I definitely wasn’t thinking about Christmas when I took a job 3,000 miles away from my family that spring. I was eager to complete my training as a whitewater river guide, then to spend a glorious summer rafting wild and scenic rivers. It was demanding work but what bliss!

When November arrived I discovered nearly all of my fellow river guides enthusiastically exchanging lifejackets for downhill skis and migrating to seasonal ski patrol jobs in the Sierra Mountains. My job, however, in addition to guiding, involved year-round office responsibilities. So I found myself with nowhere to go and no one to celebrate with. I didn’t have the money for the exorbitant holiday airfares to fly home. Sadly, I realized my first Christmas in California would be spent alone. I was miserable and pitying my situation.

A few days before the holiday, Helen, the girlfriend of my housemate John, stopped by. “Are you going home for Christmas?” she asked.

With a long face I answered, “No, I’m just staying here alone.”

She thought for a moment, then replied, “No, you’re not. John’s sisters are coming up so I don’t have a bed for you, but there’s the couch. Come spend Christmas with us.” Helen lived in a quaint stone cabin in the heart of Yosemite Valley, an alluring perk for being one of three full-time National Park Service doctors. I thanked and hugged her for this unexpected invitation. Any space in her manger would suit me just fine.

At noon on Christmas Eve, John’s sisters met us in Angels Camp and we set off together for the two-hour drive to Yosemite. Lightly falling snow gradually whitened the road and surrounding landscape. Inside the park we drove alongside the ice-crusted banks of the rushing Merced River. Never had I seen Yosemite so peaceful and pristine. Once again for a few months, paradise belonged to the wild creatures. Through the blurry screen of swirling snowflakes, immense Half Dome resembled the intimidating ghostliness of Dickens’ Spirit of Christmas Past.

Helen welcomed us into her cozy home. As requested, in lieu of gifts, we jockeyed a dozen bowls and casserole dishes into her refrigerator for two days of sumptuous feasts. Dried oak logs crackled and sparked as warmth emanated from the stone fireplace.

As nightfall descended the snowfall ceased. Shortly before the start of Christmas Eve services, Helen shepherded us outdoors for the short walk to the tiny chapel nearby. The fresh snow scrunched as our boots left prints on the path. Twenty worshippers attended the celebration of Jesus’ birth that night. As the service ended, we filed outside with lit candles, singing to the starry silent night that enveloped us and filled our hearts with love. Reflections from the luminous silvery moon lit our path back to the cabin. We feasted, laughed and reveled for several hours. Snuggling into my sleeping bag I tried to etch into memory every moment of this magical Christmas Eve.