by Zinta Aistars
"...and don't forget that cheap bottle of bubbly," Mary concluded.
Got it. I ticked off items on my list as I packed them into my duffel alongside the fat roll that was my too long unused sleeping bag. Draped over it: several old blankets and a flannel covered pillow. My blue tin plate and mug and bowl, a flashlight, extra ragg socks, towel, long underwear, sweats, extra sweaters, and yes, bottle of cheap champagne went into the duffel. Mary was bringing the tent. This was going to be a New Year's Eve and Day to remember.
It had been a very long time since I had had one of those. Memorable New Year's Eves... not that I would always require well-chilled adventure. But special occasions of any kind for the past some years had been sadly lacking. Indeed, they had more times than not been "special" for all the wrong reasons. I spent my last New Year's Eve, in fact, feeling emotionally battered and abandoned, sopping in the new year drenched in tears and with a yet again re-broken heart.
Oh no, not this year. No more, I promised myself, clenching my teeth in fierce determination. Life surely must have its necessary element of suffering, but mine had had enough shadows for too long, and I was thrilled when my dear friend Mary called me at work on the morning of December 31, 2007, with yet another proposal of one of her impromptu wild woman adventures. The last time she had called with an idea for adventure, we ended up piling into her aging Oldsmobile with a pink rubber flamingo stuck on the antennae, hours before daybreak, her German Shepherd, Hannah, in the backseat. That time, we headed north to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to meet with a wolf and a sled dog named Ivy, retired from the Iditarod in Alaska. Ivy became Mary's first official sled dog for her new hobby of dog mushing.
Dog what? Here in lower Michigan? I was disbelieving, but mention snow to me, up north, and throw in a floppy-eared dog, and I'm ready.
That was nearly a year ago. In another snow. By now, Mary had four dogs, newly trained, practicing most every weekend in anticipation of winter, in a wheeled rig before there was snow, but on a proper sled now that the glorious white stuff was coming down in shimmering blessing. Leave it to Mary to not only have a wacky idea... but bring it to fruition. She'd been promising me a sled ride for several months, and New Year's Eve seemed as good a night as any to skid around under icy moonlight in nearby Fort Custer, about 15 miles east from our hometown of Kalamazoo. The park, hedged by a beautiful and serene cemetery for veterans, bordered the Kalamazoo River along with a series of lakes and miles of open trails. It was, as one might expect, pleasantly deserted at this time of year. More than 3,000 acres open to wild women and dogs. There was a winter storm warning out for tonight, and we couldn't be more pleased. The clock was ticking toward midnight, a threshold to cross into a new year and a life brimming with truly special occasions.
I had a very good feeling about 2008.
The sky was thickening with gray-bellied snow clouds. I stopped listening to weather reports at the point where they had upped the expected snow fall from 10 to 12 inches. Heck with that. Dog sledding is all about snow, isn't it? I sat on the floor of my living room among heaps of blankets and sleeping bags, waiting for Mary to arrive, apologizing to my own about-to-be-left-behind chow pup, Guinnez.
"Tell you what, Guinnie Pig," I rubbed his soft, fuzzy orange ears. "If this winter camping is as very kewl as I think it will be, sometime yet this winter – it's you and me, dawg. Just you and me."
Guinnez's tail thumped and wagged, picking up speed until it was swirling in dizzy circles. His tail dropped when Mary arrived to pack my gear into her car, closing the door on my broken-hearted pup. Thank goodness he couldn't see the other three girl dogs we were picking up later, I thought, feeling guilty for leaving my friend behind. Next time, next time.
Dinner first, still in the civilized world, and Mary's sister, Joanna called Joey, greeted us at the door of her warm and glowing home. Her husband, Paul, was already grilling New York strip steaks in the backyard, the grill set in snow under a canopy of bare oak trees laced with white. Paul's brother, Kenny, was stirring "grog" in a pot on the stove—hot red wine with slices of lemon floating on top, the scent of cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg rising around him—and we were hardly out of our coats before we were holding steaming mugs in our chilled hands. Kenny grinned through his beard at us, pleased to be pleasing us, and we clinked mugs in good cheer. It was Kenny's new tent we'd be taking along. Never out of the box. Four-person (we were counting three dogs as the equivalent of two persons) with flexible thin pipes to hold it up free-standing in the snow, a tarp beneath, a tarp overhead.
I wandered the house while dinner grilled and baked and cooked. Floor to ceiling shelves were filled with books and gorgeous pottery, vases and mugs and bowls of earthy and rich colors, and where the walls weren't lined with books and pottery, there hung paintings and framed photographs. The windowsills were lined with snow globes. Cats and dogs wandered by and around me, and I took time to greet each one, offering fingertips to scent, and introduced myself. Books, art, and animals. I felt right at home.
I ate my fill at the dinner table lit by candlelight, feeling no guilt. Surely one must be fortified to camp in a snow storm. I ate all my steak, every last bite, two helpings of cheesy scalloped cauliflower, a stack of asparagus, green salad, roasted tomatoes, and a gooey slice of apple and cranberry pie, washing it all down with the best merlot wine I'd had in years. As I learned in our dinner conversation, Kenny was a vintner, knew his wine like nobody's business, and Joey had brought back from her many business trips abroad so much wine (to Kenny's approving nod) that U.S. customs required her to fill out forms to officially become a wine distributor.
"I thought I was ordering bottles from the winery in Germany," she laughed, holding up the wine to glow blood red in the candlelight. "Apparently, I was buying cases. There are 150 more bottles downstairs. Drink up!"
The gray-bellied snow clouds had opened while we ate; snow fell thick and soft outside, and from the dining room walled with windows, we watched the silent storm gain momentum.
"Still up for this?" Mary tipped her head at me from across the table.
Paul and Kenny pshawed and decided for us: of course we were up for this! I grinned and licked sticky pie from a fingertip and shrugged. No argument from me. Our bellies full, our hearts toasty warm from the comforts of family and friends, off we went to collect Mary's dogs and head into the snowy night.
Willow, Nabu, and Hannah panted in the backseat of the Oldsmobile. Humans and dogs, we were all so tightly stuffed into the car, there was hardly enough room to maneuver a seatbelt across my lap to click shut. My duffel was beneath my feet, now also holding a candied apple and Godiva chocolates from Joey, and a bag of macaroons from Kenny—real camp fare. The dogs were huddled next to sleeping bags and blankets in the back, furry shoulder to shoulder, raring to go. The dog sled, a thin and graceful frame of curving blonde wood, was on the roof of the car, fastened down with a criss-cross of bungee cords.
I pointed at the glow of the dashboard clock as we headed down I-94 east. "Hey Mary. I thought you said the Fort Custer campground closes at 10 pm?" It was 9:57.
Mary chuckled. "Yeah, well."
Which is why I love my good friend. Life happens. We make do. Things work out. What's to worry? Hers was a philosophy of life that had once been my own, but that somehow I had gradually lost over the past few years. Somewhere along the way, I had lost myself. My sense of adventure, my ability, even hunger to take risks, the deliciously outrageous part of Z that had made my life interesting, worth living, brimming with lusty cheers and gusty hurrahs, with good loving, good fun, high hopes. The last few years, however, had sucked the life right out of me. I was a dry and hollow shell of the old Z. All my bright colors had faded away until I no longer knew my pale self. I felt invisible. But this New Year's Eve, I promised myself, would be another line to draw in the sand—or the snow, as the case may be—to mark the place where I would find my colors again. I would not be held back any longer, not ever again. I was hungry for adventure. I would find my voice and I would use it and I would refuse to be invisible or to spend time with anything or anyone that would sap my appetite for life. I had some dreams to dust off. Tonight was as good a night as any.
The Oldsmobile crept along on the slick interstate, two headlights piercing the dark. There was little traffic; most sensible folk were gathered in parties tonight, huddled around television sets and watching other parties, keeping warm. I envied none of them.
Visibility was minimal, but Mary had traveled this route so many times already that she didn't need to see much. We turned off the highway onto ever narrowing country roads, until we were driving through a silent forest. The shadows of tree limbs outlined in white hung over us to form a tunnel leading to Fort Custer. The gate was open. The car bumped and shimmied through the deepening snow, making fresh tracks where there were none. Willow, Nabu, and Hannah whined in excitement, scenting familiar territory, and jostled each other in back for a better view.
"Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" I spoke for the three, make that four, and then—we were. The car heaved through snow, shuddered, and settled into a soft drift, and with the engine off, we entered perfect silence.
It was somewhere between 10 and 11 p.m. of New Year's Eve, but I lost all sense of time standing in the shin-deep snow, face to open sky, kissed by a thousand soft, cool snow kisses, melting as they touched my warm skin. The dogs raced out of the car, each in their own direction, looped around, danced and circled, unable to contain their joy of life. Mary's setting to work unpacking our gear woke me from my reverie.
Setting up a tent in a snow storm by the beams of two car headlights was no easy feat, especially when we had no clue what the finished shelter was to look like. While we worked on pitching the tent, Mary put Willow, the youngest of the three dogs, a mostly black husky mix with white paws, on a long chain. Willow had a tendency to bound off to explore, losing track of time and place, while Hannah and Nabu could be trusted to stay nearby on their own. Hannah was still a young German shepherd, eager to explore, too, but never wanted to be out of sight of her "mother." Nabu was a retired husky sled dog who had run many long races, including the 1,000 mile-long Alaskan Iditarod, and was born and bred to race. She knew her place. Mary's weekend dog mushing was just her speed now. She was wise, and sweet, and enjoyed our company, at times leaning against our legs for the comfort of companionship.
We spread a large tarp on the snow, then unfolded the tent and spread it out. Long thin tubes in flexible sections, connected by an elastic rope running through all of them, had to be pushed through openings in the tent, and we soon realized gloves wouldn't do to accomplish this. Off they came, and we struggled to get all four sets of pipes through the shell of the tent with our stiff fingers, then carefully bent them in arcs to fit through grommets along the bottom edges of the tent. In the two beams of light from the car, snow swirled and fell over and on us, catching in our hair and in the creases of our jackets, melting on the bare skin of our hands. Now and then, I turned my wristwatch to the light to check, calling out to Mary: "It's 11:30, Mary! 11:45! Five more minutes!"
And then, the tent curved and rose up along the spines of the tubes, a neat little igloo in the middle of the woods, home for the night. I hurried to dig out my blue tin cup and champagne bottle from my duffel bag, Mary handed over her cup, and I uncorked and poured. Just in time! It was midnight—the year of 2008—and we were triumphant, raising our fizzing cups to the snowy sky and bare moonlit limbs of trees overhead. The dogs danced around us in shared glee.
Happy New Year! And it already was.
Buzzing me back to the civilized world, my cell phone vibrated in my pants pocket. These were my son's flannel-lined cargo pants, pulled tight with a rope around my waist, and it took me several zips to unzip various pockets up and down the length of my legs and along my hips and rear to find the pocket holding the cell. My son was first caller of the night, wanting to verify that "you're really not coming home tonight, Mom? In this storm? You're okay, right?" and then my daughter, calling from Chicago, insisting I tell her my exact location in case "I hear some news story about two crazy middle-aged women lost with their dogs in the frozen Michigan woods on New Year's Eve and I have to tell the police where to look for you." But once location was determined, my girl gave me a telephone version of high-five, echoing my own intent: "It's good to see you coming back to yourself, Mum. I've missed you." I breathed in the fresh chilly night air, deep, filling my lungs. "I've missed me, too, baby. And you, too. You have yourself a fine, fine new year. May this be the best one ever for our family."
"Shall we walk before sleep?" Mary asked, and I readily agreed. Our work done to make our campsite as comfortable as it could be, I was feeling an adrenaline rush, and the night was far too beautiful to abandon just yet. Mary ran the car engine for a moment to regenerate after our use of the headlights, then shut it off. Flashlight in hand, and Mary wearing headgear that put a light atop her head, much like a coal miner's, the way ahead was well lit and inviting. The dogs romped in excitement, bounding ahead then circling back to check on us. The snow was falling even faster and thicker than before. By the time we returned to the tent, it was capped with white and our footsteps were already erased.
Sleep. Mary crawled into her Yukon sleeping bag, prepared for 25 below zero. I crawled into mine. Not bad, I thought, although this bag was three season, much thinner than Mary's. Still, I had put several blankets underneath, between me and the snowy ground, plus another summer bag spread out for insulation, and surely that would be enough. The dogs huddled between us on their own wool blanket. I fell asleep quickly, more tired than I had realized. When I woke again a while later, my bladder reminding me of champagne that was, I could hear Mary's soft and contented snore from the opposite side of the tent. I reached for my coat and scarf at the bottom of my sleeping bag to make my run outdoors, but to my dismay, found them to be as soaked as if they had been dunked in icy water. The coats had been laid out in the snow just outside our tent, still under the overhead tarp to protect them from the snowfall, but instead of drying out, had absorbed a surprising amount of water from the ground. I sighed and decided a quick run into the snow would be fine without anything more than the flannel shirt I was wearing, still in my son's cargo pants, long underwear, and two shirts beneath the flannel. Shoving my three-layered stocking feet into wet boots, I unzipped the tent entrance and emerged into the deep silence of the forest in snow.
For a moment, I forgot my need. I stood in the snowy night, more snow still falling around and over me, and listened. If I held my breath, I could hear it falling. Soft, soft, it settled into the trees and on the ground. The high moon shown bluish-white through the bare limbs of trees high overhead. My breath was a white mist, and I felt the blessing of this night settle gently onto my shoulders, as gentle as the snowfall.
Sleep did not come as quickly as before. The dogs rustled in response to my movement. Nabu touched a cool, damp nose to mine to check on me. Willow had stolen my "warm" spot on my pillow and moved with utmost reluctance at my insistence. She opted to lie beside me, nose to nose, one paw stretched to caress my face… alas, clawed, and I winced at the bruising across my mouth, shoving her back, then instantly felt sorry, and draped my arm across her and pulled her near again. She heaved a contented sigh. We would appreciate each other's warmth this winter night.
Mary's soft snore continued uninterrupted from inside her Yukon bag, while Willow and I arranged and rearranged ourselves for warmth I could not find. The chill of the snowy ground beneath me seeped through the blankets along the full length of my body. My nose was a chip of ice. My hair was crisp to the touch. Even with three pairs of woolen socks and deep inside my sleeping bag, my feet felt frozen. I considered going back outside again to move about and get my blood to circulate through my frozen extremities, then silently chastised myself, shivering and cuddling closer to Willow. I tried to imagine the homeless who had to find ways to stay warm through an entire winter, and here I was for just one night, my soft, warm bed awaiting me at home, flannel sheets under downy blankets, but hours away. Buck up, Z! One lesson learned, I thought, curling my knees up close to my body: three-season camping gear is one season short.
Then suddenly it was bright outside. The inside of the tent glowed with morning light. The dogs were getting restless, nosing our faces, pawing at our bags. Mary shooed them away, but they insisted. I was ready to get up and moving, stretch out my frozen limbs, but it took a moment nonetheless to translate the thought of movement to sluggish muscle. All of my outerwear was still sopping wet. Coat, scarf, gloves—all unusable. Mary tossed me a hooded sweatshirt and I pulled it over the previous three shirts.
Ah, to have the joy of dogs! Willow, Nabu, and Hannah bounded from the tent into the snowy morning, and snow sprayed from their paws as they raced around and around in sheer bliss. I had to laugh just to watch their infectious and simple happiness. Mary and I realized we had brought wood but no paper for starter, so her tiny one-burner, a wonderful little contraption of canned fuel with a thick wick, atop which she set a metal cup of water, soon gave us our first cup of hot, steaming coffee. No beginner, Mary had a bin of goodies in her trunk: bags of instant oatmeal and trail mix, jerky and high-energy protein bars, coffee in freeze-dried grounds or in liquid form, called Java Juice, in foil packets. I squeezed the Java Juice into my tin cup and poured the hot water into it, and oh if that didn't beat all Starbucks and Gevalia combined.
Tossing my gloves aside, I curled my fingers around the hot cup and mm-hmmmed my pleasure. Life was more than fine. Life was good, delicious and hot and good. I unbagged a heavy dark loaf of Lithuanian bread from my own duffel, cut a generous slice, and spread a thick layer of dark honey from a tiny jar a friend had brought back for me from my native Latvia onto the bread and bit in. Throughout my years of camping experience, I can say this with all assurance: food never tastes better than it does in the open air. The simpler, the better, like manna from heaven.
"Nothing," Mary noted, turning her key in the ignition of the Oldsmobile. The engine wouldn't even turn over. We had hoped to take the car out to the trail head so that I could watch the dog sledding—the dogs generally could pull only one person at a time on the sled—but with no way to get me there, unable to match the speed of joyous dogs, I opted to stay behind at the campsite while Mary went mushing for a couple of hours. She was unconcerned about the dead engine, nor was I going to worry. Life has a way of taking care of itself when we let it. She buckled the dogs into their harnesses, called "Hike!" and off they went. I heard "Gee!" in the distance as they took a right turn into the white forest and disappeared.
I was alone. I heated another cup of coffee and listened to the frozen silence, feeling the strong, steady beat of my own heart. I could still recognize it, that soft, warm sensation flooding my middle-aged heart… yes, here it is: happiness. Fistfuls of snow fell from tree branches to the ground in soft plops.
I set off to walk without aim or intention in the woods, making trails where there were none, trying not to disturb the white weight on leaning branches. Without coat or gloves, I was warm, and the walking brought life pulsing back into my frozen feet.
When I emerged back onto the path leading back to the campground, a park ranger in a black pickup truck pulled alongside me. "Happy New Year!" he offered with a wide smile, and for a moment I thought of the picture I must present. Not one article of clothing on me matched. I was in every imaginable color, and my uncombed hair pushed out from my sweatshirt hood in a mass of unruly wisps. I smiled back. I felt beautiful.
"And a very happy new year to you, too." My upper lip smarted where Willow's paw had scraped it in the night. "By any chance would you have a set of jumper cables?"
While the ranger drove off to retrieve cables, Mary returned from the trail. She motioned for me to hop on before the dogs cooled, and I put my feet on the back of the runners, holding onto the back of the sled, Mary jumped on behind me, and off we went. The ranger had plowed the path, and where he had plowed, the surface was now so icy smooth that the dogs had no trouble pulling two of us. I hooted with joy at the ride, snowy trees rushing by me to either side, Nabu and Willow in the lead, Hannah pulling behind. A moment later, Mary had hopped off, and I was off on my own, racing in the snow, the winter day unfolding like a white miracle, my heart racing as fast as the dogs. I couldn't help myself, calling out like a child for the sheer fun of it, hooting and hollering, then growing quiet again to hear the shushing of the white woods all around us, filled with childlike wonder.
By the time we returned to our camp, the ranger was hooking up cables to the car's dead battery. I sliced a thick piece of dark bread and spread it with honey, handing it to the ranger, who quickly pulled off his glove to take it.
"You dog mushers are the best," he said, finishing the slice in three bites. I broke more pieces of the bread for each of the hungry dogs.
The engine refused to turn over. Each time Mary turned the key, it would give a hopeful chug and sputter, but then die again. The ranger's cheeks glowed pink with determination. Again and again, nothing. Chug, sputter, dead. The ranger finally sighed, "One last time."
I looked at the engine and in my thoughts, asked nicely: "It's going to be my year, you know? It's time for you to start. This day is nearing end, glorious as it was, and we need to go home now."
The ranger revved his engine; Mary turned the key for hers. It sputtered and roared to life. Saying our thanks and goodbye to our new friend, we hurried to take down the campsite with the engine still running. The car once again stuffed to the bolts, the sled back on the roof and bungee-corded securely in place, we jumped in and headed out of the woods, back towards town.
Glancing down again at my celebratory party attire, I noted—olive cargo pants with red zippers over green sweat pants over long underwear, green hooded sweatshirt with a raspberry pink and white scarf over plaid flannel shirt of red, blue, and yellow over blue turtleneck over white shirt with brown wool socks over blue-gray socks over black socks in damp mud brown hiking boots.
"Mary," I said, "Can you see me? I am in color again."
"Honey, we are beautiful."
"Aren't we, though?"
Willow stuck her furry face over the back of the car seat and licked my cheek. She thought so, too.
A good year is on its way. I couldn't wait to break the news to Guinnez.