Learning to Love Old Places in a New Way

I was racing against the sun, and I was losing.

My progress up the trail could only be described as an awkward shuffle—half-jog, half-walk. My camera bag was in one hand, and my tripod was in the other. I could tell from the dimming light that my moment was passing.

I had left my campsite too late, and the opportunity to catch a sunset from the top of Kamiak Butte was fading faster than the sun’s rays.

Of course, I’d been here many times before. On many occasions, Kamiak—a quick 15 minutes from my home in Pullman—had provided a welcome remedy from the trials of graduate life. Rising nearly a thousand feet above the surrounding countryside, Kamiak Butte is a tiny wilderness jewel set amidst a rolling sea of green Palouse farmland. A 2.25-mile loop trail takes visitors to the top, where the panoramic views stretch from the Blue Mountains in the south all the way to the Selkirk foothills in the north.

Kamiak had served me in many ways. When I needed to burn off steam, I ran. When I needed to relax, I walked. And when I needed a quiet place to rest, I hiked to the top, flopped down in a meadow of Palouse wildflowers, and shut my eyes.

Today was a little different. Kamiak and I had grown to be close friends, but until now I’d only enjoyed the park in the daytime. Seeing it at a night is a bit more difficult—the park gates close shortly after sundown. After that, only overnight campers are permitted. Summer weekends can be busy, but most of the year Kamiak becomes a very lonely place once the sun disappears.

That’s why I was here. I had left my car at the campground, and was hauling my gear up to the summit to photograph the sunset. Halfway up, I knew I wasn’t going to make it. The sun had already dropped below the horizon, and the sky—momentarily illuminated in brilliant shades of red and orange—was getting dark fast.

Still, things could be worse. The trail entered a clearing, and I had a clear line of sight to the west. Below me, the warm yellow lights of Palouse farmhouses were starting to blink on, and to the north the stately pyramid of Steptoe Butte—Kamiak’s taller cousin—was profiled against a blood-red horizon. I didn’t get to the summit, but the consolation prize was more than enough.

Even though the sunset was over, my journey was just beginning. I continued to the top to watch the stars, and after a peaceful evening in my tent, I got up at 5 a.m. to catch the sunrise. As the first rays of sun filtered through the pine limbs and illuminated a thick bed of golden balsamroot flowers, I knew that Kamiak was treating me to a completely different side of its personality. I’d been visiting this park for years, but in a way I was seeing it for the first time.

A wise man once told me that true love is about being willing to learn something new about your beloved every day of your life. That takes vulnerability. Sometimes, it can be uncomfortable. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of complacency, savoring only the traits that attracted you in the first place without gaining respect for who they are as a whole person.

Places are the same way. It’s tempting to visit your favorite spot only when it’s convenient, when it’s warm, dry, and sunny. But if you venture out of your comfort zone, you won’t regret it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a person or a place. Delving into the deeper, less obvious components of your loved one’s personality inevitably heightens your respect for what—or who—they are.

So get out there! Spring has arrived, and the world is changing. Plants are growing. Snow is melting. Flowers are blooming. Go for a hike or a ride today, and it will be completely different than a week ago.

Feature photo: A Palouse farm at sunset. // Paul Chisholm

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