Going to the snow
Peter and I were co-conspirators, high school buddies just home from college and drinking our fill of everything California. Being outdoorsy types, or at least aspiring outdoorsy types, that meant we wanted to savor the ocean and the mountains and everything we hadn’t savored enough as kids.
All summer long, after graduation, we’d worked on our rock-climbing skills, and when the first fall swells spun down from the Gulf of Alaska, we’d struggled to clean up our surfing chops. Now, with good snow coverage in the Sierra backcountry, it was time to complete our personal triumvirate of essential Californian experiences: Our first-ever overnight ski tour, with the skinny, metal-edged boards that were popular back then. We sat on the sunbaked steps of the mountaineering store where we worked, wearing shorts and T-shirts, and plotted a weekend jaunt into the wide-open backcountry bowls near the U.S. Forest Service facility known as the Peter Grubb Hut. You had to reserve beds to sleep inside, and people booked the hut months in advance, but we figured we’d camp nearby and at least take comfort in the added safety of having other people around.
By the next morning, a Friday, we were motoring up Interstate 80, toward the snow. That’s right, toward the snow because the coast was still balmy and redolent with golden winter light and the coastal mountains gleamed an Irish green, the way they only do in midwinter and early spring. The Central Valley cued winter only insofar as air-conditioning wasn’t a life-or-death necessity, and wildflowers already speckled the lower Sierra foothills, teased out by the first back-and-forth between warm sun and fertilizing rain.
Higher up in the evergreen forest, we finally saw the first white patches in the trees; later still, snow appeared along the road and we began to see eastbound cars with snow piled on their roofs. Then snow appeared on the high peaks and then absolutely everywhere. Stepping out of the car, still in shorts and T-shirts, we shivered wildly and pulled on full winter survival gear. It was only noon when we shouldered our packs, glanced up at swirling new storm clouds and huffed and puffed into the trees.
I loved the clean whiteness and pristine silence from the get-go and couldn’t resist a few celebratory snowballs. I didn’t mind the alarmingly heavy snowfall, either, because it was all such a glorious lark and a novelty. Nor could I suppress a happy laugh when I saw the hut. Only the sloped roof and chimney stuck up from the soft white blanket of the snowbound meadow, and massive and eminently ski-able slopes filled the stormy sky all around. Here I was, only a few hours from home and only a few miles off the interstate, and I might as well have been in some folkloric dream of the medieval Alps. And then, as we opened the cabin door, the dream came partly true. Not a soul was there, and the storm we’d just skied into meant they wouldn’t be arriving anytime soon.
For the next three days, Peter and I hiked through hip-deep powder to make airy turns in the trees, we made hot soup for lunch, and we dried our socks by roaring fires at night, nursing our hot chocolate. Never, in my whole life, have I slept better than I did in the bunk beds of the Peter Grubb Hut, with a blizzard blowing through the wilderness outside.
HOLLYWOOD screenwriters often borrow from the so-called hero’s journey, an archetypal plot arc common to myths the world over and articulated by Joseph Campbell. One of the first stages of that journey, after the hero resists an initial call to adventure (think of Luke Skywalker telling Obi Wan, in the original “Star Wars,” that he can’t possibly join the rebellion), is the hero’s crossing a threshold into the special world of the adventure. Dorothy, for example, in “The Wizard of Oz,” tumbling through that tornado and right into Oz.
Snow, for all of us lowland Californians, and the drive to and fro serve much the same delightful purpose. Living year-round in an exquisitely benign climate, we feel that we’ve crossed some magical boundary as soon as the world beyond the windshield turns bright white and frigid. The sun seems brighter, the air more refreshing, the cedar smell almost intoxicating in its sweetness. Bitter cold feels like a playful novelty -- “Hey, I can finally wear my down jacket for real!” -- and once we’re done with our annual frolic, once we’ve thrown our annual snowballs and carved our annual turns and sipped our annual Irish coffees, we can cross that threshold in the other direction and drive right back to the beach.
I lived in upstate New York for years, and I do remember lovely moments, like glancing out the window during a dinner party only to realize that a heavy snowfall had begun in utter silence. Walking home, on nights like that, with perfect snowflakes forming on my girlfriend’s hair, was pure magic. But I also recall month after month of gloomy, gray skies and leafless trees and half-melted snow making such a black, murky slush that I positively rejoiced when I finally got to move home. Needless to say, I’m still here.