Going down the Sierra

We went down the sierra because I couldn’t stand the cold. My kids and I went down the sierra, leaving almost everything up there in the mountain. In the cabin we left the furniture and almost all the food and clothes. The only things we took with us were the backpacks with supplies for the way back, and the memory of seeing snow for the first time.

There wasn’t a lot of snow. One night, my kids woke me up and we went outside to see it. It only snowed enough to cover the hills with a thin layer of frost. A few days later the snow had hardened. A week later it vanished, absorbed by the ground. It was perhaps the first snowfall of the year, the first time my children and I saw the snow, the first time the sierra was covered in white in who knows how long.

And even without snow, I couldn’t stand the cold. We could barely sleep with so many chills, with our purple lips and stiff fingers. I thought that up there, in the silence of the mountain, I could at least write my book in peace, and the kids would have the hills to play in. Instead of that we spent all day confined to the cabin where the three of us could barely fit, wanting to fulfil our promise of enduring the winter up there, enduring a cold that would not let me hold the pen.

But alas, we are already descending, between dry streams and stones that have never been moved, between ditches and paths that the wind never seems to erase. At least the way back wasn’t as difficult as the way up. Still, we had to crawl over the most dangerous stretches, slipping on loose dirt, covering our already dirty clothes with more dust.

“Are we going back once the winter ends?” Sonia asks, my eldest daughter. “The cold didn’t bother me. It’s a pretty place.

She looks pale, skinny like her mother even though she’s wrapped in coats and blankets, with her hair full of dirt after having stumbled several times. She’s tired and doesn’t want to tell me. She’s dragging her feet, looking down; I don’t know if it’s because of fatigue or to see where she’s going.

I can barely see my son Ned’s face, dry from the cold an dust, protected by a thick cap. I look behind, the cabin is over there, lost among the peaks and rocks. The sun shines the tip of the sierra, warming it just a little.

Down here it may be less cold, but no less dry. The salt flat, where the wind lifts a horrible dust during the summer, is still dry, just as it was when I was a kid, when my mother couldn’t sleep due to the allergy that all that dust in the air caused, when my dad used to tell me that one day the rains would arrive and the salt flat would turn into a large lake where the fish would abound. Forty years later, the flat is still dry, and I haven’t seen a single fish.

It’s a town that really cries out for the rain. Ravaged by the winds of every day, built under the promise that the sierra would turn white during winter, and in the spring, all that water would flow through the streams and rivers until it reached the salt flat. It’s a town that longs so much for the rain that it has already built a channel to guide the waters to the future lake, and a dock at the end of the main street, a dock that longs for the day the salt flat is flooded as much as the people that built it long for rain. They built it with the best wood they could get, the one that lasts for centuries. My dad used to tell me that it was very pretty during the first years. But now it looks so dry, so old, thirsty and pale as the dirt that surrounds it. I really don’t know how long it can last.

I only await the rain for only one thing, and that is for it to turn all this dust that covers the houses and streets into mud, and not having to breathe it ever again.

Down here, where the wind blows without mercy, we cover our faces to not get our face dirty or go blind. The town is already close. Projecting its large shadows over the plain, making it seem bigger than it actually is. Hidden in the dust and dirt, it’s sometimes difficult to see the homes that barely support their own weight. The town seems to always be enveloped in a haze that sickens the lungs and dries the skin.

We enter the captain’s office and I shake off my clothes, my kids immediately collapse on the chairs, covering them in even more dust.

“The season is not over yet. Was there an emergency?”

Great way to greet someone who just came back from the mountain.

“Everything is alright. But the last frost was terrible. I decided to descend just for one night, maybe two.”

“I heard there was snowfall. I couldn’t see anything from here.”

“There was a little snow, indeed.”

“Anyways, I should’ve imagined your kids were going to give you trouble.”

“Not at all, They endured the cold unlike anyone. They trembled and shivered, almost to the point of having hypothermia for playing outside but they never complained. They wanted to go to the mountain because they wanted to see some snow. I told them that it has never snowed up there, but they didn’t listen to me.”

“Well, it seems that it did snow this year. Let’s hope next year is the same.”

While I was talking with the captain, I realized that, as if everything had been a dream, I was starting to forget how the snow landing on my face felt.

I was trying to write, on a particularly cold night, trying to write something, anything, just so that I could fill my notebook that was still blank. I wasn’t able to write a single word, not due to my lack of ideas, but because my hand was so numb that I wasn’t able to properly draw a single letter. In the midst of that frustration, the screaming of my children calling me worsened things. But when I heard their voices crying “Snow!, Snow!, Dad, it’s snowing!”, I immediately left the pen and went outside the cabin.

The wind was light, and the snow was like a bright dust that gently fell to the ground. It nestled in the hair, clothes, skin, where it melted and turned into water droplets that moistened my face. The snow was like dust, a dust that instead of drying, refreshes. My children screamed and laughed, and I cried because I had never seen anything like that in my life. All that snow, all that white in a place like this; it had to be a dream. But it wasn’t.

I didn’t pick up the pen again, for nothing I could possibly write could compare with what I experienced that night. Even though we didn’t stay the entire season up there, it was worth taking them up there. Seeing the snow with my kids was more than enough.

“Hey, do you hear me?”

I stop looking at Sonia who was resting on the chair and turn to the captain.

“Looks like you need to sleep too. Why did you descend the sierra alone? It must have taken you days.”

“Oh no, they helped us descend to the station. We walked to the town from there. I get dizzy when traveling by car. They lift so much dust and shake a lot.”

“So, you came for supplies, tools? Are you coming back to live down here?”

“No, I want to go up as soon as I can, I’m going to need more supplies, winter is just beginning.”

“I see, well, tell me what you need and I’ll prepare everything. I’ll send them to the cabin on the next caravan. Rest, eat something, and prepare because shorter and colder days are coming.

The captain opens the door that leads to the warehouse and gets lost among the crates and barrels that arrive every month by train. Loaded with supplies that keep us alive, specially up there in the mountains, where few dare to settle.

I wake Sonia up and grumbling, she stands up and cleans her eyes. She takes off her coat and stretches her arms.

“Ned, wake up, we fell asleep in the captain’s office”, she says, shaking her still sleeping brother’s shoulder. “Are we going back home dad?”

“We will stay a few days in the lodge, and then we’ll go back up.”

The captain returns with a few forms that I have to sign. Food, fuel, shelter, and a few tools.

“And this is your room,” he tells me and gives me the keys. “It’s a single room, I wasn’t able to get another one.”

“No problem, We’ll manage.”

The captain looks at Ned, who seems to have no idea where he is. The captain’s imposing height seems to scare him.

“You don’t talk a lot, right? Where’s your mom?” He asks.

“At the north pole, sir.” Ned answers, barely awake.

“The north pole? And what’s she doing so far away from here?”

“My mom has a very important job,” Sonia says. She’s on a mission to find out a way of bringing a chunk of ice to the salt flat.

“Move a glacier? Across the desert?”

The man laughed out loud. Upon seeing that it wasn’t funny to me, he went silent.

“Well. Looks like a very important job, kid. I only hope it doesn’t take long. At this rate we’ll end up filling the salt flat with our tears and sweat.

I take the kids to our room, thankfully here we won’t need to shiver in order to survive. The room is dark and cold, but it’s tolerable.

“Are we going to sleep here?! We can’t fit all three!” Sonia exclaims upon inspecting the room. “Couldn’t the captain give us a better room?”

“The captain is a bad person,” Ned answers. “He made fun of mom.”

They don’t seem to be very happy with the place we’ll spend the night in (And neither am I), so I try my best to improve the mood.

“Kids, listen. The captain is a person with a lot of work. We lack a lot of things in the town and on the mountain, but he’s doing everything he can to give us a better life. Remember that thanks to him we were able to build the cabin in the sierra.

“That doesn’t give him any right to make fun of mom’s job.”

“I know, Sonia. The captain has a very different way of seeing things. Unlike your mom, who works to achieve something many deem impossible, the captain chooses to work for the here and the now. Maybe he struggles a bit when it comes to understanding mom’s ambition.”

“Are we going to tell her we saw snow?” Sonia asks.

“That would make her very happy. But it’s too late now. Tomorrow will be another long day, go to sleep. Winter is just beginning. It may snow again soon.

Sonia and Ned share the bed where they barely fit, I lie on the floor and prepare to sleep.

“Dad, are you going to tell mom that we couldn’t stand the cold?” Ned asks me, who I thought was already asleep.

“I’m going to tell her that I didn’t stand the cold. You two are very brave.”

Down here, in the salt flat, the night wind carries a horrible dust that steals people of their rest and sleep. Fortunately, my children don’t seem to be affected by it, but it surely does affect Isabel. The doctor told her it was better to avoid places as polluted as the salt flat, where the wind never seems to cease. It was her idea to have a house in the mountains, far from all that dust.

Down here in the town we have a very slow satellite network, and a message from my wife had arrived. Directly from the north pole.

“Hello!” Isabel greets me with that tone I like so much. “How is everything going up there? How are my kids?”

Sleeping, I don’t want to wake them up.

“Ned, the north pole is changing very fast. The last time I visited it, five years ago, there was a lot more ice. This is great news.”

“And do you know where all that ice is going? To the atmosphere.” She said enthusiastically. That’s right. The north pole is starting to melt. And faster than what our models predicted.”

I see Isabel walking on the creaking ice, and she shows me a landscape so white that it almost blinds me. A landscape colder than the sierra.

“How I’d love to spend more time here. It looks like another world, it feels like another planet. I don’t know, I love it. It has been a hot summer. It may not seem like but, but we already measured record temperatures. The poles are heating up!”

She looks so happy, lost in the middle of the ice and snow, protected from the cold as much as us, with red cheeks and dry lips due to the cold.

“Slow but steady Ned, we’ll slowly bring all this ice to every region of the planet in the form of clouds, snow, and rain. We’re freeing all this ice, starting the water cycle in Dunhar!”

Maybe, the snowfall was the ice that was trapped in the poles for millennia, unable to move due to the low temperatures of the planet. Maybe that snowfall was a gift from Isabel to her children.

“Dunhar is still a cold place. But things are going to change very soon, you’ll see.”

I was already seeing it. Already seeing something for the first time in my life. Something I thought my children were never going to see. I want to tell her that it has finally snowed on the mountains, that our bet of building a cabin in the mountains was worth it, even though there is little water, even though nothing grows up there. I want to tell her that our dream will soon be a reality.

I want to tell her that and many other things, but I’m very tired; my legs hurt like never before. Tomorrow, before leaving, I’ll record a message with my kids, to tell her that her work, so distant from her family, is giving results on the other extreme of the world.