Off the trail: Swing State


Plunging one sandaled foot into the knee-deep snow, the other sliding on icy slush and mud, tired from the last two hours of the same, I was starting to dream about warm summer beaches.

I had climbed up this remote canyon north of Bridgeport last Saturday with the devil at my heels, running from winter, chasing gold.

It had snowed earlier that week—snowed hard, sharp, and deep in the Sierra high country, the first winter storm of the season. We went to bed in Mammoth Sunday night to the rush and crash of a true winter blizzard, cars stuck, visibility at zero—and we didn’t see the sun much for three days.

We awakened Thursday to a hot summer day, temperatures aiming toward the mid-sixties, snow piles still head-high in the parking lots of town.

By that Friday, the half-foot of clean snow on the ground was gone and emerald lawns, new-bright from the washing, looked like summer had never left.

It was enough to give anyone whiplash. But I still had one last, long-planned summer hike in me and when I left the trailhead Saturday afternoon for the broad and deep canyon that births the Little Walker River north of Bridgeport, I walked into the evening under a hot, bright sun and an indigo blue sky.

Wearing sandals.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Back and knee injuries have forced me to hike in unconventional footwear for years, and I was pushing summer, trying to avoid the heavier boots that cause problems.

Besides, I’d grown to love the freedom my Chaco sandals and Five Finger barefoot shoes give me. From Mammoth area snow depths, I figured the snow would top out at about five inches for just the last mile or so near the top of the pass between Burt Canyon and the canyon next door I hoped to hike out, Molybedenite Canyon.

But by the time I was a half mile from the bottom of the pass, the snow was knee-deep and my feet were blue and numb and it was 2 p.m., getting too late to cover the 15 miles between me and the trailhead before dark.

It was time for a retreat.

Headed home, back the way I had come, the snow gave way to hot ground and winter cold gave way to warm summer air. The last of the aspens, burnt brown now by the storm, trembled and crackled in the breeze—a skeleton’s whisper. 

An ebony black bear, startled by the scent of human in this little traveled canyon, shot up the ridge above me, hiding behind the pines as I skirted around her den site. A beaver slipped into its cold-water home; a mallard duck trailed silver lines on the calm surface of the pond. Green sedges lined the pond, insulated from the hard nightly freezes by the tempering influence of the warmer beaver ponds—but just beyond the edge of the water, the flowers and grasses were dead and brown.

Wednesday was All Hallow’s Eve, Hallowe’en, Samhain. In the Old World, it was the night when the veil between the worlds, the physical and the spiritual, was thinnest: the time when souls could travel most freely between both.

To the Celts, it was the last day of the old year, the ending of the season, a time of transition from summer’s bounty to winter’s scarcity.  It was a time of great celebration, for making it through another year, and of great trepidation, for not knowing what the cold days would bring.

It’s like that here. All the science, all the computer modeling in the world, cannot tell us what will happen this winter, when it will come to stay, how steady it will be.

Poised on the hard sharp edge between summer and winter, caught between one state of being and another, we, like the beaver, the bear and our ancestors, can do nothing now.

And so, we wait.