If you watch a commercial on television, or a reporter out on a city street, or even the cast intro on Saturday Night Live in February 2021, everyone is wearing masks. A year ago you’d have wondered at it, even as the pandemic rapidly descended on the world. Today it’s commonplace, and I’m more often surprised at the outliers walking into a store without one. I stood in a line for snowblower parts and a mechanic walked briskly through the store unmasked. In a crowded grocery store I saw an elderly woman(!) without a mask on. In both cases I had the same reaction I might have had two years ago to someone wearing a mask. Isn’t it funny how the world has changed our perceptions in such a brief turn of the calendar?
I chafe at restrictions, favoring wandering, crossing borders, friendly conversations with strangers and simply getting out there. But we all sense a light at the end of the tunnel, and we’ll reach a tipping point with vaccinations as we did with mask wearing. With more and more people I know joining the ranks of the vaccinated, a sense of optimism grows. Travel will soon be a reality again, even if a bit different from the travel of a few years ago. There’s plenty of travel available today, without worrying about the complexity of borders, just outside.
“My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walking
Many times during the past year I’ve thought of Thoreau walking the landscape I know today. There’s plenty that’s changed since his time, but there’s also plenty that remains just as it was then. Much of it remains undisturbed, as if in a time warp, awaiting a visitor. I doubt he ever got up to the corner of New Hampshire where I walk, but I’ve walked in his woods near Walden and note the similarities.
“Walk until your day becomes interesting — even if this means wandering out of town and strolling the countryside. Eventually you’ll see a scene or meet a person that makes your walk worthwhile.” – Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
With a hint of the coming snow in the air, I took my snowshoes out to find new prospects. I quickly moved off the packed trail into virgin snow, crunching along on the snowdrifts through woods and fields. Cold hands soon warmed as I worked up a good pace past old stone walls and silent trees. Snowshoeing offers a slow burn, steady state workout similar to cross-country skiing. There’s a small thrill in hovering over the frozen land while blazing a new trail on snowshoes, and I felt a bit like I was flying as I crunched along.
Reconnecting with the blazed trail at a frozen stream crossing, I noted the collection of prints of those who had come before me. Snowshoes and fat tire mountain bikes, micro spikes and dog prints spiraling in circles from the trail in patterns of joyful exuberance and the freedom of the winter woods. It occurred to me that my own tracks were more similar to the dog prints than those of the trail walkers. Wandering spirits are rarely contains for very long on defined paths.
A simple walk in the woods, off trail, can change a person. In winter what was familiar ground becomes a voyage of discovery. Perception is how we frame the world around us, and I find it best to turn my perceptions upside down now and then. Every walk suggests something profoundly new, and winter transforms both the landscape and the visitor alike. Pausing a moment, I listened to the sound of silence. My snowshoes and I had walked our way to interesting, embracing the cold indifference of the woods to pandemics and masks and turns of the calendar.
Walking along on familiar trails transformed into strange country, I stopped worrying about the neglected collection of stamps in my passport. Feeling a million miles from anywhere I’d every been before, I came across a border marker deep in the woods indicating I’d crossed over from the town forest of my neighboring town into the undeveloped forest of my own town. I smiled and noted that not all borders are closed. And the unfamiliar isn’t very far at all from home.