Ice Worms, Snow Shoes and New Ground

We all dig ruts for ourselves, routines and activities that shape our days and give us a sense of control over chaos.

Some of us dig deeper grooves than others. We rise at the same time each day, eat the same food for breakfast, drink the same juice and coffee and read the paper in exactly the same way. We walk the dog at the precise time each morning and take the same route to work; and lunch and dinner follow like clock-work, punctuated by the arrival of the kids home from school after the clock hands have spun enough times.

I’m one of those people. Every morning at the bus stop, I throw the ball for the dog. She races after it and always returns on the same path. The grass under her feet is worn brown. I’m like her. Each morning the ball is thrown out, and I carry it back along the routes I know.

I’m at a time in my life where major changes face me. My parents are elderly, my children are teenagers on the brink of finding their own lives. My former career is gone, my new one uncertain. The economy and old political orders and even the weather seem to be shifting to new patterns. So I cling to my routines, clutching the ground with my fingers and toes and hoping for one more day before I’m flung from my rut.

But once in a while, someone or something forces us from our path. Sometimes it’s something big—the loss of a job or income, a health crisis, the death of a loved one. And sometimes it’s something small, like snowshoeing in the woods on a winter day.

My husband signed us up for a ranger-led hike at Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascade mountains last weekend. Secretly, I fretted about going. I’d have to get up early. I’d need to find snow gear. I don’t know how to snowshoe anymore. Even though I grew up in the snow on the Canadian border, I haven’t donned skis or snowshoes in decades. Snowshoeing isn’t routine.

But we went. The rangers handed out snowshoes and led us onto the snow field where the hike would start. I stared around amazed. The snow, where it was cut back along the road, rose higher than my head. Once on top, people occasionally broke through the surface and plunged up to their hips.

We stood on a parking lot, said our guide, and we’d start our hike along a forest road. No trace of it existed. Now only a tamped down, two-foot wide track led through a white meadow. A bathroom sat buried at the end of the lot with only the tip of its roof showing. Snow fell gently. Once we got our snowshoes on our feet, our guide lined us up along the field and told us we were going to race to the outhouse.

He blew a whistle and I lurched forward with everyone else, moving like a giant Arctic waterbug. The lady next to me fell onto her face and floundered helplessly until a ranger plucked her from the snow. I kept going. Another person fell. I strode forward, following a guy with six-foot legs, and exhilaration began to grow. I didn’t beat spider-man, but I kept the feeling and stayed on my feet.

I learned new facts: Pileated woodpeckers cushion their brains from pounding with extra-long muscles and bones that wrap around their skulls and connect to their tongues. And the snow holds micro-organisms that feed a host of tiny life such as springtails and ice-worms. (That information stopped a lot of snow tasting.)

I saw new perspectives: A tiny bush poking from the snow in reality was the top of a 15-foot tree reaching for the sky. Land that would be impassible in summer because of thorny devil’s club and brushy swamp was easily negotiable on a bridge of snow. The world was white instead of green.

I was forced to move in a different way, bringing my feet level along the snow, and digging in my toes on the inclines to keep from slaloming down. I forgot to care if I fell down or looked odd.

And I was reminded of all the world that waits to be explored and the interesting people still unmet. The hike wasn’t long, only ninety minutes through the snow. But it led to new possibilities I never would have considered on my usual path.

So maybe we should all force ourselves to do something new each day or week. Eat a new food or read a romance or a book on pi, take our dogs on a new trail or say hello to someone we don’t know. Read a new blog or try a different video game or listen to country western. Try karate or dodgeball or tennis (I draw the line at Zumba). Learn how to program a computer or play the banjo. Plan a trip out of the country or explore a nearby town.

Sure, we might fall on our faces and flounder until someone helps us up. But we might see something beautiful.

Change comes whether we hide or not. Our ruts may be comfortable.  They may give us a sense of security and a clear path of where to go.  But if they get deep enough they become blinders, obscuring our vision and keeping us from seeing all the possibilities in life.

Let’s see if we can break free.

Ice in Seattle

I guess Mother Nature doesn’t like to be mocked. No sooner had I posted “Snow in Seattle” making fun of our two inches of snow, than the real storm arrived with serious snow, followed by freezing rain, more snow and finally wind. After four days without power we’ve emerged to a landscape of split trees, fallen branches and crushed plants. As the ice formed, you could stand outside and hear the rifle-shot of branches crashing to the ground and watch the plumes of falling ice and snow. It left a beautiful landscape in its wake.

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Snow in Seattle

Snowmageddon has arrived!

For Seattle, this means a few inches of snow. Some areas have considerably more and some less, but all are in a state of paralysis that makes the rest of the country laugh. I come from the Midwest near the Canadian border, and the reaction amuses me–until I have to leave my house. Then I’m quickly reminded of the differences between here and there:

  1. Midwesterners plow their streets. And they believe in salt—lots of salt. It amazed me when I moved here that 20-year-old cars can exist with no rust. The cars of my youth only remained shiny for a couple years before they broke out in scaly, brownish-red patches. Here only the main roads get plowed—and that after a day or so. Various environmentally friendly de-icers are applied, but they don’t seem effective.  Ask the last mayor, who was run out of town after failing to clear the city streets.
  2. There are fewer hills in the Midwest. You don’t realize how slanted the ground is here until you try to drive a stick shift or go out in the snow. Even the gentle slope of my driveway and the slight rise out to the main road seem as steep as Mount Rainier after a couple inches of ice.
  3. Seattle drivers don’t know how to get up hills in the snow. They timidly creep up at about five miles an hour, figuring they won’t slide if they go slow. Of course, this means they lose traction by the time they’re halfway up, and then they slip back down. They try an opposite tactic on level roads, speeding along without considering that they might need to stop or turn at some point. To go down hills, they creep along until they start to slide, at which point they slam on the brakes and twist the wheel in the opposite direction from the way they were traveling. This has the predictable result of sending them sideways down the hill.
  4. People in Seattle are eternally optimistic. Every time it snows they figure the roads won’t be that bad. Then they get stuck in the resulting gridlock on the freeways or on a hill or a side street and decide to abandon their cars. This of course means the plows can’t do their work.
  5. Snow in Seattle tends to be wet and heavy. It turns into slush during the day, then re-freezes into an icy mess at night. All this makes for beautiful snow-covered trees and great snowmen but difficult driving. And the weight tends to take out branches over the power lines, like now. I’m sitting here in my living room next to the glow of the wood stove as I write—at least until my laptop battery dies.

Because of all this, the citizens of Seattle freak out when snow is forecast. As I tell my kids, I used to walk five miles (it might have been closer to two, but don’t tell them that) in several feet of snow to get to school, which never closed in even the most raging blizzards. Here, the schools have been closed three days because of a couple inches of snow.

My point to all this is that you can’t judge Seattle for its lack of snow savvy. Even though I make fun of the news anchors breathlessly racing in their news vans to catch sight of a snowflake, it’s still true that I’m trapped in my house by two inches of snow. The hills and lack of snow removal equipment and inexperienced drivers make this a far different experience than winter in the Midwest.

I think this same principle applies to judgments about welfare. It’s easy to wonder why people can’t get a job or why they can’t stretch their food benefits to the end of the month. It’s easy to think they should be able to plan for crises like broken-down water heaters or getting the flu or a lack of day-care. But unless you’ve been in that situation you don’t know the truth of it. Perhaps they don’t have the same education or experiences that would enable them to cope. Perhaps some underlying problems keep them from reacting differently. Maybe they have their own hills or a lack of infrastructure or maybe they’re in a new situation. Maybe they’ve never been in a place where the people know how to manage.

They may be facing snow in Seattle.