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Thoughts of a Rocky Mountain Runner

Running in the Rockies

Golden ripples of light splash across my face, my arms and legs as I run through the forest. The light filters down through the trees, pooling on the ground at my feet. As a breeze picks up, golden leaves trickle down, landing in these pools, and crunching under my shoe. I glance up, my eyes following the aspen’s smooth silvery bark all the way to their brilliant crowns.

On this trail just last week, the leaves still shone with their bright green color. As colder temperatures rolled in, they whispered to the leaves, murmuring the first signs of winter. Days grew shorter, less sunlight was available, and the trees responded by producing less and less chlorophyll, a pigment in trees’ cells where photosynthesis turns sunlight and carbon dioxide into nutrients for the tree. The yellow vibrancy of the forest reveals that the trees have started preparing for winter, shutting off their food supply to conserve energy for a few months of dormancy. Now, trees' chloroplasts have broken down, letting other pigments, such as carotenoids, show through. Typically masked by the presence of chlorophyll, these pigments are now the most prevalent.

I breathe in deeply, taking in the crisp air of this brilliant fall day. My feet rhythmically land on the ground, my arms pumping in sync, and I feel invigorated, nature pulsing all around me. A tugging feeling in my calves reminds me that I’m steadily making progress uphill, towards the peak.

The Rockies as the leaves change in Autumn / Image courtesy of Sarah Pokelwaldt

As I glance at my watch, the circular black surface seems to mimic the eyes of the Aspen trees around me, tracing my every step. These “eyes” are actually scars where branches used to connect to their main trunk, but as the trees grew taller, they ceased sending nutrients to lower branches in order to direct their energy to growing higher branches that are more likely to absorb sunlight. This self-pruning allows these magnificent trees to grow upward, chasing sunlight and competing with the branches of their neighbors.

The trees are thinning out along the trail, and I have to stop for water and to catch my breath. I’m up higher than 12,000 feet now, and the trees that are able to grow here are quite small. The air is thin and cool and leaves my arms dotted with goosebumps. I walk towards the boulders that mark the highest point, and climb up them.

Staring out over the mountain below me, I am reminded of the interconnectedness of the aspen grove. Many of these trees are clones, growing up from a single long and meandering rhizome that snakes around the sides of the mountain, residing mere inches below the soil’s surface. A single aspen individual can cover many miles and live for hundreds of years. They are the largest organism on Earth.

The interconnectedness of the trees reminds me that I too am a piece of nature, somehow fitting into an intricate master puzzle. I carefully climb down the boulders, my fingers finding holds in the rough granite protrusions, and I lower myself to the ground. As my feet strike the earth below me, I take one last peek at the view before focusing my eyes on the rocky, sunlight trail as I begin my descent.

A stand of Aspen trees in Colorado's Rocky Mountains / Image courtesy of Sarah Pokelwaldt

Thoughts of a Young Adult in the Southwest

Every morning I wake up and inevitably end up scrolling through my phone- whether it be social media, my email, or the news I always end up feeling the same way: discouraged. Recently, it is because the land is burning, and the people in power don’t seem to care. The words “unprecedented,” “uniquely challenging,” and “uncertain times” crowd for space in my emails.

I cried my way through my highschool environmental science class. I took it at a time when I was just beginning to understand the magnitude of the 2014 drought in my home state- California. I was discouraged by the agricultural and irrigation practices that allowed us to continue to deplete river after stream, aquifer after well.

In college, I aspired to continue to study environmental science, to work hard so that I would be able to help create the changes that I craved. To help inspire future generations. Each class I took made me feel smaller and more insignificant than the last.

The headlines in my doom scrolls became more haunting, more urgent. Friends’ families were losing their crops, their farms, their livelihoods. Wildfires destroyed their homes. Mudslides destroyed their schools. The policies didn’t change. Nothing, it seemed, changed.

Colorado broke its wildfire record twice in 2020. Species are dying off: the word “extinction” is all too common in news headlines. People are inhaling smoke. Ash rains down from the sky in Denver, and young children confuse it for snow. I’m scared to go for a run outside, because day after day the poor air quality reports urge me to only venture out when absolutely essential.

I have friends who fight these fires, and each year they are gone for longer and longer, combating the all- consuming flames. They joke that at this rate they’ll never be out of work. None of us actually find it funny.

Many of my friends claim that they will never have children. They can’t stand the thought of bringing another life into this world that holds so little hope. I don’t blame them, and I cannot argue. Mother Earth has reached her carrying capacity.

This is the west. This is our land. This is our home. And it is changing all too quickly.

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