Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Night thoughts on snowshoes

Last night I snowshoed up the lane again, along the mountaintop, in order to feed more power to one of our community broadband radios.  It was a rerun of the errand a few days ago.

Pearl Lee Road during daytime
The night wasn't that cold, around 10 F, but I geared up to be safe: Russian fut hat, giant snowshoes, snowpants, sweater, coat, two pairs of gloves.  A backpack carried water, snacks (nuts, sausage, cheese), and a book to read (see below), since I'd have some time to kill once I reached the destination.  A flashlight was strapped to my head, like a headlamp, since it was already dark, and there are no streetlights here.

After stomping up our land to the road, I crunched along the snow-covered dirt lane for a while, listening to the few sounds the quiet forest emitted: the gentle breathing of snow across snowbanks; the creak of trees flexing slowly under weight of frozen snowfall; a branch cracking, perhaps trod by sneaky animal.

I eventually reached the point on Pearl Lee Road where plowing ended, marked by a huge snowpile.  The lane beyond was covered as far as could be seen in a thick, solid, layer of snow about a yard off the ground. Another community volunteer and I had already broken a trail through that stuff, so I found the end of it, slowly climbed up, then set to tromping away in that elevated cut.  The trail stretched before me, lit of up my headlamp, like a trench, or a dry river bottom between banks of unmarked snow.

This proceeded for a few minutes, until I found new tracks, which appeared across mine, perpendicular.  A narrow set of footprints ran from the right, out of the forest, across the snow, and right into our path.  They continued off to the left, making a straight line, and ending in more trees and darkness.  It was hard to make out which animal had done this, as the tracks were blurred by snow - a deer? dog? - but the direction was starkly clear.  It was both slightly frightening to discover, especially in the dark, and also somehow cheering, meeting another traveler on the road, separated by a few hours, maybe.

Up the road a ways, and another animal track crossed the path, again from the right.  This time the creature struck the trail, then moved along within it for a few yards, resuming its direction further on: a zig zag across our footsteps.  Still further and new tracks appeared, hitting the trail then running alongside the human path for some yards.  Animal footsteps appeared on either side of my booted snowshoe, step by step, until they ceased.

As I pushed on I sometimes turned my head to face the forests, sweeping the headlamp's light across the horizon.  The beam picked out a treeline, the smoothly warping contours of wind-molded snow, a single baby pine tree, an ornamental bridge arcing across an invisible, snow-choked stream.  My breath fogged out before me and drifted in the slight wind, the light punching through it and stalling out in the vast dark.

After completing my power errand, which took a little more than an hour, I retraced my steps in the colder night, and mused on how the experience resembled space travel.  In my gear I felt like an astronaut, armored against a potentially dangerous environment, steadily exploring an alien world (largely invisible, dark, mysterious). The sky was clouded, and the occasional plane burred overhead, a bit of light peeping out.  I'd been reading a new science fiction novel, The Ouroboros Wave (Jyouji Hayashi, 2010), which I'd enjoyed.  I had read into it inside a cold and dark room, next to the roar of a generator, holding pages open with mittened hands, my headlamp playing across pages.  Hayashi's stories of deep space and Europa's seas reverberated in my mind as I stomped slowly across the nonhuman landscape.

Once I left the trail and returned to the plowed lane, I turned off my headlamp and kept going in the sudden dark.  My eyes adjusted, revealing the levels of snow before me: high, low, then high again.  I urged memories of walking this lane to my mind, and let my legs pick out the way home.

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