Sunday, January 31, 2010

A moonlit adventure--of possibly dire consequences

I went for a walk this morning. And couldn’t get home. Almost.

It all started with the moonlight. Moon + snow = light at night. Bright, luminescent light. A soft glow that beckons….

So I left the cabin at 4:45a.m. to walk the loop, down to the highway, up around to the falls road, and then home by the back way, skirting behind the cabins that are north of me and emerging on my own road again. I took my headlamp, just in case, but didn’t think I’d need it. Being outside under this kind of moon is like playing outside at night in the summer after the streetlights come on.

When I got to the falls road—walking up the middle of the highway, bathed in the bluish light, no cars coming either way—I realized that someone had plowed it after the big storms of last week, clearing it all the way down to the asphalt. In the day time, an hour or so after the sun rises over the eastern ridge of this canyon, having the snow cleared makes walking easier. When the sun hits them, all those piles of snow begin to melt, and the water trickles downhill all day—until it freezes in the night. This created quite the challenge for me walking up it. Basically, I was walking uphill on black ice.

I stepped slowly and carefully, with each step looking for patches of dry pavement. Up around a corner, I was relieved to see that the plowing came to an abrupt halt, although I had to squeeze carefully around my neighbor’s truck; he’d driven as far as he could, then just parked in the middle of the road and walked the rest of the way home.

Now, walking on packed snow, the footprints of hundreds of feet still visible, I could walk at a more normal pace. It was cold—in the 20’s—and I was eager to get home to breakfast.

Far up ahead on the trail I could see lights flashing. Hikers with headlamps were coming down the trail. After a minute or so, they passed me.
“How was your walk?” I asked quietly.
“Great!” they both responded, chuckling.
I am not entirely crazy. Those guys wanted to play under the giant streetlight, too.

My whimsical moment with them passed quickly. By this time, the moon had disappeared behind the western ridge. I reached up and switched my headlamp on. The first thing I saw was a giant snowdrift that had all but obliterated the road ahead, reducing the trail to a narrow single track that proceeded determinedly up and over the drift. I’ve hiked the falls road for several winters now. I’ve never seen it like that.

Up and over I went, continuing on to find several more similar drifts. Finally, I came to the falls. I could hear the water thundering into the stream below as it cascaded down the sheer rock face, though I couldn’t see it in the darkness. I stood for long moments, listening to the quiet of the forest, the water tap dancing over rocks below. This much snow in the winter makes everything on the mountain harder—getting to and from work, bringing wood in, staying warm. No one ever complains. We know that this spring the mountain will be alive with flowers and with seeds and berries for all our furry friends. No bears wandering past the cabins in late summer, I thought, smiling. Then it was time to go.

There are three driveways that bisect the falls road. One belongs to John, my neighbor, whose cabin is closest to the waterfall. I had passed his big dually truck, completely mired in snow now. Below John’s there is another driveway that leads to the cabin of ‘Red Truck Guy.’ I have often waved to him in the early morning as he is heading out to work and I am walking along the road. I don’t know his name. His truck was the one parked where the snowplow had stopped. The third driveway leads to Cabin #54, and it is that driveway that I usually take to cut down behind the cabins to my own road. Not this morning.

When I finally found the place where the driveway should be (because I recognized the huge pine tree that stands next to it), I realized it would be impossible for me to use it; the snow that had drifted over the road had spilled down this driveway as well, creating one long beautifully rounded slope. Had it been daylight, I would have toyed with the idea of simply sliding on my butt all the way down to Cabin 54. I admit, even standing there in the dark, I was cold enough and hungry enough to think about it seriously—for a second or two. At that hour, in that place, if I were to injure myself, no one would find me for a good long time. There was nothing left to do but figure out another way.

Going back down the falls road was an option I could take, but it was the last one I would choose. Walking uphill on black ice is one thing. Walking downhill on it—for a quarter mile or so—was something I just didn’t want to think about. I turned and walked back up the road toward the falls.

I took Red Truck Guy’s driveway. I stepped in his prints carefully, and I tried to be quiet, though the crunch of each step was a resounding abuse to the otherwise quiet. If he woke, he must’ve thought a very large animal was making its way past his cabin.

Finally, I made it to the trail behind his cabin. Whew. Now all I had to do was follow the trail and I would get to my own road soon. I thought.

When I say “trail,” I really mean the area where the trail once was. Before it was covered in four feet of snow. I was now glad for the freezing temperatures of the night before, as I could walk—slowly and gingerly—along the top of the snow, making my way down in the dark with the help of my lamp, looking for landmarks, certain boulders and trees that would help me identify where I was.

Have I mentioned that the name of my road is Canyon Rim Road? It is named thus because the road was built to accommodate the cabins that were built along the rim of the canyon formed by the water streaming from the falls. What might be unclear at this point in the narrative is the fact that, if I start sliding off the (nonexistent) trail, I will no doubt keep going down, picking up speed as I fly, sans toboggan, over the edge and a hundred feet down into the bottom of the canyon. If that were to happen, most likely I would lie there until spring, when some poor hiker might stumble across whatever the coyotes left behind.

Heart pounding, I took careful step after careful step, holding onto low hanging tree branches when I could. Finally, I looked up to see Cabin 54 in the distance. I was going the right way, nearly to the road. In every other winter that I’ve lived and hiked here, someone always heads up to the falls shortly after every storm, breaking the trail, making a path. Though it has been over a week since our five consecutive days of snow, no one has been here; there was simply no place to walk. Perhaps I should say, no one was foolish enough to try….

At the last cabin before the road, a set of steep steps leads down to a driveway and then the road. The steps were buried beneath the snow, so I sat down and slid, no longer in danger of heading out of control and over the side.

Finally, at 6:15, I arrived home. From the warmth and safety of my cabin, I could appreciate the adventure. . . and the snow's promise of a beautiful spring. After all, Tuesday is Groundhog's Day.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Wisdom in Snow

In Southern California, where I live, few people are blessed to see snow as it falls, flakes floating down slowly, as I have pictured manna raining down from heaven in Moses’ time. As it accumulates, it is so light and fluffy that snowflakes clinging to a glove can be brushed away like feathers.

I have always liked the analogy that people are like snowflakes—no two alike. I imagine us all, floating down from heaven, soft, pure, as transparent and full of color as diamonds. Innocent, in the beginning. Where and when we fall seems to have a lot to do with how we’ll turn out.

In the chill of darkness, snow will develop a hard crust, with edges as treacherously sharp as glass.

In the heat of the glaring sun, snow crystals can no longer maintain their integrity, and they break apart.

Snow that falls near heavily populated areas will be beaten down underfoot or splashed to the side of the road where it remains in the gutter until it’s gone.

There is a place, though, where I have seen a patch of snow rest in a high green meadow until spring, still looking as soft and malleable as it did the day it fell.

Of course, the life of a snowflake is fleeting. It drifts down from heaven, a tiny glistening gift, like, but unlike, all the others around it. After a brief time, its essence returns again to the earth and sky. If only we had eyes that could appreciate each separate and individual flake, seeing the beauty there, embracing each one for its contribution.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Injustice anywhere....

The little girl and the little boy in the adjacent photo are my daughter and my son.

When I was a young girl growing up in the 1960’s, I was very aware of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was on television, on the news, in the papers and magazines of the time, because the late fifties and early sixties marked the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America. As a young person, I was astounded by his courage. I tried to imagine what it would be like to stand quietly in the street while men with clubs and vicious dogs were attacking those around me. Fear would overtake me, I knew. I would run away. The type of courage he possessed comes from a place deep, deep down in a man’s soul, a place from which a certain light emanates, and a man knows he has seen enough, heard enough, and he is willing to walk through hell in order to change the status quo.

It was not until I was in college, however, that I began to appreciate the eloquence of Dr. King. Most know him as a powerful orator, and he was, but until one has read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one cannot fully grasp the brilliance of this man as an articulate rhetorician. At my first reading, I was so blown away by his ability with language, I read the letter again from a writer’s point of view. It is one of the most concise yet heartfelt documents I’ve ever read.

I try to re-read King’s letter from time to time, especially around the anniversary of his birthday. Each time, I take away something different. This year, I am particularly struck by his plea to the white clergymen who criticized his arrival as a leader in Birmingham, Alabama. They characterized King as an “outside agitator,” telling the press that they would rather see ‘time and negotiation’ bring forth change instead of Blacks marching in the street as a form of nonviolent protest. In his letter, King lovingly attempts to help them see the life he lives, how difficult it is as a parent “when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’”

If you think that racial discrimination ended with the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, ask my son to tell you some stories. Oh, I can tell you stories, too. But he was the little boy who stood on a neighbor’s front porch and was told he couldn’t play with the little girl inside because of the color of his skin. He was the little boy who was called “nigger” by grown adults.

The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” includes many now famous statements by Dr. King, such as “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But my favorite remark, the one I memorized long ago, the one posted on my classroom wall, is this one:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Full text of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”