“There are no maps of that area,” she informed. “I keep asking them to make maps, but I work for the government. We can never get anything done. It’s basically uncharted area, but you are welcome to explore.”
I had stopped by a small visitor center in Monticello, Utah next to the mountains of Manti Lasal National Forest. When I had camped up in the mountains two nights before, in the aspen forest, I had noticed some trails off to the side of the road, surely the visitor center would have some maps, I thought. I was wrong.
She kept repeating herself and was very apologetic. I was a little disappointed until the words “uncharted area” sunk into my mind, and I realized that this was a prime and rare opportunity to explore.
“Thank you,” I replied, walking outside with a skip in my step. I was on the brink of some serious adventure, about to take on uncharted area.
I drove up into the mountains, and pulled over and parked by the lake I had sat and had breakfast by the day before. There was a gate open to the gravel driveway, I made sure to park before passing through the gate, over to the side of the road. I was by no means in a parking spot, but I hadn’t seen a single vehicle up here. I felt pretty confident that my vehicle would be fine.
Unsure of what to expect, I applied mosquito repellent, filled up my hydration pack, and packed away a Clif bar and a long sleeve shirt. I turned on my GPS, walked down alongside the road about a fourth of a mile, and began one of my favorite hikes ever!
It started out as a wide unmarked trail, that had clearly been used for four-wheeler ATVs. The path at times dipped down into the ruts from the tires. Trees were sparse at first, and rock and grass dominated the landscape. The sun was bright and the path was dusty, painting into my memory a landscape of bright warm yellow. Then my memories turn into rich greens and the vibrant white of a young aspen forest. I was fully intrigued. I had been hiking in many types of forests before- in the pine forest of the northeast and the Sierra Nevadas of the West, the subtropical forest of Kentucky and Tennessee, down to the tropics of Florida, but I had never been in an aspen forest.
As silly as it may sound to those so accustomed to aspen, to me it was like stepping into another world. I thought I knew the forest, I thought I knew trees, but here I was with my concept of a forest challenged and expanded. It was an entirely different environment than anything I had ever seen before. I had camped in an aspen forest two nights prior, but it was different to be hiking out in one, noticing the forest floor fully green and covered with thick wispy grass. The branches of the aspen wait to sprout towards the top of the tree, leaving the hikers range of view immense, with a seemingly endless display of tree trunks congregated together.
There was something very calming, comforting, and strangely eerie about the aspen forest. Although I am a fan of all types of forest, typically the forests I venture into have a certain sense of expected mystery about them, because dark, large trunks, obtrusive branches, and wild undergrowth, keep secrets and stories hidden. Typically my view in the forest is limited, for there is so much space for things to be out of sight. But the aspen forest is different. It’s very open. The forest floor is one sheet of wispy grass, everything is visible around these slender trunks, and nothing is hidden and mysterious. Instead, bright and cheerful trunks invite your into the gathering, accepting you as one of the party, but after making acquaintance, and being invited inside, the trees at times can feel like pale white ghosts, only a mirage of a true forest. But then you stop and this is when you listen to their millions of small leaves rattle against each other and sing, telling you that they are alive.
This particular forest I was exploring, was young, so the Aspen’s weren’t very tall, giving me a larger than life feeling. I felt almost like a giant, trampling through a world of my own. I stopped here at the beginning of the aspen forest for maybe a good twenty minutes, taking photos with the trees.
There is something extremely pleasing and satisfying to me in discovering new terrains. Every different type of terrain I explore, challenges and expands my perception of the world. I recall my first experience in a forest of palm trees, walking out on desert plain for the first time, gazing through the ponderosa pines of Yosemite, and looking down into canyon depths. Every time I experience a new type of terrain, the richness of my life increases. It opens new pathways in my mind, to ponder and explore in memory and imagination. It shows me the diverse nature of the creativity of God, and I am simply swept away in blissful wonder and enjoyment.
After my impromptu photo shoot in the aspen forest, I returned to the trail and decided to pick up the pace. The trail eventually came to a fork. It was my goal to summit the mountain before me. There was a sign, and I chose the direction with the name that sounded more like a summit of a mountain to me. I chose the path to my left. Clearly ATV time was over for this path was much smaller. I followed alongside the sound of a stream, which I never could see. It was down in a ravine.
Shortly the forest changed. Tall older aspen mixed with robust ancient pines. Eventually the aspen were left behind and I was in the company of dark, rich, wet pines. The smell was sweet, tremendously pleasing. It smelled like fond memories of Christmas, and soon enough I found snow to accompany the sweet aroma. A mound of unmelted snow rose up mid trail. I was so excited to come upon it. So far on my trip I had been venturing in dry hot desert, even just this morning I was trekking along the red hot rock of Canyonlands National Park. Now here I was in a cool, aromatic pine forest, climbing up a pile of snow. I took snow into my hands and through icy snowballs into the forest.
I felt like I had jumped from summer into winter in the matter of an hour – and not into any gloomy bitter wintertime, but a festive, picturesque, quintessential, Christmasland of sorts.
I checked my GPS. Time was ticking. I was five miles in. Time and distance had passed so quickly. The day was by no means young anymore, evening was upon me. Because I had no map, no insight to these trails, I was unsure where exactly this trail was leading. I couldn’t gage if it would lead to a summit or simply meander around the mountains. I also considered that everything I hiked had to be re-traced, and I did not want to be stuck in uncharted wilderness in the dark. I had a resolution. I would pick up the pace, run through the forest, and at every mile, I would reassess the situation.
My blissful run through the pine forest, took me to an alpine tundra. Trees were left behind, and tundra prairie spread across the mountain. The trail was but a narrow pathway making steep inclines up the mountain. Around me I looked down to dramatic valleys and ravines, with tall pines looking as tiny figures. The excitement propelled me forward at incredible pace.
Around me, every so often, Utah prairie dogs poked their heads out of their burrows as if to check to see if the world around them was still present. I ran past them leaving the trail behind me to summit the top of the world. Reaching the mountaintop was a grand climax as I could look out and see the cavities of canyonlands as a miniature little wonderland below. I was on the cool green tundra, looking down into the hot, dry, desert. The contrast was remarkable. A small cluster of pine trees huddled together just near the summit pointing to the sky but also further drawing out the stark contrast of the pine forest and the beautiful canvas of Canyonlands in the background.
What made this moment all the more exciting and special to me is that I felt like I had truly discovered this place. There were no tourists, no signage, no constructed platforms nor overlooks. It was truly wild, and secret, and entirely a new experience for me.
It would have been enjoyable to have spent more time up here, looking around and taking in the scenery, maybe sitting down and enjoying a moment of quietude, but I knew there wasn’t much time to spare, since I was eight miles up a mountain and wanted to get back before dark.
I stood atop that mountain feeling powerful, invigorated, and accomplished. Then I turned around and ran back down. I was pleased. I had done it. When I set out on the path, I wasn’t sure where I was going, then as I ascended I knew I was getting closer to the top. Doubt had set in at a few times. I was wondering if I would be able to make it to the summit. But I did, and the view not only on the top, but on all my journey to the top, was rewarding.
This mountain and this Aspen forest continue to linger in my mind. It’s a place I couldn’t easily direct anyone to. It’s mine. It’s my secret. My cherished memory. I’ve tried looking at a map and identifying exactly what mountain I summited, but it’s unclear, so it remains only a place I can describe, only a place I understand, and my hike up that mountain was so full of adventure and wonder that it almost seems like a dream- a moment I escaped reality and pulled myself from the troubles of the world to look down on it with solitude and awe.
Hiking on trails alone, as on this one, has never given rise to feelings of loneliness. Although I’ve at times wanted to share beautiful vistas and moments with people, I’ve never been overwhelmed with loneliness. Instead, these moments of solitude remind me that in our lives we all walk a path no one else has trodden. No one will fully understand and no one can ever recount my journey but myself and the one who created me. For each life is uniquely different, made up of different experiences filtered through our own unique perceptions. I imagine that, even in companionship, complete and true understanding of my life, despite how close one may be, can never be reached, for we are limited by our human capabilities. But God knows truly what it is like to walk my path. He has been and is with me the entire way. So in these moments, when I hike alone, I find incredible intimacy with God and comfort in knowing that, even though no one else can fully understand the life I lead, my path in life is not walked alone. He knows it completely, before the dawn of my existence all the way to the end of my days, and He is with my every step in the present to assure me purpose and understanding. In that I find peace.
That evening I quickly ran eight miles down the mountain, speeding like Sonic the Hedgehog. Back at my car, I checked my gps to log the numbers of miles hiked. I was excited to add sixteen miles to the tally. I then turned my car around and went back to Buckboard campground. Two days prior it was a strange forest to me, but now it was understood. I could find comfort in it, my secret apsen hideaway in the mountains. I crawled into True Blue, pulled out my book on the West, and shortly drifted to sleep.
Read the previous entry “Arriving at Black Canyon,” here: https://joshthehodge.wordpress.com/2017/12/27/exploring-the-uncharted/
Read the previous entry “The Canyons in My Life,” here: https://joshthehodge.wordpress.com/2017/12/27/the-canyons-in-my-life/
2 thoughts on “Exploring the Uncharted”
What a delightful description of the aspen grove and the varying habitats you encountered. I was worried about how late it was getting and thinking the worst– that you would get lost or find your auto vandalized or stolen– one of the liabilities which can accompany urban life. Wonderful post!
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Thank you for the compliment and taking the time to read it. I have checked out your blog. You have amazing photos!