A couple days ago I rose before daybreak and drove up into the high mountains above Santa Fe. I’ve been doing this every few days lately, to escape the blistering heat wave that’s enveloped town, but also to exercise My Pup and me. With two backpacking trips coming up, it’s critical that I build up my stamina, strength and endurance.
But I’m also going up there to paint en plein air. And maybe most important of all, I’m going for church time in the cathedral of aspens and evergreen.
Last autumn I discovered a little meadow along a mountain stream just a 15 minute hike from the parking lot. I’ve been to the meadow half a dozen times and only once have I seen other hikers. Likely that’s because I’m up there so early — always I’m one of the first in the parking lot — but it could be, too, that the very steep and rocky trail down to the meadow — and therefore very steep and rocky uphill back to the car — discourages a lot of people.
What I’ve been doing on my outings is weighing my pack with more paint and accoutrements than I really need (paint is heavy), and then hiking down the trail the 15 minutes to the meadow, and then continuing further down another 15 minutes. Then I turn around to return to the meadow, to paint.
This morning though I decided to go a little farther down the trail before turning around. I could use the added fitness. But I’d also never been past the 30 minute mark and was curious to see if maybe another inviting meadow awaited me farther down. If so, we’d stop there to paint; if nothing after 15 minutes, we’d turn around.
And so we hiked down down down down 15 minutes more….
Oh, but I really wanted to find one.
The trail thus far was lovely, ambling along the stream through aspen and spruce and fir. But it was narrow, wedged in between the stream on the left and the steeply sloped forest on the right — a little too crowded if someone were to come down the trail while I was painting.
Hmmm… what to do. The truth is I didn’t have all day to hike.
Five more minutes. Then, if the trail didn’t open up, I’d turn around and return to the higher, familiar spot.
And wouldn’t you know it on the dot of five minutes later the trail leveled out and, though no meadow presented itself, a gorgeous grove of widely-spaced aspen beckoned from the far side of the stream.
Home for the next hour or two.
The long grasses were deep green and dotted with dew. We made our way to a fallen tree and set up our temporary home. I lay down The Pup’s blanket (she’s short-haired and skinny, and starts to shiver waiting for me to finish up painting, especially if I take her pack off; the blanket helps keep her warm on the wet earth) while she munched on grass. I then set about making tea, having brought my wee little backpacking stove and kettle. I pulled out my paint box, lined up my brushes, looked around at the dazzling beauty and pinched myself, overcome with good-fortune. Just as I started to paint The Pup walked in front of me to the foot of my painting view and…… barfed.
~~ sigh ~~
So much for painting paradise.
A few choice expletives muttered, then — regaining focus — I continued with my painting. Usually the panels upon which I paint have a bit of a texture or “tooth” to them. But I accidentally bought smooth panels and have been using them these last couple of times. At first I didn’t like the smoothness at all — it’s a bit like trying to paint on a greased cookie sheet. The paint smears really easily; it’s hard to get solid opaque paint on them. But the more I use them the more I’m kind of digging the way these smooth panels make the paint kind of streaky.
Pleased with my painting, I finished the last few sips of tea and packed up.
We headed back up the trail and saw no one else. That is, until we passed through the high meadow and entered the steep woods again. Then, coming down the trail was a procession of about 20 people. We stepped aside to let them pass and I noted several people were quite elderly, being escorted by the arm down the rocky trail. One person being led appeared to be blind. Only a few people had packs.
A couple was bringing up the rear and stopped to admire and pet The Pup. Noting our packs, they assumed we’d been out for the night. I explained that no, I’m merely an artist carrying around a heavy paintbox, and that we went down past the meadow. The man asked what it’s like past the meadow, for he’d never been beyond it. I described the grove of aspen, and encouraged him to hike down there.
But what is this group you’re hiking with, I asked.
It’s a memorial service for someone who died: we’re going to the meadow to scatter their ashes. Otherwise you never see this many people on this trail.
We wished each other well and continued on.
As I hiked upward, after a few minutes something pink on the ground caught my eye.
I hiked on and there was another one…. and another….
A couple more people passed me.
And it occurred to me that the rose petals must have been a trail for the friends of the deceased: “Go to the juncture where two trails meet, then follow the rose petals — they lead to a meadow. You’ll find us there.”
Go a little further past the meadow and you’ll find me there, in the aspen grove.
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