When I left, the snow clung to my mittens like powdered sugar.
It didn't matter how much I clapped my woolly hands. Snow had been falling all day, and there was no sign of slowing.
That didn’t matter to me either, because these ultra-warm mittens were literally made for this kind of weather. The boots, too, were specially tailored for cross country skiing. The poles were brand new, the skis freshly waxed. I’d done my research, bought all the right stuff, and planned my route to perfection.
The stars had aligned for me.
So when the powder started falling, I kitted myself up to the eyeballs, queued up my soundtrack, and headed into the woods.
I listened to the long swi-shh of my skis, just barely audible over the Nocturne in my headphones. Perfection. Just me, a million sleeping trees, and infinite delicate snowflakes sparkling in the afternoon sunlight.
If I didn't know better, I might've thought I'd been dropped into a glass of champagne.
Chopin always did make my heart feel drunk.
I followed the compacted trail, not sure if it was made by skiers like me, or families of deer. Probably deer, considering all the animal tracks crisscrossing my path. Bunnies had bounded left and right, the tips of their toes grazing the surface of the snow between long-leaping jumps, and deer poked deep holes. Fragile bird prints sprinkled fallen branches like tiny, uncaged peace signs.
Then the snow changed.
It was still falling, filling in the tracks, but not with that perfect powdered sugar. This snow was that heavy, wet kind that couldn't quite decide if it wanted to be snow or rain. Not sleet, either, just fat flakes that melted on my jacket almost before they hit the fabric.
That was my cue. As perfect as this trip had been, I was ready to turn back.
But when I turned around, I just saw a trail of disturbed slush zigzagging between evergreens. How had I gotten here? And where exactly was "here?"
My phone still had a decent charge, despite listening to several hours of music, but no service or GPS. No problem, I had a real map. Good old Fodor's would get me out of here.
I squinted at the guidebook, trying to zero in on landmarks before the sloppy snow melted the text. Alright, I thought, what landmarks could I see?
That was pretty much it.
It seemed I had been following an ever-narrowing trail which was now more snow-covered forest than anything. I was nowhere on the map.
My ski tracks, so visible in the powdery snow, were gone. There was nothing. No point of reference but trees, trees, and more trees.
Except there was one noticeable landmark. There, in the deep slush behind me, was a paw print. A big one.
My cat Charlemagne brought in muddy prints from the yard often enough that I'd recognize a feline footprint when I saw one. He loved nothing better than to go out in the rain and stomp around in the muck. I think he actually preferred rotten weather. We'd had plenty of conversations about that, Charlemagne and I, but we were evenly matched in hard-headedness. And there's no point arguing with a cat who wants to go outside.
But this wasn't Charlemagne's paw print. This one was a lot bigger. A lynx. Or at least I hoped it was a lynx. They were smaller, shyer, and a lot less likely to eat me than a mountain lion.
I pressed on. For Charlemagne.
"On" where, I had no idea. Just… on. Away from the paw print, away from where I’d been headed. Maybe.
By this point, the thick snowy slurry had sucked in my skis. I slogged forward as long as I could, but eventually, made the decision to leave them behind.
I had to.
When I was a kid, my shoelaces got caught in an escalator. When I say it like that, it sounds like some kind of freak accident, but it wasn't. The little white tip of my brand new Nike shoelaces fit so perfectly in the slots of the moving stair – and, well, I was a kid. I probably knew better, but I pressed in all four of those little aglets. When my escalator stair reached the top, the laces untied themselves fast - so fast - and disappeared. I must’ve shouted when the machine caught up to my shoes, because the next thing I knew, my mother had knocked me to the ground. She threw her body over my legs and, with the kind of adrenaline-fueled superhuman intensity you hear about in the newspapers sometimes, shoved my brand new shoes off my tiny feet. I heard the awful grinding as the escalator chewed up my Nikes and dragged them to god knows where. It didn’t even slow. A crowd had formed around us, and I remember the shouting, the people rushing to find security. My mother, who usually had a comment for everyone and everything, simply stood up on shaky legs. Without a word, she scooped me up in my socked feet and didn’t put me down until we got all the way to the car.
There was nobody to scoop me up this time.
By now, the sun was hanging low in the sky. Those last few rays illuminated the dripping snow, turning the droplets into disco ball explosions of light. This seemed as good a time as any to sit in the snow and catch my breath. I punched my exhausted legs back into life and watched the sun freefall over the horizon.
It was still snowing, but now – in the dark, in the depths of the forest, solo but clearly not alone – it was different.
They say there's only one English word for snow, but I know another one. Graupel. And it's just as ugly as the word. It's not rain or snow or hail or drizzle, but some awful combination. Graupel exists just at the teetering edge of freezing. And if it isn’t brushed away before the temperature plummets, it’s the kind of snow that turns to cement.
And it did.
My phone (and Chopin) had given up the ghost and now it was just me and the silence. But it wasn’t silent. Not at all.
People hardly ever talk about how loud the forest can be.
Even in the hush of winter, the blanket of night, with everything dampened by snow, there was a racket. Things taking flight from snow-covered branches. Mini avalanches falling from the boughs. Inexplicable thumping, grunting, and crashing. Unseen animals calling, snarling, and wailing.
No matter what I could or couldn’t see, I’d never know what all that sound could’ve been.
Not unless I saw their tracks.
The snow had finally stopped, and I couldn't sit any longer. I had to make a decision.
I peered between the trees and saw a universe of stars burning brighter than I thought possible. The North Star was a ball of fire. Ursa Major yawned across the black sky.
It was in that moment I truly felt afraid.
The stars! They were an indifferent permanence. I never thought about it until then, how much I trusted them to be that constant. But there, unalone in the darkness, I knew then why people wished on them. Saw them as gods.
My toes burned inside my double-socked, thick-booted shoes. Those winter-proof mittens didn’t stand a chance at keeping me warm if I had no body heat. I didn’t dare take off a mitten to see what remained of my fingers.
The slushy snow had developed a thick layer of ice, leaving lumpy, slippery hills. The powder-turned-slush-turned-graupel no longer crunched underfoot.
It cracked under my weight as I ran.