The day could have been a disappointment. The reddish purple Grass Widows we went to see were already past their prime, and the lush golden blanket of Balsamroot had not yet unfolded onto the rocky landscape.
As we began what has become our annual pilgrimage to the see the wildflowers at Catherine Creek, it appeared that other than a nice hike in the windy sunshine and the pleasure of each other's company, the day would not offer any uncommon splendor.
While Walt stopped to shoot some Gold Stars, sweet but common little things, I wandered slowly up the trail looking for something uncommon. More Gold Stars. Buttercups. Prairie Stars. All as familiar as the daffodils growing in my yard at home. Off the trail, up a slight incline, I noticed small patches of faint pink. With watchful care (this is poison oak country) I worked my way in for a closer look.
I nearly shouted my excitement, but instead breathed in the extraordinary, and for me the first, sight of Dutchman's Breeches. In my explorations of wildflower field guides I've come across pictures of these wild relatives of the Bleeding Heart many times. And here they were, right in front of me in all their soft weird glory. Looking for all the world like little rows of Hans Brinker pants lined up on willowy racks.
As we continued our hike I decided a first like that sighting was probably enough uncommon for one day. I also believed there had to be more. And I searched with hopeful eyes.
Patches of Yellow Bells were the next surprise. Not so exciting or showy as the Dutchman's Breeches, but new for me, so deserving of special attention and uncommon status. Their tiny drooping heads in shades of orange and yellow blended into the surrounding grasses and would have been easy to miss. Once we saw one, however, others nearby revealed themselves in a sort of magical uncloaking. For the rest of the hike we saw patches of these fairy flowers mixed in with other blooms.
We began to see Shooting Stars amongst the Yellow Bells, and that's when the day shifted for me.
I've seen Shooting Stars before. Every Catherine Creek hike has given us at least a few. I have vague memories of seeing them as a child. They've made appearances on other hikes in recent years. So even though I stopped to admire the alien beauty of the vivid magenta petals trailing away from black and yellow and white centers, I was not willing to grant them uncommon status.
Even farther along the hike when I spotted the first large patch of Shooting Stars, I was happy to see them, but still not convinced that anything extraordinary was going on. I'm not sure if it was the third, or fourth, or fifth explosion of bright pink that began to change my mind. But at some point I realized that we were in the midst of Shooting Star prime time. They were everywhere, so vast and plentiful that they had to be considered common.
We stopped at every patch, our admiration growing deeper and more detailed each time. The sense of reverence only grew with the increased abundance. The uncommon became common became extraordinary. And into that open-hearted sense of wonder many other common extraordinary flowers revealed themselves:
White Plectritis, Camas, Filaree, Rigid Fiddleneck, Upland Larkspur, Desert Parsley, Sierra Snake Root, Small-Flowered Blue-Eyed Mary, Chickweed Monkeyflower, Naked Broomrape, Great Hound's Tongue.
When we got back to the car, I looked Shooting Stars up in my field guide, and was reminded that there are seven varieties that grow in the Columbia Gorge. The one that blooms at Catherine Creek in April is the Poet's Shooting Star. Absolutely nothing common in the magic of that gift of words.
Photos by Walt Shucka