When I craved deep snow, I knew I could reliably find it throughout the winter after a short drive south to the 10,230-foot-high La Manga Pass area, 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 tiny towns of Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico.
I purchased my first snowshoes shortly after moving to Alamosa, and I loved snowshoeing.
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 the 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 hated barriers that are everywhere in the West, tearing shirts and jeans and drawing blood in any other season.
I loved windy days on the snowbound pass, scudded 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.
I generally visited the pass on weekdays, so rarely did I see other snowshoe-ers, cross-country skiers, or snowmobilers.
Bundled in down-filled ski pants and a ski jacket, I’d climb to the lip of a ten-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 recalled 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 Southwestern mountains are―far more so, it seemed to me, than the passive mountains and hills of my native Northeast―when it comes to delivering snow and rain to the arid lands.
Barry Lopez (1945-2020)