The first half of August - I note it with mixed feelings, because August passes so quickly. Often the warmest weather of the year, August is the month that truly means summer.
July is summer in some places, even the Willamette Valley. Even May is summer in some parts of the country: sultry Florida, warm and humid New Jersey, scorching Arizona. In the mountains of the Pacific Northwest or the Rockies, only August is high season summer. Summer sometimes lingers into September in those places, or drifts in yellow swaths of big leaf maples into early October in the coast range, or blazes in cottonwoods during crisp mornings and coo days east of the Cascades ...but those are possibilities, not probabilities.
What's probable is that for most of us, August is our vacation month, our book and hammock month, our family visiting month, our camping-fishing-hiking month, our harvesting the garden month, our "hope it doesn't rain on the kite festival" month, our swim in lakes month, our fruit-pie-baking, jam-making month, our get out of town month.
For me, August is the ultimate high mountain, wild flower bedecked (hopefully free of mosquitoes), sleeping under stars month. Several years living in Colorado left a piece of my heart in the high country, and living at sea level hasn't dampened my enthusiasm and desire to wander mountain meadows, inhale the sweet air, and experience the exhilaration I get from oxygen deprivation!
So far this summer, I've been doing well. In early July I traveled to Joseph, Ore., the jump-off for the Wallowa Mountains, described by locals as the "Switzerland of America." One afternoon, the Wallowa tram dropped me above timberline, on high meadows and tundra. Indeed, I got that "Sound of Music" feeling. My stint in Joseph rekindled my yen for mountains.
At the end of July, we stumbled across another little patch of high country and granite peaks: Anthony Lakes in the Blue Mountains southwest of LaGrande. Day hikes took us to several lakes that dot the area. A longer hike to 8,200 feet took us to a point where the view extended over all of eastern Oregon. Wild flowers were out in full force-fuchsia monkey flowers, elephant head orchids, larkspur, pearly everlasting, wild onions, asters, yarrow, paintbrush, and gentian. The variety of flowers blooming at the same time indicates how short the summer is. Low bush huckleberries, red and not yet ripe, were a tart precursor of their purple sweetness later in the season.
Looking ahead at my August commitments, I feel a need to preserve time for one more trip to the mountains. Why? Because I'm hooked. Going to the mountains is a yearning, an itch to be scratched. Summer isn't complete without several outings above timberline. There's a spot of vanity here, too; in my late fifties, hiking at high elevation means I'm not over the hill yet, figuratively as well as literally.
What is it about high mountain scenery that attracts me so much? I like all sorts of environments, but I like best the ones without buildings, cars and traffic, or people's noisy toys. Mountains and deserts are the two situations where people seem to have the least impact. In both places, the stars are more visible; the quiet can be immense.
Because mountains are cloaked in snow and cold most of the year, they seem to hold secrets. Even Death Valley seems less mysterious; paved and unpaved roads penetrate its depths and you can comfortably visit October through May. In the mountains, few roads probe above timberline and visiting season is typically compressed to eight weeks, not eight months. The mountains' short summer reminds me that life, too, is brief.
So mountains give me perspective. Their quiet calms me. The exertion of hiking puts me in touch with my physical self. Lazing around our campsite puts me in touch with my undisciplined, child-like self. And, sometimes I just need a respite. Sometimes I just need to be away from things that are man-made or man-destroyed, away from discouraging news about war and plans for war, away from too much information about climate change and radioactive waste, away from one more piece of ground going under the 'dozer. Most of the time I'm too responsible to turn my attention away from these things, but sometimes I just want to run away. Then my thoughts turn to my favorite August refuge, high mountains, and I make plans for another outing to store up peace of mind for the fall and winter.
Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer from Ilwaco where she has deep roots in our area's fishing tradition.