There’s a certain sign I keep returning to, a sign that serves a purpose even when you can’t see it.
The sign marks the intersection of two hiking trails.
But that’s only one of its functions — and it’s a function, moreover, that the sign fulfills for little more than half of most years.
Unless the season is especially stingy with snow, the sign along the Elkhorn Crest Trail about a mile east of Anthony Lake is buried by a drift for much of the winter.
And frequently well into spring, as I’ve noted on many visits.
I adopted this sign, as it were, as a sort of seasonal bellwether maybe 20 years ago.
I’ve never gotten around to actually measuring its height — I rarely include a tape measure in my backpack, as it cuts into the space for beef jerky and red licorice — but I believe it’s somewhere between 4 and 5 feet. Whatever the precise figure, the sign is a constant, and as such I use it to gauge the depth of the snow without digging all the way to the ground.
Which would be exhausting.
And a trifle silly besides.
Although I always look for the sign when I snowshoe on the Crest Trail I don’t always find it.
Last spring, for instance, my wife, Lisa, and I kicked around in the snow about where I believed the sign stands, but all I got for the trouble was a sore ankle.
(Snowshoes, whatever else their utility, are poorly designed for extended digging — especially when they’re attached to your feet.)
This year, with the snowpack somewhat less substantial, I thought we would see at least the tip of the sign peeking from the snow like an impatient crocus.
We went on April 29 and were accompanied by our son, Max, and by my cousin, Ben Klecker and his wife, Maria.
Max, who is 7 and slender besides, was able to scamper about without the aid of snowshoes, the snow, as is typical in spring, being relatively firm.
The sun was shining in Baker City that morning but at 7,100 feet the scene was pure winter.
The temperature was 31 when we set off. There were several snow squalls and the low clouds only briefly lifted to unveil all but the summit of Gunsight Butte.
Although it can be confusing to try to follow an 18-inch-wide path that’s beneath several feet of snow, the Elkhorn Crest Trail’s route is marked with blue diamond markers screwed into trailside trees every hundred yards or so.
The sign — “my sign,” as I like to think of it — is about half a mile from the trailhead. It stands just west of a couple of adolescent lodgepole pines that are a couple feet taller and only rarely are covered by snow. Also they’re growing, which the sign, so far as I know, is not.
The green tips of the pines were visible. The sign was not, but there was a dimple in the snow’s surface that looked to be in the right place.
I kicked at the snow and it took just a handful of kicks, so to speak, to expose the top of the signpost.
Max, meanwhile, went at the snow with his fists, delivering a flurry of blows until he connected with the sign itself. He moved back then, muttering about having broken his hand.
(Like many 7-year-old boys, he has an affinity, and aptitude, for exaggeration.)
I was pleased that we had found the sign. Impressed, too, by how the snow has lingered, though it has not been an especially chilly spring.
On the walk back to the car Ben spotted a snowshoe hare standing atop a snow-encrusted granite boulder. Its pelt was mottled gray and white — evidence that although winter still reigns in the high Elkhorns, the hares, which go gray in summer, are beginning their seasonal transition.
Like as not, the next time I see the sign the snow will have gone, the temperature will be in the 60s or 70s and the scene dominated by wildflowers.
But as always when I stand beside the sign I will think of snow.
IF YOU GO
The Elkhorn Crest trailhead is blocked by snow, but there is room for a couple cars to park just across the highway without blocking the summer cabin access road. An alternative is to continue a few hundred yards to the west and turn left at the sign for Anthony Lake campground. There is a plowed parking area just off the highway.