As the door swings open, Chuy races past to be the first outside. He pauses just a moment as he sees the new fallen snow, ten or twelve inches deep, then leaps headlong into it. A few rolls on his back, paws nearly straight in the air, a gleeful snow bath. Then the nose digs deep, sniffing out some industrious rodent eking out a life below the snow. Then he’ll pick the snow up on the top of his nose and throw it into the air and try to catch it in his mouth. Finally, a look over his shoulder at me, as I clumsily move through the door and down the step wearing snowshoes.
And we’re off! Chuy leaps and makes turns in the air, frankly somewhat remarkable for a twelve-year-old, seventy-five pound Akita mix. “Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch” sound the snowshoes as they make their way across the yard, past the apple tree, past the barn. The sound tells us it’s very cold, certainly below twenty degrees. The snow makes a certain sound when temperatures are far below freezing.
Fifteen-mile-per-hour winds whip up snow devils and try to drive the cold and flakes into the carefully sealed places around my neck and head. The bright, full sun’s rays can barely be felt on the skin, hardly registering as warmth.
We trek eastward, walking the side of the runways, crossing to the rifle range trail. Birds flit about, diving and perching, singing as if it was spring. How can those tiny things be so oblivious to the cold and wind?
Crystalline snow drifts and piles at the edges of footprints, paw prints, rock walls and shrub lines. Flakes dance like diamonds before me, as shiny as gemstones, reflecting the sun. A glittering field of snow unfolds before us as we reach the top of the trail and turn north.
It’s wearing on me now. After the first quarter-mile my legs remind me that they don’t often wear boats on their feet nor try to trod through foot-deep sand. As muscles call for more oxygen, the top buttons are loosened, the scarf comes off. Even at fifteen degrees, the hike starts heating the core, demanding ventilation. The blast of icy air freezes perspiration on the skin, yet the relief from overheating is welcome.
The last two hundred feet rises steadily to the top of the hill. Another thirty feet in elevation, another hundred steps in fluffy drifts driven by the wind. The lines, arcs, swirls and swells decorate the hill, cover our path in three-foot deep crests. By now Chuy, typically insistent on leading, is behind me. The first half mile requiring him to leap off the ground to take the next step is wearing on him. Now I am breaking trail for him with the snowshoes, and he’s satisfied with second place for a time.
Ten more steps, five, three. Each one is a bit of labor now. One more. Then one more. Then one more.
And alas, we arrive at the top of the hill. There is no sound but “the sweep of gentle wind and downy flake.”.
Here at the top, I’ll pause and rest. Three hundred degrees of views (60 are pines), all below me, radiate vast expanses of bright white. Here and there are patches of green, tangles of gray-browns, distant visages of human encroachments; barns, a road.
The wind seems to pick up, sweeping two miles from the lee of Victory Mountain to the west. Rolling down the steep grade and plummeting into the hills and hollows of Engleville, and all its 26 residents (and their pets).
It’s not really uncomfortable, though the only exposed skin on the face reminds us it is brutally cold. Five layers of fabric and a workout helps. I can feel the wind pushing on me, making me sway like a sapling. This is visceral and tangible and exciting and real. I could shout at the top of my lungs from here and be heard by none other than Chuy. I take another moment, another 300-degrees drink of the pristine snow, the stark landscape dotted with naked deciduous trees, frozen grapevines and pines that scoff at winter.
Chuy comes alongside. It can’t be more than five minutes since we reached this place, our summit, our beautiful, silent private place. Our alter. He’s too encumbered by the deep snow for the usual twenty-minute exploratory escapades over to the tree line, back toward the woods, down the slope behind Maggie’s pond.
He looks up at me as if to say “Well, I suppose…”
The wind is whipping up the hill, blasting us in the face as we turn westward and toward home.
As we pass the pines, without thinking, I speak aloud.
“The woods are lovely. Dark and deep.”
As the evening sky turns February Gold and January Blue, it seems the greens and yellows of our Mays and Junes are but a distant memory, a folktale, a myth.
Yet there is in this moment, in this cold, in this wind-driven snow, a sense of peace and belonging.
As shadows grow longer, we brace and bear down into the wind.
Well, one of us does. The other is throwing snow in the air with his nose, and catching it.
“Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch…”
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