For some, especially the less prepared, the first snowflakes tend to revive fears of slippery roads, cold howling winds, discomfort and worry. For others the soft fluffy-white coat of winter offers the anticipation of exciting cold-weather sports followed by cozy quiet time within the sphere of a warm radiant woodstove. Winter comfort is a celebration of being prepared while living in the moment. This is especially true in the rural setting.
As a kid growing up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, the dark, cold time of year offered special experiences and rewards. Sure it was biting cold outside. The deep snow made it harder to walk, especially with several layers of heavy clothing to haul around. Fortunately, the added muscle effort quickly warms the body.
The collective energy of a group of children in the outdoor winter landscape knows no bounds and ours was channeled into raw, rosy-faced creativity. There were forts to build and snowball fights to be had. We dug tunnels deep into the piled snowbanks where it was quiet, maybe too quiet, and a little too scary, even for a country kid. Alone or together, we burrowed into a cold, dark world far removed from daylight, and the cold was still deeper at night, hidden away from the stars.
Somehow the stars above a snow-covered frozen landscape shine brighter and are more profound. It’s like magic. Winter is like magic and the first snowfall is the promise and fulfillment of that magic. Winter star constellations serve as a wonderful anchor on the largest screen imaginable. On a clear night the Big Dipper and North Star are right there in plain sight, next to the Milky Way, always, forever, unquestionable. As it is now and shall be forever.
On our farm the Big Dipper hung just above and behind the silhouette of our barn during snow months. Our milk cows were all tied securely in their own individual stalls in the barn while the calves shared a larger stall at the end. Naturally the heat from all the cows and calves kept the barn relatively warm. A closed-up dairy barn in the dead of winter is an atmosphere unto itself, in stark contrast to the crystal pristine fresh air of a starry cold night. The sweet, pungent, earthy smell of warm cows, manure and corn silage, together with bawling calves and cows waiting to be fed and milked, greeted us at each chore time.
In those days we had to get right up close beside each individual cow to first wash the teats, then set the milking machine on the cow. Some cows welcomed us and some cows didn’t. There is something about cuddling in close to a big, furry, warm cow on a below-zero morning to collect life-sustaining, nutritious milk and cream, then eating a big mother-made breakfast at the kitchen table and consuming that milk and cream, that offered meaning to life in a way that was down-to-earth obvious. Of course the routine repeated itself twice a day, every day, forever and like so many things became a little too real. Such was farm life. We never lacked for a sense of accomplishment. Farming was what we lived for.
It has been said that summer is for pleasure and winter is for health. As a child growing up on the farm I learned to enjoy physical work, and there was plenty to go around during the winter months. Together my brothers, my dad and I cleaned calf pens, moved hay and chopped frozen silage out of stone-cold silos. We cut, split and piled wood for our woodstove on snowy days. These activities caused us to breathe faster, burn energy and sweat. Naturally the heart rate increases, sometimes dramatically.
After I left the farm as a young adult I soon learned to cross-country ski. First I made my own trails through the woods and later I became accustomed to groomed and tracked trails. Like many things, ski equipment has improved with technology, but skiing is one of those activities that requires not days, weeks or months, but years to become proficient in.
Now, after many years, cross-country skiing offers me some of the same down-to-earth pleasures as did working farm life. I still enjoy physical work, and cross-country skiing over hilly terrain at a good pace can really get the heart pumping. This is a well-known fact for those who enjoy physical activity, but it is soon rediscovered for those who are trying cross-country skiing for the first time.
With the excitement of the first magical snow and the joyful anticipation of renewed acquaintance with favored ski trails comes a little risk. Risk is a natural and necessary component of adventure. For example, as a senior adult I have learned, painfully, over the years to start slow on my skis during the new season. But making tracks in the first snow means that I am still here, still alive, and still ready for outdoor adventure. After a few outings my sense of balance returns, I become more agile and my muscles and joints hurt a little less.
The days of dancing over the hills with total abandon are in the past for me. But from time to time, for short spurts, I can still re-create the experience of “feeling fast.” Sprinting on the uphills isn’t in the cards any longer — that is a cause lost to aging legs. Still, under the right conditions and with some concentration, I can manage to put together a combination of kick and double pole that results in the feeling of impulsion. For me, the great joy of skiing is in the glide, and fortunately physics remains constant even with age. A little added weight over the skis tends to increase the downhill speed and the exhilarating swirl of wind in the face.
The first snow reminds us that winter is still possible even as the Earth warms. It offers us the opportunity to experience healthy physical exercise and relive the quiet solitude of remote wooded trails where it is easy to reflect and regain perspective on what is important in life. Skiing backwoods trails offers the sense of risk and overcoming danger if just for a brief wild downhill scream. The experience of sucking in huge lungs full of cold, pristine air, one after the next, and feeling the powerful pounding of our heart in our heads reminds us that we are alive in the moment. And at the end of the day we can peel off our soaking wet clothes and smell the healthy aroma of our fresh hard-won human sweat as we enter the blazing-hot wood-fired sauna. Hot, humid sauna air warms the body as well as the soul. A naked roll in the fresh new snow seals the deal for a refreshing deep winter sleep as fresh snow falls to cover our tracks.