Glacier Lily

Department Literary Lode

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing…
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago…

It was like a broken record. Well, it was a record after all.  An old song, from the sixties.  Peter, Paul and Mary, right? They were gone now too as he recalled, but today that song played in his head, spooling endlessly over the last couple hours of the trail winding ever upward toward an elusive snow line. 

“Do you know that song, Molly?  It’s an old one, but it seems right today, doesn’t it?” Jack said, realizing that Molly could have no idea what he was talking about.

But, yes, there was no doubt that the song was unfortunately appropriate.  The flowers, the glorious mountain wildflowers, were mostly gone these days in Glacier Park, just as they had gone missing elsewhere in the Rockies.  It was only late April, and he guessed the morning temperature to be close to 80 degrees already, with highs expected in the low 90s. Climate change had shifted everything to the upside temp-wise over the past decade; and though fresh snow and cold could still be found in March if you went high enough, April had gone completely topsy-turvy, and there would no longer be any suggestion of winter’s frosty breath until next December.  November was now like April. Winter was shrinking along with the snowline.

The wildflowers, the spiky lupine, the fierce red paintbrushes, the bluebells, trillium, and asters, more kinds than Jack could remember, had all been unable to adapt to the change in seasonal heat and the dry winds, which swept the higher elevations like a malevolent hairdryer. The effect was depressing, Jack thought — few flowers, grumpy brown lichen, brittle grasses and the copper-colored needles of dying trees. The park’s glaciers were long gone. 

He remembered the last time he and Molly had taken this same trail to Iceberg Lake. It was after they were first married and before the big changes in weather.  

“Remember that day, Molly, when it was actually cold?  There were patches of snow.  Some of it was knee-deep… and there was a bright quilt of flowers…and green grass…remember green?” 

The photo of the two of them from that day was telling… big, ridiculous smiles against a backdrop of Montana wonder. He was wearing the silly snowman scarf, her Christmas present, and she had on his gift — a sky blue knit cap with her favorite flower, a glacier lily sprouted in yellow yarn, on its rim. And that flower, Jack thought, was what they were searching for today. He would find one for her, no matter how high they had to climb.    

Glacier lilies followed the snowmelt in early spring and summer and, as dry and hot as the weather was, Jack figured their best shot at finding a lily, if there was one, was at the flower field overlooking lower Iceberg Lake, the far parts of which were shadowed a good deal of time by Mt. Wilbur toward the south, and Iceberg Peak and the ancient, massive Ptarmigan Wall to the west. The deep shade of the glowering rock preserved snow and lake ice well beyond winter, though that time was much shorter now. The tail-end of the flower field swept to the lower lake past a short footbridge saddling Iceberg Creek.  If there were any glacier lilies, this is where they would be found.

Jack had promised Molly he would find her a flower despite the change in climate, and he meant to keep that promise, if not today, then tomorrow or next week. He again recalled the photo, their long ago first encounter with the flower bringing a jolt of joy to his heart.

“Jack, look at this beautiful flower.  Do you know what it’s called? 
I love the way it hangs down and how the petals curl back up. And the color!  It’s like a chandelier of sunshine.”

“That, Molly, is a glacier lily. It grows in the early spring, and they pop-up as the snow melts.  This is the perfect time to see them.  There should be more closer to the big wall.  Here. Let me pick it for you.”

“No, no.  It’s much too beautiful. Don’t pick it, Jack. Please don’t.”

“You’re right,” Jack said, “these mountain wildflowers don’t last long after you pick them.  They die-off pretty quickly. Let’s see if we can find more.”

And they did. The closer they got to the upper lake and the dwindling runoff from snowmelt, the more lilies they found, blooming out for a short few weeks before they retreated into the rough soil for the next three seasons.  It was all so beautiful back then, and seemed almost like a dream now.

Jack heard what used to be Iceberg Creek before he saw it; just a bright trickle now, finding its way below lower Iceberg Lake, across a short fall of rock, meandering through the hardscape and dying pines, disappearing from sight only a short way off.  He wondered briefly if the creek now ended just over to his left, where it seemed to disappear into the heat-soaked ground, laid to permanent rest. He decided he would rather not know, and stepped over the rivulet, pushing on toward the stubborn loiter of shadows, where he hoped to find a lily and a resting place. 

Brown and grey. All the colors of early spring seemed to have been filtered from the landscape, as if someone applied a sepia wash to what used to be a colorful photograph. It reminded him of other photos he had seen of Mars; and he stopped suddenly, discouraged and despondent, now thinking that he couldn’t possible keep his promise today.  He lifted his canteen toward the blue blaze of sky, put it to his lips and tilted his head upward to drink, stopping short as a wink of yellow caught his eye.

“Molly, I think we’ve found it,” he said cautiously, almost reverently, lowering the canteen and stepping off the trail, moving toward his one hope for the day. And there it was peeking up, just peeking, over a misshapen rock that had partially blocked his view.  He moved the rock aside, and gazed in appreciation at the small dance of petals, which seemed to bow to him in greeting.  It was a glacier lily. And it was perfect.

Jack put down his canteen and unbuckled his fanny-pack, then knelt down next to the flower, taking in its presence, which now seemed more special than ever. He hadn’t really believed he would find one he realized.  Yet here it was, a gift it seemed, precious and sadly vulnerable.

“It’s perfect, Molly, isn’t it?  Just what we were looking for. We didn’t give up, and here…”

Jack sighed loudly, his throat clenching, as he opened his pack, reached in, and pulled out a bright blue knit hat and a small, wooden box lined with plastic. There was no wind, another blessing, and he tipped the box over the flower, as Molly spilled out in a handful of whitish ash, covering the petals and the ground beneath.  Jack sprinkled a bit of water from his canteen over the lily as it mixed with his tears, settling the ash, and then laid the blue knit cap nearby, covering it with the rock, the lily-yarn facing the sky.

He sat back, gazed up at the heavens, and closed his eyes.

Where have all the graveyards gone?
  Gone to flowers, everyone…

He couldn’t get that song out of his head.


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