Running in Winter

Winter Running

No one should have to run in winter. Let’s be clear about that. Skiing should be enough. But. There’s rain on snow and ice too loud and slush and sometimes bare ground on the shoulder seasons. So. There’s the bike trainer in the living room next to the stereo. There are sit-ups and yoga tapes. Hell, there’s the bathtub and the liquor cabinet, the bookshelves and the TV. There’s nothing that says you have to run in winter. But.

There’s also age and lethargy. There are creaky joints and caking arteries. There are missing brain cells scattered haphazard along trails and beside campfires, on interstate highways and in drafty kitchens. There are those fucking glossy magazines that suggest motivation should be filed under endorphins, desire for, when, in fact, it’s the flipside: entropy, fear of.

So. You dress by the fire and repeat: No one should have to run in winter. You sweep the snow from the porch, and walk down ice steps chopped into the bank, too steep, in shoes flimsy as slippers, trail runners, they say, as though trails only count in summer, not when shin deep in slush. You wear shoes with chains, or gaiters, and an iPod despite the threat of predators. (Would you really hear them coming anyway?) You wait past the gloaming, the crepuscular hour when they roam.

Then you run.

You run in the tire tracks, the real driven snow, or if the road’s been plowed to ice, along the shoulder where a skiff of snow softens the slip. You run through the dark woods past berms waist-high and out into the open, past a meadow where snow level is true — the plow pushes the other way — and sometimes it’s over your head.

There were years you ran only in shorts or a thin sweatshirt. Years you ran through orange groves, the smell of blossoms and rotting godknowswhat. And smog. Years you ran with a headlamp on drizzly bark-lined paths, the smell of wood pulp and commercial bakery. There are no smells now, none discernable, save the woodsmoke inversion, the only sound your shoes, the only tracks the deer.

This is what you get living here. Stuff you can’t explain. Solitude and silence, more prayer than play, more dark grey, a foothold, a footfall, one after the other, on the same stretch of sometimes-plowed road. There’s no gear, no training goal, even. Just morning. Coffee, run, shower, life. Repeat.

At home, you peel off wet socks and hang them by the fire, pull on a dry sweatshirt, put smoothie ingredients in the blender, stream radio from the outer orbits, watch wet flakes feather down, and think about the long novel on the bed stand or the seed catalog in the mail or the soup ingredients in the pantry.

When the flu hits, you’ll be stuck. Warm and dry with nothing to complain about. So you’ll complain about the fact that you need to run, even in winter, but you can’t. The truth is: You want to.

Long-time Mountain Gazette contributor Ana Marie Spagna is the author of “Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness,” “Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw” and “Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey.” She lives in Steheken, Washington.  

Crazy-Eye Season

It’s the time of year when the phrase “doe-eyed” takes on all new meaning.  Does get the crazy look, like zombies or psychopaths.  They stand stock still in the middle of the dirt road when I go running and stare at me as though I’ve just landed from Mars, as though they haven’t seen me every morning for months, maybe years.  I’m not freaked out, or mostly not, since I know what’s up: they’ve either just had their fawns or they’re about to have them, and they’re being protective.  You hear a lot in the woods – or really, anywhere, when speaking metaphorically – about mama bears.  But it’s not just bears. And it’s not just the deer.

There are, at Seven Mile, four Canadian geese that line the road four abreast like a color guard and hold their ground, squawking mightily as I approach.  I’m guessing the nest (or nests?) is to my left, in the cut bank along the river, and I’m guessing it’s been there for five years or more because each year four geese block the road the same way.  Are they the same four geese?  I don’t know, but I like to pretend they are.  Sometimes I give in and turn around.  What’s a shorter run, after all, compared to disrupting family life?  When I do, they turn half sideways in unison to keep an eye on me as I retreat.

Last week, I charged past them, and a little ways further ran into a bright yellow puff ball with the biggest orange webbed feet I’ve ever seen.  Not a gosling this time, but a duck.   I stopped running, it kept running.  I pretended to turn around, but it did no good.  In full panic mode, the puff ball continued its willy nilly charge mid-gravel road – imagine the scars on those big orange feet! – like running in clown shoes or swim fins.  Finally, with no other choice, I charged past at a sprint, risking duckling cardio-damage, and turned to jog backwards long enough to see it panting alone, and safe, beside an eddy.

The animals have reason to be worried, of course.  There’s a family of coyotes that lives somewhere close to our house: a bitch and two pups.  Or so other people told us last year.  We’d hear them yipping, and one night the mother stood howling atop a huge boulder in the yard, as though posing for a souvenir t-shirt (all she needed was the red kerchief, we said).  But we hadn’t seen the pups at all until one afternoon while I worked rock-facing our foundation (a project that’s taken me a decade, which is about five years past Zen-like precision and well into get-it-the-fuck-done).   I was slapping up the last few rocks, with a half-wheelbarrow of mixed mortar beside me, when here comes a tiny coyote pup, the size of a large pack rat, not twenty feet away, stumbling over puppy feet from one log to the next, sniffing all the way.  My turn to stand stock still.  I watched until he was almost past, until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and then I peeled off my gloppy gloves and tiptoed into the house for the camera.  Something spooked him, and he was gone.

This spring I’ve seen them—the mother and the two pups—many a morning on the road.  They don’t mind sharing; usually they just saunter off the road to let me pass. If they go downhill toward the river, that’s cool, but once all three of them climbed the steep cut bank and stood just over my head.   The pups are big now, leggy like teenagers and – who knows? – maybe similarly unpredictable.  Their coloring up close is stunning: mottled rust and beige and grey.  If they were a breed with papers, they’d sell in four figures.  Maybe five.  But when they’re on the cut bank, three of them, above your head, even if you’ve known them, more or less, since birth, well it’s a little disconcerting.  I talked nice as I jogged by fast.

So, yeah, there are coyotes, and cougars that we never see, and omnipresent vultures and birds of prey.  Everyone’s got a story about an eagle with a fill-in-the-blank puppy-kitten-gosling in its talons.  Last week in the bigger town, on the paved trail, we passed geese with goslings, then followed a bobcat – healthy and tabby colored – at a healthy distance for a half a mile as he searched a chainlink fence for a break.  At last he slipped between steel gate posts into the tall grass.

The tall grass would almost certainly be a boon for that cat, for any predator, since it seems to be the favored hiding place.  Laurie is racing these days to mow the orchard before too many does drop their fawns.  Hardly a year has passed when she hasn’t come upon one new and wet and curled in on itself, unmolested by the diesel roar or the flies that congregate close.  She’s not yet mowed over one, but if she’s not vigilant, it could be tragic.  So she’s keeping watch.

We all are.

Driving South in a Buick

Outside Winthrop, whitetail and ravens compete for rotten crabapples as they drop into snow. In town, fences cage unpruned trees.

West of Snoqualmie Pass, a lone man in a business suit leans against a guardrail, miles from an off-ramp, no car, no pack, no sign, his rain jacket flapping in the gusts. He’s grinning.

A bumpersticker:  Evolution is God’s Intelligent Design.

In Portland, women walk the streets in veils. Helicopters circled the mosque a while back, say my hosts. Something was wrong. Turned out, they say, a man had tried to place a bomb; the FBI had caught him in a sting.

On the radio: Should kids who grow up on the Warm Springs Reservation stay put or leave to see the world? The discussion is heated. There’s no good answer.

In Eugene, ponytailed men in tie-dye share the sidewalk with frat boys in shorts. One asks for a plastic cup for his dog to drink from. They are two miles from home and did not expect the heat. Sorry, I say. Another tells me about the seven-foot snow drifts of his youth. In Eugene? Yes, he says. Awesome, I say. He says: You said it, Little Girl.

A Ron Paul bumpersticker on a Prius.

North of Siskiyou Summit, a lone attendant hustles to fill a dozen tanks. Four bucks a gallon Inside, I fill my cup with coffee. On the house, the owner says. That’s on the house.

On the radio: Backcountry snow lovers, especially you snowmobilers with kids, take an avalanche safety course. The snow is waiting. The snow is moving. Call. Please call.

At the Comfort Inn, an elderly desk clerk knits doilies, sitting. Young men in hard hats and orange vests loiter, standing. Cold out, one says. Blows on his hands. The clerk does not look up. Colder last week, she says.

Out jogging. An otter in a reservoir swims through a culvert and turns to face me. Geese flee squawking.

Back in the parking lot, a driver sits impatient with his defroster. Scraper offered. Scraper declined.

At the Burger King, closed for remodeling, women, all with children, idle in line, waiting for the lone girl at the drive-thru to get them what they need.

South of Shasta: almonds in bloom and hand-painted plywood: American Revolution Now.

On the radio: the Chinook salmon run is supposed to be bigger than ever. Experts don’t know why. Peyton Manning is done with his career with the Colts. In some towns in Greenland where chemical exposure is highest only girls are being born. No boys at all.

In Marin County, green hills, white spotted cows, blue ocean. No shoulder on the roads. No spraying, say the signs. No one waves.

On the radio: In the years before the Civil War, the scholar says, when everything was in flux, giving up slaves was akin to giving up automobiles now.

A good idea. The right thing to do. Unthinkable.



Occupy Main Street

A while back, as the Occupy Wall Street movement was winding down, I had to go downlake to use the telephone. We still don’t have phones in our little mountain town — at least most of us don’t, due to geography and technology and politics — though they are inching closer, and some neighbors have figured out how to make Skype work despite slow satellite upload speeds, and the days of taking expensive two-night trips (because of the winter boat schedule) just to talk on the phone will soon be over, and I’ll be none the sadder. But those days aren’t over yet, so I had to go to town.

I checked into a spare clean motel on the main street, a mile or so from the fancy lakeside resorts, a place that offers a lower rate for locals and has a microwave and a fridge in the room, an old-style TV and a functioning land line. Usually in winter, the motel is packed with contractors, but this time the place was empty, only one car besides mine in the lot. I tried a few calls without luck. One interviewee hung up on me straight away. Then I sat on the bed to watch protestors pack up their tents in distant cities, and I felt sorry for them and sorry for myself and sorry for the whole damned complicated mess we’re in.

Then I told myself: get out.

The hairdresser, a woman in her sixties, squeezed me in for a trim. A year ago, she sold her salon to her niece, a former rodeo queen in her early twenties who’s been cutting my hair since she was a teenager. Now she’s a business owner. The rodeo queen’s husband bought the Radio Shack downtown where I stopped to buy a camera since we lost ours while pressing cider last fall. The pharmacist refilled my prescription before I reached the window. The hardware store clerk showed me a coupon for batteries — no limit — and even I don’t know her name and she does not know mine, she recognized me and figured, rightly, that we in the uplake town can always use batteries. At the natural food store, I ran into the guy who raises our grass-fed beef, a guy who ditched the big city to return home and help his dad run his orchard. We met several years ago at a workshop where he read Rumi and wept. Since then, he’s started a CSA and a fruit stand, and he’s married and had a daughter, now a toddler, who drags him from the store and back out into the sun.

A profile in The New Yorker of an Occupy Wall Street participant floored me. The guy was a kind of everyman who had seeped into solitariness. Sometimes I fear this could happen to any of us; it could easily happen to me. Our town is so small, my desk space even smaller. The guy in the article hopped a bus from Seattle to New York to find connection and purpose in the protests. But maybe we don’t have to go so far. Once I wrote a book about community, the close-knit kind. Maybe just as crucial are larger circles, the people you know but whose names you don’t know, the ones you never see outside of the work place. The point is obvious, I suppose, but also dire. The hairdresser said they’d had few appointments the week before Thanksgiving. Unheard of. The motel desk clerk was awaiting a tourist busload with uncharacteristic eagerness. The cameras at Walmart — yes, I stopped to check — were thirty bucks cheaper than downtown. Walmarts all over America had opened at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, and there’d been a fight and an arrest in the bigger town just forty miles away. The stakes seem so high, and the changes inevitable, but I want to believe we are the bosses of it, at least a little of it.

So I spent a few hundred dollars in town — batteries and bike tubes, asthma drugs and avocados, some gadgets at the kitchen store. Afterwards I walked across the street to order tacos — topped with fresh cilantro — from the trailer next to the car wash, and I sat alone and content on a plastic chair watching workday traffic pass on the main street, eating with greasy fingers, thinking: this is not so complicated.

When Snow Turns to Rain

Rain pours off the roof in silver strands, thicker than thread — the diameter of p-cord, the texture of snot — bringing down thin sheets of melting ice, lacy and silver, spooling off orderly as those old rolls of perforated printer paper, slicing at roof’s edge into perfect rectangles, six inches wide or twelve, rolling occasionally back toward the window, then dropping down to earth. Or check that. Not to earth. To the pile by the window that, sooner than later, we’ll have to shovel for light. Snow in the yard is a couple feet deep and saturating fast. We’ve shoveled out the steps from the road to the house, which, if you don’t step down gingerly, will turn to a slick sliding descent. We should fix those, we always say. Add some structure, switchback to grade. Do something. But we don’t. We’ve shoveled out the cars and the path to the generator and the satellite dish. We haven’t yet shoveled the woodshed. We’re hoping it will slide.

Wet snow gathers in cottonwoods, where the limbs meet the trunk, building up a dense white vee, and atop the neighbors skylights, draping over them like Tolstoy’s beard — less jolly than Santa’s — threatening to tear them out, steel roof and all. Snow grips the bark of twisted leaning maples, poufy as the decorated edge of a cake from the supermarket deli. Fir limbs droop heavy, dark as black against the grey, and dogwood leaves, rust-colored and translucent, dangle from barren twigs, the only color in sight, the only color in the world today, as far as I can tell.

There are books you love because you read them as a kid, books you love for the artistry or the surprise, books you love because your friends love them, too. Then there are the books you love even though no one else loves them like you. Top of that list, for me, is “Where the Sea Used to Be.” Rick Bass’ first novel was long anticipated and fast forgotten. The main character, a young woman, skis out alone often, tracking wolves, lighting pitch to warm her hands. There’s romance in the snowy woods and romance in the prose all silent and slow. I took the book down from the shelf this morning, thinking it’s time to read it again, to reset my metronome, to settle into another pace, another dimension. Then the rain began.

We used to have a land partner, Tony, who shoveled for us. No kidding. His winter sport, he called it, waving to us as we sat by the woodstove with coffee or set off on skis.

Remember, we like to say, when Tony used to shovel for us?

We say this with genuine nostalgia, it’s true, but also with shame that we just let it happen. We shirked our responsibility gleefully, giddily, without a thought. Then he moved away. Tony always shoveled before 8:30 a.m. That, he said, is the hour when the snow turns to rain. We tried to pretend he was wrong. But he wasn’t.

Truth is, we’re nowhere near Rick Bass country. We’re smack in the middle, right on the crest — check that, below it — between drizzle in Seattle and powder in the Rockies. The temperature hovers, for weeks, between 31 and 33. We’re always on edge wondering what will come next. Winter seems less like a sweet slow metronome; than a ticking clock. As, perhaps, it should.

The title of that lovely book sitting on my bedstand looks, from here, outmoded, static, maybe even wrong-headed. The seas aren’t receded; they’re encroaching. In puddles and potholes, in the slush that forms in the post-holed boot print, in the raised garden beds, in the shoveled out space around the pickup, and in the big world too. The state department of ecology predicts that average temperatures in Washington will be almost two degrees higher in the 2020s and three degrees in the 2040s. Milder winters on deck. More rain, less snow. We can try to pretend they’re wrong. But they’re not.

Remember, we’ll say someday, when we used to shovel snow.

Close to the Source

Fall is for firewood. I know we should start earlier, and usually we do, but inevitably the task slops over into these weeks when the sky turns a rich deep blue and salmon spackle the green river red. We fell snags in the yard, or buck blowdowns, or if all else fails, buy a permit and head for the local log yard, buggy and too public, where last year I smashed the hell out of my index finger. I took this as an omen: better to work at home.

So I do. This afternoon I’ll finish. I’ll split the last of the bigger rounds with the hydraulic splitter we borrowed from a neighbor, then collect the heavy bark and pitchy no-good slabs into a pile for another neighbor, a more regularly social neighbor, to use for campfire wood. I’ll split another tree’s worth of rounds in halves by hand so they’re easier to rick up for next year. Or the year after. There’s an art to it, I suppose. There’s also room for mishaps.

Once, a long time ago, I was fined for cutting firewood illegally. That didn’t happen again. Once, also a long time ago, I had to ask for help with a chainsaw, a shameless girlie request. That didn’t happen again either. I bloodied my fingers learning to break the compression, but learn I did. A few years later, in Flagstaff, I watched a writer neighbor split wood Hollywood-style, lifting the log on the axe and banging it back down, over and over, and I presumed since he was inept at firewood splitting, he’d never make it as a writer. Boy, was I wrong.

In Flagstaff, we burned juniper and aspen, and sometimes pine, even though we were told not to since it left creosote in the pipe. Now we burn Doug fir, mostly, though one year, because we lived in a tiny shack that could heat over-warm in seconds, we burned cottonwood. The shack never got too hot, but the ash pan filled as fast as we could empty it. We dumped the ashes on the snow, and come spring, the cat rolled in the pile every chance she got, unless she could find a used tobacco plug. That cat loved soot.

Once we had a tarp. Two winters of that was more than plenty. We hung the tarp from a rope between two trees and talked ourselves into believing the snow would slide, but it rarely did. We poked at the saggy weight from underneath with a pole or climbed up gingerly and shovel-scooted it down. The tarp was a good one, a gift from my uncle in St. Louis who has never needed a woodshed in his life but owns a fabric company and understands tarps, god bless him. That tarp never tore.

We start burning in October and go right on through April. The fire goes out at night, and in the morning we start it anew, barefoot on the floor, while coffee water boils. Eventually, by mid-morning, the cabin is eighty degrees upstairs — heat rises — and sixty downstairs. Perfect for Laurie and me. She puts on shorts to visit me upstairs at my desk. I wear a sweatshirt for lunch downstairs.

The truth is I like heat. I crave it. I have socks with holes from when I risk setting them too close to the source. That’s how desperate I am. When I’m at a house with central heat, I lose my center; I don’t know where to go to get warm, so I bundle up and turn surly. When the heat is turned up, I open windows because it feels stuffy. I don’t know how to behave — like driving too slow in traffic, like speaking too slowly on the phone. Out of step.

So I don’t mind getting wood, even in the fall, especially in the fall. There’s an old saying about how firewood gets you get warm twice: cutting the wood, then burning it; actually it’s more like four times, bucking, splitting, stacking, then burning. There’s anticipation to it, hope even. Squirrels are pelting scraps of metal roofing the yard with cones, bears are scrounging for the last shriveled berries and the first shriveled fish. Life is about to slow down, move inside, and we’d better be prepared.

When the Walls Come Tumbling Down

The day of the last tours, ever, of the Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula, Laurie and I went hiking on the nearby Dungeness Spit. The weather played predictable: grey but not wet, a swath of sameness, a timid surf, a long flat horizon. Lot of driftwood.

Where my mountain prejudice came from I don’t know. When I was a kid I did a science project, and I remember the thrill I felt in cutting out the blue/white photos of the Himalayas, the Andes, and I remember the guilt, too, that the scenery seduced me so much more than the science. I had no patience for geologic time, the crash of tectonic plates, the slow boring building up and eroding down, the foreign-sounding words: igneous, metamorphic, schist. But those photos of distant snowy domes — those and others over my long adolescence in suburban LA — left me so breathless that, as soon as I could, I moved to the mountains and stayed. When, a couple of years ago, a friend took a job on the coast, I felt pity for him. He’d traded glaciers-up-close for Costco and radio reception. This seemed to me a kind of weakness or defeat.

On the Dungeness Spit, we met with friends we hadn’t seen in 17 years. We saw a newt and met a ranger named Knut. The kids practiced native skills and took the orange peels and created teeth from the white backside. An eagle sat not 100 feet away atop a weathered stump. All those long years of house building or career building or family building come easing back together like the tides, like these gentle lapping waves. Not the crashers I knew as a kid.

The idea of a dam coming down sounds momentous, but it shouldn’t be. Make no mistake: I’m a big fan of hydropower, but the Elwha is antiquated and inarguably stupid: providing precious little electricity, while decimating an entire run of salmon. The only reason to hang onto that dam is stubbornness, loyalty to an idea — that all dams are good — at any cost. (Much like sticking it out in foreign wars rather than admit that they were misguided to start with and ineffectual to boot. But I digress.) Taking down the Elwha should be no bigger deal, I thought, than yanking a garden crop (my peppers, say, this lousy summer) that’s withering. No more notable than taking out the trash. With explosives, sure, but still. Brush off your hands and move on.

On the Dungeness Spit, a head popped up just beyond the swells, the size and shape of a footing we once used for a woodshed, blocky and pyramid-like. Black. A sea lion, our friends said. How did they know? A harbor seal is a smaller round-headed creature. Later, for over an hour, we watched three cormorants ride a piece of bark parallel to the beach until, as we watched, a long smooth hump appeared. The hump grew large then rose, entirely and vertically, out of the water. Huge. It turned and collapsed and came up again. A grey whale. Breaching. Not 100 yards away.

I couldn’t help it: I was breathless. I had to admit, I’d been wrong about the coast and that my prejudice had nothing to do with nature or wildness — plenty of that on the Spit — or even my own nature. Just cliché snobbery, resistance to change and an eagerness, even, to ignore the obvious truth. Admitting my wrongness, it turned out, was less a chore or a relief than a celebration.

Maybe, I’m thinking, that’s what it’ll feel like in September when I return to the peninsula to watch the walls come tumbling down.

Face the Camera

The film crew arrived the day after my partner, Laurie, was given the heads up, not a warning exactly, but a familiar blunt blow: her job might be on the chopping block. Nothing new. She’s heard it before, plenty of times, over her twenty-five-year career with the National Park Service. Such as it is. She used to work on trail crew; now she maintains a historic apple orchard, which means she works outside, physically, all the time. She’s no longer seasonal, not yet permanent, but a so-called “term” employee who gets some benefits but must reapply for her own job every four years and is, even at that four-year juncture, officially not supposed to be re-hired. Though she has been. Four times. All this to say her job security, like that of most people who work outside physically all the time, is complicated and tenuous, very nearly ridiculous, and most of the time, she doesn’t care.

“Career” as C.L. Rawlins used to say, “rhymes with beer out here.”

By contrast, the young and likeable leader of the film crew, a one-time seasonal in our little valley, had already secured a permanent job at headquarters — a windowless office building many hours from the actual park out along the I-5 corridor — and now he’d re-arrived with the mission of recruiting volunteers. His job was to make five-minute high-quality video clips, mini-PR films, complete with stunning scenery and inspirational stories about people who work outside.

Will you be in the orchard tomorrow?  he asked.

No, Laurie said. She wasn’t being surly. Just telling the truth. She’d planned to take the day off.

Then she went directly to the woman who has been helping her out this season to offer a little advice.

Just do your regular job, she said. Run the weedeater or the chainsaw. Make sure it’s dirty, loud and smelly.  Don’t do anything pastoral.

But the crew didn’t show up.

There are plenty of problems with the idea of PR in the parks. There’s little advantage for taxpayers in pumping up the base, so to speak, getting nature lovers even more psyched about nature, and frankly, little purpose in gaining new constituents. Enough people love the parks. They’re always high on those ever-dwindling lists of things people are glad to pay taxes for. So what’s the point? To get volunteers to come do work they’re not good at, projects that take many hours of planning time away from people who could actually do the work? Or, worse, to convince young people that volunteering can lead to a career working outside when real paid outside jobs are as endangered as salmon or wolves (and similarly romanticized, come to think of it). It’s complicated, yes, and ridiculous; it’s best not to think about it at all, to just work outside and play outside and drink beer outside and be grateful. But some days it’s harder to do than others.

The film crew showed up the next day.

Laurie didn’t run the weedeater or the chainsaw for the filmers.  She climbed into a nice pastoral apple tree while they asked questions about where she’s from — the suburbs — and how she got where she is — by doing labor for twenty-five years.

Then they asked her to say this: I work for the National Park Service.

Again, they said. With more enthusiasm.

I work for the National Park Service, she said.

One more time, they said. And this time, face the camera.

Promise of Spring

A title is a promise, or so I hear in writing circles. If that’s so, then this one, I’m telling you, has been broken for a long time. I’ve waited for warm dirt since last November when the first wet snow fell, and I’ve waited in earnest — and in vain — since the beginning of March. No dice.

Let me be clear: Spring in the Northwest is excruciating. Not crisp or cool or refreshing. Not even gloomy or depressing. Excruciating. The weeks between the last snow and the first flower stretch out endless as a Kansas interstate, interminable as a dentist appointment where the guy leaves you in a room with your jaw wedged open and then just forgets about you. Only worse. Because, in this case, there’s always a tease. You look out the window after a long spell of gray, maybe six weeks of drizzle, and you see the sun. The sun! You step outside — bundled in a wool coat and hat — and the wind blows fierce but you don’t care. You turn your face upwards only to see clouds rush in — from where? — to obscure the light.

John Denver had a song called “Late Winter, Early Spring (When Everyone Goes to Mexico).” Sometimes I remember the slow plucking dullness of that tune and think that’s how this feels, except that it’s mid-spring now not early spring, and anyway what was the name of that album? “Rocky Mountain High.” Colorado. 300+ days of sun a year. OK, OK, I admit it. My problem may stem from the fact that I grew up in Southern California, where we started swim practice outdoors the first week in February. The tradeoffs you get for living in the North Cascades rather than Greater LA are worth it, I know: clean air and solitude, green trees, waterfalls, and in summer, the high country. And it’s Lent anyway, I tell my formerly Catholic self, time to wait it out, cultivate patience.

Instead, I decide in late March to move to Arizona.

Seriously. I decided just that, emphatically, last week, when family obligations landed Laurie and me in Phoenix next to a swimming pool. Never mind that the hotel was surrounded by a Cracker Barrel, a riverbed littered with shopping carts and a thousand car dealerships. It was warm. Maybe there was no warm dirt, but there was plenty of warm cement, and that seemed good enough. I didn’t decide to move to Phoenix — I’m not yet that far gone — but Flagstaff, for sure, high dry and sunny. I was sure about it.

Until today.

There’s always a today, every single year. But I forget until it’s here: full sun, green grass, tiny shoots of tiger lilies, lupine, columbine, glacier lilies, water leaf, balsamroot.  None of it flowering. Not yet. But the promise is enough. And, yes, the dirt is warm, sun-soaked and smelling strong. I walked the gravel road this afternoon, skipping across potholes, in shirtsleeves, and, back home, I lay in the dirt and the fir needle duff among saw chips like confetti from a winter limbing project and brown maple leaves, dry as crepe paper, twitching in the breeze, and I stared straight into the sun.