This weekend is Balloon Fiesta weekend. The city is known for its Balloon Fiesta (well, that and being so very favored by the COPS show for our particular brand of idiot criminals that the mayor had to ban them filming here for a while as they were giving us a bad name). Hundreds of balloony people come here to fly and thousands and thousands swoop in to admire the flying - well, the flying and the novelty hot air balloon in the shape of a beer stein. I, personally, have never been. I don't like crowds even a tiny bit and I loathe and despise traffic snarles and the Balloon Fiesta has both in abundance. Which is why this Sunday saw me barreling happily out of the city, past the few balloons that managed to get off the ground (naturally we had unbelievably high winds on Sunday making the main event, Mass Ascension, totally undoable) and out North to find somewhere green and gold.
Normally we hike in the local mountains as they are quite near and reasonably good fun. However the city is always visible, the trails are dusty and (often) far too hot, and there are a large number of people who find the area equally convenient. I don't actually mind the people as they tend to be hiking-running-biking-dogwalking types who are superior in general but still, it's difficult to feel one is getting away from it all when you have to meet and greet 20 people before you even get to the park entrance. Well, and to be honest there are these Uber Marathon types who have the irritating habit of passing me riiiiight at the very tippy top of the mountain when I'm doing my very best huff-and-puff and going snail's pace: passing me AT A RUN.
Anyway, the point is that after a full summer mewed up in the house due to Excessive Desert Heat, and then a week in even more heat in Texas I announced loudly that the nearby mountains would simply not do at all and we were going to head North by golly.
Which, annoyingly, means a quite long drive, but only some of it is through the boring, dry dusty desert and the rest quickly turns into spectacular red rock formations and a nice canyon floor filled with cottonwood trees and rushes and various other lovely things. Which is good enough reason to go north but what we were trying to do actually is catch this one elusive moment when the high mountains are transformed, just for a week or so, by the aspens.
Aspens are quite possibly the most beautiful trees in the world. I always forget how amazing they are because they're also high-altitude trees and you only get to see them if you really make an effort. They're gorgeous at any time of the year because of their slim white trunks but autumn is, quite simply magical. Triggered by light or temperature or something the leaves all at once turn a brilliant yellow gold while underneath the scrub oak goes from green to scarlet. But the best bit is that aspen leaves are attached with a pinched stem, so the very slightest breath of wind sets them shaking and the entire tree literally sparkles. Then a few leaves let go and you're standing there in a shower of gold.
We weren't sure we would catch it. The cottonwoods in the lower valley were just starting to turn and usually they're a few weeks behind the aspens. A few miles in and we started to see some white trunks, but the leaves were already dead and dull. It looked like we'd missed it. Still. It was a lovely day - crisp and cool with just a little cloud that would soon burn off. We drove further up and further in, nearly to the Valles Grande (an enormous extinct volcano caldera) and found a bone-rattling dirt road that had obviously not been graded since the last rain storm - or the one before that. We had to go at a careful crawl, picking the least holey of the pot holes and playing slalom with the larger boulders, which is why we could stop so quickly for the flock of wild turkeys who ran out in front of us, ruffled and ridiculous looking. Farther on we found kinglets and junkoes, hawking for insects and chirping at each other in a contented way. We were finally defeated by an exceptionally deep trench and deserted the car to hike further in.
Which is where we found them - the aspens, still golden. And scrub oak, and a beautiful, pale ghostly vine. And behind them all the huge ponderosas making a dark green canvas just so the aspens could shine even brighter. We kept walking further and further in, chasing down an half-remembered, elusive trail head (which we never found) and stopping every hundred yards or so to admire the next vignette. Naturally we went too far and naturally we kept meaning to turn around but naturally there was always another bend that needed to be gone around. So we were a little knackered for the steep climb back to the car, but it was a good tired.
On the way back we stopped again at a better known trail and hiked in a little way to find an overlook - maybe 1,000 feet above the canyon floor - steep and terrifying but utterly breathtaking. We saw a hawk start just above the tree-line and climb to hundreds of feet over our heads, riding the thermal for a mile or so in just a matter of minutes. We found a waterfall and chucked a few rocks in the pool simply because that's what you have to do when faced with water. We buried our noses in ponderosas to smell the vanilla of the sap. We tossed nuts out for the family of Stellar Jays who squabbled happily over the pieces and then deserted us for the chance at Cheetoes from the picnic down the way.
We had, it's fair to say, a golden day.