As the bus trundles up the slope, I’m blinded by sunlight and bright flashes of gold. There are only a few weeks in the year where Aspen’s leaves burst into yellow, and this is one of them. I’m lucky to be here right now; the leaves can be gone even after a few days, and Colorado’s weather updates also contain a “leaf watch” so locals can keep an eye on where the colours are changing throughout the season. It really is a “blink and you miss it” moment.
The bus driver warns us to be careful out there. We are 14,000 feet up, closer to the sky than ever before; it’s paper-crisp and a ceaseless blue. “If in doubt, do what the natives did and use the aspen trees. Their bark is a natural sunscreen”, he tells us.
I clamber out of the bus, blinking heavily in the bright light, and am met with a curtain of shimmering aspen leaves, thick and gold. The scene is reflected identically in the lake ahead of me, a perfect duplicate of yellow leaves and snow-dusted maroon mountain tops. The heat drapes my shoulders, and I have to breathe in more deeply than usual. The air is thin but heavy with silence. There are quite a few hikers around but none of us are talking. I think we are all in awe. I try to remember this moment exactly as it is, right now: a September scene identical year upon year for centuries, but laid out here the first time for me.
The solitude feels pleasant more than anything; with the trees crowded either side of me, I don’t feel isolated, even alone and with these wild animals on the loose around me.
The hike is brief, but difficult in the altitude. My friends are Colorado locals and well used to dealing with these circumstances, but I have to stop several times, leaning against the rock face as I down litres of water and watch my friends’ backpacks disappear off into the distance. There are signs dotted everywhere ominously warning hikers about bears or moose, and I probably should feel afraid, but I don’t. The solitude feels pleasant more than anything; with the trees crowded either side of me, I don’t feel isolated, even alone and with these wild animals on the loose around me. The path is rocky but easy to navigate, and the leaves shade me, flickering yellow light and curved shadows across my face. I graze my hand against the bark of one, and feel an ashy white substance fall away onto my fingertips. Sunscreen before sunscreen was invented.
Occasionally, the trees spill away into nothing, and the mountains stretch far and away in front of me, quilted with greens and gold. I have to remind myself that I’m in just a tiny corner of the world, nestled within one state of fifty, and the space around me still feels endless, stretching out and out and out into nothingness. I’ve never felt so small in my life.
It’s moments like these when I feel that I understand what it’s like to truly live. To be alone but among friends, to feel apart and a part of this huge, crazy world, to be just one person out of countless to wander through this scene through the years and feel faint from the air and the view and from happiness.
I’m exhausted, there are leaves and dust in my hair, and I’m probably sunburnt regardless of the driver’s advice – but, right now, I feel so incredibly grateful to be here, for this moment. And for my life.