Cold is Good, Cold is Truth
Christmas Over, Winter Sets InIt is so good for Christmas to be over.
Christmas is a holiday for most Americans that has simply gotten out of hand. It is too large to control. It is just too much. Sometime around late October or early November, Christmas seems like a good idea. It seems like it would be a nice time. Then, about a month later, reality sets in, and sets in hard. Pretty soon, Christmas just isn't that much fun. Before it even happens we wish it were over.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Christmas is that so little of it is actually Christmas.True Christmas lasts about ten minutes a year. Maybe when a kid sings 'Silent Night,' or maybe when someone opens a present and for a moment doesn't know what to say, or maybe the ripe smell of cranberry salsa or the sight of a wreath on the grill of an 18-wheeler or a late night of family games or maybe when a stranger goes out of her way to be kind to you. But those moments are fleeting. The rest of it? What does it have to do with anything? The homes strangled with blinking lights, the lawns punctuated with six foot tall fiberglass nutcrackers, the plastic lollipops hanging from lightposts downtown, the faux presents adorning a faux tree in the insurance salesman's office. All of that. What is it for?
I had a new Christmas moment this year - sleighriding. Few things are more benevolent and true and peaceful than a small town smothered under three feet of new snow. Little mountain towns don't have to dress up for Christmas, they just have to be. Utah.com had its Christmas party this year at the Homestead in Heber City. Heber is a small working town back of the Wasatch and is home to Soldier Hollow, where the 2002 Winter Olympics cross-country events will be held. We arrived at dark and wound through the streets covered with ice and snow and drove to the inn, which was buried in new snow. After dinner, with blankets tucked to our necks, we took a sleigh ride into the darkness, under a canopy of trees, over and along an icy creek and back. It was a clear, brutally cold night, and the stars above shone in a sort of absolute coldness, absolute brightness. It was Christmas.
Here in northern Utah, we all got two big Christmas gifts. On Christmas Eve snow fell, blanketing the valleys and canyons and mountains. Then, the fog set in.
Fog is perhaps the worst weather accouterment to northern Utah. The fog sets up on long cold winter nights when the humidity is high and snow is on the ground. It starts out on Great Salt Lake and spreads each day further and further afield; after a week it can easily stretch from the Idaho border to the Nevada border, south along the Wasatch Mountains and all the way to Fillmore and central Millard County. Out in the country it is plain white thick suffocating fog that obscures everything - houses, taillights, trees, dogs taken on walks. In the city, it mixes with tailpipe emissions and creates a nasty toxic soup. But if there is a beauty in it, it is in the mornings when you walk outside to see a thin coat of rime ice dusting trees, bushes, cars, streetsigns. Sometimes in the afternoons the sun will break through the fog and the rimed-white trees will stand brilliantly against blue sky and mountains.
But this year the fog has hung around longer than it should have. It seems like people can take the fog and associated cold for a few days, there is a sort of novelty to that. But after about three days of no sun and 100-yard visibilities and headlights on at noon, peoples' moods change. At work, I notice tempers are short, aggressions nearer to the surface. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion wrote of the Los Angeles Basin driven to the edge of sanity by days of fierce, hot Santa Ana winds. In its own way, northern Utah is pushed to the limits of civility after days of the fog.
One peculiarity about the fog is that it tends to hunker down in the valleys. I live just at the edge of the mountains, high enough so that at times the fog recedes and I can look out at an ocean of foggy clouds below, with islands of powerful snowy mountains all around poking through. When the fog rolls back in, it usually only takes a few miles of driving up into the mountains to break into brilliant sunlight again.
Usually, fog means the skiing conditions are no good. The fog would break up if only a storm would come through, but when the fog lasts for a week that means up in the high country no new snow has fallen. Maybe that is why so few people get out of the valley and in to the mountains. Fatigued by the fog a few days ago, my friend Laura and her brother Bill and myself drove out of the fog and into brilliant sunlight on our way to cross-country ski in the Uinta Mountains.
Laura lives in downtown Salt Lake City, and Bill was here on vacation from Atlanta. Though he is nothing if not Southern, Bill heads north and west whenever he can, catching a week of skiing when it comes available. When his other sister lived in Colorado, he went skiing there. Now that Laura lives in Salt Lake City, he comes here.
The Uinta Mountains are the tallest in Utah. Topping out at over 13,000 feet, they swing east to west for over 100 miles, starting just east of Salt Lake City and galloping all the way to the Colorado border. Though they are tall, they are also very old mountains, and while the peaks rise grandly their tops are rounded and noble. We drive out of the Salt Lake Valley up Parleys Canyon, breaking into blinding sunshine bouncing off snowy fields and passes. We pass Park City, climb some more, break for Kamas' two stopsigns, and motor up toward Mirror Lake surrounded by snowtopped spruces and spreading, luminescent stands of aspen.
Fast forward to the trailhead. We are suited up and our cross-country skis are on; it is Bill's first time for this new sport. He flails on his skis for a moment, slipping on the hard-packed track, swinging his poles around madly and scaring the dogs who had gathered to see what would happen. But Laura spends part of each winter teaching cross-country ski lessons, and after a few pointers Bill is on his feet and gliding; he's a natural. Porter, rolling through snow, bolts ahead 50 yards then comes back to us, then bolts ahead again, loving the moment. Our trail, an easy one, crosses a creek on a narrow bridge and climbs into dense fir, then breaks out into sunny fields and skirts an openfaced hill. The full moon rises behind ridge above us, and the eastern, then northern and southern skylines succumb to rosy alpenglow.
In so many ways cross-country skiing is the antithesis for everything that is wrong with Christmas. Every backaching shopper is a sapling pine bent over from the weight of new snow. Every clogged freeway is the set ski track winding into darkening forest. Every blinking-lighted checkout stand is a frostnipped fence keeping cattle out of the creek. The public address system announcing a store closing in 15 minutes is the contrail from a 727 arching silently high into the sunset. Endless Christmas carols sung by rock stars are coyote tracks crossing the ski trail and leading up a knoll. We stop for a moment to talk about something, then pause and notice how quiet it has become. The only thing I can hear is the ringing in my ears. Even Porter senses the blessed absence of sound; he strains his ears and holds his breath.
'Wow,' says Bill in an understatement. 'Sure is quiet here.'
We ski until it's nearly dark. Laura notices that it is 5 p.m.; I notice that it is 18 degrees. We ski back as the sunset fades into the full moon's brightness and have dinner and wine at a Mexican restaurant in Kamas. We drive back over the mountains and talk, of all things, about nuclear waste. When the freeway shakes loose the mountains and we can look out at the Salt Lake Valley glittering in lights, we notice one thing immediately:
The fog is breaking.
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