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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Petroglyphs

We walked to the petroglyphs yesterday, a secret spot out in the open, on boulders that long ago were placed here by the lake waters that broke their dam and flooded the river plain. Some 12,000 years ago, people living in this post-flood landscape looked to the sun and the river and the wildlife, and they looked inside themselves, and they carved into the flat, south-facing boulder sides images that held great meaning for them. We never learned what these images meant, one of life’s mysteries we may never decipher. What did their world look like back then, before motorized vehicles rutted out the trails? Before grazing livestock spread cheatgrass and other weeds that modern humans brought from far-away lands? Before hunting rifles and gas-powered boats filled the air with sounds of shots and hums of motors? Before the nearby concrete dam controlled the flow of a river that snakes through a deep and dramatic canyon from the Rocky Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean?

The people who inhabited this place long before European settlement may have climbed down to this spot from the plateau above, or perhaps they lived here in winter, where the canyon briefly widens and holds the warm light. Whatever moved them to carve images in the rocks, they were likely inspired by the same things that filled us with silent joy during our trek to this spot: the cackle of ducks paddling downstream. The graceful, silent winging of a lone heron above the marsh. A herd of deer munching the dry grass, wary of their human neighbors. The contrast of the cloudless pale blue sky, the warm sun radiating off the steep, silent cliffs, and the unmoving land with the ever-meandering, never-stopping river – a reminder that time marches slowly on, even when it feels so still.

As darkness set upon us and the pale sliver of moon began to glow, we stalked our way back to our starting place, dreaming of instead setting up camp in the same spot where our ancient friends once slept. Despite our modern conveniences, like the rubber-soled boots on our feet and the nylon backpacks carrying chocolate, oranges, and salted nuts, we could have been them. We turned our backs to the cold wind, watched the stars emerge one by one, and wondered at the hiding spot of the hooting owl that greeted the night.

The fragrant breath of light returning

There’s something to be said for the silence. In the spaces between slushy drive-bys, you can hear the apical buds on the trees and the tender new blades of grass stretching toward the lengthening light. The robins chirp as if whatever they’re doing is the best thing ever. The swollen river bounds between banks carrying fresh, frigid snowmelt, which the ducks endure proudly. The groundhog saw his shadow today in Boise, so winter will stay for 6 more weeks, but we’re getting somewhere. The land is starting to remember what it’s like to support life. And now we dream of gardens: plans for old bathtubs repurposed as planters, overflowing with greens and flowers and joy. The hope of great bounties brought on by the first sprouts of vegetable plants. The anticipation of bees swimming among stamens, awash in pollen.

We’re not there yet. The sun isn’t yet strong enough to break away the layer of cold air that clings close to the earth. The trees can tell that something is a little different, but the bulbs that hide in the soil haven’t yet gotten the message that winter’s hold is losing its grip. But the vanilla sky has given way to powder blue, sunset visits the northwestern window again, and we can again walk in the afternoon light with coats unzipped and gloves left lying on the car seat. Before we know it, spring’s perfume will permeate the stagnant winter air. It never comes soon enough, but when it does, we can relax our shoulders and head into the breeze, knowing that we made it through another year.