The morning sky has not yet begun to lighten as the truck bounces over the white, moonlit ground, tires sinking nearly to the rim in deep, snowy ruts.
To the west, Laurel Mountain and Mt. Morrison are limned in light, stars brilliant, waiting.
Tomorrow, when the sun rises, the days will begin to lengthen, one minute more every morning, one minute more every evening, every day until the Summer Solstice in June when the cycle reverses.
But not today.
Today is the shortest day of the year and tonight will be the longest night of the year. It is the day of the Winter Solstice, and the Eastern Sierra is still plunged deep into the very heart of winter, poised, breathless, waiting.
Driving silently through the white, heater struggling to keep up with the eight-degree morning, thick fog rises from Crowley Lake and obscures the road past the narrow beam of headlights. White drifts beat against the tire tracks, and the rabbitbrush and sage lining the gravel road is little more than a faint hint of branch and leaf under a white blanket.
Parking the truck, the tight beam of the headlamp illuminates a boardwalk trail curving up a slight hill, white and silver, disappearing into the mist.
I grab a towel and a thick robe and call to the collie dogs that trail me everywhere. We plunge out of the warm car and into the icy dark morning, shocked, alive, awake at last.
The hot spring at the top of the little hill is grace itself, steaming, shimmering in the mist like the Promised Land. The water is gloriously hot, biting at cold skin after the icy walk, sending huge plumes of steam into the cold air.
Sinking in, immersed, it’s a waiting game now. It has been a long winter already—cold and dark and difficult and tomorrow, the days begin to get longer, the nights to get shorter. Waiting a little longer in the silent morning for the sun to rise on this last, darkest day is something I can do.
Suddenly, the silence breaks. It sounds like the wind coming to earth, all rush and lift and flex. I look up, toward the sound, and there, a foot above my head, a white heron glides over the tub, wings as wide as I am tall, parting the fog like a dream. She turns in mid-flight, as startled by me as I am by her, her fierce golden eyes meeting mine, then continues on her way; whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.
I sink back into the water, breathless. A moment later, another heron, gleaming white in the rising, glides over the tub, just inches above the water.
Again we trade startled glances, again a white heron glides on into the morning, again I am breathless.
Moments later, the sun strikes the tub, parting the mist into pearl and lavender and gold, painting the water the color of the sky.
In the Old World, when calendars still followed the sun and moon, and not the Roman gods, today would be New Year’s Eve; tomorrow, New Year’s Day. Our ancestors marked this day with feast and fire, giving thanks for what they had, praying for what they yet longed for.
They didn’t know, then, that the solstice is an astronomical event, caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis, and its motion in orbit around the sun (according to the website EarthSky.org). They didn’t know that because Earth doesn’t orbit upright, but is instead tilted on its axis by 23.5 degrees, Earth’s Northern and Southern Hemispheres trade places in receiving the sun’s light and warmth most directly. The tilt of the Earth—not our distance from the sun— is what causes winter and summer. At the December solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is leaning most away from the sun for the year.
They only knew that, from tomorrow forward, the deep, dark winter would only get less deep, less dark and so, they celebrated.
Tomorrow, like they did, I will welcome the sunrise of the new year, take a deep and grateful and fearful breath, and once again, begin anew.