December 4-18, 2012
THE FIRST SNOW
I have always loved watching snow fall. There is a beauty and peacefulness to it. Snowfalls also evoke the feelings of snowdays, the joy I experienced when snowstorms closed schools in Pennsylvania. I would listen expectantly to the radio hoping my school was on the cancellation list. A snowday was a sudden unscheduled gap in routine where tests and homework were postponed, where nearly everything was put on hold. Playing in snow replaced schoolwork. I feel sorry for people who as children never had a snowday and who did not grow up knowing the infinite playground of snow.
At first, just a few snowflakes appeared outside the cabin window, like early birds before the real crowds arrived. The flakes sailed by almost parallel to the ground, west to east. At the snowstorm’s peak, the nearby hills, all dissolved into flat silhouettes, a tiny shade darker than the all-white sky. When the snowfall lightened, trees and boulders expanded into three dimensions again, details emerging from the gray amorphous cloud.
The delicate structures of trees became outlined and accentuated. What had been dark masses of pine trees were now intricate collections of branches, smaller stems and needles, the new skin of snow turning the trees into white filigree. Shrubs that previously looked messy and tangled, showed a new elegance, each branch distinguishable, revealing a graceful pattern previously unseen. Sometimes sudden gusts of wind would blow a tree completely clean of its snow, swirling the captured flakes into the air like smoke.
With the snow came a hushed silence, the pristine white blanket softening sounds, edges and colors. Deep and windblown, the snow changed the shape of the land; newly formed mounds and valleys appeared. Drifts rose up like cresting waves. The landscape was fresh, reborn.
The billions of snowflakes reminded me of the billions of stars in the night sky here. I wondered at the uniqueness of each snowflake, everyone different from the incalculable flakes that have fallen in the past and that will fall in the future.
After about five inches had fallen, it was late afternoon and the flakes stopped. The gray-white clouds dispersed and the sky quickly turned to blue and then yellow. The snow-covered rock face in front of the cabin, blazed golden, reflecting the last radiance of the sun.
That night the thermometer plunged to -12, the coldest weather Chris had ever experienced (my personal best is -25).
Although the weather never really warmed up again after the first snowfall, the following days were clear and sunny enough to melt much of the snow. Since another snowstorm was predicted; I went for a long hike, exploring more of the area while I still could. I walked west along the Vallecitos River. The river was small, more like a creek.
The land was a patchwork of brown exposed ground and white unmelted snow, showing which spots were touched by sunlight each day and which spots remained in shadow. The snow patches revealed the activities of animals, their tracks leaving clues about their lives. Small rodents drew lines in the snow with their tails. Where the snow was deep enough, they took a safer route by tunneling through. Squirrel and rabbit prints were ubiquitous. Coyote, fox, and deer had also walked near the river. Birds had landed briefly to leave a short trail of their tiny dinosaur-like tracks. I found elk scat but no clear elk tracks; they must not have been here since the last snow.
Farther upstream the river entered a canyon with steep rocky cliffs bordering each side. The river had been relatively flat, wandering through forest and meadow, but now it angled upward, tumbling unevenly over boulders. Most of the water was invisible beneath ice and snow. But areas opened up like wounds in the frozen crust to reveal the underlying workings of the stream, its busy, rushing journey to the ocean. Ice had formed into complex magical shapes, as it tried to close the openings, like crystalline scabs.
The vertical walls closed in tighter, keeping the sun out. It was only 2 PM but everything was in shadow. The trail, like the river, became steeper, rockier and rough. Most of the snow here had been preserved, making the trail slippery and sometimes hard to find. I followed bobcat tracks – the large round clawless prints – across the rocks. Soon I turned back.
In a low spot on the far cliff, the sun was still barely visible. It was shining onto a flat, snowless rock, warmed slightly by the rays. I sat there, in simple meditation, listening, breathing. It was silent except for an occasional deep throaty gurgle from the stream.
Returning to the Lodge, I then headed south toward the inviting “V” opening where two rock cliffs met. This spot dominates the view at Vallecitos and it beckoned me as if it were a magical threshold that must be crossed. Getting closer, I discovered that the Vallecitos River flowed through it into another canyon.
To get there, I crossed the berm of a pond. At its edge was a small beaver lodge made of sticks pasted together with mud. I imagined the beavers inside were sensitive to the vibrations of my footsteps as I passed by. Small rodent and coyote tracks covered the lodge. Nearby was a well-worn beaver trail, carved smooth by dragging their massive tails, those great paddles of flesh. Farther out in the pond, branch tips poked through the ice, revealing the beaver’s winter larder. They would swim to it underwater and chew the twigs. Also visible were several lightly iced-over holes where the beavers surfaced.
Past the pond, I connected to the trail that continued down the river into the lower canyon. The river and trail here were flatter but I didn’t get far as it was getting late and I needed to I return home.