“As we traverse this New Year of challenges and uncertainty, there’s a lesson there: We all lead the way for one another, distanced for our mutual respect and safety.”

I write a column for California’s oldest weekly newspaper, The Mountain Messenger, which serves the scenic Lost Sierra region of the state. Here’s my latest offering:


Feliz Año Nuevo, Blwyddyn Newydd Dda, Gleðilegt Nýtt ár: Happy New Year!

The last two salutations are in Welsh and Icelandic. I won’t venture a pronunciation. You first?

Now perhaps you’re looking at the calendar and wondering why, nearly three weeks into 2022, I’m just getting around to a column expressing New Year’s greetings.

Here’s the reason: You may recall the wet, wild, and wooly week in which the old year, 2021, headed for the exits and the new year made its entrance. Probably like you, I spent those days kicking, clawing, swearing at — and, yes, shoveling — the damnable, blessed snow.

In addition to digging deep with a shovel on my front steps, I dug deep into storm coverage. With telecommunication and electrical lines downed by the heavy snows, I reported on “Snowmageddon” at its height — trudging down the road covered with drifts for an in-person rather than a phone interview of my neighbor, a Sierra County official. I worked from handwritten notes under a table lamp illuminated by a home generator. Pony Express circa 2022?

That coverage appeared in The Mountain Messenger’s final issue of the year on Dec. 30. The following week, with the effects of the holiday blizzard lingering, I spoke to the county sheriff, the local Office of Emergency Services coordinator, and PG&E representatives on challenging road conditions and ongoing outage issues for a Jan. 6 update.

And I kept shoveling.

Finally, for last week’s Jan. 13 edition, I told the happy news of electricity finally being restored post-storm or almost all Sierra County residents. And I waded into the latest coronavirus developments with an article about the surge of the highly contagious Omicron variant that is causing patient hospitalizations, school and business closings, and worry.

So here I am, far into January, just now writing about the dawn of 2022. I guess I could suggest I’m not late for the January 1 New Year but early for the February 1 Chinese New Year. Up until the mid-1700s, residents of England and we in its American colonies celebrated the outset of the New Year not in winter but during springtime in late March, a season of new beginnings.

But times have changed. For centuries now, in most of the world the Gregorian calendar has standardized the launch of each year as January 1.

Nonetheless, my wishes for a happy New Year, although belated, are heartfelt.

The Spanish greeting that opened this column — Feliz Año Nuevo — got me to thinking about a celebrated site among many in the astonishingly diverse landscapes of California.

Año Nuevo (New Year) State Park is located on a spectacular windswept stretch of the Pacific Coast 55 miles south of San Francisco in San Mateo County. Its marine conservation preserve is celebrated as the world’s largest mainland breeding colony for the enormous two-ton northern elephant seals. I’ve always wondered how that remarkable place got its name. In January, this curiosity seems especially topical.

History reveals that Spanish maritime explorer Sebastian Vizcaino sailed up the California coast in late 1602, passing where Año Nuevo State Park is now located around New Year’s Day 1603, hence its name. (On that voyage so long ago, Vizcaino and his expedition also named such prominent features as Monterey Bay and Point Conception.)

From ocean to desert and from valley to mountain, the range of California’s geography is unparalleled. This brand new year reminded us once again how the Sierra Nevada mountain range that we all call home can receive enormous amounts of snow.

The holiday week snowfall hearkened back to the blizzards that Sierra County pioneers faced with great regularity. I pulled out the Downieville and Sierra City/Goodyears Bar books of James J. Sinnott’s six-volume series on Sierra County and marveled at the photos and accounts of bygone winters — of snow up to rooftops, roads impassable for horse-drawn transport, and snowslides that demolished homes and caused terrible losses of life.

One of the severest winters, according to the books, occurred in 1889–90. With over seven feet of snow in Downieville, four tunnels were constructed, connecting the butcher shop, hardware store, saloon, and the St. Charles Hotel. The snow depth at Sierra City was said to be 10 feet.

Earlier harsh winters included 1852–53 and 1846–47, which stranded the Donner Party.

The first decade of the 20th Century saw repeated tough winters, with the road over Yuba Pass closed in 1903–04 for much of the winter.

Even with the hardships, our hardy forefathers and foremothers found ways to enjoy the winter beauty. Sinnott’s Sierra City book carries an item from a 1903 issue of this very newspaper on a snowshoe race on Feb. 9th of that year whose participants worked at the Sierra Buttes Mine. While mining engineer Dr. W.A. Lavery battled and led early, a Mr. Meiklejohn surged ahead and was declared champion.

Following the celebrated Mr. Meikeljohn’s example, I kicked off the New Year on January 1 with a snowshoe climb up to Calpine Lookout. The sky was a brilliant blue, the air icy with temperatures in the teens at the outset. Blasts of winds carried cascading clouds of snow off the towering pines.

The beginning of the two-mile trek requires the most exertion, as the trail climbs steeply 1,000’ above Highway 89 to the historic 1934 lookout at 5,980’ elevation. Working steadily upward, I exhaled an icy mist.

It was reported in The Messenger that the 1903 snowshoe race contestants “had several falls before the tournament was ended.” So did I on my climb that day. The snow was deep and the snowshoes broke through the surface, making for some mishaps and quite the slog.

When I could, I followed in the footfalls of a snowshoer who had made the journey before me, making my progress easier. Higher up, I followed a packed-down snowmobile path, saying a silent thanks to the machine’s operator.

As we traverse this New Year of challenges and uncertainty, there’s a lesson there: We all lead the way for one another, distanced for our mutual respect and safety.

In this first month of 2022, let’s follow and support each other on the path toward a better, healthy future.



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