From a distance, the Tam-a-láu trail seems daunting because it appears to inch its way up a sheer cliff. As I begin the ascent, the initial steepness confirms this. But the trail settles down and meanders through a flatter area strewn with huge house-size boulders. Tam-a-láu means “a place of big rocks on the ground.” Native peoples have a wonderfully simple way of viewing the world and assigning names.

The trail steepens again into a series of wooden staircases and switchbacks situated to prevent erosion. After about a mile the path emerges onto a high sagebrush covered plateau. Along the switchbacks and atop the mesa, early wildflowers emerge from soil moistened by unusually abundant spring rains. Dots of color highlight the landscape in the form of prairie stars, gold stars, nine-leaf desert parsley, and arrow-leaf balsam root—interspersed by patches of pink cushion phlox.

It is the geology, though, that really strikes the visual sense. The trail meanders past exposed bluffs, bands of successive volcanic flows marked by obvious and sometimes subtle changes in color, like a layer cake of different chocolate flavors. In between, I see frosting; occasional alluvial deposits of smoothed stones leftover from a time when the river was much higher. I am able to read these landforms and see signs of change, violent and peaceful, extending millions of years into the past. Taking a moment to sit quietly on a rough basalt outcrop, I feel those changes happening now. Ancient rites of impermanence play out before me and within me.

I sometimes wonder why we humans insist on writing words to convey what nature teaches through silence. I suppose it is because we are so insulated from the lessons. When we take time to savor what wilderness so freely offers, the insulation is stripped away. We are exposed down to our essence. With no contrived defenses from the ego, we can settle into our own natural state. Words can point us in the right direction but they are poor substitutes for direct experience.

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