We had ridden down the broken road from Big Bear Lake, past yucca and cactus—over rough ground we had come down into the cañons. More than once I looked at muddy pools of water left from rain or snow in the middle of the dirt track, wondering if I would have to come back up the mountain to filter water here, or if there would be water somewhere in the cañon below.
From the top of a hill twenty miles from our starting I saw a small valley. Along the bottom of the valley grew dogwood and willow, and further down thirsty cottonwoods. Juniper trees in every direction. I laid my bike down and scrambled through the dense willows to find a trickle of water just a few inches deep. But it was clear and cold it was, and I laid down and drank from it.
It was March and snow was melting in the mountains. Some of the water made it down this canyon, past the willows, to where I now laid and drank.
Anna caught up and came down the last hill, pulling heavily on the brakes of her bike. We both were glad to have found cool, clear water, and decided we would stay here for a while. We took our time setting up the tent, then walked through rabbitbrush further down the cañon, past cottonwoods and more junipers, watching for snakes. There were strange markings on the path we walked, not like a deer, not like a cow: a track I had never seen before. They had been on the road and down by the water too. But we went onward to a big rock ledge that a giant juniper tree grew next to.
It was the biggest juniper I had ever seen. I had a feeling, in this sheltered place beside a trickle of snowmelt, that the juniper had been there for a very, very long time.
I lay back on the rock with Anna, listening to a bird calling further down the cañon. I didn’t know what it was; but for some reason, I didn’t even want to know—for a while at least. Beside the water trickling below, the bird, and our breathing, I could hear nothing else.
In late February, a year later, thousands of miles from that cañon, I spent the afternoon writing and watching snow fall outside. My thoughts led from our starting place in Oregon and all the way down to that cañon again. I picked up my flute, made of an unsplit maple branch by a member of the Nipmuck, a man named Hawk Henries, and played this tune.
In music, the proper name for something that does not have lyrics is a “piece”, “tune”, or more modernly “track.” But I wonder, if my attempt to give a voice to that juniper far away in it’s cañon, still likely growing in the late February sun amidst the last of the winters snow—if this could instead be called a song.