Snowshoes

William Graney

To penetrate the eyes staring back at me in the mirror is to see an age progression from childhood through middle age. The faces from past lives, or the genetic memories from those who contributed to my DNA, also linger behind the reflection. These varying features remind me of a run-on sentence. The designs contained in the string of faces are related but it seems as though each face should have had its own distinct life rather than a continuous one.

Hovering below the corneas are the twinkling lights of each Christmas past and I’m reminded of the feelings of awe and anticipation associated with St. Nick’s arrival. The counterpoint is the shiver that accompanies the underlying intensity of holiday memories gone sad. Moving on, the early parenthood memories hold deep and steady, perhaps reflecting the only time one can expect perfection in life. The faces of the children, full of rosy cheeks and smiles of reckless abandon are there for the parent to gaze upon and grasp in memory for all eternity.

Eternity comes, but of its own accord and with grown children the Christmas memories are laced with dejection and the only hope is that one day grandchildren will roam around the Christmas trees in the same room that our own once gamboled. This hope, perhaps unrealistic, is reflected back with new wrinkles around the corners of my eyes.

This is the experience of looking in the mirror at fifty years of age.

-

There is a chair, it’s not a rocking chair, and I like to sit in it and reflect on the large, framed photograph hanging on the wall. There is an empty spot in front of this wall where Christmas trees once stood.

The photograph was taken of gardens in Kyoto Japan. It’s been on our wall for many years and I have meditated on it many times, but no two viewings have ever looked the same to me. I always find something new hidden away in the shadows and colors of the photograph and the effects of sunlight and shade penetrating through the window from outside creates new and unique perspectives.

It’s a little chilly so I’m wearing a sweater; it’s not a cardigan. On my lap is a book about sailing from Canada to Tahiti. Next to me on the table is another book, this one is about a group of men who climbed K2 in Pakistan. I have a beer in a chalice next to the mountain climbing book. It’s a Belgian ale, an adult drink, perfect for someone of my age and vibrancy. Sitting back in the recliner, in my ski sweater, feeling the warmth of the Belgian glow, it’s easy to drift off and dream about what the future might present.

-

I imagine a grandson, around ten years old, and we are preparing to go snowshoeing together. I bought him snowshoes and poles for Christmas. It may seem like a waste of money as he will grow out of these snowshoes within a year or two and probably only use them a couple of times. Yet my opinion is damn the fiscal concerns, I won’t consider it a waste of money, even if he only uses them once, even if we only have one day of memories with these snowshoes, it will be worth it to me (and hopefully to him).

My daughter (and the mother of my grandson) is making a big show about safety and concern over her son’s well being. Despite helping to raise my own children successfully it seems I’ve been rendered incompetent by the latter stages of middle age. There seems to be no end to her concerns; broken bones, disorientation, wildlife attacks, avalanches, etc. I remind her that I have been snowshoeing the local mountains for longer than she has been alive and repeatedly promise that I won’t take her son any place that is dangerous or challenging. Like all moms she must protect her cub by reading me one riot act after another but if she was all that concerned she wouldn’t have agreed to let me take him to begin with.

Off we go; mom triple checks hats, gloves, snacks, drinks, and demands reassurances that we will be all right and that we TAKE THE CELL PHONE! I know there is no reception where we are going but I show her the phone is firmly in my possession and hold it out so she can see that I am in constant possession of it.

I start to back the truck out of the driveway (did you take note that I don’t drive a Buick?) and my grandson and I wave goodbye to mom, who is standing in the driveway waving back at us with a worried look on her face. I then have a vivid memory from decades earlier when she waved goodbye while running off to first grade, her goldilocks flowing in the breezes of a new adventure. My grandson and I giggle at his goofy mom as we drive away.

We have a one-hour drive ahead of us and I try to think of topics for my grandson and I to talk about. With my own kids, conversation came free and easy, at least until they were teenagers, but with grandchildren it seems to take a little more digging. It occurs to me that the amount of time people spend together directly affects the number and length of pauses in their conversations. It’s okay though, not a bad thing, in my imagination there is a unique level of comfort in this grandparent/child relationship.

My grandson is a rascal so he is not one to hold back what’s on his mind or brood. He is looking forward to this day and the gleam in his eye reminds me of the look his mother would display as a child whenever there was a body of water to jump into.

The hour passes in no time as he tells me about building a soapbox derby car with his dad and his conquests on the soccer field. Shortly after exiting the highway we pass by a hill and people have pulled off to the side of the road to go sledding down the hill. It’s a very popular spot because it’s the closest place the city dwellers can take their kids sledding. The snow on the hill is almost gone because there are so many kids with sleds and families tobogganing. It looks to me like the fun has been strip-mined off that hill but my grandson looks longingly out the car window and I think that he would have more fun sledding with those kids than plowing through the trails with his grandfather. I mentally apologize to the universe for my selfishness.

We continue to drive along winding mountain roads and as we climb in elevation a certain calmness settles in as the world quiets. I always associate silent switchbacks towards the sky with spirituality and even though he wouldn’t describe it in those terms, my grandson seems to be feeling the same effect despite continued thoughts of sledding.

We arrive at a pullout in front of a trailhead that will offer my grandson an excellent introduction to snowshoeing and mountain hiking in general. The grades are not very steep and the trail meanders for long stretches without any climbs or descents. He appears awestruck with his surroundings, wide-eyed and open mouth he does a 360-degree rotation to take in the full scope of his surroundings. The wind whistles through the pines causing snow to fall off branches and it’s at this contemplative moment, the moment before our adventure begins, that we look at each other and smile knowingly.

His enthusiasm is oozing through layers of fleece and moisture wicking synthetic materials and he exclaims, “Let’s get our gear out Grandpa!”

“You’ve got the spirit kid, you’ve got the spirit,” I reply with gusto.

I lift my grandson up onto the back of the truck and help him put his snowshoes on. When we’re finished with him I start putting mine on and watch him try to walk around. It’s very awkward at first, the shoes feel clumsy and require the support of hiking poles. He walks with his feet out too wide in an effort to keep one snowshoe from stepping over the other. His focus is absolute and when it occurs to him that he can steady himself with the poles he begins to lose the clumsiness. I’m envious of how flexible he is and how quickly his body adapted to this new situation.

When we’re ready to go I tell him to take it easy at first because of the thin air. My grandson lives at sea level and we are at seven thousand feet so we need to go slow, stay hydrated and take rest breaks. Maybe his mother isn’t the only one who is a little paranoid about taking a ten year old into the mountains.

We start by taking a compass bearing. I’ve hiked these trails a thousand times but it’s a good lesson to pass along and a great skill for him to learn. After the long drive he’s more than ready to get moving and the compass lesson reminds him of school, but he manages to control himself and grasp the concepts.

Our journey begins along a trail that is marked with previous snowshoe and cross-country ski tracks. I point out orienteering points to be aware of because if it starts to snow we might not be able to follow the tracks back. The idea that we could get lost dawns on him and a deer-in-the-headlights look of alarm spreads across his face. I calm him down by saying, “don’t worry, I know what I’m doing, we won’t get lost.”

I settle into my usual snowshoeing groove, albeit slower than usual as my grandson works through the awkwardness of the deeper snow. Typically, I would be in full speed ahead workout-mode but with the slower pace I’m able to take in more of my surroundings. The pauses allow me to notice how the wind’s echo and the scent of pine accent the shimmering snow. Out of the corner of my eye I can see that the sunlight has almost melted the snow in the areas where it peeks through breaks in the forest.

My grandson carries on, his determination is impressive for one so young and it seems all thoughts of sledding with his peers were left behind at the truck. Again I’m envious, this time of his self-assurance and the confidence that comes with never having failed. He is no more prone to self-examination after a stumble than is a bird momentarily blown off course by a gust of wind. He really does have the spirit.

When it’s time for a break we sit on a log that chills our backsides and we take out the sandwiches that my daughter packed. She made peanut butter & jelly for her son and a tomato, avocado and sprouts sandwich for me. Her inspiration for my sandwich came from her knowledge of my cholesterol issues and I’m sure she was smiling while she made it.

We eat our sandwiches accompanied by our hydration-pack water and cold, wet snowflakes on our tongues. When an owl hoos, my grandson asks, “Was that an owl, I thought they only came out at night?”

“It was an owl, and in the mountains, you can hear them hoo any time. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s an owl or the wind.”

We continue on after our sandwiches have been devoured and a short time later we encounter our first ascent. My grandson, who was leading the way, stops, turns around and asks, “Are we going up that hill?”

“Do you want to go up the hill?”

During his moment of contemplation, I wonder how he will answer. It appears to be a daunting task for a ten-year old but his youthful swagger may influence his ability to evaluate the situation.

He looks up at me and asks, “What do you think we should do Grandpa?” His request for a second opinion is surprising to me and when I look down into his clear, glowing orbs I marvel at the miracle of life.

“How about if we go part way up. I’ll show you how to climb up and down hills in snowshoes so you know how to do it and then we’ll head back?”

“Okay Grandpa but if you want to go to the top, I’ll go to the top.” Assured by his ability to complete the revised task, his bravado has returned.

“We’ll call this a practice run and go all the way up next time.”

I show him how to insert his snowshoes into the snow in order to make steps to climb up and how to come back down sideways so as not to lose control. He catches on quickly and when we are back on level ground he makes a couple of short jaunts back up and down, practicing his technique. “We’ll definitely go all the way up next time,” he proclaims.

After taking a compass reading we begin the return hike. It starts snowing harder and the cloud cover makes it feel colder. I can see my grandson’s breath rise above his head and it looks like he’s being powered by a steam engine as he leads us back to the truck. He has been very well behaved and his energy levels constant. I’ve seen adults become whiney after far less physical exertion than this so I am impressed and pleased that he seems to enjoy putting his nose to the grindstone while simultaneously observing this strange, new world.

When we arrive back at the truck I help him take his snowshoes off and once removed he realizes he has accomplished his mission for the day. He has officially gone snowshoeing in the mountains. None of his friends have done this so he feels elated and proud. The exhaustion will set in later but for this moment confidence reigns supreme.

While I’m taking my snowshoes off my young companion makes snowballs and fires them at trees. He stops momentarily and turns towards me; it appears an idea is forming. “Grandpa, let’s take a snowball home and throw it at Mom! Can we do that?”

“Sure, don’t throw it too hard though and don’t aim for her head. I’ve been watching you throw and you have a wicked fastball.”

He puffs his chest out and while shaping the snow and ice in his hands he asks where he should keep the snowball. I tell him to put it in the cooler his mom used to pack the drinks.

The boy is electrified by thoughts of our manly jaunt through snow packed mountain trails and the prospect of pelting his unsuspecting mom with a snowball. The fact that she is on dry ground at sea level, totally unaware, makes the idea even more intoxicating. The ride home can’t be completed soon enough but I tell him that when I was a boy my dad and I used to always to stop for a donut and hot chocolate on the way home from journeys to cold, wet places. I ask him if that is something he would like to do.

My grandson must mull this one over; donut and cocoa vs. the snowball surprise. After assurances that the snowball won’t melt if we stop, he agrees to carry on the family tradition.

There is a donut shop just before getting back on the highway. I’ve driven by it hundreds of times but never stopped in, which all of a sudden seems odd as we pull into the parking lot. The donut shop is somewhat surreal looking as it glows with purple neon lights and the booths are raised a foot or so off the floor. It seems like the kind of donut shop that attracts older men for political discussions in the middle of the night rather than a family oriented establishment.

Despite appearances to the contrary the place is filled with families who have just finished their day of sledding and tobogganing. It is kid-loud as young faces smeared with chocolate and sugar zip around in frenzied activity. My grandson, who normally would be all over this crowd, seems more subdued. I attribute this to the contrasts between snowshoeing and downhill sledding.

When it’s our turn at the counter we each order a donut and cocoa. The man behind the counter is elderly and droopy and he surprises me by pouring milk into a stovetop pan to begin the cocoa preparations. No automatic hot chocolate machine here!

My grandson and I watch intently as he mixes in powder from a mysterious unmarked container. When the cocoa is fully heated he holds the pan high above the two cups and fills them ¾ of the way full. The long, waterfall-like journey from the pan to the mugs has created froth. He pauses a moment and then extracts another unmarked container from below the counter. This one contains whipped crème, which he expertly spoons on top of the cocoa so that it swirls upwards to a pointy peak. He then shaves chocolate from on high so that chocolate dust falls like snowflakes in and around our mugs. After he presents us with our cocoa and donuts I feel as though I’ve just witnessed a donut shop miracle.

There aren’t any booth seats available so we sit at a counter along the front window. We can see the mountains in the distance and my grandson asks if I can point out where we just went snowshoeing. I was hoping he would ask that because I have my compass in my pocket and after I take it out we plot, together, the location we came from in relation to the location of the donut shop. After that we sit and eat our donuts and laugh at each other’s whipped crème and cocoa mustaches.

The ride home is quiet, we are both tired and we use the highway hypnosis to recharge our batteries. As we draw closer to home my grandson becomes more alert and I know he is thinking about the snowball in the cooler. After pulling in the driveway he is out of the truck in a flash. When I finally hit the ground, he is standing in front of a puddle at the end of the driveway that was created when my next-door neighbor washed his car.

The boy looks at me; I know what he’s going to do and he’s not asking for permission. The grin is big; the leap into the air bigger, and when he lands in the puddle his face becomes covered with muddy/soapy splatter. “Go ahead Grandpa, it’s fun!”

I consider it for a moment but remember knee surgery from two years ago and the slipped disc in my back diagnosed six months ago and I think that jumping up and down on pavement is not such a good idea.

My daughter comes out of the house and takes in the sight of her muddy-faced son. When he sees her, he springs into action and jumps onto the back of the truck. As she walks towards the truck I know he is taking his snowball out of the cooler. He looks up and sees her coming and I can tell he is about to wind up and give it all he has, but at the last second, he remembers my comments about his wicked fastball so he lobs the snowball at his mother. She doesn’t know what it is at first and tries to catch it. When the wet, snowy mess hits her hands it splatters all over the front of her shirt. She unleashes a gleeful shriek and the size of her smile out distances even that of her son’s. She looks at me and I think for the billionth time about what I wonderful, sweet daughter I have.

I jump in the puddle.

-

I wake up from my daydream and miss my imaginary grandson. I notice there is a swallow of Belgian ale left so I sip it slowly and enjoy the deep flavors of stone fruits and coriander spreading through my nose. I notice the sky is now cloudy, whereas before it was sunny. The change in light makes me wonder how the shadows will affect the gardens of Kyoto.