A single moment can make everything so vivid.
The huge parking lot at the cross-country ski area south of Anaconda, Montana was plowed for about fifty cars. When we pulled in on Christmas Eve morning, we were the only ones there. Most people were sitting cozily at home with family, getting into the festive mood. My wife and I love the solitude times like these offer. Two inches of fresh snow lay on tracks little used this season. We clicked into our skis and headed out into the soft silence.
The conditions weren’t fast but the outing was just what we had hoped. We skied first across the valley bottom and then felt our bodies warm from the inside as we climbed the gradient on the other side. We were fifteen miles from the next town and already a mile or more from the deserted road. Our poles compressed fresh snowflakes into ice with an audible squeak. That and the rhythmic “swish…swish” of the skis were the only sound. When we stopped to take a sip of water, the quiet compressed our chilled faces.
Towards the end of the ski we crossed a bridge over a creek and started up into an area of rolling knolls covered in pine trees. Up ahead three gray jays squawked sharply as they flapped in small circles above the trail. They finally lit on a pine tree a couple of ski lengths ahead. We stopped and looked up at the jays, the first movement we had seen for a while. They quieted down and watched, hopping from twig to twig. We observed them for a minute while our breathing slowed. Then as our eyes slowly tracked down the trunk towards the ski trail, we saw a mass of bark-colored feathers perched on a limb barely a ski pole’s length above us.
Great horned owl! The ear tufts at the top of its plump and well-insulated body were unmistakable. Seeing it at the same instant, we both struggled to hold in our surprise. How could something so big have sat beneath those jays just above our head and escaped our notice? The owl leaned forward a few inches and cocked its head to the side as it looked down on the two bipeds beneath. One owl, two people, and three jays joined for a silent moment. Six hearts beating together in the same small sphere of frigid winter air.
The owl raised its wings from its shoulders and hung them there outstretched for a second, not entirely convinced it needed to leave.
The owl did leave, dropping noiselessly out of the branch before flapping a pair of giant wings and swooping low across the snow to a different perch about fifty feet off in the forest.
I looked across at my wife and we both tried, without luck, to find words to indicate our brains had caught up with our hearts. The snow-glazed woods wrung with new vitality.
An owl in silent flight leaving its mark on Christmas Eve.
Owl image by Ken Shults via Flickr