Winter settles on the mountain

Leiza grew up in Michigan. Winter turns very cold there, as dangerous as anything Colorado can invent, so I was sure she was all right. I was sure she would soon return, her usual cheerful self, to the house.

I looked at the thermometer. The temperature had fallen 15 degrees in an hour in our mountain habitat, "Was Leiza dressed warmly?" I asked.

Juniper said, "She said she's wearing long underwear, and she has a warm jacket."

"Hat and gloves?"

"Sure. "

"I'm sure she's all right, but she's been gone more than three hours, and it's turned really cold."

Juniper added warm clothing and rode with me to the beginning of the trail that parallels Lone Pine Creek. I stopped where the trail marked the ground through tall grass, faded to light yellow for winter. Juniper climbed out of the warm pickup.

I said, "I'll drive to the lake. If you hotfoot it up the trail, you'll probably come out on the road before I come back past the homestead."

Juniper said, "Unless I see evidence that she's gone up the other trail."

"In which case, you'll head up that trail?"


"OK. Whatever happens, meet me at home by dark."

I drove up the dirt road through the ranch.

Our daughters, Juniper and Amanda, went to college with Leiza and brought her home several times. She has become part of the wide family of people who sometimes stay with us and share the natural beauty of the ranch we take care of in the Rocky Mountains.

Juniper, Amanda, and Leiza have all, many times, hiked up this ranch. They know the area better than I do. In thousands of acres of wilderness, where would I begin to look if Leiza needed me to find her?

The rough road demands slow driving. Winter settles on the mountain around me. Far west of us, the peaks of the Continental Divide stand clean and white with new snow against dark clouds. Close to me, aspen trees and deciduous shrubs hold bare limbs toward the sky. Pine and fir trees look dark green in winter dormancy.

Daylight diminishes when clouds drift down and cover the late-afternoon sun.

Small birds who will stay on the mountain for winter fly up from the road ahead of me and settle into pale grass heavy with seed.

I drive to the small lake above the rocky canyon, leave the pickup, and walk onto a truck-sized granite boulder above the edge of the frozen lake. Long, deep cracks crisscross the surface of the ice and look like maps of far countries I've never been to.

A raven flies close above me. I hear its wings swoosh through the cold air. The shiny black bird flies above the dark granite bluff that falls steeply to the ice. Ravens will stay on the mountain all winter, too.

Leiza is probably on a different trail entirely, also seeing winter settling on the mountain. Raven might see her from its trail halfway up the sky. A mist of tiny snowflakes drifts down from the darkening sky. The end of the day envelops the mountain.

I walk back to the truck, climb in, start the motor, and head home. I'm at peace. Concern for Leiza was part of my reason for venturing out, this winter day, but I've realized a larger reason was that I needed to see the last of autumn on the mountain and to see everything - trees, shrubs, wild animals, ground, bleached-out grass, and winter sky - was as it should be.

Leiza is back at the house when I get there. So is Juniper. Everyone plays board games, laughs, eats popcorn, and drinks apple juice.

I ask Juniper. "Did you enjoy being out there looking for Leiza?"

"I did. It was fun to be out, to see winter, and then to get back about dark and find Leiza already here."

Leiza says, "I climbed almost to the top of Wizard's Fingers. I felt good to have everything so cold but to be just warm enough. I sat up near the top for a while, looking at everything. Two deer walked below me and didn't know I was there.

"When I started to feel cold, I climbed down and hiked back, and walking kept me warm enough. I felt as if I were in some kind of magic world, just me and winter. When I started needing to know there were other people and warmth in the world, I was back at the house."

Unsettled feelings about the day came to me first as concern about Leiza, walking alone on a cold winter day. Now I see more clearly what I needed to define, that Leiza was all right in the deepening cold, that the mountains accepted winter in an orderly fashion, that we humans fit creatively into the change in seasons, that my family, primary and adopted, gathered together for warmth, light, and community.

All my concerns have settled into order. Laughter, warmth, and light fill the house. Coats and boots have been discarded by the door. I become the one who draws pictures so my team can guess what words I am trying to show them in the game of the moment.

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