Walking up a trail on Trail Ridge Road last week, where the altitude is about 10,500 to 11,000 feet, two boys passed me, and I heard one boy, about 10, asking another, presumably his older brother, about 13, how he liked it up here. “It’s OK,” the older boy said, “but I could do without the altitude.”
I admit I was having a hard time breathing in that thin air, but I kind of like the altitude, because without it, we might as well have been in Kansas, which is a lovely place but lacks some of the topographic variety here in Rocky Mountain National Park.
I was on Trail Ridge Road, mostly because I wanted to see how much snow was left after a record-breaking winter. In places, the snow was still five or six feet deep, and people who had either never seen snow or never seen it in summer were throwing snowballs at each other and taking pictures of each other next to the snow. It felt like a festival.
Besides the snow, I was amazed to see alpine flowers, because they usually appear in June and then disappear by July. But here they were, in early July, decorating the tundra in yellow, blues and pinks. I hadn’t missed them but had arrived just as the snow was melting and the flowers were emerging.
Alpine flowers are a lesson in noticing the small, because they are literally underfoot. One woman coming up the trail heard me mention to my friend that I was excited to see all the flowers. “There’s flowers up there?” she asked, somehow unaware that there were flowers all around her. She just needed to get down on her hands and knees.
Because the more you examine these tiny flowers, most of them not even a half-inch across, the more amazing they seem. To avoid the fierce winds, they hug the ground, where it’s warmer down lower. But there’s also not enough nutrients in the soil for them to grow larger. They’re surviving in an atmosphere where the ground is mostly rock, where the temperatures are below freezing at night even in summer, where snow falls even on the Fourth of July. These flowers are marvels of adaptability.
They’re also marvels of beauty, tiny bits of purple and royal blue and magenta among the brown and rust-colored rocks. My favorites are the forget-me-nots (right), a deep blue that catches your eye, even though the flower head is only a centimeter wide; and the sunflowers (top), only three or four inches above the ground but that follow the sun, so all the flowers are facing the same way, all lined up to spread their cheer and brightness together. They make you happy, these flowers, you can’t help from smiling when you see them, not least at their bravery to stick their heads so high above the tundra.
In Kansas, these sunflowers are five feet high and are lined up by the thousands all facing the same direction. They are a sight to see, but I like the miniature ones here on the tundra, surviving against all odds. And I like the altitude here on top of Trail Ridge, where I can see for miles and miles, all the surrounding mountains, most still covered in snow. I like Kansas, too, all the wide open spaces, but I like being on top of the world. Maybe it’s just a question of attitude.