At the edge of the Rocky Mountains, among the first rumples in the western land from low, round hills to high, steep hills that lie not in isolation, but in continuous ranges, we enter the woods. I want to walk in snow. We came here, only an hour’s drive from home, through the round hills and isolated mountains, where the land is high enough to have snow to take a short walk.
We walk uphill through one draw, then follow the trail southward to the next draw, where we are high enough above the bottom that we cannot see it through the trees. Others have been here before us, and they have compacted the snow on the trail. The walking is easy, although I feel the uphill steps and breathe deeply when we stop.
The woods are still. We hear no birds or other sounds. There is no wind, not even the slightest breeze. This stillness is possible only when the world chills and the woods become insulated by snow. Normally the slight sway of trees would cause them to creak, but the heavy weight of eight inches of snow stills them. This is a rare quiet. As we walk we hear only the crunch of our boots against the crust of snow and the depths of our breaths.
The trail forks at the ridge. Those who walked here before us went eastward, over ridge, and down to the bottom of the next drainage. The tracked trail goes that direction. We turn north to follow the ridge. Our trail is untracked, except for the prints of a solitary elk that preceded us up the trail, and our steps sink in the snow, which is here about ten inches deep. The fan-ends of cedar branches, weighted by snow, hang low over the trail—we must duck under these, and I inevitably brush against them, knocking back my fleece stocking cap or catching my shoulder on a limb, and loose snow from the branches falls down my neck. Shrub branches—many of ninebark that dangle frozen brown clusters of dried flowers—also hang low over the trail, and these I knock two or three times with my hiking pole to jar loose the snow, which falls in clumps, and the branches spring upward, allowing my easier passage. Old snags, mostly branchless, have fallen under the weight of snow or the wind of an earlier storm, and we must step over these. Another snag, weighted by the snow forms an arch over the trail—its top and bottom are set in snow and the top of the arch is higher than my nine-foot reach.
We walk back to the trailhead through a draw of cedar and western white pine. I look up from the trail to the passage ahead to see the brown butt and tail of an owl, low among the trees, fly into the forest. The owl, about 25 yards ahead of us, is completely silent. There is no sound of wind pushed beneath its wings or the flap of the wings. In two or three minutes we reach the place where owl had been. A ring of feathers lies on the trail arrayed, much like a target, with soft, gray down feathers in the middle and semiplumes at the edge of these. Now flightless, a few flight feathers lie among the others, where contour feathers—these banded in brown and black and edged in white—make up the margin of the ring. Amid the concentric rings of feathers there is a single red spot—an inch wide—of blood on the crust of snow. At the edge a stem-like smear of greenish yellow marks the spot where an intestine must have been ripped open. The body of the grouse is absent—held most likely in the unseen leading edge of the owl.
The draw is not as quiet as the deeper woods. Ravens kraak among the trees, and I hear wind whoosh through their wings, although I don’t see the birds. My stocking cap is pulled low over my eyes and the late afternoon light is growing dim. I hear the highway through the woods below us, although I cannot yet see it through the forest. The narrow highway is a passage through the woods and high hills at the edge of the mountains. It connects one logging town to another. They are small towns with few people. Few are travelling today, and the whir of a car is an infrequent break in the stillness of the woods.
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The tree arch was photographed by Adrian.