Searching for winter in Palm Springs

As the West warms, hunting for snow becomes part of the adventure.


Winter — cold, snowy and blindingly white — has always been my season, my native home. Born just shy of the Canadian border on Dec. 25, I traded a cozy womb for a markedly less cozy hospital bed and never looked back. My childhood was devoted to sledding, my adolescence to climbing frozen backcountry waterfalls. Heck, when I graduated from college, my first job was to wield a shovel at the South Pole.

Your average sane person deems lumbar-busting labor in 70-below-zero temps undesirable, a major bummer — but I am not your average sane person. I am me, the Christmas Baby, and shoveling Antarctica’s drifts only reinforced my allegiance to all things shivery and severe. Winter, I realized at the bottom of the planet, is my modus operandi, my way of being. It’s a kind of crystallized joy sparkling inside my heart.

Odd, then, that a handful of years post-Pole, fresh off a two-week ski tour (numb toes, brittle tent, wonderful stuff), I pointed my car toward Palm Springs, California, intending to reside in that baking, sandblasted desert metropolis for a spell. Driving into the Coachella Valley — into a sprawling expanse of thirsty brown dirt unlike anything I’d ever encountered — I heard a voice snickering in my ear: Welcome to your new digs, Christmas Baby. You are so totally screwed.

Access to a rent-free writing hideout —  a deceased relative’s empty condo — lured me to SoCal. I knew my passion for vast frosty silences and frigid storms was going to make it a tough go, but pretending otherwise, I set myself a schedule: long morning sessions at the laptop, long afternoon strolls through the weirdness of the place. Traversing a litter-strewn lot flanking I-10, I crouched to observe a creeping tarantula. (You’re not winter!) Exploring BLM lands behind the Vons supermarket, I stumbled on pink and purple flowers in full bloom. (You’re not winter either!)

The Sonoran Desert is fascinating, intricate and alluring, and Palm Springs has certain charms too, among them tacos, birdwatching and tacos. But still. By late January, there was no denying that I missed my snowy winters.  Instead of blizzards, there was a parched arroyo abutting a waterpark clogged with shrieking (presumably urinating) kids. Instead of crystallized joy there was, ugh, air-conditioning.

Author Rebecca Solnit has written of “geographically contingent identities,” which is a fancy way of saying that we are required to become different versions of ourselves in different environments. Palm Springs threw an existential challenge on the table, a challenge that promptly leapt from the table and whupped my butt: Who are you without your beloved season, without snowshoes strapped to your boots and rime coating your mustache? Turns out I was a sad dude, a pathetic, sniveling, self-pitying Christmas Baby, not yet sure a different version of me even existed. 

Defeated, depressed, I stepped outside one bright February morning, cup of coffee in hand, dread of another day’s topaz swimming pools in mind, and gazed up at the San Jacinto Mountains. A vertiginous wall of cliffs and dust that soars from the bars and boutiques of downtown Palm Springs, the loftiest crags of the range appeared to have received. ...

C’mon, that’s impossible.

A blessing, a blanketing?

Holy freakin’ snow!

Consulting my computer, I learned that the Cactus to Clouds Trail (C2C) ascends 10,600 vertical feet over roughly 16 miles — from the floor of the Coachella Valley to the tip of San Jacinto Peak, just about the largest topographical relief in the Lower 48. And where there is relief, ah, there is relief. Alexander von Humboldt articulated his theory of altitudinal zonation in 1802: The higher you go, the colder it gets, i.e. distinct ecozones emerge. Above Palm Springs, for Christmas Babies willing to suffer and slog and sweat, a floating island of winter awaits.

This image intrigues me, the image of a winter that doesn’t come knocking on your door but rather beckons from yonder horizon, demanding a pilgrimage of sorts. 

This image intrigues me, the image of a winter that doesn’t come knocking on your door but rather beckons from yonder horizon, demanding a pilgrimage of sorts. Experts claim the season is disappearing from the overcooked, climate-deranged West, and while that’s true, it’s not instantaneous. Disappearance requires time. For the moment, the cold and snow and white remain with us, though they are indeed acting shifty, retreating to alpine redoubts, the protected heights.

In this dynamic, this movement, I see the potential for a novel style of recreation: winter as destination, winter as goal. I see bicyclists pedaling across sizzling blacktop, panniers loaded with crampons and balaclavas, corniced ridges flashing in the distance. I see snowboarders trading baggy pants for spandex shorts, knit beanies for sunbonnets. I see journeys that creatively link polar opposites and, in doing so, enrich our appreciation, drawing us from entitlement to a can’t-take-it-for-granted attitude.

The C2C is burly — a switchbacking agony, a hyperarid StairMaster. I launched my initial attempt two hours before dawn, which proved to be foolishly late (the sun, the smackdown). A second try likewise fizzled, as did a third. But then, finally, in early March, I succeeded: reached the crusty snow banks between huge ponderosa pines, danced a goofy jig, half-vomited from exhaustion. I’d done it, made the connection, located winter amid SoCal’s heat. I’d even derived a perverse pleasure from the effort. The bilious price of reunion was well worth paying.

Of course, I couldn’t loaf up there forever, and soon commenced the descent, retracing my hard-earned steps. At some point during that interminable hike, I was struck by the uniqueness of my position: winter sharp against the spine, bleak burning valley yawning beyond the toes. It was an exciting contrast, an enlivening tension — not “either/or” but “and/both.” It was, perhaps, a vision of the future that has already arrived.

Palm Springs and I were obviously destined for a fling, not a committed relationship. The writing project that brought me there complete, I decided paying rent wasn’t the worst thing ever and escaped to Northern climes. I took with me an important lesson, though: You can remove the Christmas Baby from the sparkly crystals, but you can’t remove the sparkly crystals from the Christmas Baby. Low to high, near to far, wherever they lead, he will follow, desert furnace be damned.

Who are you without your beloved season? Apparently I am a guy who searches, who pursues, who quests — a guy who refuses “without” and calls his refusal sport, entertainment, fun. A modus operandi. A way of being.   

Leath Tonino is a freelance writer and the author of a collection of essays, The Animal One Thousand Miles Long. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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