Overcoming winter’s alienation

I long felt shut out of the season. Snowshoeing changed that.

 

Before I ever experienced winter, I wanted to love it. As a child in India, I watched Home Alone repeatedly, entranced by the images of the season: people sledding, gifts under a tree, crackling fireplaces. Just the idea of snow — something I’d never seen — was wondrous.

When I turned 10, we moved to Canada, and I finally got to experience winter. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite what I’d imagined. Snow was beautiful, yes, but painful to touch, even using the cheap gloves we’d bought at Walmart. Our electric fireplace stopped working after the first couple of winters, and we couldn’t afford to get it fixed.

On weekends and holidays, my friends disappeared for skiing or snowboarding lessons. I didn’t bother asking my parents if I could do the same: I knew there was no money for the lessons, let alone the ski passes, skis, goggles or any of the other items I’d need for the slopes.

So I ended up staying inside most winters, watching TV, sinking into the couch and into a dull depression. This type of alienated winter — “hibernation,” I think — is unfortunately common for immigrants in North America. Our families generally earn less, making it harder for us to afford the lessons, passes and equipment required for most winter sports. And in a season that can be particularly challenging for those affected by depression, people of color — who are the majority of America’s immigrants — are also less likely to access appropriate mental health care.

Over time, I grew to resent winter, the white landscape making me, in my brown skin, feel more out of place than I did in any other season.

But one year, I experienced the healing effect of wintertime in the mountains. Unexpectedly, snowshoeing — then and now — has helped me to not only survive this time of year, but also to learn to value its quiet grandeur.

ONE BRIGHT FEBRUARY MORNING when I was 14, my father and I set off for Kananaskis Country, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, two hours from Calgary. Our rented snowshoes were in the backseat. His colleagues, who had organized the outing, were waiting for us at the start of the 9-mile Pocaterra Trail. We struggled with the unfamiliar gear, and they helped us then and throughout the day, every time we stumbled or when my new Camelbak started leaking. We must have slowed them down, but they didn’t seem to mind. I remember one woman, who kept closing her eyes and tilting her face to the sun, her chest rising as she swallowed the white-cold air. The same air turned my nose beet-red and fogged up my glasses. I tugged my hat lower over my frizzy hair, wishing I could disappear.

The same air turned my nose beet-red and fogged up my glasses. I tugged my hat lower over my frizzy hair, wishing I could disappear.

My father picked up the motions quickly, drawing on athletic instincts from playing cricket in India. But I could barely lift my leaden legs to put one snowshoe in front of the other. Within minutes, I was wheezing from the altitude and exertion. About an hour into the trail, the others traversed the side of a hill, extending their arms to maintain their balance on the slope. I followed their example but fell, tumbling onto the hard-packed snow. Slowly, my legs now damp, I struggled to my feet. By the time I maneuvered across the slope, no humans were in sight. There was, however, a very large, very dark moose.

We stared at each other, his breath rising in great, steamy huffs. Mine remained trapped in my throat. After some seconds, he looked away, dipping antlers as large as swan wings towards the few blades of grass poking through the snow. He chewed on the frozen grass in a leisurely way, his neck and flank bulging sleekly with muscle. He could have pulverized me.

Yet I was not scared. A kind of dreamy peace settled over me, as if I’d slipped into a trance, lulled by the sounds of his chewing and the contrast between his dark powerful body and the still white slopes.

Eventually, he raised his head to look at me again, a long look that I took to be full of meaning. Then he trotted off, disappearing into the pine trees. I don’t know how long I’d been standing there when I saw my father and his friends coming back, faces creased with worry. I didn’t tell them about the moose. I didn’t want to worry them, and I wanted to keep the moment for myself, like a dream that would dissolve as soon as I tried to grasp at it.

IN THE FALL OF 2016, just as I turned 29, I got a job in Colorado. As the leaves fell and the days shortened, the familiar dread swelled in my chest, heavy and gray as the winter sky. I felt both lethargic and anxious, trapped in the city, a man-made landscape of squat buildings, neon shop signs and slick walkways. Why leave the house? Soon, I was back in the winter routine I knew best: on the couch every night for hours, watching characters on TV exercise, socialize and live in ways that felt impossible for me.

Luckily, the season, as much as I hated it, was not a monolith. There were reprieves: warm mornings when I stood outside, watching the frost melt, savoring the sun on my face. How long had it been since I felt alive — since I remembered that the world around me was alive?

How long had it been since I felt alive — since I remembered that the world around me was alive?

Maybe, I thought, snowshoeing could help me regain that feeling, even when the skies turned steely once more.

Unfortunately, I still lacked a car or enough local friends to easily hitch a ride into the mountains. But Google led me to the Colorado Mountain Club. Soon, I’d arranged a ride to a snowshoeing trip.

Equipped with old-fashioned wooden snowshoes and gaiters borrowed from a colleague, I joined a group of about a dozen people to snowshoe the Lost Lake trail, an hour and a half west of Denver. The sky was powder-blue, and our group, who ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s, chatted easily, stopping often to sharing their trail mix and Gatorade and to wait for slower members.

I was the only foreigner and woman of color, but I did not feel conspicuous. Unlike ski slopes, which require significantly greater financial resources, snowshoeing seemed more equitable: Whether your snowshoes cost $100 or $20 didn’t really matter. It didn’t require lessons or even much practice to master. For once, not being “from here” and not growing up wealthy did not feel like major disadvantages.    

Ascending to the top, I marveled at how deep the snow was, how it shimmered on tree branches. And the silence — there seemed a special quality to it: snow muffling sound, animals alive but unmoving, deep in hibernation. I could hear myself breathe; I never heard that in the city, never even thought to listen.

At the top was Lost Lake, huge and pale blue. Surrounded by alpine peaks and spruce groves, it would be beautiful in any season. But now, in deep winter, we could step onto its frozen surface. Underneath the thick sheet of ice, water and fish moved silently. Another world beneath this one: It seemed like a miracle. 

Now, I snowshoe regularly in wintertime. Sometimes, I’m reluctant to go, especially when the sky has been gray for days and the urge to stay in bed and block out the world becomes overwhelming. Sometimes, even when I do go, the slow, hard trek in the bleak cold feels absurd. But every time, there’s something that feels wondrous, even if briefly, something that’s only possible in that season, at that moment: sunlight streaming butter-yellow through snow-covered woods, a bird darting out of a tree, breaking the stillness.

Last time, I even saw moose tracks.    

Raksha Vasudevan is an economist and writer based in Denver. Her work has appeared in LitHub, The Los Angeles Review of Books, NYLON and moreEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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