I live at 2,500 feet on my aunt and uncle’s property and more often than not, snow in the forecast only brings disappointment; yet, one night a cold front descended, and at dawn, I awoke with the sun, and seeing a brilliant dusting on pine needles outside my window, I leapt from my bed and put on warm clothes. I luxuriated that morning, taking pictures of all the familiar sights that sparkled as if new.
Through our greatest luck, my mom planned a visit that day. I called her and told her to come immediately: “The snow won’t stick for long,” I said.
Sure enough, by noon, the snow had melted from the trees and only amoeba-shaped patches remained on north-facing hills.
“It’s too bad the snow’s gone,” I said to my mom after giving her a hug when she arrived.
“That’s ok, there was some on the drive up.”
“But you should have seen it,” I said. “Everything was at least 100 times more beautiful.”
“It’s beautiful enough,” she said, with her standard measured smile.
“Have you visited the snow this season?”
“No, you know I haven’t.”
“We should find some. I went on a hike through Rock Creek recently. There’s probably snow there. What do you think? Want to go?”
“Sure, but I don’t have snow shoes.”
“I have an extra pair.”
“OK. Do we need chains?”
“Probably, let’s buy some.”
“Have you ever put them on?”
“No, but it can’t be too hard.”
“Ok…” she looked at me skeptically.
We purchased chains and drove up the mountain. By the time we got to Nevada City, we saw snow on the ground. Highway 20 began a steep incline and my mom looked out the window at the snow, which thoroughly covered the ground and trees.
“I know it’s cliche,” she said. “But this is a winter wonderland.”
We pulled off the highway and wrapped down narrow roads to the trailhead.
“The car is sliding!” my mom exclaimed as we drove down a steep stretch.
“Not that bad,” I said, completely unfazed.
“I hope we don’t get stuck on the way up,” she said.
“We won’t get stuck,” I wasn’t worried, having never driven in the snow. “We’re on an adventure, mom! A glamsient adventure.”
“Whatever that means,” she said.
“You would know if you read my blog,” I joked.
We pulled into the empty parking lot — the best kind at a trailhead.
“Look mom, yours are the only footsteps,” I called when she walked in front of me.
“Yes!” she made S-curves to revel in the novelty.
It amazed me to see her frolic. She is often serious and reserved, but in the snow she hopped and scampered. Effervescence infused her spirit. She patted snow together in her bare palms.
“Don’t throw it at me!” I said.
She threw it at a tree trunk and flashed a smile that I hadn’t seen since before my grandma got pneumonia and died.
“Can you tell there’s a lot of damage here?” I asked.
“Yes, but it’s all beautiful under the snow.”
We came to a blockade — a large, fallen tree that stretched across the entire path.
“Should we turn back?” my mom wondered.
“I climbed over it the other day.”
When we got to the other side, she asked me, “is there snow on my head?”
She went under a branch and shook it. “How about now?” she laughed.
I laughed along with her. She threw more snowballs at trees. We laughed when she missed her targets.
“Last time we were here, Kitten said the falling trees and branches are because of the drought.”
“Oh, yes. The forest service estimates that 1 in 3 trees in Californian forests have died from the drought.”
“I think it’s an underestimate,” she said. “We will see more damage. It takes years for the forests to return to good health.”
We walked along the creek, a new scenery with the snow, completely different than it had been in the rain. I even lost the trail in one section, although I didn’t tell my mom.
“The aquifers are mostly depleted in California,” my mom continued. “Since the 1930s, big agriculture since has run them dry.”
“That’s sad, mom.”
“Fresno has sunk some 20 or 30 feet because the aquifers below the city are empty.”
“I didn’t know that. Now I guess those aquifers are ruined.”
“It’s almost unimaginable how much humans have changed the earth.”
“Greed and ignorance,” I said.
At the end of our walk, we put chains on my car’s tires. It only took a dozen tries, and constant reference of the instructions, but we did it!
We climbed the hill at a low speed until we arrived at the steepest slope. My Mom gripped her seat while I stepped onto the gas and the car wobbled through slush.
“Come on, little car!” My confidence bottomed out when I felt the car lose traction. I had no idea what I was doing and it was time to admit that to my mom.
But then — by some strange magic — the tires gripped and took us out of the churned up road. The car felt steady again, slowly progressing.
“We made it, Mom!” I said.
“Yeah,” she sighed, somewhat sarcastically as relief washed over her face.
The next morning, she wanted to leave early to avoid the San Francisco Bay Area traffic.
“You know how it gets,” she said.
“I just wish you could stay longer.”
“I noticed you have a few dead trees on the property,” she said.
“The pine trees?”
“Yes, the tops are brown. A sign of drought damage.”
“Do you remember the giant oak in the middle of the meadow last time you were here.”
She looked as if she were trying to recall her last visit.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “It fell last summer. Did I tell you that story?”
“I don’t think so.”
“One night, I was reading in my room and I heard Shadow making strange noises outside. I called his name a couple times out the window, but he kept going. So I went downstairs and opened the door to see what was going on and there’s Shadow on the fence, looking towards the meadow. I called his name and tried to get him to come in, but he just kept staring towards the meadow and making weird noises. I got kind of creeped out thinking maybe there was something or someone out there.
“I went inside and when I was halfway up the stairs, I heard this loud, cracking sound and then an enormous thud, which shook the whole house! For a second, I couldn’t move. My heart was beating so fast. I had to check outside, but I couldn’t see that anything changed. It was so dark out and I didn’t want to go past the porch.
“The next morning I went outside and, sure enough, the giant oak had split at it’s lowest branch — right down the middle. The top half of the tree was on the ground and the rest of the trunk remained standing like a jagged obelisk. Aunt Marika and Uncle Rick were shocked when I told them.”
“Another drought death.”
“I don’t know. It looked like there was a hole and some rotting where the tree split. It looked like insects had gotten in and then water went in the hole.”
“That’s the drought, for you. The tree becomes distressed when it’s not getting enough water, and bugs can burrow into it.”
“It’s natural defenses are down.”
We finished our breakfast and I walked my mom to her car. We hugged and said goodbye, thank you for visiting, thank you for having me, come again soon. We waved as she pulled away.
I turned to the meadow and walked to the remaining chunks of the giant oak. Looking at the thick, moss-covered cylinders, I remembered the oak’s grand stature, a living connection to the past. Surely it had been alive before the United States became a country. Seeing it now, in only a few chunks and pieces, the majority hacked up and hauled away by neighbors for firewood, I remembered my young cousin’s reaction when she saw the tree had fallen. She grew up on the property and knew the oak — felt it’s presence — by the time she could walk.
I recalled her devastation. While my Aunt and Uncle surveyed the damage, my cousin climbed into the tree from the top where it rested on the ground, and walked through its branches towards its base; her face spoke of when her father set up a swing on its thickest branch, and the times she climbed it and found refuge in its branches like a secret hideaway. When she was ready, she found a place to sit, her back to me. She leaned against a branch, now vertical, pointing to the sky. She wrapped her arms around it; I approached her, and heard as the memories spilled softly from her eyes.