With the Wind at Our Backs
THERE were three miles of gravel road from the caretaker's house at Tumalo Falls to the gate. When we were caretakers of the water inlets for the city of Bend, Oregon, the gate was locked all winter. If tourists drove up the road and got stuck in the snow, crews coming up to work on the inlets might not be able to pass. We had a four-wheel-drive pickup and a key to the gate. We also had the use of an ancient Snowcat and a garage below the gate, on the paved road, which was plowed all winter.
The plan was to keep the road from the gate to the house plowed all winter, for our use and for access for crews. Winter weather brought so much work for the crews in the city that sometimes no one could get away to plow. Sometimes, someone came up and plowed the road, and wind blew and drifted it closed again only hours after they finished.
We drove in and out through ten inches of snow, then through more than a foot of snow, but when a storm brought the accumulated snow up to about a foot and a half, I didn't want to try it. I didn't want to have the pickup stuck above the gate and no way to get to town for groceries, my daughter Juniper's violin lessons, or other necessities. I pulled the Snowcat and sled out of the garage, transferred supplies from the pickup to the sled, backed the pickup into the garage, and roared off up the road. Just above the gate, I started having problems with the machine. The engine kept dying. When the engine did run, it was very difficult to get it into gear. When I got it in gear, if I let go of the lever, which was behind me, and applied power, it popped out of gear. When everything worked for a while, I rode half-turned on the seat, reaching back to hold onto the shift lever with my right hand and steering with my left. I didn't mind being on an open machine. I was dressed for it, and it was just me and th e ancient, roaring machine out in all this beautiful, snow-covered country.
Except for the skiers I passed. I felt like apologizing for roaring up their quiet day. I wanted to explain that I wasn't out for fun but making necessary transport of self and groceries, just as they did with their cars up their driveways. But the machine was too noisy. As difficult as it was to start, I wasn't going to shut it off and tell them what I was thinking, so I just nodded and smiled and roared on past. Some of them smiled back. Some of them heard the noisy machine above all else and gave me s trong looks of disapproval. I kept score for a while, and it ran about seven to three, disapproval to a friendly response.
Then I came to rough snow that had drifted into the roadbed at all angles and the fun was over. The machine, circa 1950, was many times heavier than any contemporary machine, too narrow, and too tall. It tended to follow the lay of the land rather than going where I was trying to steer it. If it got much off level, it acted as though it might tip over. I had to keep one hand on the gearshift lever, two hands on the steering to fight its tendency to drift sideways down slope, and one hand on the throttle to apply power when it headed right and to slow down when it didn't. It was hard work and somewhat scary the rest of the way home. The machine didn't have enough traction to pull the sled up the last hill to the house, so I unhooked the sled, drove up the hill, and recruited my wife and daughters to help carry the groceries the rest of the way home.
I didn't try to use the Snowcat and sled again.
The road was ideal for skiing. A mild to strong wind often blew down the canyon and out onto the flats. Laura and I discovered that we could spread our coats like sails and ski on the down-slope and the wind clear to the Robert R. Berry memorial sign. Then there was getting home again. She had no-wax skis, with steps cut into them, and the going was easy. I was used to no-wax skis but had only wax-type skis, without steps, and I didn't have the right waxes. Going back up against the wind was harder, slip pery work for me. I took my skis off and walked up the steepest parts. I didn't mind.
More snow came down until it was too soft and deep for good skiing. We needed groceries. I'd never snowshoed, but I strapped the snowshoes on, shouldered my pack, and trotted down the hill. Running on snowshoes seemed as natural as skiing. I crossed the road, crossed varying hare tracks, porcupine tracks, coyote tracks, cat tracks, maybe made by a big bobcat or a lynx. I didn't know how to tell the difference, but I would look it up when I got home.
Bright sunshine reflected from the snow. I had to take my jacket off and stuff it into the backpack. I picked up the pickup, drove to town, bought groceries, drove back to the garage, and snowshoed home, getting there after dark. It was a bright night, with moonlight on the snow, and I had no trouble finding my way home.
Friends came to visit, and we had to get everybody up the road. We loaded everyone who would fit into the front of the pickup and more, mostly the young, hardy, and adventurous, into the back. I put it in low range, four-wheel-drive, and we made it all the way to the house with no trouble, which surprised me, since I was pushing snow with the front bumper most of the way. The pickup would go where I hadn't even suspected it would. We could have been driving in and out the whole time. I was glad I hadn't known that sooner.
ATE that winter, we had a warm spell that softened the snow and then cold weather again that froze it hard. Laura, Juniper, Amanda, and I all came back from town, with groceries in the back and the violin crowded in with the four of us in the front. We had to make it all the way in and couldn't abandon the pickup and walk in. I ran out of traction halfway up the road and chained up the front wheels. Halfway more, and the going got rough. The front wheels dug snow down, climbed up on it, and moved forward
a foot or two. Then they spun and dug snow down again, so we spun in place a bit, then moved forward a ways and spun in place again and moved forward again, slow going, but still going. Amanda asked, "Where did you learn to drive in snow like this?"
I kept my foot steady on the gas pedal, feeding it just enough power to keep going but not enough to start spinning too wildly, and said, "I never did. That's what I'm doing now. Learning how."
As we carried groceries into the house, with the pickup parked just where it should be, dusk falling, the dog and the cat saying welcome home, I thought that all of life is learning how, just as we're doing it, learning how to ski with the wind at our backs, learning how to snowshoe, learning how to get out and home again through deep snow, learning how to find the fun and the adventure and the education in all of it.