The Watchful Tree

Yesterday was Dad’s birthday (he’d be like 97, were he still alive), and it got me thinking of some experiences with the man. One that popped up was a camping adventure, in Rocky Mountain National Park, back when I was around 11 or 12:

We were backpacking in RMNP with many of my siblings, and Uncle Dean and Aunt Marion’s clan. We were originally planning to hike in Glacier National Park, but Dad and Uncle Dean did not think to obtain backcountry permits.  (What Okie ever considered needing a permit to backpack in the wilderness? 😊 ) So, we had driven through the night from northern Montana to Estes Park, and were now doing my first hike (of what would end up being many) in this jewel of the Colorado Rockies.

We were on a 3-day trip with the crew.  We camped at a group site called Jim’s Grove. (This campsite has since been closed for restoration.) I don’t remember much about the campground, save that it was near the Boulder Field on the route to Longs’ Peak, and that it was right at treeline. I do however recall vividly the particulars of where Dad picked to setup the tent he and I shared. The ground was not as smooth and level as some of the locations the others put their tents. However, it was situated right next to an ancient, gnarly old juniper or bristlecone pine. I remember Dad stating that it was likely over 400 years old. This location, and that tree, ended up making a huge difference in the quality of our overnight experience.

That night, a fierce and consistent wind came roaring up from the valley through Jim’s Grove.  I recall thinking it sounded like a jet engine up close. It was intense! All through the night, I could hear all the other campers in our group cussing and whining, as their tents blow over, and they had to get out and retie/restake them. (It was also raining quite hard during all this, so the whining was elevated.)  But, thanks to the watchful and protective tree near our tent, we were sheltered from the wind, and the brunt of the storm. While I would say I did not necessarily sleep soundly, with all the noise and activity going on, I was able to avoid getting out in the rain in the middle of the night!

I don’t recall if I ever asked Dad if he had chosen that spot intentionally, for the protection that the Tree afforded. But, it would not surprise me if he had. In any case, this was one of my earliest lessons in the preparations and thoughtfulness that came make a huge difference in the quality of an experience — especially one in the backcountry where every decision can have major and often unforeseen impacts. It was a lesson well taught by Dad, and well-learned.