Prairie Lights: Over Labor Day, taking the time to look

Ol' Ed

Owen Hatteras

Portrait of the columnist as a young man. One week younger, to be exact.

Until I got away, I didn’t realize how badly I needed to get away.

It was no great shakes, as vacations go, just a Labor Day weekend in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, spent mostly on the shores of Rock Island Lake, with an easy hike to Widewater Lake on Sunday.


Ed Kemmick

But we were out of cell phone range and I deliberately left my phone at the trailhead, so I wouldn’t be tempted to fiddle with an app or glance at the time or temperature. I almost hate to admit it was my longest time untethered to electronic devices since starting Last Best News 32 months ago.

I was determined to make the best of it, to soak in as much as I could in the way of serenity, scenery and silence. We were not far inside the wilderness, figuring that with snow forecast it might be wise to avoid the plateau. Even so, we saw only a few people all weekend, usually at a great distance, and the silence and serenity were everything I could have asked for.

I was in the mood for observing without cogitating, investigating without concluding. A million and one experts can tell you everything you need to know about every creature that crawls on the earth, soars through the air or swims in the earth’s waters. But what if what you need to know is beyond your ability to wish for it? Then you go out by yourself, seeing everything that offers itself to your observation, unthinkingly or not.

At the risk of sounding like a Walden weekend wannabe, I forced myself to look closely at whatever I could, like the three-segment black ant that hurried so purposefully across a little patch of ground high above Rock Island Lake.

It appeared to be sniffing everything, periodically pausing to harvest with its front legs some invisible something from pine needles or minute twigs, then running each leg through its maw two or three times.

I was watching the black ant when a much smaller brown ant, of six or seven segments—he moved too frantically for me to get an accurate count—came charging through the jumbled landscape of dirt, leaves, bark and pine needles. He seemed bent more on reconnaissance than labor, rarely stopping for more than a moment.

I had been down on my knees until then, with my glasses off the better to see with my near-sightedness, but I put them back on and stood to look down far below to the placid surface of the lake, where three little ducks were slowly paddling along, creating delicate little wakes.

Another duck swam toward them, its intentions uncertain. The trio must have been unsure, too, because they suddenly peeled through the water, took flight and raced in a big arc around one of the rocky isles that give the lake its name.

When they all landed together in a far bay, it was otherwise so quiet and the acoustics were so superb that it sounded as though they’d dropped into the water right in front of me. And from that high, high lookout, I saw that the multiple wakes created by their explosive landings radiated out at a variety of angles in an assortment of patterns.

And I realized, looking down from my aerie, that a bird of prey might have had the same trouble trying to figure out which cluster of patterns was the three ducks. Suddenly all the patterns resolved themselves at the same moment, and there was the duck trio, sailing quietly in the prow of their wakes, well away from the landing zone.

It’s hard to describe how privileged I felt, how undeservedly lucky.

A little while later, looking at an immense block of granite, its surface alive with colonies of lichen—bright green, fading yellow, decaying brown and dead black—I wondered how slowly lichen grew, and how long that boulder had been there.

Earlier in the day, I had been telling my hiking companions about the rock on my desk at home, given to me as a keepsake by a geologist friend. He said it was quartzite that was a little under 4 billion years old, flecked with scales of bright-green zircon that were a little more than 4 billion years old.

He told me the quartzite was white sand from the world’s first beach, way down south in the Patagonian Pangea, which in billions of years of continual, imperceptible movement, of abduction and plate migration, had somehow come out near the top of the Beartooth Pass, for that was where my geologist friend had found it.

I am no geologist myself, so I take such things—roving mountains marching halfway around the globe—on faith. But it is a faith that gives me great peace and fills me with wonder, as those other kinds of faith are said to do.

Maybe that’s why those two and a half days seemed so much longer than they were, and why they did me so much good.

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