Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Footprints

Out in the woods, one thing that sets winter apart from the rest of the seasons are the footprints. Think about it. Spring, summer and autumn are the days of anonymity, when wanderers among the trees drift like rivers of dust through the branches, unnoticed. But when that snowy stillness drapes over the land as it does in the winter, the forest is like a camera eye that captures the footsteps of passers-by and arrays them in chaotic rows like frozen photographs along the trail for all to see. No, in the winter there are no secrets. And that's a good thing, too. Because walking through the woods one Sunday morning it was the footprints that taught me something new about the hazy mathematics of human solitude.

It was one of those winter Sunday mornings, if you know what I mean. The kind when you wake up, turn your head on the pillow, look through the window at the snow pouring over the woods and just know there's a magic show out there, that if you don't hurry you're going to miss it, and that the price of admission is three or four layers of clothing hurriedly thrown on, a long slog over deep, wet snow and the sharp sting of the wind and ice on your cheeks and in your eyes and nose and mouth, and hurry it's going to end before you get there. That kind of Sunday morning. And also the kind when the thought of trudging through well-worn, familiar paths simply fails to excite.

So I took a friend's advice and headed in search of a mystery trail, which thread, she said, above the southern rim of Six Mile Creek, then around the eastern shore of a large reservoir and from there to the other side of the gorge, where paths I had yet to explore lay waiting just for me.

It was a time meant for sleeping, that Sunday morning, and it was all stillness except for the wind and the driving snow, and the cold, too, which was a heavy weight leaning on everything, muzzling all sound. The hike was strenuous from the start, the fresh snow almost knee deep as I plunged into the woods at the end of my street. With no hope of finding a trail on the ground, I did my best to look for the telltale narrow corridors of openness wedged between the brush and - as I sank deeper into the woods - between the tall trees. Here and there I thought I had discovered a path somewhat obscured by the snow, only to find the space close in on me after just a few steps. After that I'd return to winding haphazardly through the dense webs of wiry branches and over colonies of felled tree trunks. Stubbornly I kept my course, continuing to head in what I was sure to be the direction of the reservoir even as I began having to tiptoe over thin, slippery sheets of ice above streams descending steeply into the gorge somewhere through the woods to my right.

I reached the western edge of the reservoir just as the snow began to come down even more self-assuredly than before. Without meaning to, I had managed to stumble onto the main trail skirting along the very rim of the gorge on the south side, a wide, well-trodden strip of packed dirt lodged between the craggy chasm and the hills from which I had just descended. Near me was the the top of a dam that controlled the flow of water from the reservoir into the creek way down below.

The scene was worth staying and admiring for a few moments: the silent snow falling deep into the gorge, the roar of the water as it rushed toward the west. A chorus of creaking, frigid tree limbs sang all around me with each gust of wind. I even enjoyed the way everything - not least the gray sky looming over the earth in one giant unbroken piece, fringed at the bottom by the sparseness of the treetops - seemed to be just slightly out of focus. But it was those solitary trees perched impossibly on tiny ledges spread out along the walls of the gorge, or the ones that somehow grew right out of the cracks in the seemingly impenetrable stone high above the water, that made me suddenly aware of that morning's desolation: my only company since leaving home had been the swishing of boots through deep deep snow and the steady rhythm of my breathing. Nothing else.

And that was precisely, I knew, why I'd set out in such a hurry in the middle of this snow storm, this early in the morning, and on a Sunday. To experience the howling solitude one might feel if one went for a stroll on the sands of a distant moon.

But why?

It's a funny thing, being alone. There are those of us, you see - or is it only me? - who at once love and hate the act of disconnecting from the world like a plug from a socket. Yes, I know what you're thinking, but the image of electricity is an apt one, really. Because on the one hand there's the relief that comes with extinguishing the currents of the quotidian: the clashing of shopping carts in narrow grocery store aisles, cheap small talk at the bus stop, shards of banal cell phone conversations overheard at the coffee shop - you know, the ordinary, continual, positively charged annoyances of human community. Along with that there's also the recognition - rare amidst the incessant buzz of daily life - of our own singularity, of our existence as whole, bounded, individual things here on this crowded pebble.

On the other hand . . . Well, there's also that dizzy feeling you get when you contemplate a universe containing only a single person. It's sort of like that nightmare you have some nights, in which you lie petrified in bed struggling desperately to scream but unable to emit even the slightest whimper, so that nobody – not even the person under the covers just inches away - hears you cry. That usually sends me scrambling right back to the electrical outlet to plug that cord back in, if you know what I mean.

But it had now been over an hour since I'd left home, and there were still miles to go. So I pried loose from my thoughts and pushed on toward the reservoir, making my way around its southern shore. Heading east, I found myself once again unable to find a real trail: as before, either none existed, or the snow had seen fit to hide it from view. I tried as much as I could to tiptoe along the icy shore, at the moment the clearest path, though at times I'd be forced to climb up the steep embankment to avoid stepping on patches of thin ice. And in what felt like a very long time, I finally wound up on the northern shore of the reservoir.

[More to come. . . . ]