Shoulder Season

You are, of course, familiar with the concept of a shoulder season, that time between the “peaks,” whatever those may be. In the mountains, shoulder seasons are spring and fall. In the desert, shoulder seasons are winter and summer. Basically, it’s when there is less of a guarantee of good weather or conditions. Hotel rooms tend to be cheaper, camping is plentiful, restaurants might be close to empty or even closed, and you have a greater chance of finding solitude.

Shoulder season! Dry grasses, muted colors and no people.
Shoulder season! Dry grasses, muted colors and no people.

This year, the snow has been holding out for a late arrival and we have spent more days in the mountains than ever. The leaves have long since turned, fallen, and are blanketing the trail with a rotting funk. There is stubborn and slippery mud in corners of trails that don’t see the sun this time of year and just freeze and thaw into stickiness without drying out.

The strange sense of unfamiliarity in such familiar places makes me realize what a fair weather friend I have been to these trails. Without leaves we can see the skeleton of the forest, dense piles of old, fallen trees, wiry branches from unidentifiable bushes, paper wasp nests molded onto sticks, bird nests tucked in the crook of high branches, semi-creepy shelter-like structures made by leaning together longer lengths of wood. I found a flat and desiccated lamb corpse, spray painted with the owner’s mark.

Little lamb, hopefully a natural death.
Little lamb, hopefully a natural death.

Sunday morning, we saw 3 moose (mooses?), and when they ran off the trail we saw them standing among the aspen trunks about 30 feet away. Is that far enough for us to safely pass? I imagined that we all felt vulnerable without the visual barrier of foliage.

There is nothing here to draw the masses: no powder runs (no skiing at all, right now), no golden aspens, no wildflowers. And plenty to deter: cool temperatures, short days, mud. But for the roughly 12 people out on what are usually the most popular trails on the mountain, we found a hell of a good time. With the assumption of no oncoming traffic we did not use caution on merging trails or look for uphill traffic. We pointed our bikes down and went fast, mud clods flying off our tires and onto everything. Close your mouth! Or splatter your teeth with grit.

Empty mid-mountain! And a bad picture of Suky, but the only one I have.
Empty mid-mountain! And a bad picture of Suky, but the only one I have.

Tonight, it’s threatening a wintry mix and maybe it is the beginning of the end of our extended shoulder season. Snow will fill up the empty spaces in the woods, disguise the surface of rocks, and smooth out the messy parts with an even coating of white. 

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Fall camping in the Unitas


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