Willow Creek – 3/18
The last elk footprints disappeared, leaving only fresh snow with a hinted depression of a trail underneath. I took a step and sunk to my shin, another step and I sunk again. The snow’s crust held me on the next few, then I crashed through it again. I pushed forward step by step, sometimes breaking into the crust, sometimes staying on top of it. Uncertainty filled my mind. I longed for the elk footprints I’d followed up the mountain. Where had they had gone? Why did their trail end at one turn of the mountain’s face?
I punched through the snow bit by bit, sinking into my shins every few steps, telling myself that it was just a bad face of the mountain, that the next turn would thin out the snow, that I had to go just a bit further. White filled the world around me, falling from a grey ceiling of clouds that pressed down from the sky and swallowed the sun whole. It was mid-day and the world looked stuck in perpetual twilight, the color drained from it, nothing but black trees rising like skeletons above white snow. I picked my forward, every step uncertain, every shift of weight threatening to plunge me knee-deep into the snow.
I never saw the elks, but their footprints had kept me company in the silence of falling snow. Then they’d abandoned me for some easier path. I felt alone in the sea of white, no footprints for company, nothing to give me hope that the snow ahead would thin.
“If you can make it to the crest,” I told myself, “then maybe the snow will be thinner there, beyond the trees, where the sun melts into it each day. Maybe the next face of the mountain will clear. Maybe you’ll find more footprints.”
The trail looks beautiful on a map, winding to the crest of the Mogollon mountains and sticking there for miles. It slides from peak to peak, staying above ten-thousand feet as it winds its way forward, views off each side. It’s the kind of line on a map I dream about when I’m sitting at home looking at topos and wondering what the world will look like when I’m there. No one dreams of a low route along a forest road.
I press forward through the snow, crawling back on the crust and standing up carefully, splitting my weight between my two feet, trying to stay on top of the sea of white. The moment I move, I plunge in again, punching hip deep as the cold bleeds away my warmth.
I settle into the snow for a moment, staring at my small, grey world under a ceiling of clouds and falling snow. Anything beyond a few hundred yards might as well not exist.
I squirm free, prying myself out of the soft snow and feeling like an overturned turtle.
There is snow every where. It’s falling on me, it’s piled over fallen trees and rocks, the entire world is snow, deep snow, endless snow. All my illusions of finding a way through are lies. I know they are lies in that moment. I walk forward anyway. I plunge and sputter another ten feet and collapse in the snow again. I start bargaining. If the crust was just a bit harder. If the snow wasn’t so deep. If I knew what was ahead.
A voice in my head yells at me to keep going.
“You’re invincible,” it says. “It is just snow. You can find a way.”
I sit in the snow and fight the voice down. I watch snowflakes fall through the black trees and wonder how long my footsteps will last.
“You’re invincible,” the voice say again. “There is no back.”
Endless untouched snow spreads out in front of me, a white carpet rising into the grey mist. I think of the untouched world waiting up there, sparkling white and filled with adventure. I take another step and crash down to my hip in the snow again.
“Death is waiting up there too,” I think. “Death in this storm, death in this snow, death in this cold.”
I stare out at the falling snow and take another breath. Clouds cloak the mountain tops. There is nothing to see up there, not today, not tomorrow, not until the storm passes. The weather report said three days at least. Nothing but my ego and the pull of going forward are waiting on top of that mountain.
I scramble back on the crust of ice and take one last look at the untouched snow rising into the clouds. I want go forward. I want to be invincible. Instead, I turn, that little voice dies inside me, and there is nothing but silence as I follow my snow-filled footsteps back down the mountain.
BREWS AND CANOES on July 22nd! If you’re in the southern Minnesota area, next Wednesday, July 22nd, I’ll be doing a presentation in Mankato at the Mankato Brewery for the Friends of the Boundary Waters’ Brews and Canoes Adventurers Series. It’s going to be a lot of fun and I’ll have some great pictures and videos of various adventures to share. Here is a link to the Facebook event page (https://www.facebook.com/events/1570494989900043/) where you can find more information. I believe tickets are only $7 in advance and you get a free drink with that while supporting a great organization that works to protect one of the coolest, wild places on the planet!