One early summer day our family drove to the mountains with a shovel and a bucket in the back of our red-winged Chevy station wagon. We were winding through a canyon called Strawberry on a narrow road, when we pulled onto the dirt shoulder.
Dad got out, grabbing the shovel and bucket. My older brother and I tagged along behind him up the embankment. Mom stayed behind in the car with the three younger kids. As usual, I was full of questions and as usual I’m sure dad wished I’d just quiet down and follow along. My brother had found a stick and was whacking things with it, rocks, other sticks, bugs, pine trees. Dad wandered in and out among the trees and bushes as if he were looking for something.
I thought maybe he had buried a treasure here when he “was a young pup,” as he liked to say about his own childhood. Now, I figured, he was back to claim his prize.
There were scrappy little pine trees no taller than me, scattered among the taller evergreens, but mostly there were tall clusters of white barked trees of various heights and widths. It was quiet on this little hillside which, living in a household of five kids, was a rare commodity. I found an old tree stump and sat down. I could see dad wandering with his shovel not far off. He had handed the bucket to my brother who was following at a distance, stick dragging behind him.
The air smelled like air does in the mountains, saturated with oxygen and the sweet musk of decay and new growth. In the silence I heard a quiet sound of water flowing, as if a stream had just opened up on the hillside above me. I turned to see where it was. How could I have missed a stream to splash in and explore. There was no water that I could see; yet the sound of water rushing increased.
Looking around, I saw Dad and my brother up the hill a ways. As I hiked over to where they were I noticed Dad bent over clearing leaves and rocks from an area on the ground. Instead of uncovering a large X marking a treasure or digging a big deep hole to unearth his cache, he carefully carved a circle out of the dirt. It was a circle about the same size as our five-gallon bucket. As I drew closer Dad wedged the shovel in slowly and lifted out a large chunk of dirt and rock and sticks and eased the whole mess into the bucket. He gently tossed a couple of loose shovelfuls of dirt in on top of that.
“Well?” he said, his voice triumphant. “Whaddaya think?”
I looked at him quizzically. “What’s it for?”
My brother answered for him with that tone big brothers get. “It’s a tree, a sap-ling,” he said, emphasizing each syllable as if I had never heard the word sapling before.
It was then I finally noticed in the bucket of dirt, a thin, creamy white stick, no bigger round than my thumb. At the top of its not quite three-foot stature, a few roundish leaves held on in little clusters. I reached out to touch one of the leaves, but stopped when my dad spoke.
“It’s a Quakie.”
“A quakie? What’s a quakie? Why do we have a quakie? What are we gonna do with the quakie? Why is it called a quakie?”
My dad waited for me to stop my stream of questions. He lifted his shovel and kind of pointed with it at the stand of trees beside us. “These are quakies – Quaking Aspen trees.”
My eyes followed the tall white, mottled trunks skyward to their canopy of round leaves. Just then, a breeze blew in and that water flowing sound began again, and dad said, “See them winking at you?” The leaves were moving in the breeze and changing color from bright green to nearly white.
It was then that I realized that rushing water sound wasn’t water at all. It was the Quaking Aspen leaves brushing against each other in the wind, saying hello to me.
I felt a bit dizzy and reached out to a tree trunk to steady myself. The smooth semi-glossy trunk felt warm and dry and comforting. My hand said hello back to the winking trees and we were instant soul mates. I ran my hand around the white trunk, feeling the tiny knobs and pits and bumps, the wrinkles and warps. I kept looking up at the river of leaves above and the reaching white branches, the bit of blue sky peeking through. I was somehow back home in a home I’d never known. I was among friends I once knew, happy through to my toes.
“So, Dad?” I asked from my reverie. “Is that a baby tree in the bucket?”
“Yup, it’s going home with us. We’re planting it in the front yard. Let’s get going!”
I leaned into the tree I was holding and said a silent goodbye with a promise to care for the baby tree we were adopting. I also vowed to come back and visit again soon. Dad’s whistle called me out of my haze and caught my attention. He and my brother and the bucket with the quakie sapling were almost to the car already. I loped down the hill past cluster after cluster of newfound friends.
I rode in the back of the car with the tree, watching as its round leaves jiggled and twisted with the cars movement. One side of each leaf was green as anything you’ve ever seen. The other side was nearly white. I understood the “quaking” part of the name now. Just a breath from my nose would flutter a leaf so easily. The trunk was a miniature of the one I had held on to in the woods, smooth and creamy, with tiny bumps and speckles. I think I memorized every part of that tree by time we pulled into the driveway.
I watched carefully as Dad bedded the baby tree into its new home in our front yard in the foothills.
When I discovered the Quaking Aspen’s radiant gold coins of fall, I knew I was right about Dad’s treasure up there in the hills. It wasn’t a buried treasure, but one that shone out every autumn. Before any other tree changed colors, the Quaking Aspen leaves turn a brilliant yellow that whispers to me and calls me home to the mountains.