Diamond in the Rough

Cross-Country Skiers Lose More Than Their Way Near Diamond Peak

trees covered in snow in forest near Lake Tahoe, CA/NV
Lake Tahoe winter forest (photo in public domain and courtesy of Unsplash)

By April Orcutt

My engagement ring must have fallen off in my bulky ski glove. The diamond ring wasn’t on my finger after seven-hours of cross-country skiing north of — I swear this is true — Diamond Peak ski area near Lake Tahoe along the California-Nevada state line.

Rooting around in the hollow of the puffy purple glove I knew my flash of panic would disappear in a twinkling and not mar a glorious day of views of the sapphire lake set among silver peaks sweeping from Heavenly Valley to Desolation Wilderness.

My husband, Michael, and I had driven to Tahoe Meadows in Nevada that January weekend specifically to relieve the tension of spending Christmas week with my family and New Year’s week with his. Plus, we’d been bickering for months about whether or not we should increase the world’s population so we really, really needed a calm, relaxing, romantic vacation alone together — with no stress.

The rosy alpenglow faded from the Sierra Nevada mountains and an icy wind intensified. I struggled to turn the gauntlet inside-out. I dropped it.

Time to fess up. The little ring Michael shyly presented to me on Valentine’s Day three years before loomed large in my anxieties. If “diamonds are forever,” I thought, what’s happened to mine?

Michael was blithely loading skis onto the car rack.

“Michael, my darling,” I said, “I can’t seem to find my engagement ring. It must have slipped off when I removed my glove. Would you please help me look for it?”

I half hoped he might say, “Don’t worry — that cubic zirconia only looks like a real diamond.”

Instead, he shouted, “What?! That’s the only diamond I ever gave anybody!”

“It’s the only diamond I’ve ever been given,” I muttered.

On this black new-moon night with winds gusting, I rechecked my left glove, my pockets, my fanny pack, my gaiters — even, in desperation, my right glove.

Michael held flashlights at high and low angles, seeking a tiny sparkle on the ice-encrusted asphalt of Highway 431. We turned on the headlights and pawed at the snowbank. We crawled on hands and knees as our flashlights grew dim. Soon it wouldn’t matter if we found the ring because frostbite would steal my fingers.

Half-frozen, we drove in silence down the mountain, passing yellow diamond-shaped signs demanding “Yield.”

At a pub near Dollar Point, convivial skiers laughed and wolfed down massive plates of food while we poked at our pizza.

“How many times did you take off your glove?”

“Maybe half a dozen. Or a dozen.”

He cringed.

“But I remember the places. Some of them.”

Circular sliced olives on whitish mozzarella stared at me. I rubbed my naked finger.

Silence as bitter as the bleak Arctic gale outside made me shiver. Had we ordered frozen pizza? Despite the fireplace at the rental cabin, it was going to be a frigid night.

Michael finally stirred. “We could rent a metal detector.”

I had seen those people at the beach — creepy scavengers swinging their Frisbee-on-a-stick devices back and forth across the sand, trying to make money from other people’s misfortunes. As soon as the hardware store opened in the morning, we rented a detector.

There I was, in all my own creepy glory, sweeping the apparatus across the Tahoe Meadows parking area and snowbanks while attempting to ignore the pitiful looks from skiers heading into the woods. I wanted to shout, “I’m looking for my own ring! Really! You’d do it, too!”

Michael took a turn at sweeping the snowbank. We thought we heard a beep. He moved the sweeper back to the spot. Yes — the detector beeped! We grubbed at the congealed snow. We grabbed the car jack handle and thrashed at the ice.

“Look!” I shouted. “Bling!”

Our hearts pounding, Michael reached down to brush away ice crystals and pick up . . . a foil gum wrapper.

For two hours we rid the highway’s deep-frozen curbs of metallic trash.

Enough public service. Time had come to retrace our path. But which route had we taken? A maze of ski tracks led into the woods and around the gremlin-like pine trees bent as though hiding precious treasure under hoary boughs and capes of frost.

Suddenly it began to snow — hard. Within minutes a full-scale blizzard wracked the thin air. Cross-country skiers popped out of the forest like goosebumps heading for a heater.

Not us. We were going in. We strapped the “Frisbee” to a yellow, child’s saucer-sled and tied a leash from the detector’s handle to Michael’s fanny pack, leaving enough slack so it wouldn’t bump Michael or the tails of his skis. That was the theory.

We skied 100 yards into the forest, and visibility dropped to 15 feet. The saucer swayed from side to side. It scooted up behind Michael when he stopped and cut great arcs along the fall line when he traversed the mountainside. I worried that the blizzard was freezing Michael’s brain because every once in a while I’d hear him bark, “WOOF! WOOF! Come along, little doggie!”

We swept the path a dozen places and found a penny and another gum wrapper. If “diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” where was my buddy?

Rapidly accumulating snow obliterated all tracks.

“Did we go right or left here?” I asked late in the day.

“You’re the one who remembered where we went,” Michael retorted.

Trees and rocks I thought I would recognize disguised themselves under mammoth snowflakes and Siberian drifts. I could not see the path leading to stress-free romance behind family entanglements and diamond rings.

I headed over a ridge.

“Where are you going?” he shouted.

“We went this way yesterday,” I shouted back.

“No, we didn’t. You’re leading us 20 miles toward Reno.”

I have an excellent sense of direction in the mountains so I pulled out the compass to prove that I was . . . 180 degrees wrong.

Had we skied to Reno or never given up our search, we were prepared. We had map, food, spare socks, extra damn gloves, etc. — all the “Ten Essentials for Mountain Safety.” We weren’t as dumb as we looked with the “doggie.”

Michael reached for the water bottle in an outside pocket of his fanny pack. He opened it, tilted his head back to drink, but nothing came out. The water had frozen solid. So had the power bar.

He looked at me for a moment. Then he turned around. I followed him through the blizzard back to the car.

We drove without talking to a café in Incline Village at the base of precipitous Diamond Peak with its many black diamond runs. We stared at the menu.

After a while, Michael started to chuckle. “I guess I looked pretty silly with the ‘doggie.’”

“You did.”

We started to laugh. We laughed so hard that Michael said the silliness of it all was almost worth losing our ring.

Despite all the storms, it was a warm winter after all.

Find more of April Orcutt’s stories at Medium.com/BATW-Travel-Stories, Medium.com/Travel-Insights-And-Outtakes, AprilOrcutt.Medium.com, and AprilOrcutt.com.



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