Amadorians who hoped for a white Christmas in 2015 may have gotten more than they bargained for, at least on Christmas Eve, after a relentless storm choked Highway 88 just above Red Corral and stopped numerous families and friends in the eastern Sierra from uniting for the holiday. But the upside, now, is that as 2016 gets underway, the county’s high country is once again a captivating, endless ice palace of pines and granite.
Back when my full-time job was covering emergency response in Amador, massive snowstorms were always surreal events, especially when trying to follow sheriff’s SUVs and ambulances in my sedan through gray, grit-spattered eruptions of roadside slush as white tree branches glimmered like translucent cotton candy. It was in those rare instances that gas stations with generators became something truly akin to the bygone Old West station – an oasis of warmth and refuge that materializes before your eyes amidst the bitter, flake-swept mountains. Who on any other evening would have seemed a bored, sleepy-eyed attendant coordinating gasoline sales and ringing up coffee and cigarettes took on the visage of a modern day saint, a stalwart lighthouse keeper watching their post as if to assure everyone traveling through the barren snowbanks and eerie quiet that civilization would, in fact, survive the storm.
The best thing then and now about such temporary whiteouts is the shining, arctic Amador that awakens the next day, when the skies are clear and the pearly treetops and meadows are frozen well into place.
Two days after the 2015 Christmas Eve storm, I ventured up Highway 88 to see if the rhythms of life were moving the way I expected. I wasn’t disappointed. Just above the turnoff for Bear River Reservoir, a caravan of burly, four-wheel-drive pickups had forced its way through a snowbank that covered one of the El Dorado National Forest’s side roads, which allowed about 30 brave souls to set up picnic chairs around propane heaters and stoves as their kids hauled sleds away from the tailgate party and out onto the grades of ivory.
At a vista point farther up Highway 88, I found dozens of people climbing over a rock safety wall seeking thrilling, if ill-advised, saucer experiences – flying effortlessly down into the cold, wooded wilderness.
If you missed that beautiful afternoon, there are chances for similar moments ahead. A little farther up the same Sierra showcase, Kirkwood Cross Country hosts another of its annual full moon snowshoe hikes, described as “a moonlight expedition” through a nocturnal alpine landscape of majestic peaks and timber on Jan. 23. Guides lead sojourners through the white starlit reflections for just $25 each. You must make reservations by calling 258-7248 or emailing to email@example.com.
If you go on this visual gambit, make sure to arrive at the pass early enough to stop at the Kirkwood Inn and Saloon. When I drove up Highway 88 a day after Christmas, I was excited to find that – despite being literally half-covered in snowdrifts – the saloon was still open. Pushing through its creaky door, one enters a darkened room with a low, timbered ceiling, Indian blankets hanging on wood and a fierce, rip-roaring fire. Chewed log beams and chairs of tree branches further create the aura of a forgotten frontier cantina, the kind of place you’d expect to find James Bond or Indiana Jones hiding from the world until someone tracks them down and begs them to come back to the fray for their next mission. And the Kirkwood Inn and Saloon offers more than a weirdly genuine ambiance; it’s also one of Highway 88’s best roadside food stops between Jackson and Lake Tahoe. Walk in, sit at the worn bar, order a brawny burger with onion and pepper jack cheese, a cauldron of the hot homemade chili, a large glass of affordable Merlot and then bask in the simple, glorious pleasures of being a Californian living in the shadow of the toughest mountain men the West ever knew.
When you strut out of the saloon’s doors, glance up at the two giant rock skulls that lift off the pale shoulders of the upper ridge; it’s a two-headed behemoth that towers over the terrain. As a daughter or son of the Mother Lode, this is truly your Sierra.
Send word on your Amador County event to firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHEN: 6 p.m. Jan. 23
WHERE: Kirkwood Cross Country and Snowshoe Center, Highway 88 and Meadows Drive, Kirkwood
COST: $25 plus $5 for snowshoe rental; must reserve at 258-7248 or email@example.com