Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Memories of Snow

It's snowing. Has been all day. As I look outside my window I see three high school students walking down the unploughed street. The snow comes up higher than their ankles. They are laughing, walking casually, rather than rushing to get inside.

Oh how I would love to go for a walk in the snow! To see the world for a brief time all sparkling and new. To feel the freshly fallen snow crush under my feet and know that I was the first person to walk this path after the snow began falling. To be able to make a snow man, take part in a snowball fight, or spend an afternoon sledding. Such simple things that once upon a time created such carefree memories. It hurts to know that I will never experience those things in that way again.

Every time it snows I find my memory turning back to my high school spring break backpacking trips with Mark Hatfield. Every year we'd drive up to his family's cabin in northern Michigan. The weather would be brisk but comfortable, usually mid 40's or low 50's, the winter snow long since thawed. The first night we would prepare our gear, and then we would set out in the morning for a four night/five day hiking/camping trip. Inevitably, on the third night of our trip, snow would fall. This happened almost every year, we grew to expect it, but it usually wasn't enough to cancel the trip.

One particular year, when our friend Nathan Ferreira was with us, a bitter cold wind storm struck on our third night out. We were probably about fifteen miles north of the cabin in a heavily forested area. Luckily, we'd found an old hunter's blind that provided us with great protection from the wind, making it possible for us to enjoy a camp fire and prepare our dinner away from the tents. As we were bedding down for the night I could smell the hint of snow on the wind. The next morning we awoke to a strong snow storm that showed no signs of letting up. Over six inches had fallen during the night and it was continuing to pile up around us as we broke camp.

Knowing conditions were only going to get worse, we headed for the closest southbound road. Once out of the forest we were able to make better time with the sure footing provided by the snow covered but relatively flat surface of the road. The only drawbacks were that by abandoning the forest we lost the protection the trees provided from the wind, and visibility on the road was terrible. We were careful to stay close to the tree line in case any vehicles came by. Even with scarves, masks, and hats covering our faces the wind and snow bit at our skin. It got so bad that we had to take turns walking backwards just to get a moments relief.

Both breakfast and lunch that day consisted of frozen granola bars. The water in our canteens had frozen during the night requiring us to eat handfulls of snow to stay hydrated during the long walk. The physical exertion of the hike generated a lot of body heat forcing us to open our coats for brief periods, just to cool down.

We hiked for about ten miles before a Forest Ranger found us on the road. He had stopped by Mark's parents cabin earlier that day. Mark's Mother had told him that we were out in the storm, and that we knew how to take care of ourselves, but she gave him a general idea of the direction we had intended to hike and asked him to keep an eye out. He had been looking for us ever since. We piled into the back of his pickup truck and he drove us back to the cabin. Thirty minutes later we were enjoying hot chocolate around the Hatfield's wood burning stove. Two hours after that we were back out in the storm on the snow mobiles!

As I look out the window at the snow I think about that time in my life with fondness tainted by a bit of sadness from the knowing that such a happy memory can haunt me with such a sense of loss. Yet again I find myself faced with a choice. I can allow the loss to take me, or I can choose to immerse myself in the memory. I can relive the emotions, feeling once again the physical misery of being out in the cold coupled with the exhilaration of the adventure, the safety and camaraderie of friendship, the wonder at the ferocity of the wind and snow, and the comforting warmth upon returning to the cabin. That is the joy and the purpose of the memory. The choice should be clear, but to many it isn't. I choose to embrace the happiness that the memory brings. Choosing the happiness of the memory does not make the sadness go away, but it makes it bearable.

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