The storm had lifted and the temperature had begun to plummet as we turned off the pavement onto a Rio Arriba county road. It’s sunny in Santa Fe, but here a foot of fresh snow blankets the dirt track. I slow the Frontier down and shift into low but the footing seems solid, as long as we keep moving.
Rounding a corner, we are startled to see a county plow truck coming toward us. Luckily, there is a bit of extra room to the right and I ease off the road, graze a hidden boulder and coast back into the now-cleared road—smooth sailing ahead. “You gotta be lucky,” my father-in-law used to saw. Amen.
We roll on down into the hidden valley of the Rio Vallecitos. We park off the road at the river crossing, load up the kids’ old plastic toboggan and I do my Alaskan husky imitation, ferrying water, food and other gear for a winter foray to our cabin, about a quarter mile downstream. In summer, we drive across this waterway to access the property, but heavier trucks had been through it, breaking through the unset ice and turning it into a jumbled impasse.
Rope around my chest, I am off like a tortoise, dragging the sled over hill and dale. Kitty has gone ahead, and I see her off in the distance doing a sort of ballet movement with arms extended and a twirl or two as she drops out of sight.
I trudge on, along the rio and up a small pitch, then down into our meadow. Here the snow is deeper, having been blown in off the nearby forest treetops. There sits the cabin, a refuge in an otherwise deadly landscape as the air temperature begins to fall and twilight descends. Inside, we find the strawbale structure a chilly 34 degrees, but with our ocote kindling and piñon logs, we soon have the wood stove cranking and the room comfortable. Within three hours, it’s 70 degrees while the temperature outside continues to fall.
We unpack and settle in. The world shrinks: no phone, no electricity (except, thankfully a small solar system), no Internet, no email—a digital cleanse. Life quickly reduces itself to keeping the fire burning, staying dry when nature or chores call one outdoors, and having lots to eat and drink. After all, one’s body also needs more fuel in such situations…. We loaf, we cook on the wood stove, read and listen to music. We slow down—way down. No one is dropping by. We watch the sky, the deep blue against the river cottonwoods shorn of leaves, stare at the “eyes” on the trunks of the pale yellow-white aspens. Outside, puffs of steam billow from our mouths, letting us know we are alive. Sunlight glints off ice.
By the next morning, just before the sun cracks over the far southern rim, the thermometer registers 19 degrees—below zero! The next few days would be some of the coldest ever in the valley and region, a contrast of cold and heat, of blinding light bounced off snowfields, and pitch dark night skies pierced by a dazzling array of stars and the gauzy Milky Way.
Trout are dozing in their crystalline chambers, their brains benumbed by cold daggers probing their red beating hearts. We carve and cut paths through the snow that tell the tale of our days and nights: one to the outhouse, one to the wood pile, one down toward the frozen river, one out to yellow holes in the snow. The dogs’ trails, however, meander here and there. Tall grasses and spent seed heads poke above the white, as we shuffle along silently in the soft snow.
One afternoon we donned snowshoes for a long walk up through the rolling hills and meadows that lie above the cabin. Kitty wore a set of small, MSR blue-rimmed shoes, lightweight and maneuverable. I wore a pair brought down from Wyoming over 25 years ago, aluminum tubing with plastic lacing. Some of the lacing had rotted out, so I replaced it with nylon twine and they worked fine. On downhill pitches, they slid along like cross country skis, with a similar low lift of the heel and an easy glide forward. Along with the poling motion, I felt almost like a two-planker. They were triple the size of the other shoes though, and by the end of our two-mile or so walk, my legs were worn out. They are designed for even deeper snow and a big person, but they did get me outside—which was the real point.
Out into the fresh air we went, the sun blazing away over the new fallen snow, and up through the “Hall of Giants”—the rows of massive, old-growth ponderosa pines to the west of the cabin. Their orange-red trunks and twisting python-like limbs soared heavenward, spears of fire, rusty blood against the white forest floor and blue skies. We began measuring them, and found one just shy of 10 feet in circumference. It reminded me that the state’s largest ponderosas grow nearby in a area called La Manga, of the Tusas Mountains (a sub-range of the Brazos). We cut across the tracks of an elk herd––looked to be eight to ten traveling meandering but parallel paths. We stopped above Blue Bird Meadow, now a sea of white. Though surrounded by two stout and tall fences, elk tracks in the snow showed where they had managed to leap over into the prized meadow to search for buried grass.
We headed back down to the valley and to the rio itself, where we slipped easily across the frozen water body. I fish this water every summer, and it was odd to see familiar water-polished boulders, bushes and bends in the river from this new perspective. Under our feet we could hear the river running, gurgling faintly. We found one hole where it had not frozen over entirely, and the edge glistened like a trunk full of diamonds laid at one’s feet. A light snow began to fall, and we headed in to stoke the fire, have another meal and watch the world turn white again.
Another day I went downhill skiing in the hills above the cabin. While many hardcore skiers spend thousands of dollars to travel to Alaska and other remote destinations to secure claims of “first descents,” I was able to bag a handful of new runs here in the Tusas. They were short runs but it was a subtle thrill, never the less, to slide like silk through the stand of old-growth ponderosas, the wind whistling past my ears and that familiar swooshing sound rising from my skis. Normally carpeted with a blanket of pine needles, now the ground lay under a foot to 18-inches of white. It varied from sugar-like consistency in the shade to crusty where sun had gotten to it, or heavy and wet in the full sun.
But by carefully picking out lines to avoid anything that might indicate a rock or a fallen log, I was able to eek out descents of 10 to 12 turns in the tree alleys before stopping and hiking back up. Continuing up the slowly rising ridge, the runs got longer and longer, and the pitch steeper and steeper. Here one run might have covered a few hundred vertical feet, as I dropped into what we call Blue Bird Pass. My speed picked up and everything began to come at me faster and faster. I winced as I skied over several rocks, trying to pick a path that kept me away from stands of trees and obvious deadfalls.
It was the oddest sensation to be skiing over ground we normally walk across. It offers a whole new way of seeing the mountain and the place; one becomes something of a ballet dancer gliding over the land, seeking out every possible slope and pitch to write one’s temporary story on the white landscape.
Our three dogs were astounded by all this, bounding along beside me and then getting left in the fluff as I accelerated away. I let out a whoop as I reached the snow packed forest road and pulled up. Safe! My skis took a bit of a beating but such is the price for breaking barriers. I clicked out, wiped the clingy snow from my boards, laid them over my shoulder and began to hike back up.
Catching back up to Kitty, who was on snow shoes, we moved higher along the ridge until we topped the summit. Before us lay a northwest-facing slope that eased down to Baseball Meadow. She told me she had already bagged this slope years before on her XC skis, so this run eluded the record books, but it provided a memorable careening dash past some prominent rocks, over some fallen logs and out into the meadow where the glop grabbed on and stopped me cold.
We pushed out a bit into the meadow and found one of the “islands” of sun-warmed and dried ponderosa needles at the base of a tree. We plopped down against its south-facing trunk, and broke out sandwiches, a cold beer and other goodies. Really, does life get any better than this? Food consumed, dogs treated to scraps and the beer drained, the sun began to lower into the sky and our sweaty underclothing began to cool. Time to get moving again! My legs felt like lead when I stood up but soon we were back in stride and one more long run back into the river-filled valley awaited.
Back at the one-room cabin, we stoked the fire and went back to the job of clearing away the avalanches of snow that had slid off the pitched tin roof and landed on the deck, blocking the front door. During the day, as the sun warmed the roof and our wood-fired stove heated the structure, the snow had come off in loud, rattling waves with a whoosh and heavy thump, then set up immediately like cement. I hauled in a lot of wood, and then the next day, more, as the night temperatures dipped toward zero. At night, the stars leapt out of the black sky, steadied by the presence of Mars directly overhead. On the river, the ice had set up four to six inches thick, with few openings; the water crystal clear.
In the valley we studied tracks of elk through the snow, and noted their squareish droppings. We looked, in vain, on the ice-covered river for the breathing holes of the beavers that had taken up residence the previous summer. Officers of the state game and fish department, we learned, had come recently and trapped and killed them. We mourned their loss, as they added a dynamic element to the riverine ecosystem that was fascinating to watch, and were creating excellent trout habitat with their damming activities.
Usually I manage to get our portable water pump going and from the rio fill up our converted stock tank/hot tub, which we heat with a wood-fired stove fed via its projecting top. The water in the tub begins at a slushy 33 degrees when I light the tub’s firebox, but six hours or so later, under a sky full of glittering stars it tops a soothing 106 degrees, the steam turning our hair into chandeliers.
Vapor, clouds, snowfall, melting, water, vapor: we find ourselves embedded in the ever-lasting cycles of life on Earth. We study the snow, reading the tracks of many animals that came to visit during the frigid black nights—rabbits and elk, a fox or coyote, and feral cats. We fed apples to our neighbor’s horses. I sweep the rio of its snow blanket to expose the frozen glass below so Kitty can ice skate. We spy the frozen trail in ice of a large turkey that visited during the last melting cycle. Some stellar jays’ raucous calls rent the air and tiny chickadees flit from the trees to bare patches of ground to feed. We are reminded of the essential elements of existence and try to absorb some of that calm and steadfastness into our lives.
We come here only as infrequent visitors—recreationalists and urban escapists—to an age-old realm where wind, sky, water in all its forms, rock, black dirt, woody growth and wildlife dominate—or should. We are the interlopers here, and enter this graceful valley and climb its slopes and enjoy its waters only by the grace of some higher powers. And so we are blessed.
Story by Daniel Gibson, photos by Kitty Leaken