Sky pilot, revisited

I don’t have much of an explanation for why most of my favorite things are my favorite things. Pizza toppings, colors, how I take my coffee—it mostly comes down to preference, I guess. Aesthetics. I like things because they appeal to me. 

I do, however, have a favorite wildflower, and I can tell you exactly why. I like lots of wildflowers, obviously, because I am not a monster: columbines are delicate and rare, edelweiss remind me of my Swiss heritage, hardy little alpine forget-me-nots, the Alaska state flower, echo my time spent in the Last Frontier. But I like sky pilots best of all.

sky pilot summit
Twenty-one-year-old me, taking in the view atop Sky Pilot Mountain.

The first time I saw a patch of scrubby sky pilots, I was hiking from the summit of a mountain toward a brilliantly blue alpine lake, both of which share the flower’s name. Sky Pilot. It has a nice ring to it.

A little over two weeks before, I’d embarked on my first true wilderness experience, a twenty-four-day backpacking course through the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness. Midway through the trip, I eagerly joined a group of students who planned to hike Sky Pilot Mountain, a 12,052-foot plateau in the remote reaches of the Beartooth Range.

We rose before dawn in order to reach the summit and descend before the inevitable afternoon thunderstorms rolled in. It was a relatively easy hike: no technical climbing; a faint trail led most of the way to the flat summit.

sky pilot view
The descent to Sky Pilot Lake, where I feared my camera would land.

We reached the top with plenty of time to spare and spent a few minutes taking pictures and eating granola. As I took in the predictably breathtaking view, which was unobscured for what appeared to be dozens of miles in any direction, it struck me that, for the first time in eighteen days, I did not feel particularly homesick.

I wondered, as we descended toward the labyrinthine boulder field perched above Sky Pilot Lake, if there was any way to stretch that feeling—the feeling of having found my place, of taking in a view and not wishing to be anywhere else—indefinitely.

Caught up in my reverie, I dropped my dinky point-and-shoot camera, which bounced merrily down the mountain, ignoring my string of expletives and pleas to stay put. It came to rest in a tiny nook in a cluster of Volkswagen-sized boulders, where I finally caught up to it, winded and a little embarrassed.

sky pilots
My very first sky pilot encounter.

There was my camera, no worse for wear, nestled in a patch of purple flowers I’d never seen before. Sky pilots, I later learned, only grow above 10,000 feet elevation; the higher you find them, the sweeter they smell. (Really! It’s science. Polemonium viscosum is also known as skunkweed, and they sometimes smell quite strong when you find them at lower altitudes.)

I have seen sky pilots a few times since that day on their namesake peak, most recently, almost exactly six years later, this weekend, when I hiked a couple of Colorado Fourteeners. They had sprouted up in stalwart little plots along the standard trail up Mount Shavano, right around 12,000 feet, just where I’d seen them in the Beartooths.

As I hiked breathlessly toward the summit, buoyed by their cheery flower faces, I remembered that feeling of contentment I’d so relished atop Sky Pilot Mountain. It was serendipitous, I guess, that these old friends appeared to me when I needed a reminder to be present.

I have climbed a lot of mountains and hiked a lot of miles since that day in the Beartooth Range, and I’ve even occasionally felt that same effervescence, the lightness that comes with not needing to be anywhere else. Sometimes it is effortless, but most of the time it takes work: choosing to let the moment sink in, banishing thoughts of should and could from my overactive imagination. On this particular day, it was nice to have an assist from my favorite flower.

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2 thoughts on “Sky pilot, revisited

  1. I too remember the time I first saw Sky Pilots. I mean, other than in Hitchcock and Cronquist’s Flora of the Pacific Northwest, where I’d often seen the little black and white sketches of their life form, and known I was going to like them.
    My wife and I were hiking the CDT, Idaho-Montana divide, W end of the Centennials, the summer of 2005 following the wettest winter and spring in many years, and all the wildflowers were out and though I grew up in Idaho, they were all different from the species I knew because it was limestone, not granitic soils they were growing from.
    And there they were, a cluster of flowers and leaves like a flouncy blue blouse, on the back side of a knob, smiling in the sun. And I didn’t have to look them up. And yeah, I love ’em.

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