Coming Home — a winter walk / 25.02.13

Sunday, February 17, 2013

It was still mostly dark when I stepped outside into the new snow. My outer shell slid and crackled in the cold, and my nostrils freshened. This was no Thailand… and that was fine with me. Kallie and I were looking forward to some winter, since on our six-month bike trip we managed to avoid the snow and cold with our route and our timing.

We had started at the end of August up in Germany, where the days were partly sunny and 70’s—perfect for biking. We included myself and Kallie and two other couples. Our route took us south into Switzerland’s mountains, through Geneva into the rolling hills of southern France, along her coastal cliffs into Italy, and across the slow-rising elevations of northern Greece to Istanbul. A few nights along the way we woke up with frost on the tent, but when the sun rose we had warm and sunny fall days in which to enjoy the outdoors. This is how we spent the months from August to December. Since then we’d been in tropical heat, cycling under India’s coconut and banana trees, and enjoying some time on Thai beaches.

Now, back in west Michigan, it feels like a novelty to see the snow mounding over the parked cars outside. I walk down the street, each step a whining crunch, each step a mark of my passing. The whiteness in the early dawn makes the terrain indistinct, and before I know it I’m climbing a hill of snow. One, two, three, fou—suddenly my foot drops sharply three feet and I stagger to land back on the plowed road. The quick shock turns into amusement, and a little wisdom for the road ahead. It will be funny for someone else to follow my tracks in the daylight, and imagine the person walking blindly off a small cliff of snow pushed up by the plow. I will watch for these cliffs and step a little more cautiously.

A little way up the road I stop to listen and look around. The woods are heavy and silent, pine boughs weighed with a blanket of snow. When I turn, my jacket scrapes loudly and startles me—as though the noise came from something else nearby. I listen. There is a ringing that is growing in my ears, a high steady alarm that seems deafening until I breathe, or shift my weight and make “real” noise. Silence is loud too. I wonder what damage makes my ears ring like this. Is it road noise? Loud honks and engines in India? Perhaps the occasional blast of truck horn in Greece or Turkey that took a couple decibels off my capacity to hear what people speak in low tones.

I remember times on the tandem when I was filled with rage at the indiscriminant loudness of drivers who thought they must announce themselves above the din and roar of the Indian city by laying on the horn just a few feet from our heads. Kallie and I took to wearing earplugs for awhile, at least on the traffic side, and that helped considerably. I could turn over my other shoulder to speak to her, and she could speak toward my open ear. This way we only had to repeat ourselves once or twice.

How much noise do we live with without realizing it’s even there? Sometimes it requires standing in the silence of the woods to give us perspective.

I haven’t seen any drivers yet, and that’s fine by me. I enjoy the solitude of morning. No, I crave the solitude of morning, and find myself overly protective of it. If someone else appears I gauge whether I’ve arrived on the scene first, and offer a polite greeting, nervous until I am again alone. This time is my time with the world, and I want to let go of human-awareness. I want to be alone with this recreation.

It’s not that I dislike people, but I much prefer not finding their footprints in the new snow where I am walking. I like the feeling of exploration, and discovery. If someone has been there before I’m disappointed. Even on our cycle trip I was hesitant to look up information on a city or region, afraid that someone else’s suggestions would be too strong a frame for my own experience of wonder.

On one occasion we biked into the next town on our French map—Chateau Neuf du Pape. To us it was a bit of an annoying city to be as elevated as it was, since we had to cycle uphill to arrive, but we were looking for the next concentration of civilization and this was it. These towns offered food and water, two of our four concerns (the others being bathing and sleeping). As we biked in we remarked on the grape harvest that was happening in this town–there were trailers piled with grapes, grape pickers, and farming machinery everywhere. Occasionally we’d ride over a cluster of grapes that had bounced off the truck. Once in town, we also noticed that there were quite a few tourists about. One interested American approached us to ask about our trip, and in the course of our conversation we found out that we were in one of the premier wine villages in the world. While we were just biking into the next French town, other travelers were making this town their destination and fixing to buy some really good wine.

I enjoy that. I enjoy discovering cool stuff and happening on happening places. Or getting myself isolated in a woods somewhere, where the cool stuff is untouched snow hanging heavy on evergreen boughs, and the happening places are marked by the tracks of deer, fox, rabbits, squirrels, mice, and birds.

The road I was on brought me out to the main highway, and I followed this for a time, but found the walk uninspiring. I soon took a side road I hoped would connect through. Within 5 minutes I was facing a dead end… to cars. When you’re on foot you have more options. It didn’t take me too long to decide to go down the path. And, it didn’t take too long before the path ran out, and I was walking through the woods.

At first it makes you a bit anxious, when you contemplate leaving the path. You don’t know if you will find your way, you don’t know what challenges will present themselves, and you don’t know if you will put yourself or others into a state of worry. You might accidentally wander onto someone else’s property, and find them inhospitable. Or maybe there will be dogs…

But once you make the decision, it seems as thought the path opens before you. Yes, there are deadfalls to maneuver around, slopes to climb or descend, branches to duck–but there always seems to be a way pulling you forward, through the trees, and if you listen to your gut and weigh it with as much logic as you can afford, it will keep you heading in the right direction. At least that’s what I’ve found before, and that’s what I find today.

As I crunch human footprints in the snow, through the woods, I feel the exhileration of discovery, the pending satisfaction of overcoming challenges and finding my way. I cross deer trails and rabbit tracks, hear woodpeckers drumming their rapid beat, and stop to check the morning sun through the trees for my direction. At the top of a steep hill, I discover a dune meadow–a long open space tilting slightly down, surrounded by trees and untouched by tracks. I pause a moment, grateful for this secret place that I share with the wild world on this new day. Soon I come upon a beaten path and experience the relief of finding a way toward civilization again; a way that will bring me back to hot breakfast and waking family members.

Leaving the road and going into the woods is kind of like taking a large scale bicycle tour. The decision to do it is the hardest part. You wonder about the challenges, the balance of risks and rewards, and if it’s even possible. But once you leave the path of convention, put your job on hold (or quit), and go for it, the way opens before you. You discover beautiful people, unexpected provision and grace, and the world feels like it somehow is given also to you. Over the 4000 miles we covered by bike, we had plenty of opportunities to feel worried or uncertain (and occasion to make our parents feel the same!). We had to rely on our sense of direction and timing to choose the roads we would travel. We had to adjust to dead-ends, broken equipment, illnesses and injuries that changed our cycling patterns, and the different hopes and whims of six individuals trying to make a decision together. But mostly we were discovering the world for what it was to us, as we overcame the challenges of weather, landscape, culture, and language to find our own way across the continents.

Coming home is comfortable, and difficult. There are family members, friends, and good food waiting for us–as well as the unspeakable comforts of a hot shower and soft couch. But at the same time there is no way to really explain what you felt and experienced on the trip to those you love who lived at home during these months. Having left the noise of ‘normal’ life for awhile, it’s difficult to explain the re-entering. It’s a sort of solitude that rings with loneliness in its silence. That’s okay, because something about it also nurtures the soul. It’s a good perspective, a bit like listening in the woods on a still Sunday morning.

Soon the beaten path that I discovered comes out onto a neighborhood street, and that connects to another, and then I’m back to what I recognize. Once I’m on the familiar road again, I feel comfortable. I can relax into the last mile of my walk, knowing that I’ve done this before and I know the way.

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