December 20, 2013
Snow covered landscapes the world over have a few things in common. They are white. They are generally cold – recently true around here. And they are quiet.
The day following our recent snow storm Wren and I skied north from the north end of the Bloomingdale Bog Trail. As we drove toward Gabriels we could see the distant mountains such as Whiteface and Mt. McKenzie hanging on the horizon. Their white slopes blushed pink in the slanting rays of the low sun. A pale moon was just coming up behind the mountains looking a bit like a distant rounded peak.
Once on the trail we were alone. And it was cold. Very cold. The temperature hung someplace around zero – it would dip below minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit that night. Thankfully there wasn’t much wind to go with the cold. All the same I had to keep stopping - occasionally making fists with my hands to keep them from getting too frosty. Frozen hands make poling along the trail difficult. It took a while, but eventually I was able to get into a rhythm and the blood began to flow more freely to my chilled digits.
We didn’t hear or see any birds but did take note of few tracks of mammals such as Snowshoe Hare and Coyote. But nothing moved save our own breath that was freezing to my beard and Wren’s whiskers. And then we would start up again and the sound of the skis on the squeaky, cold powder (a sound of cold snow) combined with Wren’s excited, soft steps were all I heard.
We reached an open area once flooded by beavers which was about a mile from the trailhead. The distant mountains were growing dimmer and yet were set out as white geometric shapes against a purple evening sky. The moon looked enormous as it glowed yellow in its rise to dominion for the night. It was a stunning image and I stopped to absorb it. I had intentionally left my camera at home because I had no plans to take my hands from my mittens to snap a photo! Wren stood at attention at my side - listening. And again there was no sound, although I cannot speak for Wren’s ears which are sharper than my own. But it was quiet. Dead quiet. After all many animals hunker down and endure such evenings rather than to venture forth. The birds that remain in the area for the winter were settled down to survive the life-threatening night. And the snow muffled any sound that traveled across its frozen hold on the land. And we heard nothing.
Very rarely in life do we really hear nothing. We may think it is quiet in our homes, but even without the noise of television, traffic, or people’s voices it seldom actually is. As I sit here writing this my CD of music has ended, but I hear the refrigerator’s motor and the ticking of the clock. Now and then the furnace starts up – something about which I do not complain! It is difficult to escape noise.
Experiences in actual silence give you the sense that you are all alone and at the same time interconnected into some vastly big picture with the world around you. Had we the time and energy (not to mention the resilience to the cold) Wren and I could have skied for miles and never seen nor heard anyone or anything. Wren and I had the world to ourselves. It is this quintessential sense of solitude which draws many of us to the wilderness. Wren and I appeared to be the only living things on the landscape, although Wren’s nose knew that wasn’t true. She had smelled the results of the forays of many animals even if they were waiting this night out in some sheltered place.
And while a dose of essential loneliness is good to spawn reflection on the trail, frigid nights are less good for staying warm while standing and making philosophical musings and I had to move on. We continued another mile or so further before turning around. When we returned to the beaver meadow I once again paused to look at the moon, now higher in its track across the sky and growing whiter as it rose to prominence.
We returned to the car with our facial hair coated in ice like two polar explorers. Whenever I return to the world after a time of solitude on a silent trail, I always find the lights, towns, cars, and worse yet television and radio to be jarring. Perhaps they are reminders that I’m not really alone after all. Or they may just be in contrast to the hushed world and clearer thoughts I left behind. But they are at least motivation to go back to the silent world of white and snow where you can listen and hear nothing.