Snow in the High Sierras
By Bret Harte
now. Everywhere. As far as the eye could reach--fifty miles, looking southward from the highest white peak. Filling ravines and gulches and dropping from the walls of canons in white shroudlike drifts, fashioning the dividing ridge into the likeness of a monstrous grave, hiding the bases of giant pines and completely covering young trees and larches, rimming with porcelain the bowl-like edges of still, cold lakes, and undulating in motionless white billows to the edge of the distant horizon. Snow Iying every where over the California Sierras on the 15th day of March, I848, and still falling.
It had been snowing for ten days; snowing in finely-granulated powder, in damp, spongy flakes, in thin, feathery plumes; snowing from a leaden sky steadily, snowing fiercely, shaken out of purple-black clouds in white flocculent masses, or dropping in long level lines like white lances from the tumbled and broken heavens. But always silently! The woods were so choked with it, the branches were so laden with it, it had so permeated, filled and possessed earth and sky; it had so cushioned and muffled the ringing rocks and echoing hills that all sound was deadened. The strongest gust, the fiercest blast spoke no sigh or complaint from the snow-packed rigid files of forest. There was no cracking of bough nor crackle of underbrush; the overladen branches of pine and fir yielded and gave way without a sound. The silence was vast, measureless, complete!
Nor could it be said that any outward sign of life or motion changed the fixed outlines of this stricken landscape. Above, there was no play of light and shadow, only the occasional deepening of storm of night. Below, no bird winged its flight across the white expanse, no beast haunted the confines of the black woods; whatever of brute nature might have once inhabited these solitudes had long since flown to the low lands. There was no track or imprint; whatever foot might have left its mark upon this waste, each succeeding snow-fall obliterated all trace or record. Every morning the solitude was virgin and unbroken; a million tiny feet had stepped into the track and filled it up.-- 1876, Bret Harte, Gabriel Conroy
Geographical Perspective: The Sierra Mountains separate Virginia City from the gold buying banks of San Francisco. Ten years prior to the founding of Virginia City, a group of settlers lost their way and became trapped by the snow. The ill-famed Donner Party was doomed by early snows in this region. The picture of how difficult it would have been to rescue them becomes clear. Dan DeQuille describes the first winter in Virginia City: The First Winter, 1859-1860.
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