Here is the difference. In one place I wake up and see a dense band of trees, snow-branched, birds flitting between. A narrow brook babbles over rocks crusted with ice, icicles wink in the sunlight. In the the other place, I wake up and hear a truck backing down the road, a beeping that no one pays any attention to anymore, except to be annoyed. The snow banks get grayer by the day. A garbage can blows down the street.
These are dramatic reenactments. Neither place is so magical or so terrible, but I was lucky to discover the real difference this winter.
For those of you not living in cold weather climes, let me just say that the winter can be a struggle. It wears on you. The constant cold. All the clothing. The piles of frozen rime. The narrowing of life both by snow and darkness. I am a cold weather person. I prefer the cool air on my skin to the summer’s cloying humidity, but still winter in the city is challenging.
Because of the pandemic, we invested no small sum in a small place by the aforementioned brook, a drafty little house that nonetheless gave us access to the winter woods, unspoiled and in the lee of a ski mountain. It changed the whole game. I understand fully that not everyone has the means to make a move like this. It all has a cost. The rental. The snow shoes. Skiing. Managing lives in two locations. It’s a privilege, and one we leaned into for the first time really in our adult lives.
In the woods, the cold does not feel so cold. Daily walks with the dog, mainly via snow shoe, in sub-zero weather became the routine, not some extreme. I found a rhythm between working, snow shoeing, working a bit more, skiing, and then finishing off work, that made every day feel worth it. In the city, in winter, you get the feeling you are just biding time until the spring sets you free again. Both modes are exhausting, but one feels much better than the other.
The standard response for those who are able, is to escape the winter, when you can, to take a vacation somewhere south of here. It makes sense. Get the sun on your body. Let your limbs relax. Take the cold off your mind.
I see now, deep into my 40s, that the opposite is also effective. Leaning into the winter, going deeper into the snow, is also therapeutic. Letting the trees subsume you. Feeling the wind bear down on your small body.
This is not a site about skiing (although why not), but it deserves to be said that I learned to ski late in life. I was 45 or 46 when I took my first lesson, and the process of being a beginner, struggling to get comfortable, to find the flow, was a big challenge, mostly of the ego. It has been so worth it, though.
Again, we are lucky to have been led to a place that forgoes a lot of the trappings of ski culture, the elitism and the coddling on offer at many “resorts.” It’s a place that focuses its energy on the skiing part, on the beauty of the mountain in all its non-optimized forms. It’s a hard place to learn, but also welcoming and encouraging. Finding my feet, so to speak, gave me a focus for the winter that I desperately needed, without trails to run and ride. If movement is medicine, as they say, having that outlet was a big part of the success of our winter planning.
A big part of the vision for Dirt Soul Search was to document the process and rewards of living an outdoor life. I have not, up to this point, had what I would call a successful winter. In past seasons I’ve invested tons of energy in staying on the bike through the toughest conditions, mounting studded tires, collecting tons of technical clothing and footwear, but winter riding doesn’t give back the way skiing does. Winter riding is a sort of pale, cold imitation of riding in better seasons. Now I see how the pieces can fit together better for me. Now I’m daydreaming of nordic skiing adventures to go along with the alpine. Now I’m thinking about more ski mountaineering.
Beginning those adventures on the eve of 50 may not be the most obvious choice, but again the point of Dirt Soul Search is the quest, not the accomplishment, to stay curious, to stay motivated, to continue whatever the adventure is to the best of my ability.