Flirting with Vertigo

Lightning crackled. Gullies filled with runoff from the monsoon. What had I been thinking when I signed up for three days at the top of the world? Then the quiet voice of Dr. James Halfpenny reassured me and the rest of the class—the class there for “Alpine
Ecology in the Beartooths” sponsored by the Yellowstone Association Institute—our group would be spending the next three days exploring alpine tundra along the Beartooth Highway—Charles Kuralt’s “most beautiful highway in America.”

We splashed our way through silver puddles, arranged ourselves back into the cars of our caravan and continued up the cliff-hanging, winding road. A 360-degree view was shrouded in fog and rain. My stomach churned. Was I the only one a little on edge? Wet roads and an elevation change of almost 3,000 feet were mixing up some vertigo. The storm followed us on lightning legs.

When late morning gusts chased the clouds away we were surrounded by a sparkling world of tundra. Here, the sky was my hammock.

My days were boldly drawn as if in broad strokes of charcoal. The colors of the tundra seemed to match the gray of a monk’s habit, until I was on my knees peering into a world filled with tiny gems the colors of rubies, sapphires and gold—alpine wildflowers. The view around me was as vast as forever and as small as a miniature pointillist painting. The lucid light of 10,000 feet captured my senses. My hammock began to swing.

This was my kind of place! Vertigo and exhilaration swirled together.

Yet I could not permanently adapt to the elevation and wind as do the plants that survive above the tree line by growing close to the ground. Some are less than one inch high, some about three inches. Nothing is taller than a foot. Moss campions form cushions and may be hundreds of years old. Arctic gentians—white flowers three inches tall splashed with purple and green—rested in a nest of tapioca-size hail or graupel. Further down the icy slope the miniature annual plant—koegnia—waited for us in near freezing pools that perfectly reflected the sky.

My hammock swung above fields of cotton grass on a slope that looked like the cobbled yard of an old abbey. The stones had been extruded from the ground and arranged in patterns like necklaces by cycles of freezing and thawing. Shafts of light seemed to be pouring through long empty windows.

On the afternoon of the last day I slipped and slid up the mountainside across the mush of sun-warmed snow, then threw my pack in the car and looked around one last time. Nothing seemed as it had on that first day in the rain. I felt as though I had been given another form of sight in this cathedral of light and air. In spite of the approaching storm, I was reluctant to fold up my hammock and climb back into the car. I closed the door and the enchantment was gone.

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