My older son and I rolled up Highway 50 one Sunday not long ago for a ski day. The morning sky was still gray after a recent rain, promising, at last, a thick blanket of badly needed high country snow.
The Range of Light, Muir called these mountains, and I had picked this day in part because it promised the kinds of high country light effects you can only get after a rain in the High Sierra - dark blue sky and knife-edge contrasts of sun and shadow.
I'm nearing the same number of years now as the number of the highway, 50, so I ought have known that nature doesn't just open up in sunlit glory whenever you ask her to, like some kind of elephant appearing for Ernest Hemingway on safari. We got some nice light, and some good runs, in the morning, but by noon a vicious wind had set in at the top of the chairlift. At the bottom, a slushy, soaking sort of snow was falling hard.
As I got wetter and colder, paranoia began to set in. My sublime mountains began to look weird, even slightly murderous in the clouds, suddenly a lot less John Muir, and with a child to protect, a lot more Donner Party. I felt fragile, aware of the deaths this winter of my beloved uncle Steve, my wife's mom, Sue, and Duke, my dog.
The Sierras, of course, are in their deep nature neither the sublime angels of light I wanted them to be that day, nor the stone cold killers I feared. Or else they are both, and much more. They are big, old mountains, and they demand respect.