The end of summer is like a stoplight. All is green. You know it will change. And just when you look away, everything turns yellow. Predicting the moment of change is nearly impossible. But once the change has taken place, it’s unmistakable.
It was early morning. Two 52 watt bulbs hanging from my ceiling were the only light source available. I’d wait another 90 minutes for sunrise. But the sun was our stoplight: when it set, we had to be back at the car. So we used it as a start light, too. We departed at sunrise. After hoping, planning and waiting to secure a day outside, trailheads are a very satisfying sight. The stiff support of hiking boots felt wonderfully familiar. The air had a rosy-cheek quality to it. My pack, though, was altogether too heavy. Especially for a day hike. Nature’s stoplight had certainly changed. Green growth had halted and the yellow everywhere indicated that it was time to slow down, to go dormant, to pause for a time while the southern hemisphere had its turn at green. Keeping my mind on the beauty of dying leaves helped me ignore the heavy pack.
Hiking is one of those activities which is both unbearably slow and frustratingly fleeting. The seeming eternity of hiking ever onward hoping to see Sperry Chalet ended abruptly, and I realized that six miles were behind us. The Sperry trail doesn’t mess around. Precious few paces from the road, the terrain slopes upward. Practically speaking, this slope continues unabated until you reach the Chalet, 6.4 miles up (yes, quite literally up) the trail. By mile two or three, I had felt minor tightness in my thighs. It had been weeks since I’d done anything remotely strenuous. But at the junction leading to the chalet, we forged straight ahead. We had a goal, and it wasn’t to go to Sperry. Fall days are short. We did not want to lose our light. Our trail climbed across the curved face of a massive bowl. Creeks splashed down through the rocky sides. Further along the trail, cliffs black and green with moss overshadowed us. By the time we reached the far edge of the bowl, I was really feeling tired. My legs were hard to lift. My steps heavy. I breathed slowly and walked even more slowly. The trail grew steeper, winding up among cliffs and outcroppings of rock. Switchbacks abounded. Fall, yellow, time to stop, to go dormant. My body protested. Two hikers passed us – the only hikers we’d seen all day.
The eternity mode of hiking kicked in again. I knew where we were headed. I knew it was 2.6 miles past the chalet. I knew that time was passing and that we should be getting close. But time moved slowly. Thanks to my heavy pack, I felt too tired to properly delight in the beautiful subalpine environment, the spattering of rock ringed ponds, the twisty strata of the mountains around me. My whole body felt like teeth grinding against one another, grinding on. But when I was finally on the stairs, I knew I could take my time. The final 200 yards were manageable. Ibuprofen and rest awaited. This was Comeau Pass.
Shortly thereafter, the heavy pack paid off. I could celebrate the transition of nature’s stoplight. Summer lay behind us. Time to ski.
I realized that nine uphill miles with ski gear had been entirely worthwhile. Nine miles back down would be worthwhile, too.