Spring ascends the Rocky Mountains

Spring arrives in the high country differently than in other places. Where the land has a strong vertical dimension, the change of seasons is bound to elevation, not distance from the equator. Shades of green swirl up the flanks of mountains as the snow recedes, making the end of winter a complex topographical dance. It's possible to take in the scope of multiple seasons in a single glance: stark black rock laced with winter ice on a mountaintop, looming over new growth shimmering like bottle glass in the valleys below.

I've lived within sight of Colorado's mountains all my life, so I'm conditioned to the idea that spring unfolds cautiously, that it is not a sudden onrush of new foliage and floral outbursts, as I imagine it to be in milder climates. Around here, it takes a while for the planet's slow tipping toward the sun to thaw the ground enough to unleash botanical exuberance, and sudden snowstorms may arrive almost any time, setting my heart back to February. Eventually, though, the flake of white drifting in the air is not snow but a small butterfly or moth.

Aside from the dramatic - welcome - transformation of accumulated snow into water, the first signs of spring in the Rockies are subtle. In high-country meadows, melting snow reveals last year's grasses, ironed hard to the ground. Pressed down for months by the icy residue of blizzards, the fibers are draped across the contours of the land like wet silk. It takes weeks for pale new growth to nudge its way through and lend a green tint to mountain clearings.

Long before the leaves bud out in willow thickets along streams swollen with runoff, rising sap colors the whiplike stems with startling shades of bright yellow, russet, mahogany, and vivid red. I watch the creek beds for the flaring of these finely painted bark geysers and admire the way the sprays merge and diverge in the wind.

The mountain landscape is dominated by evergreens, of course, and it's easy to forget there are other trees up there until new aspen growth stains north-facing slopes with chartreuse patches - bright confetti amid the steadfast and somber shades of pine and spruce.

THERE are spring flowers, too, but they tend to arrive late and without fanfare. Rather than gaudy swatches of mixed and dancing colors, woodland wildflowers are low-growing, widely spaced, compact, and thrifty. Blooming is a small and intimate affair: lone bouquets of bluebell, heads coyly bowed; tiny bunches of mat daisy recalling scattered flecks of snow; the blossoms of Oregon grape blazing like sunshine beneath spiny scalloped leaves. It takes a more dedicated attention to recognize these displays than it does to admire, say, the lush fur of cherry blossoms, and to sample their fragrance I must seek the flowers' level on hands and knees.

The domination of the vertical in the mountains sometimes makes it difficult to pull away from soaring vistas and the dramatic contrasts of rumpled crags. It's easy to get distracted by the swell and jumble of the peaks and miss the small wonders that unfurl between the rocks and evergreens on their slopes. The irony of springtime in the mountains is that its most striking images hug the ground and demand that I unstick my gaze from the overbearing drama of the long-distance view.

And while the rewards may seem sparse in comparison to a blaze of azaleas or a hillside carpeted in rhododendrons, the slow rise of spring's tide gives me ample time to look for them. Once it passes me where I live, I only have to follow the snowmelt uphill, and keep my eyes low to the ground.

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