The view is panoramic. Living in dense urban environments, I had forgotten the pleasure of watching weather patterns approach or sweep past. Snow lingers on a hill several miles away, the dense air and thick gray clouds my indication. On the other side of the valley the sun strikes a forest, and the plumes of melting snow that rise in the wind dwarf the trees themselves. Blanching down they strike, these huge shafts of light, separating shadow and not across wide swaths of forest and field.
I have forgotten, my mind says, and should be awed by the vantage point afforded me from this cabin in the mountains of Colorado, two hours from the city I have been guesting in. Skiing up the mile to its door, from the end of the county road where we left the jeep pulled over in a turn-out and locked to wait for our return, I should be awed by the landscape. Instead I am stuck trying to breathe. There is majesty in the landscape, and there is the pain of my nose as it freezes. These are competing senses, although both can be described with awe. Pushing up the final hill I can at last appreciate the expanse of the view finally, both poles stuck in the snow. The dogs can too, having had their run. They are ready to head inside for warmth and the cabin’s restraint of the wind that tugs and pulls and mostly chills.
A map of the United States is a curious thing. Without an overlay of population or a satellite picture of lights at night there is no sense of exactly how empty, exactly how open is the western expanse. With one though there seems to be a huge gap, as though the progress westward had not been completed, as though humanity simply leapt towards the west coast. Half of this country is truly empty in a way hard to remember for a boy from the east coast who has spent the past seven years in Asian metropolises of Tokyo and Shanghai. In some ways this expanse of snow-swept reservoirs and mountains is overwhelming, something to be acknowledged and accepted rather than interwoven with my images of the wide world. Over and over I wonder at the people who live up here, not visitors or retirees but children who play over these hills in their youth and herd cattle across them as teenagers, who build houses under the auspice of construction companies founded in these small towns by their uncles or fathers. I can not comprehend the sense of ordinary they must have for these views, and, on the other end, how trapped they would have felt in Shanghai these past five years, watching the polluted air curtain off the city, particulate walls of white blocking the view after a half dozen blocks. Would they feel as cut off and alone there as I do now, looking out at the snowstorms almost upon us and yet still ten miles to the south?
Somehow I doubt it, myself a child of the wilderness of the north east, which remains, despite the brilliance of its representation from satellite. My house, the house my parents are selling even now, is one from which the stars can be seen. Perhaps not with the same clarity as here, up nine thousand feet from the level of the sea. Yet from a hill in Lansing they are visible with the eye in a fashion impossible to imagine for a child of the sprawl of Yokohama-Tokyo-Chiba-Saitama. As I type that my memory gives it lie, remembering walking home one night from the last train in Kawagoe, two thirty in the morning as I crossed a river, walking on the bridge’s wide rail above the water’s concrete bed. The stars shone bright that night, one of summer’s warmest. Here, in the dry height of Colorado, on the shortest days of the year, they do again, save when obscured by blowing snow.
It is peaceful here, and many things explain themselves to my brain in the ample time it has to consider ideas, bereft of internet and telephony. With only word games and the printed page to occupy us we construct, knitting and writing, cooking and fire-building, until the dark has worn us down, and the idea of waking with the sun has more to offer than remaining upright. These four days at the end of two thousand eight are respite from the constant chase of our urban lives, even from the holiday cheer of our visit to Colorado. They are a chance, too rare and too often filled with gasps, to breathe deep and watch the way weather moves, and the speed with which we are overtaken.
Much of this article is informed by a view of the Earth at night from space, widely available on the internet. One of the best views of it can be found in Google Earth, by checking the layer “Earth City Lights” under “NASA” in the Gallery section of the Layers sidebar.