As a nature photographer and a pursuer of fleeting moments I am always wondering if I am at the right place at the right time- even if I happen to be. Is this the best vantage or should I walk a bit farther? These are nice trees, but what’s around the bend? These questions are of course not uncommon to those of us who walk the wilds. Most of us are content with where we are and are satisfied to leave what might have been for the next time out.

This approach is not for me. I am always looking, and wondering and looking some more- never fully satisfied, always curious. Luck, best guesses and a bit of good judgement are the paths I use to get where I am going but the looking never stops even when I get to where I think I am going. And when I get to a place I didn’t know I was going, well, then things get interesting.

Dear Michelle,

I visited your meadow this morning and found it to be very beautiful. The bluebells and paintbrush, the arnica and fleabane combined for a magnificent display. Even the columbine was still blooming, nodding gently on the passing breeze.

The road I follow climbs towards Imogene Pass in the San Juan Mountains above Ouray, Colorado. It is really not a road except in the broadest sense. It is a jeep trail that happens to be wide enough for a 4-wheel drive but in no other way resembles a road. Holes and mud, stream crossings and ledges, loose rock and dazzling drops prevent most from passing this way. I happened to exploring in the area so I gave in to my curiosity and turned on to this road.

I had just been in Yankee Boy Basin searching for wildflowers but was disappointed, although not surprised. Most of the flowers had gone to seed and the ones that remained were tattered and dying, not something to photograph. On the way out a hand lettered sign- “Imogene Pass” – caught my eye and on a whim I decided to see what was around this bend. Four miles later, high on the slope of Crocket Peak, I pulled over, grabbed my gear and walked into a small meadow of alpine flowers.

 

I suppose this isn’t news to you. You watch over this meadow with each rising dawn and you know of the beauty that drew me here for it drew you here as well. You see, I am a photographer and I have been driving the back roads, wandering the ridges, in search of flowers and other things to photograph. I have found many beautiful things but only in this sky garden did I also find you. 

 

There was nothing remarkable about this meadow. The flowers were beautiful and the location above this remote basin was magnificent but it was no different than hundreds of other high meadows found in the Colorado Rockies.

I could see by its pristine nature that those who drove by this meadow seldom stopped and those that did never walked more than a few feet from their car. And so it was more than just happenstance, I think, that I came upon in the middle of this meadow, in the middle of nowhere, unannounced and for no particularly good reason, a bronze plaque set among the blossoms with the name “Michelle White” engraved upon it.00073_s_11agqaxsjg038500075_s_11agqaxsjg0387

And there among the flowers I found a bit of myself as well. Our paths had been the same but now you dance on the wind while I struggle to lift my feet from the ground. How I envy your raven play and company you keep with the shuffling bear.

I knelt and cleaned off the leavings of pikas and marmots and brushed off the leaves that hid Michelle’s story. I looked around. How did I find this? What made me stop here? There was no marker near the plaque and no trail to it. A huge boulder that once rolled from the cliffs above rested nearby, up slope, but there was nothing else to draw the attention of the passerby. In fact, stand more than a stride away and the plaque, despite its good size, was mostly hidden by a tangle of leaves and stems and flowers.

Your words still echo: “I hope that somehow, someway, you can wake up every tomorrow from here on out happy to be alive and ready to learn from and live your life.

Above her name was a raised profile, a pretty young woman…..smiling. Below, the years of her life- she died December 1, 1990, barely 21 years old. More words to say the villain was acute myleoblastic leukemia and no words to say it was too sudden and much too soon. Finally, her hometown, State College, Pennsylvania. What was it about this woman who chose, like me, the windswept mountains to explore?

But still you nurture the pikas through the long winter night as they gather the thatch that sustains them. They must tickle as they scurry about under your snowy blanket. I suspect you’d rather have more than less of them for I hear the company they keep is delightful.

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I spent seven years in State College attending classes at Penn. State and teaching at their nature center. It was where I grew up professionally and first allowed myself to be called a naturalist and photographer. I never knew Michelle White, never knew her family but I sensed she and I had walked the same trails and that her favorite places were my favorite places as well.

I also knew there was something else I had to do. For Michelle was there among the flowers of this high mountain meadow beckoning me and I felt compelled to know more. There is no other reason to explain what I did next- 1.814.555.1212- long distance information for State College, PA.

My first try:

“What city please?”

“State College.”

“And what is the name?”

“Well, I’m looking for Michelle White.”

“I’m sorry, we have no listing of a Michelle White.”

“Well, I kind of figured that, she’s dead……..CLICK!”

Okay, next try:

“What city please?”

“Ah, State College.”

“And what is the name?”

“I’m looking for White”

“First name?”

“Well, the first name is not going to help”

“Do you have an address?”

“No”

“There are 88 Whites listed in this directory”

“No kidding,…….CLICK!”

That didn’t work. How about:

“What city please?”

“State College”

“And what is the name?”

“The name is White but the first name is not going to help and I don’t have an address.”

“How can I help you, sir?”

“Well, I was wondering if you had a listing of people who aren’t there anymore.”

“Aren’t there anymore, sir?”

“Yeah, you know, dead people’

“That would be a different area code, sir! CLICK!!!”

An operator with a sense of humor? Fine, I’ll start at the beginning:

“What city please?”

“State College, Pennsylvania”

“And what is the name?”

“White. Give me the number of the first name listed under White.”

“That would be Abby. The number is…….”

And so went my Friday evening, starting with Abby and running right down the list- Addie, Alfie, Anthony, Betty, Bob- asking each if they knew of Michelle. Each answer was “no.” I tried the local paper without success. I tried the hospitals, the police station, the university, everything I could think of and each time no luck.

Forty calls later, I was tired, frustrated and no closer to finding Michelle. “Paul” was the next name on my list and with Paul I got lucky. Paul passed me on to his wife Nan who called to Frank in the living room watch a football game with friends. Frank asked Harry who mumbled to Jennifer who thought of Bill who seemed to remember something and then asked Deb…….. Around I went cajoling, probing, looking for scraps and scribbling madly. Twice, in the swirl of conversation, the Presbyterian Church was mentioned- “a blood drive was done and I think it was for a young woman.” When you have nothing and have nothing but “no,” twice is too good to let pass.

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I called your mom last night and told her I had found your meadow and then found you. I told her how I felt your presence and she understood. She told me all about you and I can’t say I was surprised. She is doing pretty well now but she misses you a lot.

Anna Paulson is Michelle’s mom. Once divorced and once remarried and twice the trouble to find. The Church gave me her number, was glad to, “should have called earlier” they said. I never would have found it through the Whites, Anna told me, none were relatives. She said I must have been lucky but I knew she didn’t mean it. I said it was something I had to do and I knew I would find her somehow.

I told her I found the plaque, had cleaned it off and how pretty the flowers were growing around it. I told her how lucky I was to find it at all. She said it didn’t surprise her, I was meant to. I said I was really moved by the plaque, by the location, by the grace of the act. And I said I felt Michelle was there, sitting cross-legged on that big boulder, arms outstretched, welcoming me to her high mountain meadow. Again she said she wasn’t surprised. She knew Michelle’s spirit was there.

From where I sit a nighthawk circles overhead, chasing the evening’s fluttering light. Low clouds hang in the upper valley, leftover from a two-day storm. Above them all a low ridge hangs and a memory there waits.

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We talked of common friends and shared places and I was right, there were many. We talked long about Michelle- her life, her sickness, her grace and I felt honored to be a small part of her story.

As an aside, I mentioned to Anna that my middle name happens to be White and again she said that she wasn’t surprised.

She then asked me too say what my last name was again.

“Middleton” I said.

She paused and with a trembling voice she said, “The last name of Michelle’s best friend was Middleton.” We both took a long breath and I smiled as our spirits entwined.

Anna asked me if I recalled the words on the plaque under Michelle’s picture. She said I was the first one to find the plaque and care enough to call her. She said I had made her dream come true.

“I have never made anyone’s dream come true. How had I done so?”

“When Michelle was dying she wrote out her wishes, her ‘Ramblings’ as she called them. They allowed us to celebrate her life and not mourn her death and thus keep her spirit with us. The last words in her journal we put on the top of the plaque. You have now fulfilled her last wish.” The words: “Just let me be remembered.”

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It’s time to go Michelle, my journey isn’t over yet. There are many more ridges to cross and photos to shoot before I can sit and rest. You nourish my soul and always will as your spirit trickles in. I’ll see you next summer high up on a ridge, until then, rest well.

 

 

 

There are rhythms we all follow and harmonies we seek and journeys that come and go in life. Our friends are those that share these rhythms and cherish the harmonies whether they are near or far or no longer with us. My journey continues, with paths and with not, as I wander about seeking the rhythms of right spots and the harmonies of right times. I am not sure where this will all lead but I know Michelle will always be with me.

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