It’s been a while since we’ve had good snow in these parts. Several inches had accumulated before Christmas Eve, and my son and I trekked then over the snowy hill to meet with family celebrants as we’ve done for many years. It was a nice touch, since we haven’t seen much snow in the last few years. On this occasion a new addition to the hill sights was a road sign that some hunter with a humorous disregard for common sense had planted in the woods along our trail.
When a large snowstorm was predicted to sweep in from the southwest and dump around 18 inches or so in western Steuben County, New York, I felt the old excitement that a major snowfall can produce when you’re stocked with firewood, food and beverages, and have nowhere in particular to go. I don’t necessarily like the scientific accuracy that meteorologists can display occasionally in these modern times, but when I was told the storm would strike around 2:00 p.m., the inner kid was thankful for the heads up and was off and climbing Dryden Hill a half hour before the show was to start.
It’s a steep one mile climb to the Dryden Hill Road and by the time I got there at 2 p.m., yes, the snow began to fall. What I had in mind was to head westward for another 1.5 miles, turn southward on an abandoned woods road and then, back in the valley, make the long return walk to the house. The plan was to hike a five-mile circuit but the snowstorm cut it short.
At first, the snow walk, heading west along the hilltop, was a pleasant affair. Where the woods ended near an old rural cemetary, I paused to view the storm approaching across the wide fields and to consider my options. As long as the wind stayed calm, I was good to go.
I was dressed warmly but the wind began to bite as I pushed across the fields and lowered my head. After a mile of steel-grey hilltop filled with blowing snow, I felt the cold in my hands, the 20-degree air (not considering the windchill factor) beginning to rattle my bones, and so I called off the balance of the hike on account of short-sightedness and faulty planning.
Walking in snowstorms or watching them from the comfort of a blazing fireplace sounds romantic maybe, like the notion of climbing a mountain above timberline in summer, but once you’re out there in the actual elements under stressful conditions, it’s a whole different reality. Countless walkers through the ages have succumbed to the brutish aspects of a snowstorm that confused them and then coated them in white death.
Luckily half of my two-mile return to the house was downhill as I struggled to keep my hands warm through work gloves. A downy woodpecker climbed the same tree trunks as before, hunting for evasive insects under the bark. Just beyond, where the roadside offered dead weed stalks for a half mile to the valley bottom, a pair of tree sparrows, long returned from their summer in northern Canada, accompanied me like sandpipers on a beach.
The sparrows would lift from the weed stalks about 20 or 30 feet in front of me and fly off to another weedy site about twice the distance away. As I approached, they would lift again then settle as before, over and over all the way down to my barn. They helped keep my thoughts away from chilled extremities and runny nose and freezing mouth.
The snow walk was a fun experience. To abort the effort at mid-point helped avert trouble farther down the road. Wild nature is a beautiful existence if you give it the respect that it deserves. Hubris has no place among its vastness and inconceivable patterns. It’s a good place for humility to make a showing. When the cosmic muscle flexes and unleashes what’s to be an all-night snow, it’s comforting to be close to your door.