Thursday, December 13, 2012

My first winter in the Sierra

Lesley and I visited the Sierra mountains near Lake Tahoe, on a December weekend when the great majority of recreationists stayed home. We drove her old reliable station wagon uphill through cold rain, which became wet snow once we reached the elevation of 5,000 feet. And finally, in the dark, we arrived the entrance of Clair Tappan Lodge, and walked the final 100 yards to the heavy wooden front door. The vanilla smell of the Sierras was instantly recognizable, as we trudged ankle-deep in wet snow, schlepping our gear. We gladly stepped inside, where it was dry and warm. In the Lewis and Clark room, we sat by the fire, and met new friends. The rain and snow made conditions for skiing or snowboarding less than ideal. Therefore, only six or so souls, ourselves included, occupied the lodge per night.

The next day, it was hard to pull ourselves away from the fire. There were books to read and tea to drink and sketchbooks to draw in and online courses to complete for the renewal of our EMT certifications. The wind billowed against the windows of the lodge and the rain fell hard. Lesley and I are people who love the woods, regardless of weather. However, she was recovering from a cold, and wished to be cautious. In the afternoon, our opportunity arose, with a moment of clear blue sky, and light rain only. We saddled ourselves up with backpacks and snowshoes and ski poles, and into the woods we went.  We followed a trail called the "main drag."

All about us, the red firs, Abies magnifica, stretched for the sky, their trunks nearly black in color. Upon them, stag-horn lichens glowed yellow-green, like fluorescent lights. And there were lodgepole pines, and hemlocks, and spruces. We sloshed our way through sloshy snow, which was a foot deep in places. Breaking trail through the icy sludge was not easy. I walked in Lesley's footsteps for a spell, then took my turn. (And compared the former to Good King Wencelas.)

Save the moans of the wind, it was quiet. Except for the rhythmic sway of the treetops—back and forth like a pendulum—it was still. I teadily put one foot and one pole in front of the other, in front of the other. I had to keep my thermal engine pumping its pistons. We were two spots of warmth, in a polar landscape.

The forest seemed empty of animals, but they were nearby. Under cover of bark or earth, escaped from the wind and rain. Some animals, on the other hand, were quite unperturbed by the elements. We crossed footprints, a line of them, from a small canid. Perhaps a fox. Squirrels, too, had left their marks in the snow.

And then a black form swooped past us. The raven finished its concave arc, and alighted atop a dead tree. It croaked and called, and proclaimed itself lord of the realm. Then it flapped and rose from the tree and into the wind. It beat its wings strong, but hovered like a helicopter, against the wind's push. Then the raven broke the stalemate, and soared onward, and out of sight.

We came finally to the Lytton Lake, our destination. Or rather, the rippling snowy field, with boulders and forest beyond. The map assured us of a lake under the snow. We turned around, and commenced our return trip.

We stepped into a copse of trees, and felt the calm. Their trunks kept the wind at bay; we had a safe fortress. From the side of my backpack, I removed a gift. A thermos of hot tea. It warmed our hearts, both figuratively and literally.

In this landscape of rolling hills, rocky and snow-covered, the trees stood strong. The rain began to fall again and the wind grew stronger, and the trees swayed but stood. For many centuries, they had braved every storm, and then the coldest depths of winter and the scorching summer heat. The weathered old giants took the monsoons and droughts, undaunted. As for me, I was glad that we had taken some of their brothers and sisters, and fashioned their strong bodies into a house. With a fire inside, wherein I could warm myself. I thanked the trees, and quickened my pace for the hike home.

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