Essay: Warming Up to Winter

(Originally in Shape Magazine)

I’ve always hated winter.  That’s not good, since I live in the northeast corner of Massachusetts, where we often have 2 feet of snow on the ground by Christmas. 

“Get outside,” my friends used to tell me, “and you won’t mind the cold.”

Ha.  Get out and do what?  I’ve tried skiing, emptying my wallet only to stand in line.  I’ve been ice skating, too, but the thing about Massachusetts is that you have to shovel snow if you want ice to call your own.

Then, hitting the post-Christmas sales for yet another pair of long johns to wear indoors while I waited for the Big Thaw, I noticed a pair of shiny teal and purple aluminum contraptions hanging on the wall.  I squinted at the tag and realized they were snowshoes. 

“Nice, huh?  And a bargain price,” commented the saleswoman.

I nodded begrudgingly.  Teal and purple have always been my colors.  But shouldn’t you try a new sport on the basis of something other than looks?  “I thought snowshoes were those big things that look like tennis rackets,” I admitted. 

She laughed.  “Oh, those were terrible.  Try these.”  She snapped me into a pair.  I slapped around the store, feeling ridiculous.  It was like wearing scuba diving flippers with cleats.  “Buy them,” the saleswoman coaxed.  “You can go anywhere on snowshoes.”

In my advanced state of Cabin Fever, I bought the snowshoes.  And, slowly, I discovered the saleswoman was absolutely right: You can go anywhere on snowshoes.  I went straight out my back door, trying not to let my husband’s giggles dissuade me, and plunged into the woods that separate our yard from the horse pasture behind us.  I’ve been doing it almost every winter day since.

There have been a few dicey incidents, of course, like the moment I tried to vault a barbed wire fence and got one snowshoe tangled in the wire, so that I ended up dangling by one leg.  But, from the minute my snowshoes first carried me across snow that ordinarily would be over my knees, I loved it.  And I’ve come to love winter, too, because I can see things snowshoeing that I wouldn’t any other way.  My favorite destination is a long-forgotten stand of pines, now 30 feet tall, where I can stand in near-darkness on the most brilliant day and watch the snow feather off the tree boughs. On the way, I might cross paths with deer leaping across the snow.  Cardinals dart through the woods like bright red scarves, and I’m always accompanied by twittering chickadees.  There are wild turkeys, too, inky black birds, haughty and ancient looking.

But the best thing about snowshoeing is the stillness.  With a job and a family, there’s very little possibility of stillness in my life right now.  I often take off on snowshoes not for exercise (though it offers a leg-and-butt-busting workout like no other), but because it’s the best way to hear myself think.  The only noise besides the birds or the ice dripping off the trees is the shushing sound of my feet across the snow.  Within twenty minutes, my breathing is slow and rhythmic, and I might as well be in the wilderness, a solitary figure on a vast landscape where the only human tracks are my own, and where the world breathes with me.