Just when, exactly, did twelve degrees start to register as warm?
This was the question that crossed my ice-encrusted brain at the end of February as I trudged in ankle-deep powder, occasionally breaking through the crust underfoot. My mittens were off, and the hood of my balaclava was pulled down around the back of my neck. I had already unzipped the vest under my parka down to my sternum. I was overdressed. Rookie move.
The path I had chosen had only a couple sets of bootprints in it, and they weren’t recent. Only one set of dog prints, too, and no frozen turds — unusual for this part of the trail. It was clear no one had been this way for a while. I broke through the crust again, and I could feel snow wedge between my boot and sock. No point digging it out now. There was more to come. I tried to gauge the distance to the cutoff ahead and decided it was wiser to shoot for it than to turn around. Of course, what really would’ve been wiser would to not be on this trail in the first place. I had broken through on my first two steps. That should’ve told me enough. But the way the early morning light was hitting the expanse before me made it look like the path was packed down. The more I trudged, the more that mirage of weight-bearing snow danced in the distance. Yet again, I breached the crust. “You’re an idiot,” I said out loud. If I broke my ankle, it would be some time before anyone found me. Spring, maybe. “Serves you right, jerk.” My words swirled away on a twirl of snow.
Eventually I made it to the two steep inclines that would spring me from this slog. The first one was easy. A quick scramble up the hillface, digging my ice cleats into the rime, my feet planted in a firm V, brought me to the second. I picked my way over the bamboo stubble and ice, leaning into the steep grade, my knees nearly hitting my shoulders with each step. You’re almost to open tundra. Clear sailing from that point on. Lesson learned, right? Right? Yet, when I crested the peak, I discovered the granular snow had blown and drifted into mounds and banks up to my calves across the field I had hoped to find trampled and tamped down. I could see terra firma in the distance, but I would have to break more trail to get there. The zipper on my vest came down all the way, and I trod on.
If you’re thinking this incident took place at the North Woods camp I’ve been intermittently using for the past two years as a writing retreat, you are mistaken. The activities described above occurred on the mid-slope section of the Eastern Prom Trail, which runs from the trailer-parking lot at the East End landing to the Loring Memorial, in what ostensibly is downtown Portland.
You might be wondering what I was doing out there in the freezing cold. The same thing I was doing out there in all the sub-zero temperatures, blizzards and dazzling first lights of this past winter, the same thing I do every morning: walking.
I walk four miles almost every day, and I am generally cautious and careful, especially in winter. At camp, my road runs for only a mile before it hits Route 27, where the logging trucks come shooting down out of Quebec like luges. You don’t want to tarry or mess around on 27, so I turn my headlamp to flashing until I can scamper to another camp road up the way. I may look like a dork, but at least not a dead dork.
I’ve been going to a gym for 20 years, but I only started walking in May 2011, when I began working on my book/one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother, at my friend Joyce’s condo in Bethel. I needed something to replace going to the gym while I was there, and a morning walk was a good substitute. My hour-long loop took me past homes and pastures, through stands of towering pines and up and down one massive hunk of hill that overlooks a stretch of peaks to the east. By the time I got back to the condo each day, sentences were already spilling out of the back of my head. All I had to do was hold out my keyboard and catch them.
When I returned to Portland, summer was coming on, and I couldn’t bear to drag myself into my fluorescent-lit gym with its TVs and air conditioning and Spandex. Not when the big beautiful outdoors was waiting. I felt like Elsa the lion as I bounded out of my yard each morning. Seasons changed, but I continued walking. Walking made me feel free — free as the wind blows, free as the grass grows. Free to follow my heart. Grrr.
My two regular routes are Back Cove and the Eastern Prom Trail. My preference is the latter, because it affords views of Casco Bay, the mid-slope trail weaves through woods and I get to pass the most resplendent spot in all of Portland (and no, I’m not talking about the water treatment — a.k.a. poop — plant): the path under Tukeys Bridge. I cannot adequately argue a case for the beauty of this stand of concrete pilings and swirling water bathed in morning light. Let’s just say if I were to someday have my ashes scattered in Portland, it would either be under a bar stool at the Great Lost Bear, or here.
Walking in winter presents challenges. It’s not the conditions I mind. Aside from the occasional overdressing miscalculation, I can gauge the appropriateness of my clothing right down to how many teeth to lower a zipper on a jacket. (I’ve so often repeated the old adage, “There’s no bad weather, just bad gear,” that friends credit it to me.) Because of this, I can pretty much take whatever Mother Nature dishes out. What the City of Portland delivers, however, is another matter.
For the most part, the city has done a pretty heroic job keeping trails and walkways clear during this relentless winter. I don’t recall the Back Cove trail being plowed when I first started walking. There was just a narrow footpath, stamped down mostly by runners. Now there’s the equivalent of a four-lane highway out there. The only problem is, you don’t know when or if the plow will be out, or what fresh havoc the elements will have wrought post-plow. At times, entire sections of the trails have been left uncleared — like the path from the Back Cove soccer field to Tukeys, as well as the aforementioned loop under the bridge — forcing me to improvise and recalibrate. With both these options closed, I found myself wandering around Bayside one morning, looking for a way home. The sidewalk along the off-ramp from Tukeys Bridge had not been plowed, so I had to stomp in the road beside traffic. This is why I always wear a fetching blaze-orange watchcap. (See “dead dork” above.)
When these trails were finally cleared again, I decided to venture under Tukeys over to the East End. I knew the mid-slope section might be a challenge, but it was a brilliant morning, and I was up for a little adventure. I was in urban Portland. What could go wrong?
The older I get, the more urgent my need is to be outdoors every day. Exercise is part of it, of course. And getting a little fresh air before I stand at a desk all day is part of the appeal. But there’s a greater force at work: a voice that whispers in the back of the brain: Count your sunrises and moonsets. Look at the sky-blue pink, the slate and teal in what most perceive as white snow. Hear the chuck-chuck of the winter robin, the ploop of the diving bufflehead. Feel that Artic air tear into and clean your lungs. These mornings have a number, you know. They won’t go on forever. Especially if you — yes, you in the orange hat and flashing headlamp — don’t watch your step. It doesn’t matter if you’re a cityslicker or country bumpkin, or any combination thereof, Nature trumps all.
When I was finally able to bust my way across the tundra to the street on that February morning, I faced one more insult: The sidewalk hadn’t been cleared since the last snow. As I scaled yet another snow bank and made my way to solid ground, I was reminded of the most pertinent piece of all: my winter folly is another’s plight. I have the gear, I am able, and I make the choice to be out in this weather.
Others do not.
Elizabeth Peavey slogs across these pages every month. To learn more about her adventures, workshops, shows and services, go to elizabethpeavey.com.