I warm to winter's embrace

It's so dark and quiet. Snow muffles all other sounds. Usually I hear the cars coming along the street before I see them, but tonight it's otherwise. The headlights pierce the darkness before I hear the crunch of tires on snow or the dull rumble of an engine.

Other things are altered. The sense of light, even at night, is changed. The houses in my rural Indiana subdivision sit isolated in vast expanses of snow, floating on white fields beneath dark sky, their glowing windows at once welcoming and remote. No domestic animals are about in this 10-degree F. weather. At night, I can walk a mile or more and hardly see a vehicle, let alone another human being.

In daytime, there are a few more hardy folks out and about in the neighborhood: shoveling sidewalks, chipping away at icebound driveways, exercising dogs, or walking alone, as I am. Our greetings are briefer but heartier than in summer, not wasting any breath in the frigid atmosphere, but nevertheless acknowledging a mutual willingness to meet the unique challenges of this time of year.

I drive a few miles to a nearby state park. The highway's clear, but the landscape is deep in snow. Trees float along the horizon in a dark band between pale sky and sparkling white fields. It's a bit disorienting, like a picture turned upside down, or a reflection that could dissolve at any moment.

Except for the lodge, the state park is almost deserted. But the roads are plowed, and I can drive to the trailheads. I pick a favorite trail, park my car, and pull on snow boots. No fear of getting lost in winter; I can always retrace my tracks. A few hikers have been before me; I follow waffle imprints in assorted sizes. The trail leaves the main road and heads through the trees past a picnic shelter; tables are tipped at 45-degree angles, neatly stacked out of the weather like a suspended row of falling dominoes.

The trail angles left, downhill, comes up over a rise, then plunges more steeply. I crunch the heels of my boots into the snowpack as I descend. I reach a place where the trail branches. The last batch of hikers went left, but I'm turning right, toward the old quarry. This trail hasn't been hiked since the last snowfall, and the surface is almost pristine. I experience the joy of making "first tracks."

The quarry is frozen, with icy stalactites gracing the rough limestone walls. I forage in my pocket for my camera and slide off one glove to snap a few pictures. The cold grabs my fingers like a plunge into ice water; the picture-taking session is short.

Beyond the quarry, the trail winds down to the creek and snakes back and forth for several miles, crisscrossing the creek bed many times. I've done this stretch in late summer at low water, or in winter when the ice is thick enough. Today, however, the ice is patchy and the water runs swiftly and more than boot-deep in open places so I don't chance it. I retrace my steps and begin the climb back up the hill, feet splayed to assist my ascent.

The return trail seems steeper and longer than the outbound trek. At least I'm not cold; the extra exertion produces quite a sweat in the deeper layers of my clothing. I stop halfway up, to catch my breath. Here the trail widens to accommodate a snow-covered bench.

In the silence after my crunching boots have come to a standstill, I realize that the forest is alive, even at this season. High overhead, birds bank and turn; their shrill calls pierce the clear, dry air. Along the forest floor, squirrels race through the snow, stopping abruptly to plunge their faces down, like ducks on a pond, searching for nuts. If they find one, they run for a safe perch in the treetops before cracking it open. They do this with wild abandon - oblivious to the temperature - in celebration of food, of being outdoors, of life itself.

When I was a child in Idaho, winters were more severe than here in south-central Indiana. Winter meant a full season of ice, snow, and subfreezing temperatures. The streets of our little town were snowpacked for weeks at a time. The plows left ridges several feet high down the centers of the thoroughfares, with breaks at the intersections so that the cars could turn.

After supper, in the early darkness of a winter evening, my father used to pull us along the street on our sled, which slid easily over the glazed surface. The two of us, my sister and I, sat bunched together, holding on with mittened hands. Our father ran ahead, clutching the sled rope behind him, sure-footed in black rubber boots with heavy soles and metal clasps. Our excited laughter floated away on the cold night air. It was like a fairy tale. We never seemed to meet any cars.

Winter is in my blood. Though I cherish warmth and shelter, I just can't stay indoors. The snow calls to me, and, like the squirrels, I go out to embrace it.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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