Archive for the ‘Outdoor’ Category

Free, solo

Once a year, in June, I hike up Mount Isolation in New Hampshire to survey for the Mountain Bird Watch. It’s a citizen science project, so we are all volunteers contributing sightings, and sometimes I think it’s because you couldn’t pay anyone to do this work. Isolation lives up to its name in one respect: it’s seven miles from the nearest road, which is pretty far in New England wilderness terms. Last year, I took that shortest route in, but this year I opted for the longer Davis Path. I was seeking the brain calming effects that ten solitary trail miles usually brings.


For the first couple of miles, the trail is well used, leading to a spur at Mt. Crawford with good views of the Presidential Range. Most of the men I met along the way felt compelled to ask me questions that were so consistent and predictable, it seemed I was auditioning people who had studied a common script: “Camping out overnight? Are you alone? Where you headed?” Some asked out of curiosity, some bewilderment, some from concern, but it is universally creepy to be asked details on these things by men I don’t know. The people who would need to know where to look for my body have already received my itinerary, so I offer evasive or misleading responses to these men. Some go on to offer advice, which I benignly accept, despite my extensive experience in the wilderness. I did aid a father and daughter who had wandered off trail onto the ledges in finding their way back, listening to the aggrieved man bewail the lack of trail markings. I refrained from explaining that wilderness areas have deliberately limited signage, and at the next trail junction, we parted ways.

The last group I encountered before I passed into the farther reaches of the wilderness beyond the popular trails looked to be made up of four or so women in their 60s and 70s. As I stepped aside to let them by, I heard a reedy male voice from the back of the line saying, “and then the market collapsed, just like the market for sheep in New England back in the 1800s…” and so on. The women “mmmm-hmmmmed” and “really?”-ed along ahead of him. One of them, seeing me, almost said “good morning” and then stopped and said, “No, it can’t STILL be the morning, can it?” “Oh no,” I told her, “You are well into it now.” She smiled, and they all paraded past, his voice uninterrupted.

After that, I walked seven more miles to my camping spot without human contact. The trail gets vague in places, and wandered down a stream bed a while before realizing my error. I circled around, retracing the trail, searching for the broken end of it, briefly bushwhacking through a spruce stand before I picked up the trace again. In other spots, the ungroomed trail would disappear straight into a wall of balsam, becoming less a trail, and more a faith-based initiative in plunging in and through, hoping to set my feet invisibly right.

Some trails permit an easy rhythm of steps, and let the mind wander, but the Davis Path depends strenuous attention. The rigors, though exhausting, were what I craved. My mind has trouble staying where it is, instead slipping forward into the potential catastrophes of the future, or sliding backward to lament past acts. It lurches and wobbles like a person learning to roller skate. Hard trails dictate presence of mind. At the higher elevations, there was still, intermittently, snow pack, and places where moose had traversed it and punched through the crust with their enormous hooves. Mud pits and snowmelt sluices soaked my feet and legs to the calves.


Davis Path in June. No way through but through.

I planned a stop on Mt. Davis to see the views and eat something, but the moment I stopped moving, I was beset by black flies. They filled my ear canals and nose, and lodged in the canthi of my eyes. I could feel them in my hair and crawling up under my shirt cuffs. I scarfed my food and bolted back down the spur trail and kept moving. It was only five o’clock when I pitched my tent and crawled in seeking respite. For hours, I read and listened to the drone and pelt of insect bodies against the nylon.

The Mountain Bird Watch survey protocol requires a start time well before sunrise, so by 3:30 am I was on the trail again. At my first survey station, the dawn filters into the space left by a massive blowdown of trees that happened several years ago. All in the same direction they lie prostrate toward the east. Too dark to see much at that hour, I mainly listen for the birds. A white-throated sparrow announced itself and received a reply from a rival. A hermit thrush called at the very edge of my hearing. A Swainson’s thrush called close behind me and as I noted it in my data sheet, I heard a thrum of wings and felt wings brush against my pant leg. I turned around to see the Swainson’s on a branch ten feet from my head, one leg thrust in front the other, still, and staring at me, as I was at him, neither of us quite having expected the other.

x0Gi64HOSjePvCBBL5cMqQThere were five more stations to survey after that, and by the time I was done, it was past seven and I started back down the trail to go home. I mostly moved fast enough to keep ahead of the flies, but in the wet places the mosquitoes would rouse themselves at my passing. Their whine sometimes sounds like a suggestion of human voices, and I calibrate my time away from society by what feeling that elicits. Early in my hiking trips, the thought of engaging anyone in conversation, however briefly, fills me with tiredness, or sometimes dread. After a day away, I handle the prospect with more equanimity. Every time I mistake mosquitoes for people talking, the last line of Prufrock springs into my head, “Till human voices wake us, and we drown,” and then I puzzle over that line for a quarter mile or so.

The way back out is as long as the way in, but I was tired, and fly-bitten, and my thoughts mostly  narrowed to, “Can someone come and carry me?” But there were times when the trail was easier, where it was dry, where the thin veneer of glacial soil had worn away off the bedrock under decades of human traffic, and where the trail is like that, I think I am walking on an enormous skull with the skin split open and I am in the wound. I remember a fragment of a poem a student a year ahead of me in high school had written. It was left on a table in my English classroom, and it was about the goddess Athena. I remember only one phrase, “gray-eyed Aegean girl” and nothing else, except my astonishment that a girl my age had written her own poem, that she had dared to, that she claimed herself a poet, and written about this wise goddess born straight from the mind of Zeus, a headache from the very beginning.

KS2jCOksSMKmW95+5oDwwwThere isn’t much of that easy sort of trail on the Davis Path, and I was relieved to get back to the lower miles where I began to encounter people again. I could gauge my proximity to the trailhead by how dirty and tired people looked, so when I met a family, a man, a woman, and a teenager, looking utterly crisp and chipper, I knew I was almost done. The man stopped me and asked about the bugs. “Pretty bad,” I told him, and his face fell. “The moment I stopped to take in the view, I was under siege. It happened on the nice sunny ledges too.” He frowned and said, “That’s not what I read online on the trail reports. Online people said the bugs were bad on other trails but not this one.” He stared at me, and I shrugged. My face, I would discover later, was streaked with blood, and there were raised welts around my neck and along my jaw. My ears were swollen twice their normal size, their whorls and helices looking shiny and rubbery red, like a poor first attempt at balloon animals. My hat where it had been in contact with my ears was bloodstained. “I don’t know what to tell you. They are really terrible. Disfiguring, in fact,” I said to him. His wife was silent but looking more and more concerned. “Well, online no one said anything about that.” He questioned some more, and I told him where I’d been, and how long I’d been out. Finally I said, “I wish you the best, but it is the flies’ time out there. We are only interlopers.” The wife’s eyes tracked me, almost pleading, as I turned to go.  As I walked away, I felt the calm surety that always comes after exhausting myself in the wilderness. Whatever that man said or thought was not my concern, and could not trouble me. I existed fully in the moment I inhabited, sore, bloodied, blistered, but with my mind at ease, neither in front of me nor behind, and with my skates fully under me now.

Read Full Post »


On the first day of two weeks’ vacation in the middle of Maine, I ran past an old farmstead. A stone wall fronted a barbed wire fence, and most of the stones were the tumbled, irregular ones common to New England, but a couple were the precious flat stones, easy to stack, nice for paths. Two of these were propped against each other perpendicular, one on end as support, the other a roof bridging it and the jumble of ordinary stones in the rest of the wall. The flat stones described two sides of an open doorway through the wall, with nothing passing through it now in late summer, but likely in spring, making a sluiceway for snow melt and manure slurry to leave the paddock. The sight of this carefully constructed and balanced passage ran my heart through, for no reason I could discern. I ran on past, and kept thinking of it. Someone a long time ago built that doorway for the mud to go through, and now, no one hardly notices it, down low in the ditch, below the eye line of drivers.

I was still thinking about it when a man in a weather beaten car with his weather beaten arm out the window called out, “Where’s this road go?” “Don’t know,” I told him, “I’m not from here. But I ran with it a while and turned back. It kept going.” He nodded and drove off the other way, not chancing it.

We were staying in a rented cabin for the two weeks, getting to know its ways. The water pressure was so poor that showering felt like being drooled on by a tall man. The arrangement of utensils in the kitchen drawers followed someone else’s mysterious logic. On the walls were formal portraits of several generations of someone’s family. A man in a too-big suit, a collar like a yoke around his neck sat with his wife standing behind him, her hand gripping his shoulder, his face suggesting a hostage situation.


My father and I fish during the two weeks of vacation, and at no other time of the year. The rest of the seasons his boat sits in a corner of my wooded property, overturned on a couple of boards. When we went to load it before our trip, we turned it over to see an opossum bundled into a pile of leaves she’d plowed up against the gunwale. When she saw us and the light coming in, she rose and shambled off, seemingly unperturbed, leaving a cast of her body in the leaves.

In the borrowed cabin, I read over the “Fishing Hotspots” map of the lake.  It gave species list, depth profiles, and markers of shallow rocks and other hazards to the mariner unfamiliar with these waters. In the description it said, “sporting opportunities abound for both the resident and transient.” I liked the frankness of that word, transient. Most brochures and other materials call us visitors, vacationers, or at least tourists. Here we were, described with a term applicable to hobos, itinerants, those sheltering under overpasses.

I ran most days, and the late summer insects flew into me, down my throat, and up my nose. The locusts, gray armored, would fly, revealing their black crepe wings with yellow trim, bustling ahead like Victorian ladies hoisting their skirts to scurry. Frogs sheltered under the upturned kayaks every night, and a mouse that had died in the attic and was stinking was carted out of the house on a canoe paddle, like a pizza. Everything was high summer fetid and either breeding or rotting.

I liked to run up the hill and look far out to the lake below. An old jungle gym, heaved out of level by decades of frost, still stood in someone’s yard, closer in time now to the next generation than the one that first used it; been there so long, might as well wait for grandkids. Across the street a whole hillside had the purplish cast of a lowbush blueberry heath, scattered ablation till and a few ragged pines. The kind of farm you give up and abandon for the black prairie earths out west, once you hear about them, and let the woods seal over this place. At the elementary school, the signboard says, “Palermo Talent Show Canceled,” and nothing more.

Two weeks is enough to wear some patterns in a place. The same side of the bed, the same chair to read in at night, the kitchen drawers start to make some sense. But then our time is up, and we pack our things. The cabin is for sale, and it’s unclear if anyone else uses it. We found a newspaper from a few months before, but besides us, there may be no one staying here for a long time. When it’s time to go and drive back south, and pull the boat out of the lake and stow it another 50 weeks in the woods, we close and lock the door on the eddying dust streaming in the light beams, our sloughed skin and the wings of insects dried on the windowsills, and the spores of fungus, and the pollen clouds we moved through and then left. The dust settles and won’t be disturbed for some long time. What little wakes we leave.

Read Full Post »

On Anxiety

I have a picture of a brown trout taped into my notebook. The fish has two lampreys attached to the top of its head, rasping through its scales and slurping up its vital juices through the raw bed they scrape. The lampreys are velvety black, snake-like, with no discernable faces. They arc away in two directions, looking like a fool’s motley cap, or like two hoses in science fiction drawing all the fish’s thoughts away. When I think of the picture, I recall the fish appearing distressed, or stunned, but when I look at it again, the fish has no expression at all, or rather, a fish’s only expression—blank-eyed, slack jawed.

My summers are mostly my own, free of teaching duties. My kids are old enough not to need constant tending. But without any structure in the days, the idleness makes me anxious. I wander from room to room, carrying things around for a while and setting them down again, wasting time trying to decide how best to spend my time. By July, it was so bad that I re-activated a long dormant meditation app I’d downloaded in a previous difficult time. The meditations are short mindfulness exercises, focusing on this moment, tending the wayward child of the mind, jogging after it and steering it back with an arm around its shoulder. None of them were really doing the trick.

Anxiety governs democratically, opening the public square to any concern demanding a hearing. The Antarctic ice sheets slumping into the ocean jostle for space alongside: the plants growing in my front gutters, tall enough to flower; a Syrian father keening over his dead son; an email I was supposed to send; the rotten window sills on the north side of the house. I would go running for the short relief it gives– a few hours afterward when I am wrung out. Once, with the rest of the roadside litter, I saw a star-spangled lighter with red and blue lettering like something from a political campaign. As I passed it, I looked down and saw it read, “We’re Screwed 2016.”

IMG_0757When running wasn’t doing it, I headed north to do some hard walking. Two days and a night on the Kilkenny Trail north of the Presidentials in the White Mountains, and then a day spent circling the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge. The walk in was on a rough trail. I hiked hard, self-flaggelating with raspberry canes. Insects raised welts on my arms, and as I got closer to the ponds, they grew thicker. Ticks crawled up my legs. Something buzzed between the sheets of my Tyvek map. I put on my head net and trapped a hive of mosquitoes inside it with me. Increasingly deranged, I slapped and slapped, hitting myself in the glasses and knocking them sideways. I sat down at the pond edge and gave in. On my knee was a decrepit lightning bug, ragged winged, missing a leg. Butterflies landed on me, seeking my salt. Flower flies tapped me with their tube tongues splaying. A dragonfly with a torn wing rested on my thumb, his abdomen heaving in and out; he’d been in the wars. I ate my lunch and, unwilling to retrace the hard walk back on the trail I’d come in on, I took the longer circuit around the far side of the pond. On a wet dirt rail trail threatened by marsh on both sides, I sloshed through six inches of water and found a crayfish in the middle of the path. The only human I’d seen in a long while came around a bend: an old man with pants tucked into his socks and a wide brimmed hat on. “Awful lot of bugs,” he said. “Plenty,” I answered. In places along the trail, weathered wooden poles that used to hold telephone lines leaned toward the marsh like crosses. “These are the works of man,” I thought.

After a while, the trail met the pavement and I settled into a hard road walking speed past barns and weedy fields. I detoured into a little cemetery and there found a three foot tall silhouette of the Old Man of The Mountain cut in plywood, painted, and stood up among the headstones. The Man himself was long since lying in jumbled pieces at the base of a cliff over in Franconia Notch, but it appeared that his grave was here. Two stones over, a grave, a wife’s name underneath, and “Infant son 1913-1913.” The works of man. I walked as hard as I could and still call it walking. I looked along the shoulder and thought I saw a turtle (a rock), and a mouse (a run over pinecone). I took a little video of what the road looked like as I went, and how little was going on. As I lowered the camera and put it away, a bittern flew out of the streamside ahead of me. In my life, I’ve seen two standing still, pretending to be reeds, and one bursting up out of the weeds, both of us startled, but I’d never seen one flying at its own leisure. It went, wooden-winged, hingeing across the road. I kept on to my car.

I got back from the trip and the walking medicine wore off and the anxiety slipped its fingers between my ribs again and squeezed. I dutifully did my meditations each day, but felt only a little bit better, and only for a short time before the lampreys came rasping at my head again. Then, one afternoon, the meditation asked me to name the thoughts preying on me. To recognize that they aren’t me, that they are not intrinsic. “Call them by their names,” said the lisping Englishman on the recording. “Hello old Mrs. Doubt. Good afternoon, Mr. Self-Criticism.” I rolled my eyes under my closed lids, but listened on. Then, rather than Mrs. Doubt clad in her gray woolens, it was crows I began to see in my mind. Spark eyed and hopping, they closed on me.  They carried tools, little short sticks they’d stripped of bark and sharpened. They jumped around and peered in and fished into my head, down my ear canals with their sticks. The Englishman talked on, but I didn’t hear him much anymore. I could see, down in the dark, in the bone cup at the bottom of my skull, a white grub curled up. Down into the dark the ends of the crow sticks rasped and poked but could not quite reach. The grub shifted a little in the dark but that was all. It was imperturbable. The meditation ended, and the Englishman thanked me for joining him, and wished me well. I sat at the table with clear sight, crying. What euphoric relief it was to know the crows were not me, that I was cured.

Later on, out for a run again, the gleam off the revelation, I wondered if my true self really is a fat, dull grub, barely sensate, and what price I would pay for peace. And ego, vain ego, covets those glossy, blue-black feathers.


Read Full Post »

Better part of valor

IMG_0053.jpgThe plan, for this overnight backpacking trip, was to hike in to a backcountry camp site in the shadow of Mt. Jefferson, camp out, get up in the morning and hike to the summit, and return out the way we came. Malcolm, my elder son, was my companion, his younger brother having opted to stay home with his father. Malcolm, for some reason, has taken to backpacking the way I did, when, out of the blue at the age of 16, I announced my wish to begin sleeping in the woods from time to time. No one in my family had ever done, nor desired to do, such a thing. We did not even camp at campgrounds. Every summer, we rented a cabin on Lake Ossipee and that was the extent of things. But I had some splinter in my soul that would not work out until I’d ventured into the woods.

My parents bought me a pack and a few other items that year for Christmas, and away I went from there, doing occasional trips into the White Mountains, with no particular goal in mind but to walk in, sleep, walk out.

Since then, I have found out about peakbaggers, and redliners, and sectionhikers–all outdoors people working on particular lists of achievements: all the summits in New Hampshire above 4,000 feet, or every trail in the White Mountains, or the whole Appalachian Trail in fits and starts. It’s hard not to get swept up by goals like that, and I do keep a list of which 4000 footers I have climbed, though I am not in any rush. Still, it’s hard not to feel an urge to climb all the way up a mountain when you’re halfway up anyway, and that’s where Malcolm and I found ourselves when we camped five miles in on the Great Gulf Trail, at 3,000 or so feet of elevation.

We set up camp there Sunday evening, with no one else anywhere around. We ate, and as the temperature declined into the 40s, retreated to the tent to read. He ran out of books and asked me to read to him from what I had, so he listened to a magazine article about the sodium levels in frozen pizza, and one about the search for a natural-origin  blue dye for candy. Eventually, he fell asleep.

img_0059In the night, the forecast winds picked up. Tucked up by the headwall in the ravine below Jefferson, we could hear the wind tearing down the Presidential ridge from the north over and over. The force of it bore down across the exposed reaches a thousand feet and more above our heads. Hardly any wind reached us down where we were, but my stomach tensed all the same for the biggest gusts. We were like mice crouched under the floorboards as a great cat swept its frustrated paw across the knothole where we hid.

I slept fitfully as I always do the first night out, and in the morning, Jefferson was rimed in ice and the winds had not diminished. It took me a few moments to understand that snow was falling already at our elevation. It was not a day to venture above treeline with what gear we had. I told Malcolm, telling him why it was unwise to go up, though I was trying to convince myself as much as him.

We headed back down Great Gulf Trail; the temperatures moderated with the elevation loss and the sun’s progress. I had to look back at Jefferson again and again to see its ashy gray and white complexion, and be reminded of the wisdom of my choice.

img_0078We drove home, with no additional peak to record on the form that shows my slow progress on the list since I first climbed Mt. Washington in 1997. Malcolm is closer to the age I was then than I am now. I have a picture of me sitting in a log shelter in the wilderness that since fell into disrepair and was dismantled. Malcolm is fascinated by how long ago that was. He’s fascinated by how long it is taking me to get around to all 48 4000 foot peaks. He’s fascinated by how very, very old I am.

In my turn, I am fascinated by him too. He is like me in certain ways, small, and so bony we can’t ever seem to get our packs cinched tight enough around our hips. Diffident. He talked at length as we walked about BMX bike tricks, a subject about which I know nothing. He’s on the brink of not being a little kid anymore. He can hike about as fast as I want to go. There are few things on Earth I love to watch more than his beautiful stride at a full sprint.

I was disappointed at having failed to reach Jefferson’s summit. I can console myself with the usual saw about the journey being what matters, but I do crave those mountaintops, and it’s clear that he does too. But I had one more day of the numbered days when he will still curl up with me in the tent, and ask me to read to him. He will no longer hold my hand, but he will be my ballast when the morning comes and the wind finds us there finally, hiding in our hole, thinking better of it, scurrying down in the spindrift.

Read Full Post »

Marauders descending

Last week, the boys and I did an overnight in the White Mountains. We broke what is generally a day hike for adults into two days, staying overnight at the Nauman tent site down the shoulder from Mt. Pierce. We arrived at 2pm, with hours to go before our supper, and still longer to sleep. Boredom sets in, and they whittled sticks into supports for a tiny lean-to, and Simon found a slug to live in it. He built a bridge of sticks and then smashed it. He found a spoon in the woods.

Malcolm, at nine, can hike at an impressive speed, but his seven year old brother still whinges and foot drags if given too ambitious a course, or too heavy a pack. We modulate, though he too is remarkable in what he can do. They are of an age now that I think I might possibly miss one day. So far, I have never felt that sensation. I have never missed having babies or toddlers, and have found the ever increasing freedom of older kids to be liberating. Both kids are now in the window of elementary age where they are easy to tend, independent, but still unabashedly enjoy our company. They still want to be read to, and the books are actually good.

IMG_8442.JPGIn the tent that evening, Simon sat next to me silently, looking down at the New York Times word puzzle we were working on. He made “clout” and “trout” of the letters after several minutes of hard staring. They read by headlamp for a while before sleeping.

In the morning, Malcolm was trying to zip his pant legs back up and couldn’t get the zipper to unjam. Exasperated, he threw up his hands and said, “Mom, can you help me?” and I found myself leaping to the task. He is nine, and almost preternaturally self-assured and mature. To be asked for help by this boy particularly sprang something inside me. I know the times when he will think to ask me for help are dwindling, as are the nights I will spend reading to him of bands of pirate ghosts and teenage boys in perilous wilderness situations. I don’t know if either of them will continue to want to join me on these trips. I suspect Malcolm, at least, will, but I have seen enough craigslist ads for youth backpacking equipment “used once; he didn’t like it,” to be a realist.

As we ate our breakfast, I heard sounds in the trees unlike the red squirrels and usual birds. This was a purposeful sound, and I turned to see six or seven gray jays gliding down the ridge and into the spruces around us. The first dropped onto Simon’s arm and lunged at his food. One jumped to me and jabbed a chisel beak into my granola. Malcolm mantled like a raptor over his own energy bar, but Simon gleefully offered up our expensive dried figs and apricots. A boy from the next site stood staring and I gestured to him to see if he wanted to offer them a morsel. He mutely shook his head, mouth open.

After a few moments, I thought to take a picture or a video of Simon’s beaming face, giggling as the birds leaped between his hands and the trees. But my phone was frozen. I pressed the button over and over, and could watch Simon through the screen, but nothing was captured. I powered the phone down, thinking a restart would help, and went back to watching Simon while I waited.

The birds yanked a few more bits of food free from our hands, but then, suddenly as they had come, they moved on to the tents further down the ridge. It was clearly their daily routine, arriving and making their systematic plundering, moving on.

After they were gone, my restarted phone had indeed regained its photographic capacity. It was as if the birds had drawn an electronic disturbance in with them when they came, and that dissipated once they left. The birds had broken the ice between Simon and the boy who’d been watching, Henry, who now became his fast friend for the morning.

We packed up and headed off for our seven mile trek up over Pierce and Eisenhower, plodding at our 1 mile per hour pace in the humid day above treeline.

IMG_8460I thought about the gray jays all day. I thought about all the people who say, “cherish every moment,” about raising children as Simon and Malcolm bickered, and Simon whined for snacks, and Malcolm strained at the bit to walk faster than his brother was able. Children plunder you, ransack your life. They are messy, boring, tedious, and exhausting. Not every moment is precious. If I’d been told my children would remain toddlers forever, I would have wanted to die. The gray jays didn’t stay as long as I wanted them to, sweeping in from the trees, bead-eyed, the youngest one disheveled in molt. They moved on before I was quite ready. Their presence was outsized; they seemed larger than they were, more than their weight, which was never greater than when they pushed off us to go.

Read Full Post »

Solitary animals

Last week, I went off on my annual solo overnight backpacking trip in the time between when I finish teaching and when my kids finish school. I headed up to the trailhead on Haystack Rd. to hike over North Twin mountain on my way to Garfield Ridge. Easy walking brought me to a crossing of the Little River that, though not at all high water, looked daunting. This was not a dry footed crossing. A sign across the water clearly indicated where the trail picked up again, but on my side, a bootleg trail ran up along the water’s edge where countless hikers had paced up and back, nervously scouting for a better crossing spot. There were none to be had, but I also followed the worn herd path out of the same vain hope. I passed a garter snake, to which I spoke briefly. I turned back after a while, trying to find the main trail and the official crossing spot again. The trails faded and reappeared, approached and left the river’s edge. I looked for the turn where I had taken a little connecting path, and saw the same snake. Normally, animals make poor landmarks, but this one was distinctively teal blue in its markings, and was sunning himself just where I’d left him. I thanked him and faced the river again.

IMG_8297 2There was nothing for it but to roll up my pants, unbuckle my pack straps, and pick my way across. For part of the way, there were rocks to step on just under the surface, but most of the time, I had to cross in water mid-way up my shins. I gripped my trekking poles, probing with them into pockets in the rocks, and I heard the Voice of Authority in my head saying, “Six inches of fast moving water can knock a person over.” Stepping down in places, my leg went sideways. Moving up river, I fought the drag of my waterlogged shoes. I reached the other shore. There were two more crossings like this, and I cursed the trail, and tried to trust in the wisdom of the trailwrights. After the second crossing, I met a woman coming down the trail toward me. “Have you seen a bald guy?” she asked. “I haven’t seen a soul,” I told her. She kept going, and then five minutes later I heard her behind me again. “No sign?” I asked. “We’ve been crossing back and forth at different places. We were scratching notes in the dirt, Bs and Es, but I haven’t seen anything in a while.” I didn’t see her again after that, but I did come upon her symbol in the dirt: a capital E with an arrow showing which way she’d gone. I decided her name was Evelyn, though this was ludicrously old fashioned for how young she was. Her hiking partner was Bald. I never saw his sign in the dirt. After a mile, even her signs disappeared. I wondered about Evelyn and Bald, star-crossed river crossers braiding their paths into the mountains. Was Bald her friend? Husband? Father? I was alone on the trail again, thinking solitary thoughts about what I would do if I were the last person on Earth. Probably commit suicide. Though how to know you’re the last? What if there’s a small, tenacious community somewhere in Mongolia and you go and kill yourself? But then, they’re dead to you because how would you reach them? There are no pilots, no captains to bring you across, and the Bering land bridge is currently closed.

IMG_8300 2I got up over North Twin and then to South Twin, which had been socked in by fog when I last came through a year or so before. I stopped in to Galehead Hut for water and to talk with passers-through and to choke down a meal bar that gave a chemical burn sensation in the throat. Then I headed for Garfield Ridge campsite a few miles on. My overnight there was quiet, and I was up at 4 to head back down. I’d decided I never wanted to cross the Little River again, so I took the Gale River trail down instead, electing to take a long road walk at the bottom to my car. For the last two trail miles, I followed moose tracks in the mud, smeared over and fresher than any human ones. Big as plates, each a cloven heart, they pointed down the trail where I looked and looked, hoping to see my first ever of the giant creatures. By 7:15 I was at the Gale River trailhead, crestfallen at the kiosk map that indicated a much longer road walk than my map had shown. I began trotting down the road, walk-running and calculating how long it would take to cover the five or so miles. A pickup truck came trundling up the gravel and a man leaned out the window to ask the way to Galehead parking, and I told him he was very nearly there, and then, making a fast assessment, determined him to be neither rapist nor killer, and asked if he’d give me a lift back to my car.

IMG_8302 2His name was Stephen King, a name, he tells me, that gets hotel clerks’ attention when he calls to book a room. The cab was strewn with hiking gear, maps and old water bottles. I’d never been as grateful for transportation. On the slow ride over dirt roads, he told me about his misadventures—hypothermic staggerings in Vermont, a November fall into the icy, cursed, Little River, sleeping on the porches of empty summer cottages along the Appalachian Trail, encounters with many, many snakes. On Route 3, just as we prepared to turn off onto another dirt road, I saw a moose loping across the road into the woods on the far side. We were pulled over onto the shoulder, and other cars slowed to look.

When we got to my car, he asked if I wanted to go hike Mt. Hale with him, a summit we’ve both, as it turns out, been avoiding or putting off. Reluctantly, I declined, having to get back south for an appointment. He went barreling down the road in his truck while I cautiously picked my way down in my low-slung Prius. I was back home in southern New Hampshire by 11am, unpacking my things and stowing them away. I thought of the solo hiker, a woman, who’d drowned in the Gale River last fall, swept miles down in the rain-bloated current. She was found eventually, after a protracted search, snagged up someplace near where we saw the moose. Maybe she’d have died anyway, even if she’d been with a companion, or a group. But at least someone else would have known where to look for her. Lone hikers lost are found by bands of searchers. Search parties. More eyes to see with.  I went into the woods alone, but when I saw the moose, I had someone to show it to.

Read Full Post »

One way radio

IMG_7091In July, Christophe and the boys and I spent an overnight at the Cutler Preserved Lands in Way Downeast Maine. It was a bit more than a four mile hike in on the inland trail, through spruce and spongy peak, across nearly continuous bog bridges until we came out onto Fairy Head where three campsites edge on the rock slabs and cliffs down to the ocean. We chose the farthest south of the three, it being closest to the tannin-steeped pool that would be our water source. We made camp, and spent the evening climbing, reading, or, in the boys’ case, standing at the edge of the surf in their underwear yelling at the waves to come hit them, a prospect that grew ever less likely as the tide was going out, and the tides in that part of the world are notoriously extreme. Eating our supper out of cups on the rock verge, we could look across to the tidy, red-roofed Little River lighthouse and all the corrugated coast jutting out and then receding. South of the light, there was Western Head, Great Head, and then around Dennison Point into Little Machias Bay. Protruding up above the land all that way off were three or four visible upthrust structures, thin, but vastly higher than anything else around them. They looked almost like the masts of a tall ship at anchor in the Bay, but sizing them up against the cliffs nearby, themselves a hundred feet above the water, these slender spikes had to be at least five times that. We finished our supper, washed up, and as the sun faded, retreated to the tents.

IMG_7113By the water, the mosquitos hadn’t been too bothersome. At our campsite, just in from the woods’ edge, they abruptly descended. They seethed, they teemed, they swarmed in a plague, settling on the least flash of exposed skin. Even the memory of skin attracted them; I set down a mug and came back to it a moment later to find it studded with mosquitos prodding its impervious surface. Diving into the tent, we zipped shut the door and listened to the high whine as they arrayed themselves in phalanxes on all the outer tent walls. For twenty minutes or so, we slapped at the ones that had followed us in, and then read, and then readied for sleep. Until I admitted to myself that I needed to pee. The usual mental dance had gone on, “it’s just my position. I’m imagining it. It’s psychological. If I can just go to sleep and stop thinking about it, I’ll be fine.” At least, I was forced to exit the tent, drop my pants, and crouch in the bushes. The mosquitos were so thick upon my rump that, slapping at them, I looked at my hand to see it fully blanketed in dead insects. Where those dead had been taken away, endless reinforcements took their places. I hauled up my pants and tried to dart back through the tent door. Even a momentary opening of the flap inhaled great gusts of them and for the next several hours, I heard intermittent silence and then slapping as Christophe nodded off between bites. I watched the stars and lightning bugs, doubly obscured by the tent mesh and the scrim of insects wing to wing and tail to tail. Eventually, I did sleep, and in the morning, the mosquitos, though not gone altogether, had dissipated some.

IMG_7117We packed up and walked the five miles back out, seeing almost no one until we were fairly close to the trailhead. Few people, it seems, venture all the way down to Fairy Head. We stopped on cobble beaches tucked between gray cliffs, and then climbed back out again and along trails that came within a foot of the sheer cliff edge. Spruce skeletons stood where they’d died, among their still living brethren. A moth so still and unperturbed by our presence we thought it was dead at first, livened up and hauled its furred legs over our hands. Simon whined, and Malcolm was sullen. We finished our snacks. Far down on the water, it was hard to tell what was eiders or cormorants in the water, and what just nodding lobster buoys in the waves. Simon had to be carried. Our pace quickened once we turned from the sea onto the trail back into the woods and out. Sweat-sodden, stinking and hungry, we drove south toward Machias. As soon as Christophe could get a signal, he looked up the tall metal masts we’d seen from Fairy Head. They were, he read to me, part of a vast array of radio antennae broadcasting very low frequencies for the U.S. Navy submarine fleet all over the Atlantic. The tallest of the towers are nearly one thousand feet high. The setup encompasses an entire peninsula in Cutler, the ground beneath the towers flat and bare.

I thought about the submarines out there, plying the dark waters. I know those things are not small, not a single man, or maybe two, crouching inside a metal bubble the way I imagined them I was a kid. I grew up near enough the Portsmouth Naval shipyard to see their arched backs above the waterline. Once, standing at Odiorne Point, I watched as one sailed out to sea, though “sailed” never seemed so inapt. A friend and I stared out at it, watching the malign beast slip slowly under. Only as the tip of the conning tower disappeared did we seem to shake ourselves awake. My friend said, “I wish I’d gotten a video of that.”  I hadn’t thought of it either, and we both stared at where the big metal dorsal fin had disappeared. The sailboats coursed into the harbor, and the flare-bowed lobster boats trailed their kites of gulls behind. No one who hadn’t been looking would know what was under there. These big nuclear subs hold more than a hundred men, some of them, so it’s not want of human company that would trouble the submariner. Quite the opposite, being sealed up in a drum with the same few dozen people like that. It’s not so much claustrophobia either, but almost the opposite–the knowledge of the mass, and volume, and extent of the oceans piled above, behind, and to all sides.

The radio antennae in Cutler are only capable of sending one-way, encrypted text messages, Christophe read to me from Wikipedia as we rode along the coast. I know the subs must have other ways to communicate, at least these days, but I could not shake the thought of that, of one way radio messages cast out over the North Atlantic to hold the fleet together with the slimmest strands. Messages received, but none sent back. A thousand foot high flinger of messages in bottles.

My mood improved a bit after a roadside lunch to raise my blood sugar, and we drove on down to the crowds at Acadia to spend one night there before the final leg home. Minor irritations, and some more substantial ones left me breathless with screeching at times, but Christophe was unflappable as ever, though he winced and turned down the volume on a Dylan song on the radio when a long, held harmonica note whined, it seemed to me, in the same key the mosquitos had during his long night of the soul in Cutler. I drove, and he occasionally read me a few lines from some article or other. I pointed out roadside oddities. We made it home and I unpacked and put our things away. A few days later, I picked up the book I’d been reading up there, and saw what I had not been able to in my headlamp’s light. Between several pages, I found the smeared bodies of mosquitos, and blotches of my blood, and his.

Read Full Post »

Killing time

On a garden tour in June, I saw a gray birch in the corner of a suburban yard. The write up on the garden reported that the homeowners had been working hard with an arborist to keep the tree going. It sounded generous, but looking at the tree was unsettling. The trunk was easily twenty inches across, the lenticels drawn tight across the bark. The top of the tree was less a canopy than two bifurcating branches veering away from each other, each with a straggled tuft of leaves at their ends. It looked like the still photos of the Challenger explosion–a white slug of smoke forking into two. My sister, also on the garden tour, gave me a dubious look as we gazed up at the tree. “It’s grotesque,” she said. These trees aren’t meant to live long. Springing up after a disturbance in the forest, they live fast and die young while the sun lasts, generally not surviving past twenty years or so. “I think it’s saying, ‘kill me,'” I answered. Frowning, we moved on.

I’ve killed more things than I could count. Before my training as a veterinarian, I worked at a wildlife rehabilitation center. It’s something of a misnomer, by the numbers, since we had to euthanize far more than we released. The injuries and illnesses were often too severe by the time the animals reach our hands, to be saved. I’ve killed with carbon dioxide, with syringes full of barbiturates, with knives, with shovels, and with my hands. They are intimate sorts of killing, at close range. Sometimes they are outside my professional capacity. Once, while out on a run, a phoebe came fluttering out from the bushes. Chasing it, I caught it up and found a purple swelling of blood and muscle overlying a catastrophic break in the humerus right at the elbow. It would not be repairable. I knew I would have to kill this bird, but I kept walking for a hundred yards or so, the bird cupped in one hand. It takes a moment of preparation to ready myself for this sort of killing. I had only my hands, so I would have to break its neck, a technique in which I am confident, but which still makes my hands shake. Mercy argued for immediate dispatch. The bird in my hand was undoubtedly in the seizure of terror that comes with being clutched by an enormous predator. Some people say that wild animals feel fear, even desperate fear, but not fear of death because they don’t understand that death exists. That may be so, but when we fear death, acutely, immediately, not as an armchair musing, but as a flashing, tires screeching, dry-mouthed, dilated pupil fear, it’s not consciousness of mortality or oblivion coursing through us. It’s something much older. Something from back when the amygdala first evolved, those malevolent clenched fists in the center of the brain that existed even in the ancient armored fish, and the enormous carnivorous salamanders before the Permian extinction. Our consciousness and self-awareness, and existential dread, are elaborations, not replacements. They are the gloss on the old text. The fear you feel in your body is the fear, we must presume, that a phoebe feels in its body in my trembling hand as we walk together down the road.

IMG_3621At last, I was able to stop, lay the bird on a stump, set my fingers to the base of its skull and, with my other hand, grasp its body and pull until the release that signals the separation of the first vertebra from the occiput. This particular bird did no kicking or spasming, though these are common after cervical dislocation. This bird just lay there. I waited, just in case, and before I went on, I arranged it at the very center of the stump, hoping the little altar would draw the attention of a scavenger who might put it to some use. Though even if the larger scavengers didn’t come, the small ones, the ants and the burying beetles, would be by in time. Nothing goes to waste. I didn’t check the bird’s belly for a brood patch, the warm, edematous skin on the abdomen that indicates the bird has eggs or young in the nest. It was more than I cared to know, whether under the eaves somewhere, a clutch of phoebes had now begun dying, without even knowing it.

We learn, in vet school, that euthanasia comes from the Greek eu and thanatos: “good death.” I have meted out countless deaths to wild animals suffering grievous wounds. Some seem like good deaths, though the standards I have are rough: quickness, minimal pain, as far as I can tell. By those standards though, I think I have never administered a good death to a turtle, and if the standard is speed, then maybe turtles never die well. Turtles do everything slowly. In medicine, they heal slowly, recover from illness slowly, and when they die, they die slowly too. Turtles are otherworldly this way, and though their species group is ancient, it seems that every turtle individually is ancient too, as if each once had seen the whole unfurling of the world since the beginning of turtles, plodding through the ash and past the litter of dead dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, “hardly affected at all,” say the paleontologists. Plodding is no way to deal with cars though, so we often received turtles smashed into smithereens, loops of intestines and livers and eggs nearly ready to lay spilled all over the road, but with front legs still trying to haul the wreckage around, and the eyes still bright. One snapping turtle’s demolished body had to be brought to us in a tote bag, blood seeping through the canvas, and the parts all unrecognizable but for the head and neck still fearfully snaking around. How do you give a good death to such a creature, who does not need a functioning body to be alive? We can inject our good drugs, that kill birds in a moment, but a turtle will walk around for hours with the medicine in its veins. They may appear dead, lying immobile on the table, but the heart still thuds at long intervals, and a tap on the surface of the cornea elicits a blink. I found a painted turtle on the road once, mortally wounded, but likely with days yet to go before death would come, on turtle time. I had nothing but a shovel, and could sever its head if my aim were true. My aim was not true. The first blow only sheared the front of its face. The second hit home. But even then, it’s unclear when a turtle is dead. Fellow vets will often give the death drug, and then, when the turtle appears dead, introduce a metal probe into the brain and scramble it, whisking at the tissue until no further messages may be conducted. That must be death, we presume.

Is it speed? Is it painlessness that matters? The fox in the yard killed ten of our chickens. Some we never found, but others were headless on the lawn. The fox possessed expert speed. The chickens likely felt little pain, and in the moments of chase, were they more afraid than when a child chases them with a stick and they run? If that fox had not killed them, I would have, though not for a few more years of egg laying. Whether with a knife or the needle, I’d have dispatched them for their age and declining utility. But when the fox trots around the yard at night, and I see its dark tail disappearing into the grass, I will it not to look at me with its yellow eyes. The fox is beautiful, and I don’t begrudge it its fairly taken meals, but standing between the coop and it, I feel the shepherd’s dread.

2500105847_4503a1c72b_oI am not a student of philosophy to even a limited extent, but I am a student of death. I’ve read this bit of Seneca on the subject. “If someone pities those who have died, let him pity also those who have not been born. Death is neither a good nor an evil; for only that which is something can be a good or an evil but what is itself nothing and reduces everything to nothingness, delivers us to no category of fortune.” (Seneca, Consolation to Marcia, 19) The state of nonbeing from whence we came, and back to which we must pass are not supposed to be different on either end. But they are. There was an eternity of non-being for that phoebe before it existed. There is an equal eternity now that it does not. What I did was shorten by less than a hair’s breadth the span of time the phoebe had to exist. The earth is the same; we are the same. There was darkness, then there was all this, and ultimately, when the sun dies, there will be nothing again. No humans, no turtles, no foxes, no chickens. We will all have been restored to the nothingness by then, and who would want to stick around for the heat death of the universe anyway?

Cling to that, be comforted by the abyss. Deliver unto it swiftly those whose suffering you may end. Does it matter what the last moments are like? The Challenger astronauts, we know now, survived the initial breakup of the shuttle. So much of the investigation afterward focused on when or if they might have lost consciousness. The NASA report reads, “It is possible, but not certain, that the crew lost consciousness due to an in-flight loss of crew module pressure.” Possible. We hope. Please let them have lost consciousness, we think, and not have felt the arc, and then the drop, and the freefall to the ocean where, at last, the impact shattered them, shearing their hearts from their aortas. Massive violence ending the terrible suspense. Is that a good death? The fox snaps the chicken’s neck expertly, with no thought of mercy. Cafeterias of school children and their teachers watch the smoke plume split and one side has people in it, alive, and possibly conscious. A phoebe sits inside the loosely closed fingers of a runner who lacks the courage to kill it right away.  What do we do when we will one thing to die, or will another to live? Move the needle just a bit this way or that between the daylight and the dark. Oblivion chews too far into the brief bright band of a life; a child dies. We wish for a few hours more, or watching someone struggle for breath, for even a minute less. “Possibly conscious” might be the last shred of hope you cling to, or the most terrible torment that you can’t stop thinking about.

Oblivion claims nothing so absolutely as a wild thing. Nameless, leaving no stone or sign, no papers and whatnot. The paradox is that we fear death, or the state of being dead, partly because, we think, we’ll miss the people we leave, and partly because we will be annihilated. How can we hold both thoughts in our heads at once? Wild things die and are obliterated utterly. The unmourned, unnoticed, and unremembered dead. What was the phoebe’s last thought? Most likely the possibility of escape, even still. What is a birch tree’s last thought? Absurd to even consider. A birch tree springs up, gathers sun to make a body, collapses and rots. Twenty years. A turtle may live longer than an old, old person and take days to die, maybe longer. The inscrutable turtle smiles and I imagine our conversation as I carry him across the road to safety, “You know that story. There was that jolting, swaggering, pent up hare. He thought it was a race, but we all get to the same place eventually. It’s like your Goethe says, ‘Do not hurry; do not rest.'”

Read Full Post »

Old hat, new hat

On my way up to the White Mountains for a solo overnight, I stopped at a post office to mail some checks. I’m handling donations to my friend Sarah, who has breast cancer, and we were paying for quotidian things: tax bill, insurance, the will and trust she’d gotten drawn up in advance of her surgery next month. Her cancer is treatable, with a good prognosis overall, but cancer is always an odds game–survivability curves, and you don’t really know where one dot may fall on it. The people who say, “You’re gonna beat this!” are most likely correct. The people who say, “What if the doctors aren’t telling you how bad it is?” don’t understand how law and medicine intersect, but there is something to heed in their pessimism. And in any case, the treatment itself is a hard slog. I dropped the envelope into the mailbox and went on my way to the trailhead.

Views from the ledges below Whiteface summit.

Views from the ledges below Whiteface summit.

Climbing up Mt. Whiteface via the Blueberry Ledge Cutoff Trail, I scrabbled up the steep pitches, sometimes on all fours. When the trail leveled, I would pause a moment, look back at the elevation I’d gained, and listen to the drumming of my heartbeat in my ears. This is the way trails are in the Whites; some Yankee came along and said, “Well, what we want is to get from here to there. So let’s draw us a straight line.” There are no switchbacks, no meandering. There is the direct and straightforward route. By about noon, I was near the summit of Whiteface, which isn’t much to look at, being closed in by trees on all sides. I thought about Sarah, and her current reprieve after 12 weeks of chemo, but before the surgery. It’s what counts for freedom these days for her–not being tethered to a bag of chemicals once a week, not being governed by steroid psychosis. Meanwhile, I was free to walk these mountain trails, with a body that does anything I ask it too, and a mind that sometimes does.

I passed a monk in saffron robes and sandals in the col between Whiteface and Mt. Passaconaway. It occurred to me that only he on Earth knew exactly where I was at that moment, and only I him. I began feeling the usual afternoon anxiety of a solo venture–knowing I will soon be done hiking and there will be several hours left before sleep, and I will have nothing to do. That’s not my strong suit, sitting still, but I must challenge myself from time to time. I observed insect lives, and received the chattering abuse of red squirrels. The only words I spoke were occasional expletives or self-compliments on my own camp-making skills. I zipped up my tent door and accidentally snagged a wasp of some kind in it. The back end of its abdomen came off with a tendril of chartreuse slime and those were its guts. When the black flies descended in early evening, I crawled into my tent and read. I’d selected On the Road solely on the basis of its light weight and already bedraggled cover. The flies pelted the sides of the tent like a light, steady rain. Around eight, they left, and I emerged to sit outside for a half hour or so, watching the sky in the balsam smelling air.

Setup at the former Camp Rich site.

Setup at the former Camp Rich site.

By nine, I began attempting to sleep. It took many tries, and every time I was just about there, I jolted awake, once from a dream that I was fending off a lioness with a whip and a bucket, and once that I was sleeping in my bed at home and couldn’t figure out why it was so uncomfortable, like being on the ground. Each time I woke, the words “You forgot the most important thing!” leapt into my mind. What had I forgotten? I had hung my bear bag unusually well, everything was put away, I’d left my itinerary at home… and still three or four more times I woke up like that. Perhaps it was neglecting to tell my husband to use up the leftover soup in the fridge. There would be no telling him now, fully out of contact as I was. Whatever it was, eventually, I did sleep, waking a bit after dawn. I broke camp and packed my things, and found that Warren Zevon had found his way into my brain, singing only the line, “If I leave you, it doesn’t mean I love you any less,” over and over.

Making supper by the brook.

Making supper by the brook.

I had decided to take Dicey’s Mill Trail back to my car, even though I’d hiked it just last year and there were other trails I’d have liked to see. The truth was, I’d never entirely given up hope of finding the hat Malcolm left behind by the Wonalancet River almost a year ago. In the interval in between, I’d even considered making the drive to hike back in to look for it, but that seemed silly. Now, here I was anyway and why not? By 7:30 in the morning, I was packed up and headed out of camp and down the trail.

Last year’s campsite was well grown in, I was pleased to see, with beech and hobblebush slowing my travel, but I was at searching speed anyway. I considered how long I should devote to this foolish errand before giving up, and then, looking toward the rocks by the river where the boys had been playing, I spotted a dun-colored shape mashed into a crevice. The red ribbon was faded to gray, and there were holes in the brim and the top and it was dirt caked. Standing there over it, I realized that there had been two opposing thoughts in my head during this entire hike: that I would not find it (of course. How could a thin little hat survive the winds that funnel up these bowls and ridges, the snow we got this winter, the floods that swelled this river when they melted?); and that I would find it (why not? I find weathered human artifacts on the ground all the time that look like they’ve been there eons.) If I’d not found it, I would have at last given it up for lost, after almost a year, and it would have been the reasonable and expected thing. But I would have been pierced through by disappointment, I admit. That meant an almost equal share, or more, of me, expected to find it lying there. Until I did, I held both thoughts in my mind, bracing for one, hoping for the other, entertaining the alternatives.

I pulled it out and shook it and walked back out to the trail and told a man sitting there on a rock with his two well-mannered dogs about the situation, waving the hat at him. He let out a long “wow” and I marched across the birch log that serves as a bridge there.

The seasoned and the new.

The seasoned and the new.

I stopped at a thrift shop on my drive home, and, out of reflex scanned the hats as I’d been doing since we’d lost this one. There, on the rack, was a brilliantly white version of the rumpled, unraveling hat I’d recovered. The ribbon on this one was bright red and blue and the price was $1.99. I bought it, and took both home to Malcolm, picturing the way he’d give his high-pitched giggle.

He’s wearing the new hat today, but seemed reluctant about it. I offered to patch the old one for him, as best I could. He declined. “I love them both,” he told me. “Can we leave the old one the way it is and hang it in my room? And I could make a little tag, like a museum person? A curator?” He’s working on the verbiage now.

Read Full Post »

The tyranny of physics

I love the snow. Even with more than five feet on the ground and a Nor’Easter gathering force tonight over the Atlantic, I have no complaints about the weather. I do daydream of summer sometimes, but that has more to do with the utter freedom of three months off teaching than with the temperature. In the rank, humid days of summer, I sometimes go to the cool basement, get out my cross-country skis, and pantomime the motions. Traveling around these snow-laden days, there are the comical scenes: a geyser of snow launches straight up from someplace where a person, obscured entirely by snowbanks, must be with a snowblower; a Volkswagen, its contours matched to a pile of snow anyway, is slowly buried until the only sign of it is a sideview mirror protruding like the flipper of a beached whale; icicles fuse into a broad tongue a full two stories long on an old house; a sled track runs down from the peak of a barn’s roof, over a ten foot snow pile and onto the porch of the house next door.

From my office window.

From my office window.

Still, in conversations with many of my fellow New Englanders, besieged by snow, I find many of us are jangle-nerved, breathlessly anxious, and often sleepless at 2 or 3 am, sometimes listening for some sign of roof collapse, or the trickle of water backing up behind ice dams, but mostly for no cause. I have been getting outside most days, and am proud of the crop of freckles across my nose and cheeks, but even when I am tired out with exertions, I too find myself tensed up and wound tight many days. Trying to sort it out, it seems like much is due to the grayness of the days. When we are almost perpetually either pre-, mid-, or post-storm, the sky clears only rarely, and briefly. While out skiing through an unbroken snow field the other day, I had to focus so strenuously on where I was placing my feet that my scope of vision narrowed to my immediate surroundings. The white field stretching in all horizontal directions, and the white-gray sky meeting it seemed to invert for a moment and I had a sensation of falling upward. Reeling, I stopped and stared at a row of black trees for a moment before pressing on.58D9160D-192B-4599-944C-F4065D04EC2E

The deprivation of light is part of the trouble, I am certain, because on blue sky days, even when the temperature is near zero and the winds gusting, I feel boosted up. Still, there is another layer that seems to be anxious-making. Something beyond cabin fever or weariness. I think it’s the vigilance required to navigate the terrain in these conditions. Though I haven’t had to drive during any of the worst weather (teachers of chemistry and biology being decidedly non-essential personnel), even after the storms abate, the narrowed roads are harrowing, hemmed in by snowbanks seven or eight feet high, curtailed lines of sight leading us to inch most of the way into intersections before deciding to floor it and hope for the best. Traction, taken for granted at other times of the year, is nearly nonexistent now; our cars drift around turns, and we make dry-mouthed, balletic slides toward hapless pedestrians or heedless plows, willing the brakes to engage. Even walking, we shuffle step, bodies pitched forward, making tiny twists with each footstep to check the friction. The short walk between campus buildings takes all my focus and energy. It’s not that physics governs us any less in the warmer seasons, it’s just that it recedes from the foremost of our thoughts.

IMG_6470All this glissading around is precisely what I love about this season too–when I finally get into something of a rhythm in my amateurish skiing, the smooth forward glide, foot to foot, is an exhilaration not to be matched in the summer time. Having found the right wax for the conditions, I can slip down a slope and across the frozen river on a continuous ribbon, knowing that somewhere, four feet below my skis, an eroded stream bank is studded with vicious rocks. Everything is smoothed over. Even falls are pleasant in the woods–slow-motion, with a soft whoomp into the enveloping snow. Back on the pavement, the vigilance will return again, and in the car, even more so. I confess to being quite sick of scraping ice off the windshield of my car. Aside from that, though my brethren here may call damnation down on my head, I love this. The woods have filled up with snow, and continue to fill until it seems they may overbrim. They are the cure.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »