A clear December day in Sequoia National Park. Last night's storm has skidded east across the Sierra Nevada, leaving a meadow perfect with fresh snow.
My 6-year-old son crouches and cups snow into his gloves. He's a San Francisco kid, and snow is a new element for him, unfamiliar but promising. "I need to practice my aim," he announces. His twin cousins, also 6, amass their own armory.
Ready. Now! Whoosh. Thwamp. Snowballs arc toward me and Patrick, the twins' father. Forty-something, we depend on size and experience to defeat our sons. These qualities are not enough. We flounder, we fall, and the 6-year-olds jump us, piling snowballs on our heads.
Well, I think, as ice presses into my scalp, we did bring them here to enjoy the snow.
There are people who live to complain about Christmas, but I'm not one of them. I like Christmas. I like everything about it. I like Christmas music: Handel's Messiah and Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby." I like holiday TV specials where the host opens the front door and says, "Why, look who has come to visit! It's Shania Twain!" I like Christmas-party cheese balls with little nuts studded in them and Christmas-morning living rooms knee-deep in wrapping paper.
Still. It is true that at some point ― when, say, the wrapping paper has been mistakenly wadded up in the fireplace and the living room is filling with smoke―even the best of us wonder, Is this what the season is all about? That was what my family wondered. That is why we ― me, my wife, Nancy, and our son, Joseph, along with his twin cousins, Rowan and Jasper, and their parents, Patrick and Elaine, my wife's sister ― altered our holiday routine to spend Christmas with the big trees.
White Christmases aren't guaranteed in Sequoia; January is the surer snow month. But as we took the highway up from Three Rivers, California, a winter storm slammed in from the northwest. The feeling of driving inside a snow globe was thrilling for the kids, a little scary for the driver.
We rounded a bend in the road and saw our first big trees: cinnamon columns behind a scrim of falling snow. Giant sequoias grow up and down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, but the national park seems to be their natural home. Four out of five of the largest trees in the world grow here. John Muir, who knew his big trees, deemed this grove the finest he had seen and named it Giant Forest.
Three is trouble. This is one of nature's laws. Consider any romantic triangle. Or consider the grim trio of Greek myth, the Fates. Consider the Three Stooges.
In our case, it becomes clear, as we prep Rowan and Jasper and Joseph for their first snow day, that one 6-year-old boy would be a snap, two would be manageable, but three is anarchy. Wuksachi Lodge, where we are staying, tries to make it easy enough. You can rent cross-country skis and snowshoes in the lodge's ski shop and head straight out the door to the trail. But it still requires an hour of buckling, unbuckling, and "Where did your sunglasses go?" before we are gliding over the snow.
We get 10 yards.
"I can't make the skis work," Rowan says.
The grown-ups sense trouble but try to deny it. We adjust the boys' ski boots, we shout cheerfully in the way you turn your car radio up loud when your engine is overheating.
"Look how beautiful the mountains are," Elaine says.
"That mountain is Mt. Silliman," I answer, having just read this fact in the park brochure.
"It is beautiful," says my wife.
"I want to go back," says Jasper, and he drops to the snow. The other boys drop to the snow. They begin to cry.
We retreat to the lodge. We rent seven pairs of snowshoes and head back out. The snowshoes are more efficient than the skis in that they inspire even more immediate crying.
On our third trip to the ski shop, we buy sleds: a yellow sled, a black sled, and an orange saucer. We haul them to the snow play area. And now, at last, success. Joseph and Rowan and Jasper joyfully whoosh down the hill again and again. Until―and there's always an until, isn't there?―they realize that the orange saucer goes much faster than the yellow sled or the black sled. And then envy arises and the deal-making begins.
"Okay, Rowan," Jasper says. "I'll let you use the orange saucer if you promise not to annoy me the rest of the day."
At this point, Patrick goes back inside and buys two more orange saucers. The boys spin downhill for the next three hours. Patrick says, "Whoever wrote that money can't buy happiness never had 6-year-olds."
The park's Giant Forest Museum has, as you might expect, exhibits on giant sequoias. The one the boys like most is a roulette wheel that illustrates how rarely sequoia seeds survive to become big trees. You spin the wheel: Seed lands in bad spot ― never sprouts. Again: Seed eaten by ground squirrel. You could spin for hours before landing on the space that proclaims a long, happy life for the tree.
It strikes me, standing there, that Christmas happiness is like that. To find it, you must escape a vast number of obstacles: work, bills, time. And then, once in an inexplicable while, you win. This trip, I realize now, is one of those times. Rowan and Jasper and Joseph are spinning the roulette wheel and talking about the saucer rides and the snowball fight as if it were the best day of their lives.
It's our last morning in the park. We join a nature walk that tours Giant Forest on snowshoes. The ranger supplies hokey jokes and snippets of natural history about foxes and shrews. But mainly we tromp along looking up at the trees.
Toward the end of the hike, the ranger does something odd. He passes out paper and pencils. It's almost the new year, and he wants us to write a wish. We think. What to wish for? World peace? More snowball fights? Or just hope that our sons' happy memories of this place will stay with them. I write my wish, I fold the paper into my pocket, I steady myself on the snowshoes and move, with the others, beneath the big trees toward home.