I am on a quest. It’s a quest to discover the perfect aspen grove at the peak of its golden glory. I’ve been on this quest for several years now.
I live in the flat lands, only a thousand or so feet above sea level. While I can see oaks and sycamores go through their autumn costume changes, I have to travel over 700 miles to reach the 5,000 to 12,000 feet that aspens call home.
One year, I arrived too early. The pale limbs clung to their round green leaves. Another year, I arrived at the same time as a frosty mist that did its best to obscure the yellow leaves and left me damp and chilled.
A couple of years ago, I hiked an old fire tower trail to what is known as Devil’s Head Lookout in the Pike National Forest. The aspens were already starting to lose their brilliance. If only I had come earlier. Still, there were enough aspens to admire. Perhaps more importantly, they provided me with an excuse to catch my breath. My kids think Mom is just getting old, but you try hiking to 9,700 feet when your lungs are acclimated to an altitude that tops out at 2,400 feet.
Yet with each attempt to see aspens in their glory, I’m reminded of the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. One year is too soon. Another year is too late. I’m looking for that “just right” that Goldilocks found with Baby Bears porridge and bed.
What is this obsession? I believe it started simply as wanting to see something unfamiliar. Although I have my favorite travel destinations, I still want to see or experience something that I haven’t crossed paths with yet. Aspens live in a concentrated area. They like Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. They dismiss California, Texas, and Virginia. Certainly, they’ve never met Oklahoma.
As I continue my quest, I learn more about these elusive creatures. I discover why aspens grow in clusters or a stand, as it’s known. They are bound together by a shared root system. A stand is actually, scientifically, one organism.
This year was the closest yet. I was only about a week off. On the first weekend in October, we headed to Rocky Mountain National Park, along with a several thousand other people intent on seeing fall foliage and the mountains before snow closed access to the highest roads. Many visitors hoped for elk sightings because we’re in mating season. The elks, not the visitors. By the time we arrived, access to Bear Lake was cut off due to full parking lots.
Clumps of yellow looked like suns dropping into an evergreen landscape. The most brilliant of the roadside aspens danced in the breeze like golden coins shimmering just out of reach. Of course, none of the near perfect trees were anywhere near a turnout, limiting any possibility to lean against and commune with aspens, hoping they would share their secret of a happy life with me. I know, I know. I said a stand was a single organism, but I still considered them a plural.
The aspens I did get close to had already lost their glow. Instead of disappointment, I’m happy to be able to continue my quest. A part of me hopes I never locate the treasure I seek so that I can continue my quest. They say it’s all about the journey.