Each time I ratchet my snowshoe straps tight and take my first step, I'm amazed at how ridiculous I feel. There is no way I can take a walk like this, I think to myself and consider taking the snowshoes right off and making a break for the closest clean sidewalk. Of course, if getting snowshoes on just right (toe properly positioned, back strap not flapping like an injured bird) is a challenge, taking them off has been known to make me swear. So I take a deep breath and start my walk.
I play around with my poles. Am I gripping them the right way? Do I even need them on this terrain? I take a few steps holding the poles like a closed umbrella. If I'm going to carry them anyway I may as well be using them I decide, so they return to their in-use position. A cross-country skier slips past on my left and I feel as athletic as Big Bird. A family up ahead lets their dog off its leash and it takes off running across the snow. The dog jumps, circles, races after invisible prey, rolls in the snow only to race off again. I'm jealous...of a dog. I'm not sure which feels worse, the jealousy or knowing how ridiculous it is.
I walk a bit more, noticing the engagement of unfamiliar muscles. My mouth opens to get more air. My cheeks feel hot. I stop to take off my mittens and look around.
What's wrong with me? I wonder, and this time it's not because I feel awkward and frustrated. No, this time it's because I've been trying so hard to walk at my normal speed, and have been so busy criticizing myself that I haven't noticed where I am. It's January in New England. I'm in the center of a glittering field, surrounded by forests and farm houses, brilliant blue stretching into eternity overhead and crisp air in my lungs. Who cares how fast I go? These snowshoes that slow me down, also make it possible for me to be here.
I walk on, across the field and into the silence of the forest beyond. A tiny gray bird with stripe of bright yellow on his head flits from branch to branch. I've never seen one before, whatever it is. Smiling, I stand and watch as it moves about with near humingbird speed. I try again and again to get a picture so I can ID it at home, each time getting just the branch where it had been moments before. I adjust and fiddle with my camera, but give up in the end. Maybe not knowing makes it more magical.
The shadows grow and I realize at some point I stopped keeping track of which trail I'm on. The cold is starting to seep through my layers and though I'm not in any real danger (I'm no more than a couple miles from civilization in any direction) I don't want to be wandering in the woods, in the dark in the cold. I think I know which direction the field is, so I set off that way.
No, the woods aren't suddenly much larger. It's just my imagination. Is it getting colder?
And there it is, the field. I don't know its name, but it's lovely in the gloaming. The words of a Robert Frost poem I memorized in 6th grade come back to me, as if Frost himself had seen this place.
"Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter"
The west was getting out of gold,
The breath of air had died of cold,
When shoeing home across the white,
I thought I saw a bird alight.
In summer when I passed the place
I had to stop and lift my face;
A bird with an angelic gift
Was singing in it sweet and swift.
No bird was singing in it now.
A single leaf was on a bough,
And that was all there was to see
In going twice around the tree.
From my advantage on a hill
I judged that such a crystal chill
Was only adding frost to snow
As gilt to gold that wouldn't show.
Of what was either cloud or smoke
From north to south across the blue;
A piercing little star was through.
This walk was taken in the Mount Misery parcel of Lincoln MA's conservation land. The Lincoln Land Conservation Trust puts out a terrific map and guide book. They also provide downloadable maps on their website. If you happen to visit on a Sunday and use the St. Anne's-in-the-Fields parking lot as your starting point, you should take a moment and go in. It's an incredible place, and and a lot of them love the out-of-doors too.