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Winter Guests Warm the Mountain

WHEN we took care of the water inlets on Tumalo Mountain for the city of Bend, Oregon, the gate, three miles down the mountain from our house, was kept locked once the snow began to accumulate. A few people skied up to look at the waterfall behind the house and then skied out again before dark, but the mountain mostly belonged to us and to wildlife. We did have visitors sometimes.

Laura, my wife, called me from the kitchen, "Come and see this." She and Juniper and Amanda, our daughters, stood around a spider hanging on one strand of web, about chest high, near the kitchen stove. "This spider likes music. She came down when Vivaldi was playing, and she moved back and forth and up and down to the music. Then we put on this quieter music, and she got really still." We all watched her.

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I said, "She likes the social situation here."

Laura said she wasn't sure she wanted to share her workspace with a spider that hung down right in front of her.

"You can work around her," Amanda said. "Don't break her thread of concentration."

"Don't break her thread," said Juniper.

She retreated up the thread. We ate dinner. I roasted some almonds, and the spider hung about a foot above my head. I liked the company. We all agreed that her name was Charlotte, after the spider in the book "Charlotte's Web."

Juniper and Amanda washed dishes while Laura read another chapter of "Moby Dick" to them. Then Laura and Amanda sang together. Juniper practiced her violin in the living room. Charlotte hung around. By the time the evening was over, Charlotte was stationary on the ceiling.

Laura and Juniper went to town on Sunday for a group violin lesson. Amanda and I explored the books we had. Amanda said, "Apparently, all spiders eat insects."

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I said, "I'm afraid she won't find many in this house in the winter."

"I think spiders have the ability to make it through some times without food," she said. "Otherwise, how would they make it through winter?"

We concluded there was nothing we could do for Charlotte. She was welcome to share our provender if she would. And there was water out, by the kitchen sink. The morning of the fifth day, she was gone, and we didn't know where.

There were other spiders in the house. A jumping spider lived under the refrigerator and another upstairs. We decided spiders were not quite guests. They were welcome in our house, but they weren't invited and planned for, so they were on their own for food and water.

The mouse was different, though, because it was brought in, and therefore we were responsible to see that it had food, water, and shelter, and to see that the cat treated it as a guest and not as a snack.

Amanda and Juniper picked it up down the road after a night of 25-below-zero temperature. Amanda came up first, to prepare the adults for what Juniper was carrying carefully up the hill. They feared we would be unsympathetic. After all, we employ a full-time cat specifically to keep the house clear of mice.

Amanda said, "Mama's probably going to be mad about it, but we have to try to save this mouse's life. We can't just leave it there to die." Her effort to include me immediately among the sympathetic forces was transparent but effective.

I said, "It's better to assume she won't be mad."

And she wasn't. She helped install the mouse in a shoe box, with part of an old towel for a rug and mattress, and with rolled oats, sunflower seeds, and water.

We all celebrated, the second day, when the mouse began to eat. It tucked its head tightly into the corner whenever the lid of the box was lifted.

Laura called the High Desert Museum. The animal-care technician said what we were feeding the mouse was good, and that we should wait until the cold spell broke to return the mouse to where it'd been found. She pointed out that it is illegal to keep any wild animal, even a mouse. Juniper and Amanda had decided the mouse must be returned outdoors when it was ready, and the information about the law cleared away any reservations they might have had.

The third day, the mouse chewed material from the towel and made a nest in the corner of the box. It ate a lot of oats and sunflower seeds. We cheered its hearty appetite. The more it ate, the better-prepared it would be for its return outside.

It was 20 degrees at daylight, and the temperature rose rapidly when the sun came out, so Amanda and Juniper took the mouse back down the road to where they found it. They said they turned the mouse out of the box near the food they had put down. It paid no attention to the food but looked around briefly, then headed purposefully down the hill over the snow. It seemed to know where it was going.

It had been an ideal guest. And the cat, although we'd thought it was necessary to watch him closely, was a perfect gentleman throughout.

Soon after that, one moonlit night, the dog announced that people approached. All four of us popped out into the cold night to see who was coming down the trail along Bridge Creek and to welcome them in. Some eight miles and several hours earlier, mother, father, and two daughters had turned right when they should have gone straight. They were tired, hungry, and grateful to find a well-lighted, warm house with hospitable people eager for them to cross the last hundred yards from the trail to the house.

Once they had climbed the stairs and divested themselves of skis, their first priority was water to drink and water onto the burner for tea, then the telephone, for they were hours overdue. They were sure the people they were staying with called out searchers, which was the case.

We fed them, drank tea together, and squeezed as much conversation as possible into two hours while we phoned periodically to be sure the last searchers were notified to stop searching as soon as they radioed in from up on the cold, moonlit, snowy mountain.

We found a lot of common ground, especially since we were two families with daughters of similar ages, with a public school teacher in one family and two home-schooling teachers in the other.

All good things must deal with the threat of turning into pumpkins if they extend too long into the night, so we squeezed all four of them and me as driver into the cab of the pickup, and I took them down the mountain and north of town.

On the way home, in bright moonlight reflected from snow, I thought about the fact that I almost never heard complaints from my family about loneliness, despite the fact that we lived away from other people. A strong sense of completeness among us helped.

And visits, expected and unexpected, helped us maintain our contact with the world all around us.

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