Here I am, hiking through a burned forest. It’s been less than a year since the East Troublesome Fire tore through 193,812 acres of Colorado mountain forest, destroying 580 structures, 366 of which were homes. With 80-mile-per-hour winds, that fire ripped through miles-long swaths of Rocky Mountain National Park, roiled down mountainsides to the very shores of crystal lakes, did more than just threaten the town of Grand Lake, and left two people dead.
The fire raged last fall, while the Cameron Peak Fire and the Pine Gulch Fire also swept through Colorado. Those three fires were the three largest fires in Colorado history. And they were all burning at the same time, during the pandemic year, no less.
Now, the west gate of Rocky Mountain National Park is once again open, the friendly ranger inside the gatehouse letting cars enter the park just as she does every summer. But the gatehouse this year is brand new. The original is a now huge, charred pile of twisted metal and warped window glass, dragged to the side of the road and protected by temporary fencing. Not enough funds or staff to remove it yet, no doubt. So it stands as a stark reminder of the fire’s brutality.
The trail we choose wanders through an apocalyptic landscape whose scope is hard to take in. For miles of ash-gray ground, I and my hiking companions wander, surrounded by towering charcoal spires—dark memorials to the lodgepole pines they’d once been.
The forest looks wrong. It smells wrong. It sounds wrong.
Where birdsong should be, rings silence, but for an occasional raven’s caw echoing against stark mountainsides. Where pine scent should be intoxicating, the air is dry and purged of all aromas—it doesn’t even smell like smoke anymore. Where the wind should moan and heave great sighs through pine needles, only the ghostliest of whispers threads between the blackened tree skeletons.
Here, burnt bark has chipped off standing trunks, revealing the pale dead wood beneath in a pattern like leopard hide. There, dozens of slender trunks curve—impossibly—all the way to the ground in gray mockery of rainbows. And the stream, which once sparkled over smooth river-stones, barely moves, choked with black sludge and slime the color of rot.
It is eerie. It is sad. It is melancholy.
But I hadn’t expected the wildflowers.
Pink. Blue. Yellow. Violet. Red. Orange. White. And the startling green of soft new grasses.
All bursting up through the cindered forest floor.
Finding sunlight. Splashing color against the coal-black trunks and stumps and heat-spalled rocks. Softening the harsh edges of fire-ravaged timbers. Refusing to acknowledge that they shouldn’t be here, where death has drained all other colors from this burnscape.
Reminding us that life finds a way. Insisting that hope, Emily Dickinson’s thing with feathers, is more than a myth. It is, as always, a very real Phoenix, rising from the ashes when all seems lost.
It seems like too much promise for a tiny wildflower to hold within its petals.
And yet, here it is.