Hiking these hills, I think I’m being smart and experienced. It snowed yesterday, so I avoid the high mountains and go to the well-maintained foothills trails. This first weekend of April, only snowshoers and fools would venture high. So I carry my small pack and tromp through small mud puddles and soon travel past the families with small children and dogs taking a small Sunday stroll.
The problem with thinking small is forgetting the unexpected, the element of surprise. It will find you anywhere, any time. You believe that because you have chosen caution, you have chosen a controlled experience. There is no controlled experience. Yet how we want to believe that story, act out that script.
The first flag was a tree fallen across the trail. With the onslaught of so much snow following weeks of early warm temperatures, the old pine’s roots simply let go of the quickly thawed and saturated hillside soil. It just let go – it’s crown must have quietly drifted for a few seconds, a silent shadow crossing over the trail, before crashing heavily between standing trees on the other side. A tree falls in the state forest with no one to hear it, but here is the evidence afterward. I have often wondered what it would be like to see such a fall happen, even though I know the danger of being present at such a moment.
As I’m looking at the roots ripped loose and still covered in wet earth, she arrives with her small dog. The woman is in her late 60’s, dressed in a blouse and sweater, flowered stretch pants that end just below her knees, ruffly-lace-edged ankle socks adorning her Mary Janes. The white lace of the socks sticks out like her white hair, a fluffy shock of incongruity between old age and childlike sweetness. “Oh dear, look at this,” she says. I start to respond, but she continues speaking, and I wonder if she’s talking to the dog…or to anyone…or to no one. “This is, oh my, look at this, what shall we, oh dear,” and she looks at the dog, then down at the ground, then back at the tree trunk. I am closer, so I grab hold of branches and clamber over the trunk to the other side, thinking I am showing her how to continue her trek. I say uselessly, “It must have fallen from all the snow,” but she completely ignores me, continuing to tell her dog, and the forest, and the day, “Oh my, this is…oh dear, look look, look here, oh my goodness,” standing at the obstacle with her fluffy-eared, tiny-footed dog prancing and panting beside her. I watch her for a second, then turn as if to continue on, taking a few steps. Looking back, I see she has turned as well, returning down the trail, her commentary unabated. I hike on, mulling the mirror of our walking away.
How often do we do that: stop moving forward at an obstacle that appears overwhelming. We feel small. Without experience, we don’t know where to start, let alone have any confidence that we can overcome what is before us. I think about her lacy socks and flowery stretch pants and tiny fluffy dog, none of which I have ever owned, embarking on the muddy trail. Yet I wonder how many ventures I have set out on, my natural tendencies and preferences making me equally unprepared to face the fallen trees on those paths – marriage, finance, hierarchies, a list begins unspooling far too easily, given my headstrong and outspoken nature. Or is that description just a costume I wear, habitual choices like clothing from my closet, so that how I do what I do has become why I don’t do what I think I cannot do. Who I believe I am … or cannot be. Trying to control my life by deciding who I am. Packaging.
Feels confining, I think as I continue on. The morning warms, and yet I start to feel wet snow falling on me. It is snowing under the trees. Startled from thought, for a moment I am utterly perplexed, and look up the hillside, then straight above me. I laugh at myself. Yesterday’s snow is still settled, wet and think, in the branches of the evergreens along the trail, but the sun is smiling down and a light breeze dances through now and then. I keep my jacket hood pulled up as I walk from the sunny open path into light snow showers under the branches, grinning as it happens over and over along the way.
I reach a high point on the trail where I like to take a snack break. As I slip off my pack, my phone rings in the front pocket. I answer a call from my oldest son. He has news, he says, as I sip from my water bottle. They are expecting their first baby. We talk and laugh and I offer such wisdom as I have collected haphazardly along my life’s trail, and then we laugh at that, as well. I tell him about the funny events of the day, the woman and her dog, snow falling under the trees. We weave a lesson together of the unexpected delightful surprises of life.
By Earth Day, late in April, I am hiking the high mountains, fool that I am. The trail starts dry and warm at 8500 feet, but the gray overcast skies do not disappoint my hope to test my raingear. As I climb, rain begins to drum my hat and pack, quickly turning to silent, fluffy snow. I stop under a large tree to chain up, as I call it in my dorky way, adding Yaktrax and gaiters for traction and dryness. I munch trail mix as I stand leaning against the trunk, looking out at a sheet of snow continuously falling between me and the far side of the river gorge, between me and the high peaks, between me and the rest of the world.
I hoist my pack and step out from my moment of shelter, believing my gear will take me where I want to go. Packaging. I hike higher and higher, past the tracks of snowshoers who turned around, up where angels fear to tread, many feet of snow between me and the dirt trail far beneath my feet. The snow is warm, wet and sticky, and my feet only break through – the dreaded exhausting “postholing” – a couple times. Mostly I slip and slide, the edge of the snow trail almost constantly giving way under my outside step like a tiny one-foot avalanche, so that I am dancing a ridiculous disco step like John Travolta, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive up the mountain.
The snow falls more gently now, softly and slowly. Enchanted, I step out to a wide place on the trail and stop, pull back my hood, and look straight up, into the swirl. I just stop, finally. I just stand still, in the quiet. The fat flakes show themselves to be many tiny snowflakes joined, just barely touching, holding each other as if holding hands. I remember watching the snow fall like this many years ago, a far away little me next to my father under pale gray skies. I feel kissed by the thousands of tiny snowflakes landing on my forehead, my nose, my cheeks, my lips, my hat and jacket and pack.
I think of my son’s baby yet to be. I wonder how overwhelmed they must feel in the face of such a tiny but mighty life-changing surprise. He will give this tiny person a costume for outdoors, just like his, just like mine. Someday I will bring this child out into the warm spring snow. Maybe we will dance like fools up a mountain, raise our faces to see the snowflakes holding hands as they give us kisses upon kisses.
It’s just a daydream at this point: a story I hope will come true. I would like to hear that small voice laughing with me as it snows under the trees on a sunny day.