Word count: 1,174
The trail is marked by hoof prints and pungent piles left by saddle horses and pack mules, reminders that the Elk hunt is on. Just two weeks ago the mountains were decked out in their fall finery. The aspens were still green on the ridge tops, but lower down they shimmered light green, brisk yellow, and burnt orange. Scrub oaks dotted the slopes with living reds, and the aspen’s canopy was pierced by alpine firs, the forest greens of the living, and the rust browns and silent grays of the dead and long dead beetle killed. But two weeks in the high country can be a whole season, and now the fir’s vivid greens stand out against the stark, white, skeletal outlines of hibernating aspens. The leaden sky, while not yet threatening, feels confining and foreboding. The willows are bare and brown, and the grasses by the creek have turned straw. Frost covers the pine shadowed ground till noon, and there’s a change in the air; it’s not quite nippy yet, but you wouldn’t want to spend the night up here without a fire. When the Sun does break through, if you can get out of the wind, it’s warm and pleasant.
It’s strange to think how much this little valley is about to change. Any day now, penetrating, joint-numbing cold will settle over the range, and these hushed valleys will gently fill with snow. Brooding mountains will stand silent sentinel till spring, the only witnesses to the struggles of winter kill and the splintering crack of frozen pine.
In a month, to be where I am now on foot would mean certain death. I doubt I would put up much of a fight. There would be an event, maybe a broken strap on a snowshoe. I’d pull off my gloves and fumble with the repair. I’d take too long in the biting wind, my fingers would get numb and my sweat dampened underwear would begin to freeze—the shivering would start. I’d circle looking for wood to start a fire, get tired, sit down to rest, and wonder why I left my gloves by the trail. I’d become disinterested, hear people talking, perhaps call out to them—the shivering would stop. The cold would become warm and I’d rip at my clothes (a phenomenon called paradoxical undressing), lie down in the snow, surrounded by the lost, in the eternal embrace of the snow queen.
All of my life she has come to me in dreams, always walking before me, never letting me see her face. She wears a long, flowing, low-cut dress that sparkles like wind-blown snow in moon light. Her long black hair sways with her stride, brushing alabaster skin, and the muscles of her back ripple, forming shadows and dimples that stay just out of reach. I struggle to catch up to her and see her face. I know that if I could just see her face, if she would just turn around, I’d be able to recognize her and find her—I would know. But I awake with the key to her identity unrevealed.
For days after the dream I look for her, and every long haired shapely brunette fills me with hope. She fades for a time; weeks, months, sometimes years go by, then she comes in the night, and the search begins again. But it’s a hopeless quest—her beauty cannot be found in the natural world. I came up here looking for her last winter.
I pushed my way in as far as I could until my lungs stung from the crystalized air and my thighs burned from lurching through three-foot deep snow. My breath came short, sharp, and frosted, and my heart pounded in my ears. I had brought nothing with me, no way to start a fire, no power-bars, no water. I looked back and could no longer see the truck, and blowing snow had already covered my backtracks. I knew if I kept going it would be a one way trip.
I had been there many times in the spring, summer, and fall, but the covering of snow made it unfamiliar, and the canyon looked new and unexplored. I looked up the snowy pass and could make out the trail only because I knew it was there, an unbroken line of snow that snaked up and out of sight. I knew she must be up there, but you can’t see her from the trailhead; she never comes down that far. She stays above the timberline, where snow trails to nothing from wind scoured peaks.
I looked up the trail one last time, hoping to see her on the next rise, afraid that I was too far gone not to see her. I would have followed her, watching her long dark hair swaying over the dimples in her back. We were both young the first time she came to me in that dream, but I have grown old while she has remained young. I thought if I could find her, we would walk until I was young again and no longer felt the cold. But I have never been able to will her presence, so I turned back, hoping she would come to me again in the night.
I’m certain she must come to others in dreams as well, or they would not have followed. I read about them in the paper. They leave a trail of discarded clothing and are found naked in the snow—always naked.
I read about a 13 year old boy who had been taken from his family, school, and friends, brought over the mountain and placed in foster care. He was lonely and missed his girlfriend, so he took off one night in a snow storm trying to get back over the mountain to see her. He left a note detailing his struggle adjusting to his new school, his disconnect with the hardline religious community that he’d been thrust into, and his homesickness and loneliness. Search parties were sent out and volunteers from neighboring counties fanned out with ATVs and horses, but they never picked up his trail. They found him in the spring, curled up under a cedar tree, brittle and bent, shrouded in his pathetic, lightweight jacket—his foster family had thoughtfully provided him with the words of their “prophet,” but not a winter coat.
I think people who say freezing is an easy way to go have never been truly cold; I have, it hurts. I’ve sat shivering, soaked through, unable to feel my hands and feet, unable to think clearly enough to perform the basic tasks necessary for survival. But I got lucky, and the cosmic law of the mountains that demands dumbass come full circle and be fatal was suspended for me that day.
I hope the young man found his snow queen that bitter, snowy night, and that her face was familiar when she turned to embrace him. I hope he did not suffer long.
© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.