Winter did not come in on little cat feet this year. In Sawtooth Valley, we went from bare ground to 14 inches of windblown snow in a day. Then we had two cold nights. Our lowest temperature was minus 21. Folks downriver in Lower Stanley reported minus 25. Snow doesn't stick to roads in that sort of cold. The highway department's snowplows blew treetop-high plumes of powder as they went by the house, putting a two-foot-high berm in the mouth of our driveway.
But the snowblower started with the first pull. I spent two hours delineating our winter stomping grounds: a] Narrow paths snaked out to the compost heap, the woodpile and my writing studio. b] The driveway cleaned and banked. c] The outline of a good-sized skating rink in the back yard. If Julie and I ever get serious about our two-person semi-pro checking-allowed hockey league, it will be iced and ready by January.
Snowblowing becomes archaeology. I found—after some unexpected violence—a few sticks of misplaced firewood, a shovel and rake, and a length of forgotten garden hose. I replaced a shear pin and put the snowblower away. Then I started pulling ski equipment out of the garage.
More archaeology. Last spring's mud still clung to ski boots. Last season's battered skis needed restored. Parkas, turtlenecks and long underwear needed to be unpacked from storage, shaken out and declared warm enough for another season. Avalanche beacons and radios needed batteries. Skins needed to be checked to see if their glue would still stick to skis. Gloves had to be matched up, because no matter how carefully I put them away in April, they always get separated by November. Daypacks had to be replenished with new first-aid gear, headlamps, emergency blankets, candles and matches.
Every year I tell myself I'll tune skis during the warm days of early October, so I can work in the garage instead of having to bring the ski bench into the kitchen and fill the house with the chemical stink of melting P-Tex. But every year there's snow on the ground and 20 below on the thermometer before I start repairing bases, flat-filing and waxing. It's understandable. The cold hits with a life-and-death urgency. Tuned skis become part of the same constellation of survival as the snowblower and the woodpile.
In November, the place we live becomes lethal to the unprepared. Most of the tourists, including the ones with guns, leave. The valley loses its motorcycles. The hum of generators no longer pervades its campgrounds. Lakeshores no longer echo with the snarl of outboards, and the long noisy line waiting for breakfast at the Stanley Bakery evaporates. Bars close. Restaurants go dark. A warm, nurturing Ma Nature becomes cold, withholding and silent, indicating, with varying degrees of subtlety, that she'd kill you if she could.
It's a peaceful world if a deadly one. If you understand that any mistake you make will not be forgiven, you can go out into it, climb its mountains and ski its untracked powder. With luck return home to a warm woodstove, a warmer toddy, a yet warmer dinner and a good book. Minor pleasures are magnified by solitude, silence, clear air and the awareness that the self that witnesses all these things is both arbitrary and temporary.
Go outside on a cloudless night and you'll see the Milky Way, dangerously close. Drifting crystalline ice glints between its frozen stars. Stand there for five minutes and you'll become convinced you're standing in the only warm, life-filled place in the universe, and it's not as warm and life-filled as you thought it was. Stand there for 10 minutes—but you won't stand there for 10 minutes.
That's the old story, anyway.
As I write this, it's raining. No stars are visible on this night. The Arctic air mass that spilled into Idaho has been pushed out by a warm Pacific flow. Our 14 inches of snow has compacted to a half-foot of slush. Bare patches haven't appeared in the driveway, but it's only a matter of time. I've had the sudden absurd worry that every logging truck or snowplow that goes by on the highway is really a roaring flock of motorcycles.
Other worries: that January will see kayaks bobbing in an unfrozen Salmon River. Motorhomes lining the streets of Stanley. Backpackers streaming into the warm-shadowed Sawtooths. Willows greening with new leaf, and butterflies dancing in dim winter sunlight. Angry singer-songwriters haranguing the crowds at Redfish about the perfidy of ex-lovers.
Upon reflection, I've decided Ma Nature has concluded that freezing us out isn't going to work, and has switched to psychological warfare. She's going to bring Boise weather to Sawtooth Valley. So we'll sit under an inversion for the next two months, choking on our own effluent. The recent chill was just to get the inversion started.
Perfectly good skis will stay garaged. We will complain about the gray and empty sky, and stream gloomy Scandinavian police procedurals on Netflix. We'll wait for the real heat of July, when kudzu will start smothering the few lodgepole that have escaped beetlekill.
Probably too much to read into a warm spell. Probably we're being softened up for 50 below nights in early December. With that in mind, Julie and I are hoping for a break in the clouds. We'll put on T-shirts and shorts, grab a Frisbee and head for Redfish to check out the beach.