Bitter truths

Special to The Times

I spent my childhood learning how to disappear, which served me well except for the time I swam out toward a raft in Lake Tahoe and found the cold water had driven the air from my lungs and the strength from my limbs. I was going to sink like a stone. The water was very clear and blue, and there were pines on the shore, and the sun was out. I could see the depths to which I was going to sink, a nice tan gravel bed about 15 or 20 feet below my pale blue feet.

I was halfway between an anchored raft and the shore when the paralysis set in, and I made feeble dog paddling movements for a little while until I realized there was no other option and started to make them back to the shore. Somehow I got there. I don't know where the ability came from. It was one of the coldest moments in my life, and my parents and brothers missed it entirely. I must have been 8 or 9.

That was cold, but it gets colder. People think of California as a warm place, and the same people think its great divide is north-south. It's divided the other way, with the warmth, the cities and the liberals all on the coast, and up in the heights of the Sierra are some of the coldest places I know, the places where the snow accumulates and feeds the rivers out of which a whole lot of us drink.

My friends who live in Soda Springs, up by Donner Pass, park on the main road in winter and walk up to their house in long corridors carved through the snow in one of the snowiest — but far from coldest — places in the U.S. I've stayed there when the snow comes partway up the ground-floor windows and the icicles hang down several feet like the glorious glassy fangs of winter itself.

But nothing in California is as cold as the places I only know from stories, the extraordinary realms of polar and high-altitude explorers whose eyebrows drip icicles or who end up littering Everest like human popsicles, the ordinary realms of Maine fishermen or Manitoba schoolgirls in winter who persevere calmly in incredible cold.

— Rebecca Solnit


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