Always reveling in the world around him, Thoreau once wrote, “Every leaf and twig was this morning covered with a sparkling ice armor; even the grasses in exposed fields were hung with innumerable diamond pendants, which jingled merrily when brushed by the foot of the traveler. It was literally the wreck of jewels and the crash of gems…”
I recall an early morning walk up Mount Sentinel in early winter last year, before the snow had stuck. I started early with my dog, my hands frozen from the bitter cold and a headlamp so I could see. But as we reached the M, bright, golden sunlight beamed from behind Sentinel’s peak and began to illuminate Missoula below. We passed the M as daylight was breaking and continued on up the forest service road.
When the sun finally rose above Sentinel’s peak, it flooded the entire mountainside with a golden warmth, backlighting millions of blades of grass covered in sparkling ice. Every single blade, every leaf, every twig, every pebble looked like a jewel. Yet, the orange, yellow, and burgundy remnants of fall remained vivid and proud inside their winter coating: it was like a sea of fire had been frozen in a second and maintained its richness of color. I have never seen anything so stunning in my entire life. I sat on the frozen ground for a few minutes looking very closely at one particular bush with the appearance of a chandelier, and I understood nothing of how it came to be but felt lifted and excited about the sight.
I’m not sure if it was merely a case of changing temperatures—perhaps we’d had a wet night, then the morning cold froze the layer of water encasing everything—or maybe it was the elevation that produced this gemlike appearance on the hills, or maybe this magic happened every single morning and it was only my witnessing it that was the rarity. I like to think it’s only me missing out.
I get attached to these moments, and I start to seek them. But the beauty of them seems to be in their unexpectedness. I’m sure if I got up before dawn every day during the winter and made my way up Sentinel, I’d see this again, or something similar, but that isn’t quite the point. Being entirely bewildered by beauty unexpected, simple and everyday in its nature yet wild enough to send the mind and heart spinning, that is what I hope for when I go out.
But Thoreau cautions us: “Such beauty is ever—neither here nor there, now nor then—neither in Rome nor in Athens, but wherever there is a soul to admire. If I seek her elsewhere because I do not find her at home, my search will prove a fruitless one.”
I won’t be in Montana forever. In fact, this is probably my last winter in Montana for a while, and each time I recall this bittersweet fact, I want to hold onto these moments with all I’ve got. I revel in the seasons, but fall and winter are my favorites, and I think it’s because of the way they come in quickly, sprinkle colors and sparkles and mysteries galore, then disappear into cold stillness as secretly as they came. I chase them and try to catch them, and they only seem to move on even faster. So I remember Thoreau, and I remind myself that I can revel all I want in these sweet surprises, but I must also remember that it is not only on a wintry Mount Sentinel, or in the autumn streets of Missoula, or in the peaceful valleys of Montana that beauty exists in abundance.
The beauty is in our ability to see it; in our opening ourselves to its presence. When we remember this, we will likely find ourselves reveling in the present—wherever it may be.