Monday, December 21, 2009

Waiting for the Light

When the December stratus clouds hover above the mountain, I love going out to walk just before dawn. By the time I get up to the waterfall, the “rosy fingers of dawn” are beginning to streak the sky with their miraculous paint. The clouds change color from light gray to the faintest pink, a huge mess of cotton candy across the morning sky. That same pink tints the snow as well, and for several moments the mountain is a quiet fantasy land. I half expect the fairies to emerge from under the huge oaks and dance until the stars twinkle out.

This morning the light show was particularly meaningful, as today is the first day of winter. The solstice! The days will grow colder, certainly, but at least they will grow a bit lighter every day. It’s the light that sustains me through the winter months. I have walked in temperatures below freezing, but if the sun is shining and there’s snow on the ground, it’s fun, especially if I walk past the campground and kids are playing. I remember those days… coming up to Mt Baldy with my next-door-neighbor, Suzy. Her dad would drive us up every Christmas Eve and we would play in the snow until our sneakers were soaked and our hands were numb. Now I wear high-tech gloves and heavy snow boots. It’s a lot more fun….

Besides the longer days (slowly but surely), I have other reasons to celebrate. Three years ago I adopted a small black cat with a chopped off tail and brought her home during Christmas break. As I write this, she sits just feet from my chair, front paws tucked neatly beneath her, watching the raccoons who have come to the French doors to beg for cookies. Sugar Plum has blessed my life in ways I don’t need to explain to those of you who love animals. She has her own Facebook page now….

And one year ago Tainted Legacy was released. Two days before Christmas, I drove up to Apple Valley to visit my mom. I spent the afternoon with her, then just before I left, I pulled a copy of the book out of my bag and put it in her hands. The look on her face was priceless indeed. She stayed up half the night reading it. In the year since the book was released, I’ve had amazing adventures with book signings, speaking engagements, and traveling back to Missouri to wander through graveyards (again) and reconnect with friends. This, too, has been a blessing in my life, and I am thankful every day that the story—as much of it as we know—has finally been told.

There’s a fire crackling in the fireplace. We’re supposed to get snow tonight. I have plenty of firewood, a warm blanket to wrap up in, and a cat who will find a spot beside me to snuggle into. Bring on the winter. I’m ready.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tis the season

I was supposed to head off to a Christmas party on Friday night—the December meeting of my writers group becomes an opportunity to exchange gifts, desserts, and great stories. Alas, the instability of the weather required that I simply come on up the mountain after work. In anticipation of the party, I’d ordered a huge tray of Christmas cookies from the catering class at the high school, so I ended up bringing it home. Nothing to do but eat them up—oh, and share them with my neighbors, of course.

After dinner on Friday night, I pulled some of the plastic wrap off the cookie tray and wiggled my fingers inside to retrieve one of those small round cookies covered with powdered sugar. When we were kids, we called them butter balls. (If you put rum in them, they’re butter rum balls.) The first bite took me back fifty years.

When I was a kid, Grandma would catch the train in Los Angeles and ride out to Lakewood where we lived on a beautiful suburban tree-lined street. Dad would pick her up at the train station, and she always bustled in carrying bags filled with coloring books, crayons, and cinnamon raisin bread. She and Mom would spend days getting ready for Christmas, baking mincemeat pies, pumpkin pies, apple pies (all from scratch), cooking yams for candied yams, making cranberry sauce (from scratch as well). Grandma made a special Christmas treat by stuffing dates with half a walnut and rolling them in powdered sugar. Such a simple thing… yet I was reminded of how much I loved them when my daughter made something similar—but far more fancy—for Thanksgiving.

We had a real tree every year, and every year Dad would send one of the boys up the ladder in the garage to the rafters to bring down the large box of ornaments, decorations and our nativity. The only thing we bought new each year were several boxes of tinsel to cover the tree with. Oh, and glass wax. Most folks in our neighborhood would use multi-colored glass wax and a sponge to decorate their picture windows, much as the retail stores do now, with snowy scenes and holly berries. Of course, we had a long string of outdoor lights that Dad would dutifully hang around the eaves of the house every year.

Both my parents were veterans of WWII, and Dad was involved in his local VFW. One year, a few days before Christmas, we loaded up the station wagon and headed off to the VFW hall for an opportunity to meet Santa and be given a gift. I was pretty nervous about this, and truth be known would have preferred to forego the gift just so I could avoid sitting on a stranger’s knee. I was painfully shy and having to be asked by someone I didn’t know what I wanted for Christmas was torture for me. As the time approached for Santa’s arrival, I started looking around for my dad in order to seek out his protective arms. He was nowhere to be found. I finally asked Mom, who said first that Dad had gone to the bathroom, and a long time later, when I bugged her again, that I should stop asking so many questions. As soon as she said that, I knew. It was Mom’s catch phrase: “Stop being so nosy.” It always meant she was trying to hide something, and I knew right away what that meant in this case. Ha! My dad was Santa! A moment later he walked through the door and at his first “Ho Ho Ho!” I recognized his voice. When my turn came, I readily climbed into his lap and looked him straight in the eye, smiling. I didn’t give away his secret, and I never told my parents that I knew, but I was really proud that it was my dad who had the honor to be chosen for such an important job.

Yesterday when I was chatting with Mom, she mentioned that my brother had played Santa on Friday. I called him today.
“Yep,” he said, “a hundred and twenty kindergarteners.” His wife is their teacher. What a grand tradition.
“Hey Kev,” I asked, “Did you know Dad played Santa when we went to the VFW hall?”
“Was that Dad?” he replied. He never knew. Guess the secret’s out of Santa’s bag now. Sorry, Dad. But you did a great job with all those kids. Bet my brother did, too.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Snow: Day Two - The Aftermath

When I parked my truck across the highway from the inn last night, I made sure I backed it off the road by eight feet or so--far from the work of the snowplows. I woke to no new snow and a dazzling view of the twinkling lights of the valley below under clear skies. Perfect. I wouldn't have to do much shoveling to get the truck back on the road headed toward work--but just in case, I planned to leave the cabin at 5:30.

Having a routine is important; packing is critical. I have to remember to bring shoes to change into at work, dry socks, extra gloves, and so forth (and my lunch--and my keys). Finally, at 5:45, I was ready: I was wearing jeans tucked into tall rubber boots, with waterproof pants over the jeans, plus a sweater, a jacket, and another waterproof jacket with hood, my ear muffs, gloves and my headlamp. (What would I do without it??) The experience of walking through the snow with the headlamp is amazing and hard to describe. You've seen those scenes in stadiums--the Olympics is a good example--where thousands of cameras are flashing in the dark; that's what it's like. As you walk, the light hits the crystals in the snow, creating a dazzling show like light refracting in a million tiny diamonds. It's gorgeous.

The beauty took my mind off my frozen hand. I had to carry a shovel down, plus the squeegee to clear snow and ice from the windshield. I put both in one hand and stuck the other hand in my pocket, so at least only one hand was freezing at a time. It's not far, about a ten-minute walk, so it was fine, really. And when I reached the highway, I could see Sparkle, my trusty little Tacoma, looking just about ready for our slow ride down the mountain. Then I walked around to the far side of the truck. Just for fun, I'm sure, the snowplow boys had veered way off the highway, piling a nice huge berm against the tires on that side. Did I mention that temps were far below freezing last night? The chunks of snow were huge blocks of ice that I would have to break apart, then move aside in order to dig out the wheels. Ever see the movie Rainman? Remember when Tom Cruise is walking around the field kicking things, screaming SON OF A BITCH? Yeah, that was me. But only in my head; I didn't want to wake the neighbors.

There was a thick crust of ice on the windshield, so I wanted to start the truck and slowly warm it up in the cab so the ice would melt. But first, I had to get the door open, because it was frozen shut. It took me a few attempts, but I was finally able to pry it open and start the truck. I put my backpack inside on the seat, and I took off the headlamp. The sun hadn't risen, but the moon on the snow provided enough light for me to see where I was jamming the shovel.

After half an hour of shoveling, the ice on the windshield was still hard as rock--and I could no longer feel my fingers or toes. I sat in the warm cab for a few minutes, cursing the snowploy boys and laughing. After another fifteen minutes, I had the truck free of ice, and the windshield was warm enough to scrape a spot clear. Time to head out. Sparkle bucked and tossed a bit, but she finally broke free of the ice and clambored up out of her spot, rolling onto the highway. I put my flashers on while I drove at 10mph, pumping the brakes and making sure all machinery was functioning properly. Then, in low gear, I began to slowly roll down the mountain.

Along the switchbacks, I saw a young man in an F250 with emergency flashers on, so I pulled up to him and stopped, opening my door (since the window was still frozen) to ask if he was OK.

"Yeah," he shrugged. "I'm just waiting for my friends. They got stuck down the road so they're walking up." Nice guy. His friends were a quarter mile down the road, walking gingerly over the frozen pavement, slipping and sliding. I'm sure they were on their way to ski. I can smell those guys a mile away--always impatient, in a hurry, unprepared for the cold or the conditions. Hope they had a great day.

Finally to work, I walked up to my classroom still in snow gear, then did my quick-change routine as the heater began to warm up the room. (It was 46 degrees in there--not really welcoming.) After a good day with the kids, it was back up the hill--this time I parked about 30 feet up our little road, plunging through a foot of snow as I pulled into an open spot. Tomorrow morning, I'll walk down early but simply drive out--no digging.

One of my students asked me today, "If it's such a hassle, why do you live up there?" As I've said so many times, it's nearly impossible to describe the overwhelming beauty. This morning, as the sky began to lighten, I would look up from my shoveling from time to time to the summit of Mt Baldy. It was covered in snow tinted pink by the rising sun. This evening, as I locked the truck at 4:30 and began my walk up the road to the cabin, the sun had gone down over the western ridge, and the slopes on the opposite side of the canyon were aglow with the last honey-golden light before dusk. Tomorrow morning I will watch for diamonds in the snow, breathe in the clear, cold air, and feel blessed once again.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Snow: Day One

When you go to bed knowing that you could awake to the world being blanketed in white, it's kind of like going to sleep on Christmas Eve.... I slept on the couch last night in front of the fire, wrapped in a warm blanket, Sug curled behind my knees. I woke at 4:00 and immediately looked outside. The first thing I saw was raccoon faces peering back at me through the glass of the French doors. Then I saw a dusting of snow, maybe a half inch. The little 'coonies were brushing it away as they scampered from one door to the next, begging for a hand-out. I breathed a sigh of relief--I wouldn't have to dig out the truck before leaving for work. I made some nice Irish breakfast tea, settling in at the computer to check email and, of course, my Facebook page. A half hour later I went to the kitchen for more tea and some breakfast, and I noticed there was a bit more snow on the ground. See, that's the funny thing about snow; you can't hear it. Looking closer, I could see that the 'coonies tracks had already been completely covered. About an inch had fallen in 30 minutes. Yikes. Time to skedaddle.

By 5:30, I was dressed and ready to go. I brushed the snow off the windshield, climbed in, and started down my steep treacherous road--in 4WD low. The new tires are great, and I had no problem getting down. Out on the main highway, I realized the snowplows hadn't started clearing, so I was driving along on a couple of inches of snow. Again, no problem. I kept the truck in low and simply rolled slowly down the switchbacks while the wind blew snow out of the darkness and directly into the windshield. I didn't turn the radio on. I just eased my way along in the quiet. Finally, somewhere far below the Village, the snow turned to rain. Eventually, I switched out of 4WD. I got to work at 6:30--plenty of time to change out of snow gear before my students began arriving.

After looking at (which predicted severe weather in the afternoon), I requested a sub for the last period of the day so I could start my slow trek back up the mountain. (Bless all teachers who agree to sub during their conference periods. I'm way too selfish; you can't pay me enough to give up that hour of quiet.) When the sub arrived, I took attendance, said sarcastic things to my Journalism kids (whom I love), put my snow boots back on, and headed out. It was raining steadily.

Signs were posted at Shinn Road where it intersects with Baldy Road--chains required. Uh-oh. I didn't don my chains once last winter; the only time I need them is to appease some CHP officer who's out of sorts for pulling Mt Baldy duty. (They have to sit in their unit until a vehicle comes along, then get out--in freezing rain or snow or sleet or hail--and say, "You can't get up without chains....") If you've ever put chains on... in freezing temperatures... crawling around on the icy ground... your fingers frozen and stiff because you really can't operate the fasteners with gloves on... while snow piles up on the back of your neck... you know why I'm not eager to use them.

But I was lucky--no officers on duty. As I approached the Village, I could see snow everywhere, just like a winter wonderland. I didn't stop at the post office for my mail, just kept rolling along through the rain. The snowplows had been through, and now the rain was washing away the snow in the lower elevations. Perfect. I started up the switchbacks (this is the section of road that gains two thousand feet of elevation in under three miles and has several hairpin turns), and the road was pretty clear.

Then the rain turned to snow... and I could see that the first runs by the plows had left huge chunks of packed, crusty snow in the road. I avoided them as much as I could, just climbing ever so slowly, ever so carefully. With the radio off again, I listened to the sound of the wiper blades periodically brushing the snow from the windshield.

Finally, I came around the last corner and topped out at the 'flats.' A foot of snow covered everything. As I passed Snowcrest Inn, I recognized all my neighbors' vehicles--no one went to work today except me. Their trucks were parked along the road in front of the inn, now all nearly blocked from view by a huge berm created by the plows. They'll have fun digging out tomorrow.... It took awhile, but I finally found a spot along the road where the snow berm wasn't too high, and I tucked the truck in. Then I got out and started walking.

As is usually the case in Baldy, two of my neighbors showed up at that moment. Rob was driving around with TJ-the-big-red-dog, looking for a place to park his truck. Brad was about to attempt to drive up our road in his Bronco. I love his truck--I used to have one--but I knew he wouldn't make it. I declined his invitation to "hop in." He gunned it, then disappeared up the road. In less than a minute, he was slowly making his way back down. "I got as far as the first turn," he said, "and the truck did a 360." I'm pretty sure he meant a 180, since he was headed back down. I was just glad I hadn't taken that ride. So I walked home in a foot of snow, up, up, the steep road as the snow fell. I'd left my snow shovel beside the back door, and I shoveled out the steps before going inside. A few minutes later I was sitting on the floor, taking off wet boots and socks and jeans while I called Mom to let her know I'd made it home OK. "Well," she said, "can you just sit and relax and watch TV tonight? There's a Christmas special on...." Shit. Yes, I do have Direct TV up here--but when heavy snow falls, it covers the dish. Sure enough, I had no reception. I pulled on the wet, clammy jeans, the damp socks and soggy boots and tramped outside, climbed the slope, and swept the dish clean. Then, as long as I was out there, I shoveled out a path to the wood pile.

Back inside, I made a fire, ate some great vegetable enchiladas, then took a hot bath. A few minutes ago, I heard voices outside. I opened the front door and saw Eric and Jimmy, my neighbors, wandering around, enjoying the snow. Each was holding a bottle of wine. The air was clear and quiet, and as we talked, they both said, "I can't believe you went to work today." Neither can I. And I'll probably do it again tomorrow.