BAKER CITY — The Toyota shuddered as a patch of slush grabbed the rear tires and I noticed, with my peripheral vision, that my wife had grasped the passenger door handle.
I gave the steering wheel a slight tug and the rig straightened.
I also eased up a bit on the gas pedal.
It was Mother’s Day, after all.
I didn’t want to exacerbate Lisa’s instinctive trepidation about driving through snow on a steep mountain road which has a conspicuous absence of guardrails.
And a conspicuous surplus of slopes down which a vehicle, freed from the constraints of asphalt, would careen in a series of great leaps and bounds that demonstrate the terrible beauty of gravity.
We were driving up to Anthony Lakes, planning to strap on our snowshoes for what might be the last time until the first big autumn storm.
May, of course, is supposed to distill the qualities that make spring a glorious season.
The snow squall is not one of those qualities.
Nonetheless it was snow, rather than sunshine and balmy temperatures and fragrant blossoms, that defined the first third of this May.
And that was in the valleys.
In the mountains, spring has yet to put in even a desultory appearance.
I was reminded, as I steered our FJ Cruiser around the curves climbing into the Elkhorns — and in one case around a pair of multi-ton granitic boulders that had tumbled off the cutbank and landed in the road — of how dramatically different the alpine realm is from the lowlands where most of us live.
This is no revelation, to be sure.
I can see the triangular tip of Elkhorn Peak, the second-tallest summit in the range at 8,931 feet, from my living room. That pyramid of sedimentary stone bears at least a trace of snow, visible from my sofa more than a dozen miles away, for about nine months of most years.
This is not the case with my backyard.
Or any other place in Baker City or La Grande or Enterprise.
Yet even though this alpine world, where the ground is beneath snow far more often than it’s exposed, is no great distance away, it struck me during our Mother’s Day drive that most Americans can’t claim similar circumstances.
Only those relatively few of us, whose homes lie so near to great mountains that rise precipitously from adjacent valleys, actually can make such a journey, from the temperate and the arable to something closer to a polar zone, in less than an hour.
The transition tends to be especially distinct during the spring and fall.
In the latter season, early storms that bring only rain to the lowlands can pile feet of snow on the peaks.
During spring, as the snow line retreats, a similar pattern emerges.
In the span of less than two miles on our drive to Anthony Lakes, between the Baker Valley Overlook pullout and Antone Creek, the landscape changed from scattered snow patches in sheltered shady spots to a solid cover better than three feet deep.
It was deeper still — five feet, according to the snow-measuring stake in a meadow across from the Elkhorn Crest trailhead parking lot — at 7,100 feet.
Conditions were very nearly ideal for spring snowshoeing.
The old snowpack, as it were, was nicely firm. But it was also covered with about six inches of fresh snow that, uncommon for the season, did not cling to snowshoes.
Slushy spring snow — the sort that yanked at our Cruiser’s tires on the drive up — can stick to a snowshoe with the tenacity of a psychotic barnacle, adding a pound or two of ballast to each clumsy step. This is frustrating as only a tussle with an inanimate object can be, and exhausting besides.
But at the higher elevation around Anthony Lake, with temperatures more typical of February than May — it was 24 degrees when Lisa and I, accompanied by our son, Max, who’s 11, started walking — the new snow made a soft and powdery cushion atop the icy, grainy snow below.
We traced the east shore of Anthony Lake amid a snow shower that drifted off to reveal patches of blue sky. There was scarcely a breeze, and despite the subfreezing temperature we all soon shed a layer.
Lisa and I chuckled at the curious confluence of conditions — we actually sought the meager shade of a copse of subalpine firs, enjoying the cool patch as we might do on a torrid August afternoon, yet we were standing atop snowdrifts that surely topped six feet in places.
We continued east, roughly following the summer trail but feeling no pressure to do so, as a person does when there is an actual path to conform to.
This is perhaps my favorite part of snowshoeing. The drifts render irrelevant almost all the obstacles that could stymie a summer hiker — the fallen logs and rocks and boggy patches that can create a labyrinth of things capable of inflicting all manner of orthopedic injuries.
It is refreshing to plot your own route through the forest, which at high elevations is rather sparse anyway, the trees slender but for the occasional hoary old Engelmann spruce.
We found the spot where a sign marks the junction of the Elkhorn Crest Trail and the path that branches off to Anthony Lake.
What we didn’t find was the sign itself.
I recognized the telltale hump in the snow, but although we spent several minutes hacking ineffectually at the snow we never did uncover it. The sign has long been a bellwether for me, a tangible symbol of how close summer is to assuming its brief ascendancy in this land where ice and snow reign.
That evening back at home a storm swept in, heavy with snow, and for a few hours it might well have been January. Only the bright green new leaves of the willows, clotted temporarily with white, betrayed the illusion.
I thought of where we had walked just a few hours earlier, wondered whether the flakes were falling there too, filling in our prints and restoring to that place the visage of winter that is its true face.