Snowshoeing into the Silver Kingdom with my best friend
Reporter seeks adventure to become travel writer
The meadow was as wide as the Colorado River, as long as Manhattan and ran east-west across the top of Cedar Mountain. The meadow was bordered on its northern and southern edges with pine trees and quaking aspens. During a picnic there the previous summer, my girlfriend Amy suggested we name the place Sylvan Canyon because the long meadow lay like a canyon floor between the tall walls of pines and aspens.
That had been in June or July. It was now February and the meadow was covered in deep snow, and the snow was covered with a thin rime of ice, like the crust of a crème brulee. When we walked across it, it cracked beneath our snowshoes with a very satisfactory crackly crunch.
My friend Brian Jensen and I carried our camping gear from my car, across the snowy meadow and searched along the meadow’s southern side until we found a protected little elbow among the trees where we could pitch our tent for the night.
When we found a spot we liked, we dropped our backpacks in the snow and walked in a circle packing down the snow with our snowshoes.
On the north sides of the trees — where they’d been untouched by the sun for weeks — frost covered the bare branches of the aspens like antlers in velvet.
The February sun was near setting as we finished pitching our tent and it tinted the wide, snowy meadow that lay before us the pale pink of zinfandel. We placed our backpacks inside the tent, then strode out into the pale pink, snowy meadow.
Our long, long sunset shadows extended all the way across the long snowy meadow and it seemed to us that if we raised our arms, we might be able to reach our shadows to the far eastern horizon. So we tried it, sometimes jumping as best we could in snowshoes, and our shadows very nearly reached it. And then a most interesting thing happened. While we were stretching, trying to reach our shadows to the eastern horizon the sun went down behind us and our shadows snapped off, clean as if by a switch. And then, almost simultaneous to that, the full moon rose before us, and re-lit our shadows — though not as fully as had the sun — and kicked them behind us to the western horizon, where they lay midnight blue lines across a frost blue canvas of snow.
The phenomenon was one the most intriguing moments of my young life. I would think about that event for years to come.
“Well, wow!” I said to Brian. “That was pretty cool!”
Our reason for being on this beautiful, snow-covered, moonlit meadow was because I was “on assignment,” in a manner of speaking, for one of my college writing classes — it was either feature writing for one of my journalism classes, or non-fiction prose writing for one of my English classes — and I thought a night spent snowshoeing and snow camping in the woods would provide enough interesting material for my 1,500 word assignment. And Brian had come with me because he was my best friend; he joined me on nearly any adventure I proposed.
“Well . . .” I said to Brian.
“This is your gig,” he said. “I’m just happy to be here.”
“Well, I think we’ll just walk around and look around until l find something worth writing about,” I replied.
“Shouldn’t be too hard,” he said. “Lead the way.”
I walked farther out into the meadow and turned east, walking toward the moon, into the silver kingdom, with frost blue shadows.
The meadow wasn’t perfectly flat, but had smoothly rolling hills, like ocean waves beyond the break. The moonlight fell across the snow in a long, skinny trail; long and thin as a giraffe’s neck. We hadn’t gone far before we came upon some rabbit tracks, and we followed them across the snow.
They started off going in a straight line, then they made sudden, hard, zig-zag turns and then just — poof! — they disappeared.
There was no hole that the rabbit could have run into. It was kind of a mystery.
We walked closer and leaned over the spot where the tracks ended and on closer inspection we saw the subtle imprint on the snow where the wings of a raptor had swooped down and snatched the rabbit away.
I led us east for 90 minutes or so, the moon rising quickly, eventually rising high enough to reveal Orion which had been behind it the entire time, but hidden behind its glare.
Because I’d be writing about this night for one of my classes, I noted the way the chilly air pinched at our cheeks, the way the Milky Way burned through the cold sky like a cosmic contrail, how the stars seemed so close I felt I could undo my hatchet and run its blade across the roof of the sky and scrape a swath of them into my hand, easy as scraping frost off the windshield.
After walking 90 minutes to the east, we turned around and returned to camp, where we made a campfire and warmed ourselves while our tinfoil dinners cooked on the coals.
By 9:30, our snow-top fire had melted about two feet into the snow, and Brian and I were tired enough to go to bed. Brian and I and had been snow camping many times together, had, in fact, learned the delicate art of snow camping together, through much trial and much error, and by then, a couple years into it, we had developed a pretty good system. We unzipped and laid open two sleeping bags on the tent floor, each crawled inside our own mummy bag, then spread another open sleeping bag over us.
I lie there in my sleeping bag, far from tired. In fact there had been few times in my life when l felt more exhilarated!
I kept thinking back over the events of the last few hours, and the several magical moments we had experienced: witnessing our shadows pendulate across the snow flipped between sunlight and moonlight, following the rabbit tracks until they vanished inside a subtle circle of wingtip-brushed snow, the Milky Way bright as a white-sand peninsula, and the beautiful stars close enough to scrape off with a hatchet blade and reliving it with my best friend as we warmed ourselves by the campfire.
And, of course, I couldn’t help thinking, “I almost didn’t do this.” Snow camping is a huge pain in the butt.
You have to get all the gear together, you have to get time off work, and then there’s always some point during the adventure when you’re shivering in the cold.
I’m so glad I made myself do it, I thought to myself.
In the span of two hours, I had seen three of the most amazing sights of my life. I was also very happy that Brian had joined me. Sharing such magical moments with a friend makes them even more magical.
Looking back, I can see that the events of that night served as a kind of career aptitude test. From the time I was 16 years old I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but after the experiences of that night, I knew I wanted to be an outdoor feature writer. I wanted to be the next Tim Cahill, or Randy Wayne White.
I knew that I wanted to experience a lifetime full of experiences as amazing and grand as that night. I wanted a life of maps and compasses, trails and rivers, snow and mud, flowery meadows and snowy fields. I wanted a Zippo and pocketknife, a pencil and notebook in my pockets.
A hiking staff in my hand and a backpack on my back. Desert clarity and jungle vapor. Tents and campfires. Jeeps and Labradors. Frost-covered axe handles and dust-covered boots.
And most of all, I wanted to achieve the ability to express those experiences in words.
As I lie in my sleeping bag, Brian sawing logs beside me, my imagination was playing scenarios of what could be. Could it be possible to write about an event such as the one tonight, in such a marvelous way that some magazine somewhere would pay me to do it for a living? If I could only make that leap I could spend the rest of my life moving from one adventure to the next.
OK, then. That’s the plan. That’s the goal. The idea of it made me kind of dizzy.
The next night, when I was back home, warm and cozy in a comfortable chair reading about Tim Cahill’s latest adventure in Outside, I couldn’t help thinking, “What amazing thing did I miss today, what am I missing right now, because I’m not out there.”