I had forgotten how beautiful ice is.
But as I drove over the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, I saw the flat, silver surface of motionless lakes that caught the light from the sky.
And as I drove late last year past frozen creeks, I saw the shelf of white crusted a few inches above the water, caught on the reeds.
Above me at the top of the mountains, the snow scumbled across the near peaks looking like powdered sugar on a stony doughnut.
There’s a lot to be said for ice.
The only problem is that the ice is also on the road. And as I drive east into the low morning sun, it is glowing white on the blacktop, and I cannot tell what is ice from what is melted water until I am on top of it and can distinguish the wet hiss under the tires from the thudding bumps of crusted ice. It makes the trip from Bend to Silver Lake a trial of nerves.
I can remember when snow and ice hit in New Jersey, where I grew up. The snow was the color of ash and piled up on roadsides, filled with cinders and soot. Cars clanked by on tire chains, and others spun their wheels on the hill outside the house.
Ice was never a welcome event in New Jersey.
But after I lived for 10 years in the Western desert, I discovered that I missed the ice, not so much on roads, but in lakes and streams. I missed the rime on the grass early in the morning and the squeak of white powder under my boot soles.
So, as I pass near Fort Rock, coming out of Fremont National Forest, I slow to avoid the slick spots on the road, but I also slow to enjoy the concentric rings of increasing whiteness on the pond I pass that mark the nightly shrink of water. It is all solid now.
The ripples on its surface are motionless. A few slivers of straw from the bordering reeds blow across its top without getting wet. The ice is like a scab formed over the water to protect the pond and its fish and weeds from the killing cold of the air above.
In larger lakes, like Summer Lake and Goose Lake, there is a darker circle in the center, of still unfrozen water, and it shivers in the cold, breaking up the reflection of the mountains in wavelets that run across the water blown by wind. A front is coming in from the northwest. The high clouds filter a hazy, frigid sun. The forefront of the clouds is broken into stripes; it looks like fish bones.
Where the sun catches the snow patches on the slopes, it gleams with a brightness that seems of a different order of reality from the rest of the scene: almost like the psychedelic landscapes screaming by in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And in the castellated crest of the Warner Mountains, as I enter California again, there is a bright coating of orange lichen that plays against the blue shadows in the snow so that the rocks sing out like a chorus: Kyrie Eleison.
Perhaps it is the cold, which makes the air seem as solid as crystal. Perhaps it is the sun, which even at noon comes in from such a low angle that it drowns all the landscape in the orange light of dusk. Perhaps it is the deep lapis of the sky at this altitude, which reflects off the ice of Goose Lake.
Or perhaps it is the contrast of the teeth-chattering cold against the steam that rises from the thick grasses in the meadows south of Lakeview, where thermal water boils from the ground and makes a network of streams in the valley floor.
But I had forgotten how beautiful ice is.