The Magic Circle: The Power of Water

Snake River, Idaho

I first got the idea of writing The Magic Circle while living in Idaho, where I’d moved in 1978 from Colorado to work with people from many different countries and cultures, all involved in energy research and nuclear safety.

I was living in a tiny, furnished flat on the second floor of an old-fashioned building in Idaho, overlooking the Snake River. It was just after a spring of heavy snowmelt, when a major earth dam high in the mountains had collapsed and flooded the towns downstream all along the Snake. The lower floors of my building had been submerged for weeks; you could still see watermarks left by the flood on the wallpaper downstairs in the hallway. I started thinking a lot about the nature and power of water.

One weekend that winter I went over the pass to Jackson Hole to meet a friend from Colorado for some skiing. It was snowing a lot, and my friend wanted to ski the powder dumps like those I describe in The Magic Circle. By three p.m. on the first day it was pretty bleak out. So I adjourned to the lodge for a hot spiced wine. I got into a conversation with a group of guys who’d come to Jackson that weekend from all over: the East Coast, Utah, Montana, Canada. Back home, these people were park rangers or expedition guides in off-trail parts of the world–or even on “groomed’ ski slopes devoid of rocks and trees, where snow was a very real danger. They were here to participate in a four-day avalanche school. In their training they would carry out exercises where the cornices were blasted from a ridge of snow to create an avalanche. Then they would hunt for simulated buried bodies that were wearing alarm beepers and try to dig them out while they were still alive. But today, these guys were stuck in the lodge because it was snowing so hard there was too much danger of a real, uncontrolled, avalanche that might bury a few of the living, breathing students. I started thinking a lot more about the power of snow.

The next morning everything was clear for a good day of skiing. I rode up to the top of the mountain with my friend from Colorado. We agreed to meet at the bottom for lunch. He went through the fresh powder, but I cut instead through a field of huge boulders where the snow was more packed and the going was slower. Just before I came to the end of the boulder field and was about to swing back out onto the open slope, I heard the whisper of the avalanche coming from above me.

I won’t describe my closest physical encounter with an avalanche. It’s already described, in plenty of vivid detail, in the first major action scene in The Magic Circle. But from that day, I knew that these two elemental experiences–the flood and the avalanche–had provided the brackets I needed for what my book would be about: how the earth has a way of healing herself and setting things straight when man interferes too much by bottling up her energies.