Total Miles: 2032.5
If you have any fondness for the ‘80s, the Netflix series Stranger Things and its sinister “Upside Down Place” has probably made your watchlist (and if it hasn’t yet, it should). But there’s another “Upside Down Place” of a less supernatural sort too—and we’ve been walking through it all day.
Picture a typical climb up your favorite local peak. You park the car at a trailhead, perhaps surrounded by leafy hardwoods. As the car disappears around the bend and the pavement is traded for trail, the grade begins to tilt up. Soon the hardwoods are fewer and fewer, replaced by the softwoods—spruces, pines, and firs—until they too grow scarce. Higher still, dwarf versions of those same evergreens—adapted to withstand the harsh wind and colder temperatures—proliferate. Above them, only the hardiest of tiny plants and lichens survive, clinging to a life wedged into seams of rock.
In most places with alpine and subalpine zones, that’s fairly standard. The higher you climb, the less plant life there is, and what does exist grows smaller and smaller in response to the climate. Flip the entire picture on its head and you have the world we’ve been strolling through these past few days—what I’ve taken to thinking of as the real life non-spooky version of the “Upside Down Place.”
Take yesterday as an example. The day was mostly a hike along the crest and base of various small mesas that rose modestly above the desert—the kind of features where, rather than climbing up onto them, you have the feeling of ascending nothing at all only to find that the surrounding terrain has simply fallen away.
When we found ourselves at the foot of a mesa, there was hardly much plant life to speak of aside from small sagebrush and clusters of unfriendly cacti. Only a few hundred feet above on top of a mesa, larger sage and small trees afforded some measure of shade. When the twilight of evening had us climbing onto a much higher mesa nearly 2000 feet above the desert, the cacti and grass became shrubs and small trees until we’d crested the top.
From there, forests including stands of Ponderosa pine covered the mesa and lined much of the trail we’ve walked since. High above the desert inferno below, life accumulates in reverse to the world of hiking I’d always known as a kid. Climbing here leads us not into the land of tiny plants hiding from the cold, but into the shady forest of trees hiding from the heat.
The connection between alpine climates and desert climates is a simple one: life avoiding the extreme. Wind and cold in the former, wind and heat in the latter. Which is right side up and which is upside down is for the beholder to decide.