New Year’s Eve already, again. Stepping out through boot-deep snow.
Here on Spring Mountain it’s traditional to celebrate the final evening of each calendar year with a good stiff hike, accompanied by whatever hounds are currently at hand and up to the effort. This year, I’m down to Mr. Otis, since Angel dog is 13 and on her last leg and that last leg is lame. While Otis is nine, which in big-dog years makes him a borderline senior like me, he, also like me, still thinks he’s a stud. In fact, old Oats frequently wins compliments as a supremely handsome example of the Labrador breed, even in his muzzled grayness. He’s been blessed with glossy black hair (recently, a visiting Alaskan trapper friend made my wife Caroline nervous when he stroked Otis appraisingly and remarked on what a “fine pelt” he has), long sturdy legs (Dr. Woody, Otis’s personal physician, calls them “mountain legs”), clean white teeth and a broad intelligent head (as opposed to the rat-nosed look of lesser Labs). So why ruin the ruse by revealing that his mother was a Golden Retriever?
Of course, for O and me to take an evening hike together is hardly unique, insofar as he walks me most every evening, the high point of most every day. The high point, at least, when the weather is pleasant and calming, or nasty enough to be exciting because it’s scary enough to offer a reminder that nature always bats last: say, a wildly showy electrical storm, wind like a low flight of fighter jets screaming through the trees, a blinding whiteout of blowing snow and swirling frozen fog. Barring any of that during the moody holiday season—deep in the white gut of winter, with its foreshortened days, crackling cold nights, delaying snow and precious little wildlife to animate the scene—a walk in the winter woods can often seem more effort than entertainment.
This New Year’s Eve, this final evening of yet another year of our whirlwind lives, we are healthy, happy and celebrating—a boy and his dog striding up this comforting old mountain while ruminating on the past, pondering the future and, with every step and breath, offering active praise for the blessings of the moment. And glory be, after the first hard few minutes and the catching of my increasingly elusive second wind, I sense that this is to be one of those sweet retro intervals when my aging mortal shell, rather than dragging behind and slowing me down, lifts me lightly along, like a buzzard climbing a summer thermal, up and up on a free ride to heaven. Suddenly I am young again, high as a hippie on the pure animal joy of self-powered movement. At least for the moment.
We climb eagerly on, Otis and I, running occasional short sprints, choosing the steepest routes simply for the sake of their steepness, running uphill in the snow. As we near the top, 9,500 feet above the sultry beaches of southern California and a vertical gain of 1,500 feet from the cabin—with only a few dozen minutes remaining in the day, less than a half dozen hours to go in the year, an unknown number of years left in our lives—a light of impossible beauty laminates the sunset sky. The churning, shifting spectrum of pastels—blue, lavender; purple, pink, red to fiery orange—seems almost sentient, somehow feminine, ineffably alive.
When we finally reach our goal—a rocky point overlooking a snow-covered lake—I stop for a look around. The awesome grandeur of such vertical landscapes makes one feel rightly small. And such feeling-smallness, by exposing the false front of our feeling-bigness, feels real good to me.
Impatient as a puppy, ever the anxious seeker, Otis flashes past, brushing against my snow-dusted pant cuff as if to proclaim, “Look at me, Dad! Here I go!” running in widening circles. On his third counterclockwise circumnavigation, the 80-pound goofball surprises a congerie of ravens, which in their panicked flush startle the hell out of me, as I had neither heard nor seen them there, clustered on the ground behind the low rise to my right. Righteously alarmed, the overgrown crows hurl themselves skyward as one dark body, a flapping black cloud that rises in brief solidarity then flies abruptly apart, like a fistful of scarves flung into the wind.