Vanilla Winter

It’s after 3 pm, and the sun, a pale globe hovering over the wide expanse, looks weary. Globs of fresh snow covered in icy crystals sparkle like tiny diamonds, or maybe disco balls. We stand atop the mountain, the smaller white foothills undulating below, the frosted trees bowing around us.

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For some reason, the quiet, opaline world seems to hold the potential for magic at every turn. We walk the crunchy trails that were groomed by machines and then left for skis and snowshoes to mar the perfect surface. We know our adventure is limited to the short time before the northern hemisphere completely turns a cold shoulder to our nearest star.

These days, darkness is long in these parts, so we must spend time surrounded by the glittering snow to make our world feel brighter. And the light, it is divine. Pale yellow, thin and creamy and barely warm at all. It is soft and unobtrusive, sneaking up late in the morning and leaving at night before we have barely had a chance to notice it. Here on the mountain, nothing obscures it but the trees, some bare and some still green, some hanging onto shriveled red berries, some dressed in olive-green or furry brown lichen, all spread with a layer of snow. We alternate between sunglasses and not, depending on what side of the mountain we stand on and whether we are standing boldly out in the open or sneaking by under the cover of heavy boughs.

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On the backside, where the low sun illuminates the hillside across the valley but not our path, we see a small movement 20 feet in front of us, like a ball with a long string rolling down the hill and across the trail. It disappears. Then, with a flourish and a spray of snow, it leaps up and comes bounding down the path toward us. As it boldly comes nearer, we see what it is: a white long-tailed weasel, its arctic coat blending in with the snow, its black-tipped tail and the large, dark vole in its mouth bouncing as it runs. We see its small, furry face with dark, beady eyes, round ears, long whiskers, and strong jaws gripping dinner. We hurry to get our cameras ready, too late as the small creature leaps off the trail, into the deep snow, and under a hidden bush. Close call, it probably thinks, worried about losing its meal to the humans. Too close, we think, disappointed that we couldn’t capture this special moment in a more permanent form. We round the bend and the low sun beckons through the forest, as though a special discovery lies just ahead in some enchanted new land. 

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Indeed, we find towering evergreens standing proudly upright and facing west into the sun, the sweet vanilla light illuminating the undersides of the branches and the individual needles clustered below the icy crust. It is the afternoon’s last light, and it is glorious. The mountain promises magic, and on this day after Christmas, it delivers.

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