The winter solstice is again upon us and with it comes the season of hot cocoa, yellow snow and snug blankets. Moreover it is the season of darkness, begot by watching all that’s living die around us. Conventional wisdom says a baby born in November or December has the lowest chance of surviving its first year. In sprightly northern New England, however, adventurists are strapping myriad foreign objects to their feet and passing thoughtless hours on trails and mountains. There are many options in deciding which winter sport to pursue: you can skate like Tanya, ski with gravity, ski without the help of gravity, sled like a child (into other people’s children), and many more. But, perhaps, the unsung hero of the winter activity world is the ever-eccentric sport of snowshoeing.
After finishing the last available video on Youtube and refreshing Instagram to death, I figured I’d try my hand at snowshoeing. I retrieved the old family snowshoes from the shed and coaxed my least favorite dog into the car. Snowshoes, to the unfamiliar, are ovular metal (previously woven wood) boards with spikes on the bottom and straps on the top. Feasibly, they allow you to walk on top of deep snow rather than sinking into it.
The snowshoe has been used for millennia. The earliest known use of the device was in Central Asia upwards of 4,000 years ago. Snowshoes were also utilized by indigenous North American tribes and the earliest French settlers. More recently, the modern snowshoe has been pioneered by winter adventurists in New England and the mountain west, replacing wood with stainless steel and rawhide with polypropylene. After all this time, they still have not been known to work effectively.
Within the first 100 feet of trail, I had realized the shortcomings of the contraptions. The antiquated system of straps was too tight on my left foot while my right foot swam about loosely. I repeatedly knelt to adjust, garnering inquisitive looks from Callie, the pup, who was having no trouble walking and pooping in the middle of the trail. The shoes were then effective, I will say, at launching the canine excrement from the trail. Merging onto another trail, I was hastily bitten in my thigh meat by another dog. The woman made futile calls to her dog, who shared its name with a Greek God. “Artemis panics around snowshoes,” the woman assured me as her dog hunted me like a shark. I don’t like them any more than you do, I tried to telepathically communicate to the dog.
Deeper into the woods I was passed by a skier, who looked at me like the idiot I was. Snow flew up behind me like a Power Ranger walking away from an explosion, except with each step my foot landed in a different position and sunk a different depth into the snow such that I had the gait and balance of a drunk. The backs of my jeans (poor wardrobe choice) were soaked.
My strife only continued from there. Although Callie has the outward appearance of a dog, much of her attributes suggest otherwise. She never has a desire to run about and explore, instead opting to walk directly in my wake, with a downcast expression on her emotive face. I frequently looked back, imploring her to have fun, insecure myself without the positive affirmation of her waging tail. Worse still, the snowshoes kicked up the powder into her face. One stride, the metal rear of the snowshoe clipped her chin. She yelped and I turned to profusely apologize. She could not understand my apologies because she is a dog. It’s really your fault, I told her, walking behind me. She, again, has no comprehension of this verbal communication.
My mind begins to wander as I waltz erratically down the trail. I think about ex-girlfriends. I think about the Zimbabwean cough syrup epidemic (Thanks, Vice!). I think about the 300,000 dead. I think about Mike Pence making love to his wife and only his wife. I came up here for some solitude, to brainstorm something I wanted to write about suffering and now I’m stuck in the middle of the woods with two table tennis rackets trapped to my feet. Jeff Tweedy sings in my ears: “don’t let your pain go to waste.” Easy for you to say, Jeff, ever snowshoed? It begins to rain because the climate is changing. Mike Pence reappears in my head, his hips still squared to his wife in missionary, but his head swiveled, looking directly at me. “It’s a myth, Grant. It’s just a myth.” I yell and nobody hears me.
Snowshoes do not work. It’s just walking, but harder and worse. Fun can be had in winter, but this is not the way to have it. For traction in snow while hiking, attach micro spikes to the bottom of regular hiking boots. For deep snow, wear snow boots. For speed and ease on flat trails, wear nordic skis. For adrenaline on steep trails, downhill skis. Or, most simply, take a hint from bears, turtles, squirrels and lifeguards by hibernating during colder months.
I finally reach the access road and detach the dreaded shoes from my feet. Without their weight, I am floating. I resolve to return the snowshoes to the shed. More importantly, I resolve to surmount life’s many challenges, from grief of loss, to snowshoeing, to the coexistence of Mike Pence, with a full heart, observant eye, and, importantly, report back my experience. This doesn’t see it as particularly noble, even, it’s just all I know to do. I am not letting my pain go to waste.