Snow arrived in Alamosa as early as October. Often born in the Sangres at the northeast corner of the Valley, the weather advanced south through the evening and night, producing dry, light flakes that were as apt to go up as down, the “champagne powder” of which Colorado was famous. Several inches would blanket the ground the following morning. Buddy and Nick, born and raised in the dry desert, stepped upon it tentatively.
But, again, the Valley abhorred precipitation. Unless the Valley was locked in a cold front, the snow would disappear completely in the days of radiant sunshine that inevitably followed.
When I craved deep snow, I knew I could reliably find it throughout the winter after a short drive south to 10,200-foot-high La Manga Pass, where I snowshoed on vast meadows in the shadow of Pinorealosa Mountain, a crumb of the greater South San Juan Mountains. Accessible by a two-lane highway, the pass was nonetheless remote, as it connected only the little towns of Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico, tickling the boundary between the two states in the process.
I purchased my first snowshoes shortly after moving to Alamosa, and I loved the activity. I generally visited the pass on weekdays, so rarely did I see other snowshoe-ers, cross-country skiers, or snowmobilers.
The snows on La Manga Pass were variously three to five feet deep, and deeper even where they drifted along the clefts of the frozen creek beds. With the aid of ski poles, I’d trek upon great depths of virgin snow, if the conditions were right sinking no more than six inches to a foot. Casually I’d venture up and down gentle slopes, here in blinding sunshine, there through gloomy stands of conifer casting cyanotic shadows.
I particularly delighted in blithely crossing, or pretending to tightrope upon, the topmost strands of nearly-buried barbed-wire fences, those damned obstructions that are everywhere in the West, tearing shirts and costly REI trousers and shorts and drawing blood in any other season.
I loved windy days on the snowbound pass, filmy clouds racing just above, banners of snow spewing from the edges of drifts, scores of ghostly snow devils whirling and boiling over the meadows, requiring me to don amber-tinted goggles.
Bundled in down-filled ski pants and a ski jacket, I’d climb to the lip of a 10-foot drift, stomp my feet, watch cracks suddenly etch all around me, and gaily plummet in my own little death-defying avalanche of cushiony snow. I was the eight-year-old, deliriously happy Philip Davis in a New Jersey blizzard, a leaden and, but for the howling wind, silent world of cancelled schools, snow caves, snow plows, soggy leggings, ice-jammed boot buckles, Flexible Flyers seeking out even the slightest slope, and a steaming bowl of Campbell’s Tomato Soup with Premium Saltines for lunch.
And I’d recall Hal Borland’s words describing the high plains of northeastern Colorado following a three-day-long blizzard: “After such a storm, the world of the plains is a strange and magnificent place. It is as though all the earth-shaping forces have been at work on a vastly quickened scale of time. Hills, valleys, hollows and hummocks have all been reshaped to a new pattern. The wind has had its way, at last, the wind that is forever trying to level the hills and fill the valleys. It has been able to work its will with an obediently plastic, though transient, material.”
And I, on La Manga Pass, was able to have my way, work my will, by walking on top of all that snow without fear of burial. The feeling was messianic.
At day’s end, I’d bid farewell to the wind and snow of the pass and return to the bare, frozen ground of the San Luis Valley, reminded of how consequential Western mountains are―far more consequential, it seemed to me, than the passive mountains and hills of much of the Northeast―when it came to delivering, in the fullness of time, water to the arid lands.