Silver strands of hair stretch out of my grandfather’s dark, spotted scalp with the determination of tulips breaking the surface of spring, slicked back from his forehead in a dramatic yet polished wave the color of tarnished jewelry. As a child I was always amazed at how shiny his hair was and how each cuticle seemed to grow with such deliberation, like footprints placed carefully in untracked powder. It was the flashing reflection of a dolphin tail in the surf; the smooth, glassy curve of a raindrop; the very last brightness of a thundercloud contrasted against a stormy sky. It was a field of freshly fallen snow, glittering like diamonds in the morning sun.
I used to spend hours styling his hair. The curve of his cowlick felt like silk to my curious fingertips. I’d make him sit on the ground so I could kneel above him and brush through it, sometimes with a comb, often with my fingers. Combing it was like controlling a river. It would naturally separate into distinct sections, weaving around my fingers, each one a current within the larger whole. Together it would rise and drop through the wave in unison, though the strands each had their own pace at which they travelled through the rapid. Frozen rapid, that is. Perhaps my grandfather’s cowlick is more glacier than river, as it has kept the same shape in the last few decades more consistently than any river would. Yet with a changing climate even the most persistent glaciers are changing, and so is my grandpa. Though he always seemed ageless to me while growing up, my obsession with his hair made me notice as his hairline crept backwards, exposing the barren brown land beneath it, much like receding glaciers around the world.
His silver wave is not the only thing that seems to be melting away. His dark forearms have more and more sunspots splattering them with each turning season, his calves and knees are thinner and seem in a perpetual state of trying to embrace a horse. His olive eyes are constantly watery like a mountain meadow flooded by spring thaw, his neck and shoulders curve forward as if he were constantly trying to carry his speed down a mountain on skis. Watching him wander through tasks that he used to complete with unwavering precision is like watching feathery snowflakes float through the air with barely any direction, seemingly unaffected by gravity. Yet even with his body changing and his hairline receding, the shape of his silver wave seems determined to stay.
I asked him once how he made his hair that color. Did he drench it in silver paint? He chuckled, but in his foxy way wouldn’t tell me. Or perhaps he said that time and stress spilled some of its juice on his head after my father was born. I always believed whatever my grandfather said; his words were pure and rang as true as a silver bell to my young ears.
But I know better now. It’s because he has snow crystals in his blood.
He was never given a name at birth (his birth certificate read “Boy Bounous”), yet my grandfather’s name has touched the lips of many who explore the creases and crevasses, creeks and canyons of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. Since teaching himself how to ski using barrel staves on his family’s farm in Provo when he was eight years old, Junior Bounous has played an important role in developing the fanatic love of skiing in the Wasatch Mountains.
At ninety-two years old, he and my grandmother, Maxine, are some of the few remaining members of a community who grew to love the wild crags and swirling snow flurries of the Wasatch at a time when human exploitation of mountains was shifting from resource extraction to outdoor recreation. They experienced a balance of post-Depression growth with the exhilarating freedom and even spirituality of mountaineering, river running, and skiing. It’s a community that’s receding in age and size, much like my grandfather’s silver wave and the glaciers.
My peers and I have learned to love the Wasatch in part because of the recreational ambitions of people like my grandparents. Yet instead of witnessing the transition they saw from resource extraction to recreation, we are experiencing a different kind of shift in the landscapes around us, driven by the pressures of a catastrophic shift in our climate. Though I share a love of snow and place with my grandparents, they largely don’t understand the weight that climate change has on the shoulders of my generation. We express fear about the Trump administration on our world, and they say, “It’s not so bad, we lived through Nixon.” We express concern about having children in an uncertain future, and they say, “We did too during the Cold War, but it all turned out alright.” We fret and worry about the future of snow in the Wasatch, and they respond, “There will always be bad snow years. It’s not the end of winter as we know it.”
Their relationship to place was based on what they could physically see and touch, and while my community has also grounded ourselves in the same places our grandparents did, climate change redefines our relationship to places. We realize that global politics and carbon emissions will change the ways that we interact with our local environments, and how our children and grandchildren will interact with them. Perhaps there is no better example of this than snow in the Wasatch Front.
My grandfather’s story began with snow, and as his life draws to a close it will end with snow. He spent so much time growing intimate with it that it seeped into his body, snow crystals integrating into his existence, and then taught me and thousands of others how to develop our own love for the landscapes we interact with.
Like his, my story begins with snow. And I’m determined to keep fighting so it will hopefully end with snow as well. Since infancy, I’ve had a streak of silver in my hair, just behind my left ear, that swoops up in a wave when I pull it back into a ponytail. To me, it’s proof that the same snow crystals in my grandpa’s blood have been passed down to me as well. It reminds me that while his life is receding, I can continue to carry on his legacy of love in the Wasatch winters, and hopefully one day pass those crystals on to my children. The silver wave in me ignites me to take his love for and intimacy with our mountains a step further—to a passion and willingness to fight for snow and our climate, so that silver waves of snowfall will continue to grace the Wasatch.
Ayja Bounous is a writer and skier who grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. She received her MA from the University of Utah Environmental Humanities Program in 2017. She is currently working on a book titled Shaped by Snow (Torrey House Press, September 2019) that examines her personal and family connections to snow and skiing and how climate change threatens both the mountain and the relationships that shape her.