John Montesi

PHOTOS: Dylan Gordon

LOCATION: Yosemite Valley, California

Winter has a way of making the familiar new again, of holding our surroundings in high relief.

Its swirling clouds obscure famed peaks, blankets of snow bury well-worn paths and highlight things that were once hidden in plain sight. Winter provides the aching world with a prolonged ice bath, soaking plants to the bone and restoring thirsty creeks after a long summer. Thick coats of powder muffle the sounds of spring and summer and create a crisp, still silence devoid of the birds and bees that sing on warmer days. Trees are stripped naked and their skeletons exposed so that every year we are reminded of just how intricate they really are. A snowstorm may reduce visibility, but it can also expand perspective.

There are obvious things to do in the snow, but as with everything, the possibilities are as endless as the imagination. To see the world dampened and coated in reflective white is to learn much about the places we thought we knew well. Even under cloud cover, a snowy day can be blindingly bright. Fingers of fog and patches of white can make tree trunks and rocky cliff sides appear as dark shadows instead of muted earth tones. Wolves that were once experts in camouflage spent their days hidden in plain sight and must lean on their athleticism instead of their stealth. So snow highlights our hidden strengths. It also shows our footprints, which so often are invisible to the naked eye. It lets us leave them in places that are usually water, so we can take in our surroundings from perspectives unique to the days when the freeze is so deep that lakes are safe to tread upon. There are no wildflowers, mountaintops rarely show their faces. We learn as much from what we cannot see as from what we can. But we can never see all of a place at one time — when the flowers bloom and the sun shines, we can no longer walk on water.

There are names for people who flee the snow and those who flock to it. Some chase seasons while others seek only to escape them. And yet, all of us are influenced by them in one way or another. Not all places experience snow at all, which makes it even more worthy of careful consideration. Winter is neither a dreadful inconvenience nor a mere means to an end. It is a fact of life, and it presents itself annually. But, like the sunrise and the sunset, this guaranteed occurrence is all too often taken for granted. And like the sunrise, every winter and every snowstorm is unique from the last.

The constant of the natural world is not that it is unchanging but that it is always changing. Far from climate control and insulation, we find something essential in the places that refuse to submit to our will. We have phrases for this, like “getting outside your comfort zone,” but none quite communicate the transcendental peace of joining the elements. You can be prepared with layers and gear, check the forecast, and carry satellite phones to the far corners of the earth. But the peace of the planet comes from deeply recognizing the unpredictable ways of nature. You can get rained on under blue skies, you can get lost in a place you’ve been a thousand times, animals may appear where scientists say they will not. We go into nature to escape the chaos of our manmade world. But we also go there to escape the predictability of a world that’s had the mystery ironed out.
Whether across the world or across the street, once we step outside, we relent control and embrace the present in a way that grows more difficult by the day. Snow still falls, the sun also rises, but we have gotten better at creating ways to commute during blizzards and to work after sun set. And so, we forget that we are not masters of the world, that our routines are not inescapable. We mistakenly dread inclement weather that may delay planned activities and regularly scheduled programming. And we view the sunny days as normal in an almost pejorative sense, business as usual in an era when usual means sterile and relentless.

The beauty of winter is that it forces us to consider the same surroundings differently. From iconic landmarks to city sidewalks, bare trees and snowy scenes create new challenges and unfamiliar beauty. Discussing weather is often dismissed as small talk, but that causes us to overlook the big picture that the inevitable changing of seasons paints.

A longer version of this story is featured in our book, Early Hues.