Cruising up U.S. Highway 12 west of Missoula, I stare through the windshield and try to ignore the growing pit in my stomach. The steep hills on either side of the pavement are brown, with only the occasional patch of snow clinging to what little shade there is among the charred toothpicks left by the 2013 burn along Lolo Creek. So far New Year's Day hasn't done much to erase the strange, snowless vibe of December in the Northern Rockies.
I ditch off the highway at the Howard Creek trailhead, and it's a relief to see snow blanketing the ground beyond the Forest Service gate. My friend Lindsey pulls in next to my car. Her dog, Milo, circles the parking lot as we unload our Nordic gear. Just past the gate, I clip into my skis and casually inspect the hills farther up the drainage for backcountry skiing potential. There's not nearly enough snow, at least not yet. Lindsey and I keep our distance as we glide up the track, catching up on how our respective Christmases went.
For me, the holiday was my first away from North Dakota in 34 years. Travel seemed like an extremely bad idea in the midst of a pandemic, so I opted to remain in Missoula, breaking a tradition that I feel lucky to have kept up so long. Instead, I cut my own Christmas tree, opened presents via Zoom and spent a delightful afternoon sledding and exchanging snowball barrages with several of my closest friends. The experience was so novel, so contrary to every Christmas past, that it almost felt ordinary. And that's 2020 in a nutshell, right? A full year of fear and uncertainty and chaos gradually conditioning us to view the abnormal as normal.
What stung the most, besides not seeing family, was missing out on my annual reconnecting to the slopes at Huff Hills. For my entire skiing life, shredding runs like Rattlesnake and Buffalo Jump has been a holiday norm. December's abysmal snowpack conspired to keep me off the mountains near Missoula, too. Some resorts simply weren't open yet. Others posted snow reports so skimpy that even rock skis seemed a dicey prospect.
The narrative appears to be changing across the region. Scattered dustings that made early December a point of frustration have given way to a few winter storm systems and powder dumps — exactly what we skiers were all hoping for from a La Niña year. Winter has a lot left to give us before we can truly call this season a win. Gliding up Howard Creek, I begin to pick out a few lines and ridge ascents that could hold promise once the white stuff piles up. The mess that was 2020 is lingering, for sure. But if 2021 can shake off its sluggish start we can all start moving in a brighter, snowier direction, hopefully toward a healthy balance point somewhere between abnormal and normal. ♦