I carry him on my back uphill. A broken pelvis, healed without intervention, disabled his body long before he was mine. Cool green manzanita leaves and prickly pine needles shake off their snow like birds in a bath. Beside them, I march; enjoying each boulder, each seed-bearing cone, each sage brush adorning snow. I slouch under dull pain in my shoulders. I had thought for years to train for backpacking, but never enough to start — until this disabled body showed up wanting the adventure as much as I.
Behind gauzy clouds, the sun moves through a sky that morphs from bright to dark almost without warning. I check my watch. We’ve arrived at nowhere-in-particular and must return downhill. I relinquish my body from the backpack, careful not to tip him.
His feet, wrapped in miniature booties, make miniature crunches on the snow-turned-ice. Perfectly timed to my pattering heart, evermore delighted with each mini-crunch. His steps a staccato. My strides: the baseline. Sloshing where snow and earth made mud. In one bright streak — a comet’s trail — still water reflects the sun that warms our backs, both covered in fleece. He looks back at me, checking on me, flashing his wide, toothless smile.
When I wonder too long, his mystery past roots sadness in my heart to guess. The only certainty: a guardian angel plucked him from death row. And here we are now, his steps and mine, crunching ice in booties and boots. Living our destiny.
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.
As if drawn by a magnet, Linney and JC returned to Tahoe National Forest last week. Lucky enough to have some free time, I joined them one afternoon at the Jackson Meadows parking lot, roughly 20 minutes outside of Truckee. Linney and JC had brought all their dogs — four total, three of which belong to Linney. The dogs greeted me first with huge smiles and wagging tails.
JC stared at my car while we said hello. “Re-park your car and jump into Linney’s. Yours won’t make it to the lake; the road requires four wheel drive and clearance.”
“Re-park? But why?” I looked around at the vacant lot. “Do you think there’s suddenly going to be a rush of people?”
“You’re not even in a spot,” JC said sarcastically.
“How can you tell? There aren’t any lines.”
“You’re in the middle of the whole parking lot. Just — move to the side or something.”
I acquiesced and parked on the periphery in sight of the freeway; at least it gave me the idea that I was moving it for safety’s sake.
With all the gear and dogs, there would be no way to take just one car. Linney and I got into hers and JC led the way.
“Another adventure curated by our chaperone,” Linney beamed.
I have no way of knowing how long it took us to drive the rocky, uneven road. Linney and I were too busy catching up with our latest news and admiring Lacey Meadows to notice the time. Stretching the entire length of the valley below us, the meadow was only interrupted by a winding creek. The dirt road veered to the right and climbed the mounting, moving into a thick forest.
At last, we reached the campgrounds. We turned to the right and followed as the narrow road navigated between tall pines cloaked with lime-green moss. When we got to the end of the campgrounds, JC parked his car. We stepped out onto the ground, speckled with sunlight and made soft with pine needles. The dogs took off into the forest in wild bursts.
“This is beautiful,” Linney said as we walked towards the lake. “I feel like I’m in that book, The Hatchet.”
I listened to the small, frequent waves created by the wind. The gentle lapping at the shore soothed me. With the sunbeams glistening on the waves, they created bright sparkles of light. I felt effervescent, yet calm.
“Let’s go to the other side and get out of the wind,” JC said. “Last time I was here this was the side without wind. If we’re going to chill here for a bit we don’t want to be blown all over the place. It’s not relaxing.”
Once the dogs were collected, we got into the cars and turned around. Making our way back to the entrance, we continued along the road until we got to the restrooms. JC stopped his car and jumped out. He walked over to a large, brown box.
“What is he doing?” Linney asked.
“I could not tell you.”
“Remember I said I only had one shoe?” JC called out to us as he lifted a shoe from the box and laughed.
“Did he just take that shoe?” I asked Linney.
“I wonder if that’s his size. He said he was missing a shoe,” she said.
“This is very confusing.”
We ruminated over the shoe incident, searching for meaning, until we parked.
When we reconvened, JC explained: “I saw the shoe and laughed, thinking, ‘look some idiot left their shoe.’ And then I realized it’s mine!”
“That’s your shoe? Your actual shoe?” I asked.
“Yeah, I was here a few days ago — I wasn’t sure where I’d lost it. It’s the best hiking shoe. Light and breathable, but totally waterproof. It’s a $140 pair of shoes, so really, that’s a $70 find!”
“Well, no, that’s a $140 find because what are you gonna do with one shoe?” I asked.
Linney walked on a log into the lake.
“This isn’t creek-fed,” JC told me. “It’s a natural occurring glacial lake. Theres a more fun, scientific term: moraine, moraine dammed, something. This is an incredibly pristine lake.”
“It wins the Most Pristine Award,” Linney called with an air of elegance.
“It got a 96 on the Pristine Scale,” JC riffed. “Linney be careful. That mud is gnarly. If you step into it you’ll go up to your knees.”
Linney came back to the shore and we began to walk around the lake.
“Is that your fishing pole?” JC pointed to the ground. “Dude, somebody left a really nice fishing pole.”
“Mine now,” Linney said.
“Linney it’s your new fishing pole, I found it for you,” JC insisted sarcastically.
“Shouldn’t we leave it on the box like your shoe? What if they come back?” I asked.
“Nobody would come back for that,” JC said.
“Do you have a fishing pole, Linney?” I asked.
“I used to,” Linney said. “And then JC borrowed it forever.”
“No, no, I didn’t borrow it forever.”
I inspected the pole closely, “oh look, it even comes with bait!”
“Brand new,” JC said. “You can tell from the zip tie on there. Brand new zip tie.”
“There’s a question you always gotta ask, you know, when you find something,” I said. “Did you manifest this or are you stealing? I think a pole in the woods you’re manifesting it.”
“We don’t have to feel like we have to give back just because the shoe was there,” JC said. “The shoe — the shoe is its own independent thing.”
“With bait included,” Linney said. “Although, I feel like I should pass. I’ll leave it for someone further on the -sient side of glamsient.”
“Oh my God. The dogs are so stoked right now. I knew they’d love it here,” JC smiled.
The older dogs bounded through tall grasses in the meadow and the younger dogs plodded through the mud in the lake picking up their legs one at a time, stained with three or four inches of mud.
“I was telling JC I feel like I should be on some horseback ride through the countryside with them, fox hunting or something. They look like such fancy, weird little dogs,” Linney smiled at me.
“They need little top hats. Or you need a top hat if you’re going fox hunting,” I said.
“Oh this is super epic,” JC pointed to the sky. “Abalone-vagina clouds. When they get the ripple and the waves and the rainbow in them like that. I call them abalone-vagina.”
I admired the rainbow in the cloud. “That’s so cool! You could just call them abalone clouds.”
“Yeah,” Linney agreed. “You could totally just call them abalone clouds.”
“No because the ripple isn’t the same as the abalone. It’s the curviness, too. It’s the waviness –”
“Abalone have ripples,” I said.
“Accept the beauty of the yoni as a cloud, OK? Jesus Christ.”
“Sorry, I’m just a little sensitive with all this Trump –”
“Pussy grabbing,” Linney finished.
“Yeah, that has absolutely nothing to do with how I appreciate clouds and abalones and yonis all at once.”
We sat at a picnic table.
“Hey, look at this little bonsai tree,” JC motioned to a small pine.
Linney looked around, “there are so many little bonsai trees. I love them.” She stood up and walked to her car to get snacks.
“I have little baby trees growing in my garden and I’m not going to rip them out. I want little bonsai like these,” I said.
“No, take them out,” JC said. “They’ll take over your garden.”
“But they’re so cute.”
“You can transplant them into a pot. And make them a bonsai.”
“Just put them in a pot and then you gotta learn how to shape them. I mean, if you want to cheat you could dig one of these up — it’s horti-torture, you’re ruining it’s life. Taking a beautiful tree, but –”
“No, no, no. These stay here. In their home. I have ones I can use. I’m not going to ruin some wild tree’s life. Like, ‘Come back to my garden and be my Frankenstein.'” I said in an evil voice.
“‘Take you from your family and hold you hostage in a little, teeny, shitty clay pot,'” JC joked.
“This is a sad conversation to have on Indigenous People’s Day.”
“At least we’re celebrating Indigenous People’s Day at the beautiful, untouched, pristine lake,” JC said. “I would not, however, call this place Lake of the Woods. It’s a horrible name. I would call it the moist cove or something to do with –”
“Moist cove?” I asked. “No one likes that word.”
“I know you hate that word,” JC laughed. “Moist bay?”
“No, no moist is the word we want to get rid of.”
“Land of Special Water.”
“Land of Sacred Water — or Ancient Water.”
“Yeah, because there’s water here and it doesn’t come from a stream. There’s magically water here. Do you see how the grasses here are super green and perfect?”
“I honestly can’t believe this is a free campground. And it’s completely empty. We’re literally the only ones here.”
Linney laughed at her dogs as she walked back to us, “they’re amped. They’re having so much fun.”
“They should be,” I said. “Look at this place!”
“The wind through pine trees sounds like the waves of the ocean,” Linney said.
Taking a moment to listen, I closed my eyes and realized the truth of her observation.
After a few beers and some chips and salsa, we drove out of the campground as the sun was setting and made our way to Graegle where JC had rented a cabin.
In the morning, Linney and I left early; we wanted to stop in Truckee for coffee and breakfast.
Driving along Highway 89 in the early morning light through Sierraville felt like magic. Yellowing aspen with leaves fluttering in the wind heralded the season. Quaint, rustic farms with historic buildings from the gold rush era marked every bucolic turn. Many had wrap-around porches and weather panes. Dilapidated sheds, cows, sheep, and pine trees made homes in the valley that sprawled between mountains on all sides. We saw hawks and geese and drove along a creek that is so picturesque, I know I have to come back in a couple weeks.
Peaceful beauty, undisturbed by humans, is the magnetic force — I realized — that brought Linney and JC back for more.