I am sipping water, riding the chairlift up the snow-covered volcanic peak towering over Sunrise Ski Resort, when I notice the clouds.
Ice crystal cirrus clouds — up at 40,000 — have created a dream of water, wispy strands of angel’s hair dancing on the jet stream.
Water surrounds me, in all its miraculous forms — the Creator’s masterpiece. It expands when it freezes, absorbs heat without complaint, dissolves everything — and makes life possible. It’s so essential that scientists call it “life’s solvent.”
If you strap on a couple of waxed sticks, you can slide down a snowy slope — dropping 2,000 feet in 20 minutes. That’s only possible because the pressure of your skis instantly melts a microscopically thin film of water on which you skitter like a water bug. When the snow’s too dry, you stick. When it’s too wet, you slosh. Chalk that up to one more stroke of creative genius.
I’m not sure what I love best about skiing: the rush down the mountain, or the long Zen ride on the chairlift. Seems like the older I get, the more I appreciate the ride.
Now that I’m here — dangling between Earth and sky in water’s grand cathedral — I can’t figure out why it took me so long to just drop everything and spend the day sliding on snow, beneath ice crystal clouds, with my watery blood pounding in my ears.
All winter, I’ve been reading the forecast, checking the snow depth, watching the sky — and casting worried, sidelong glances at my much, much better half. She loves skiing and I love being loved. But I haven’t been quite the same since the broken rib on a perfect powder day at the top of a mountain in Colorado — where my effort to remain forever young took a tumble. Now, I have to give myself a little speech about winning one for the Gipper before bundling up my deteriorating body and heading for the slopes — especially if we’re talking fresh, ungroomed powder.
My anxiety dissipates on that first run, like the fog of my breath on the morning air. I break nothing. No, I don’t even fall. I’m amazed. I’m an itty, bitty God — skis together, leaning into my boots — sliding downhill on that melted film of water beneath my skis.
We make it to the bottom — my thighs beginning a long, slow ache. It’s a perfect day. The snow’s crisp and not yet slumping toward slush. The sun glints on the ingenuously designed ice crystals. Most liquids shrink when they freeze. But at just above the freezing point, water’s odd arrangement of hydrogen and oxygen atoms locks into a lattice structure that takes up about 7% more space than water in the liquid form. So unlike most liquid — water expands when it freezes.
This is fortunate — since it makes life on the planet possible.
We climb onto the lift for the ride back up to the top. I’m feeling briefly overconfident, buoyed by the magic of low expectations. I admire the hallucinogenic display of cirrus clouds overhead, the ice crystals creating a rainbow sheen when the angle of the sun is just right. The clouds come in all varieties. Cirrus fibrates like angel hair; Cirrus casstellanus with turrets and towers; Cirrus uncinus shaped like a comma; Cirrus vertebratus — like a feathery spine with a ribcage.
Scientists are still documenting the miraculous weirdness of water — which turns out to be the third most common molecule in the universe — right behind molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
Most of water’s strange qualities stem from the complex, shifting bond between the big oxygen atom and the two hydrogen atoms. Picture an oxygen atom at home plate — linked by shared electrons with hydrogen atoms at first base and third base. This shape gives the water molecule a positive charge at one end and a negative electrical charge at the other end.
But the links are constantly breaking and reforming on timescales faster than 200 femtoseconds. That’s like once every two quadrillionths of a second (20,000,000,000,000th of a second). If you’d started counting to a quadrillion when the first dinosaurs roamed, you’d still be counting — but finally getting close. This creates links between the oxygen and hydrogen atoms in water that are both incredibly strong — and weirdly dynamic.
This makes water strange in all the ways that make writers and ski resorts possible. Consider the short list of benefits of this unique substance.
• Water can take liquid, solid, and gaseous form given a modest change in temperature — so I can drink from my camelback backpack, ski down the hill on frozen water and puff out water vapor all at the same time.
• Water’s crazy efficient at storing heat. This moderates the temperature of the whole planet enough for us to survive. The ocean has already soaked up most of the heat caused by the buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the past century.
• Water’s insistence on expanding when it freezes keeps ice from sinking to the bottom of the ocean at the poles — and eventually freezing the seas solid. The expansion of water when it turns to ice also causes rocks to fracture, providing the dust for soil.
• Water’s also hard to compress — thanks to those enigmatic oxygen-hydrogen bonds. So water remains liquid despite the vast pressures at the bottom of the ocean, which governs the oceanic circulation pattern that makes the planet habitable.
• Water’s also a universal solvent — mixing completely with many other liquids. This explains why your insides and mixed drinks both work.
• The different electrical charges at each end of a water molecule also account for surface tension. This is a boon for water bugs and water skiers. It also prevents water from immediately evaporating into the atmosphere and enables plants to pump water from their roots to their leaves.
Surely, the Creator got water just right — everything else was just an embellishment.
Sunrise sits on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. The Apache understood about sacredness and sacred places. Anthropologist Keith Basso wrote the “Wisdom Sits in Place,” about the Apache belief that only long contemplation of natural places can confer that most important of virtues — a smooth mind. A person with a smooth mind is calm, open, kind, brave, reverent and wise. Only the long contemplation of a place — like a snow-covered volcanic peak beneath a sky of ice crystal clouds — can smooth your mind, for truly wisdom sits in places.
And so goes the day — the rush down the hill followed by the study of the clouds — the yin and yang of the physical and the spiritual.
I cannot say that I impressed my darling wife with my speed or grace. Brooke — our daughter — observed recently that Michele skis with an English accent — like a silk flag rippling in the wind. I ski more like an Irish pub brawl — or a dust devil on a salt flat.
Nonetheless, by the end of the day, I feel satisfied, younger even.
And as I hobble across the icy parking lot back to the car, I do indeed feel like a God — the God of Pain.
But no matter.
My mind is smooth.
And the clouds a miracle of water.
As are we all.