.
The early morning is bright and calm. The pines that circle our campsite appear yellowish in the morning light. They release yellowness. The truck accumulated overnight a film of yellow pine pollen. I sweep an index finger along the truck’s fender to gather a thick, scythe-like ridge of yellow pollen and gray dust on my fingertip.
I disturb the calm morning by opening and closing the truck door, setting up the stove, sloshing water, and then start the stove to roar. After a few minutes the roar loses power—the gas fuel canister is depleted. I change canisters. Soon, hot water spews from the tea kettle, which begins to whistle. I pull on a black, fleece pullover to sit facing the sun, tea in hand and book in my lap.
The shadows of mosquitoes dapple my photographs. Thousands of mosquitoes swarm my head when I stop, and, when I lie on the ground to make a photograph, the insect cloud shimmers as shadows in the camera’s viewfinder.
I sweep my hand around my head to clear the cloud. There are only moments now—to focus the camera, take a deep breath as I steady it, and then depress the shutter—before the swarm lands on my face and hair, which will shiver me, and I will feel the insect bites. Through all of that, the mosquitoes have been landing on my legs. After I snap the shutter, I slap and kill several. I must walk to avoid insect insanity.
We walk up a broad alpine slope near Powder River Pass. The fellfield blooms. As I walk, I write the names of the
flowers. Pygmy bitterroot. Pussytoe. Sky pilot. Sandwort
and its cousin, the moss campion. Shooting star. Two plants commonly called alpine forget-me-not, Myosotis alpestris and Eritrichium nanum, are here. Alpine aven. A paintbrush and a saxifrage. Wyoming kittentail, an old friend that has been included in several
of my publications over the years.
Rockcress. Larkspur. Lousewort. Western bistort.
A deer vertebra lies nested in grass blades and mountain
phlox. The tableau should incite a
story of the living and the dead, but I can think only of texture as I
look. The bone, weather bleached,
is minutely scabrous, where fissures and pores catch my fingerprint, unlike the
velvety petals of the phlox. The
petals flex and deform under my fingers, but my fingers are no match for the
hardness of bone. To get a
response from bone, I must use a fingernail to raise a dull scrape.
As we drive down the east slope of the Bighorn Mountains, I regret our departure. I dislike leaving mountains. The walking, botanizing, slow evenings warmed by a fire, dusk calls of birds and coyotes, the morning shivers of trees in a breeze, and the warmth of tea in the early sun will be missed—at least for a few days.
We stop in Buffalo, a pleasant town at the edge of the
plains where the population is lower than the elevation, for an early lunch at
a busy diner. I eat too much.
When we leave, Adrian takes the wheel of the truck for our
southward drive on fast interstate highway. I need to think about a research talk that I must give,
although I am distracted by the landscape. I would drive into the alluring hills and walk the
badlands. If only there were more
time to botanize.