They are just woods behind a single line of houses that hug a narrow, twisting, mountain road. There is no trail here, and no dramatic feature that would inspire someone to cut a trail. A lot of the trees are still saplings, springing awkwardly from the ground and reaching out to brush your face as you walk through. There is an old logging road, mostly overgrown, since the day when the bigger trees were taken from this patch. Now these woods connect to state forest. There are no houses behind the house we leave from, no way to know when you’ve passed from one piece of property into no one’s property, and no reason to care.
Some friends rent this place every year because 100 yards up the road is the ski hill. The back forty or four-hundred are just a bonus if you’re will to strap on some snowshoes and break trail for yourself. If you have a dog who needs to exercise its demons on the daily, well then snowshoeing into unmarked woods like these becomes a better and better idea.
I wouldn’t walk here if there wasn’t snow down. These woods don’t need human feet, don’t need us leaving our permanent paths or snapping through fragile new growth. The snow protects this place from us. Maybe we even make it easier for the larger animals to get to the creek that slithers its way down the hill, tamping down the rising snow that leads down to water and up again.
This chance to be in the woods and off a beaten track reminds us how much harder it is to move when the route hasn’t been planned, when every step you take in two feet of snow has to be earned with a little sweat. As you leave the house, the sound of the road fades and then disappears. You can hear the wind, branches clacking against each other, running water. Without a trail to pull you along, it all slows down. The need to take the next step becomes less a case of directional urgency and more an act of exploration, or even immersion in a peaceful stillness you know exists but so seldom encounter.
There is no danger of meeting another human here. You’re more likely to find a bear or a deer, and neither of them is interested in running into you, so the farther you go, the lonelier you get, and that’s a good thing.
My friends and I exchange texts, “Hey, started an uphill spur from the main trail.” I receive a map with another friend’s long, circuitous extension of the main trail to connect with an official trail much deeper in the woods, at the edge of the state forest. It looks more like a dare than a convenient new route, especially with six or ten inches of fresh snowfall to make each step an exercise.
I get it though. Once you have that quiet in your ears, maybe just the sound of icy pellets ticking against your jacket, the urge to keep going is strong. It might be a long way back, but pushing farther into that space is some sort of meditation. There’s a fire burning, back at the house, but life is noisy, and it can wait.