Don’t Argue with Desert Mountains in the Winter

We ascended in deep snow. The trees relinquished their embrace and the air’s rare moisture crystallized and was made visible, glittering in the sun. As our view expanded, the flickering spirits of ten thousand small gods swarmed us. Their gentle flurry felt like a greeting.

Here’s the thing. I haven’t crossed frozen earth or traversed deep snow in a decade. I remembered cold’s bite but forgot the challenge of walking on numb feet over uneven, refrozen ice. With many miles remaining, I acknowledged how grueling it is to break trail in snowshoes. Even downhill is a struggle. You don’t just read the time or count the miles out here—you feel them. That’s how it works.

I staked my trekking poles, removed a glove, and warmed the tip of my pen to write: “Remember this. Cold numbs the mind too, like hunger or fatigue. And its handiwork paralyzes the memory of its deed.”

Eight miles later, I apparently scrawled: “You don’t argue with desert mountains, particularly in the winter.”

The weather here is vertical someone once explained. People always say that. Six thousand feet below the air was soft, the colors pastel, the temperature in the upper 50s. On Tsoodził—Turquoise or Blue Bead Mountain—it was 30 degrees cooler with gusting wind. My first visit here should have been in the summer, but desert high places beckon in every season. “The land gets inside of us,” said Barry Lopez, “and we must decide one way or another what this means, what we will do about it.” What I needed to do seemed simple at first: cross the distance and acknowledge the mountain on its own terms. What the experience meant, however, is unfinished. These things take time, and, like the cold, they’re often felt.

Unlike Lopez, perhaps there’s no need to unpack the meanings of all the places that get inside of us—they just are. The whirling enchantment of small gods. The giddiness at 11,000 feet in February. The lumbering ever onward into nightfall while balancing on frozen, dumb bricks for feet. For now, reflecting on these sensations in the 100-degree smoke of summer is abundance enough.

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