Where am I?

NOTE: **THIS POST (originally written Feb 19, 2013) HAS BEEN EDITED FOR CONTENT ON MARCH 1, 2013 DUE TO NEGATIVE FEEDBACK FROM PARK STAFF (received on March 1, 2013)**

It takes me about 45 min on the trail before I find peace today. During the drive out I’m filled with anticipation, plus the angst that forced me out of the city to cross-country ski in the first place. The dog is restless in the back seat and she trips over my skis, which jut out from the trunk and into the interior of the car. The sound of her jumbling up my gear annoys me and I drive faster.

Nikita and I went skiing last Saturday with [names]. It was the first time I’d been in probably about ten years, and I loved it. I forgot how much I love cross-country skiing. I forgot how it makes me feel. I forgot how I love the easy speed of the downhill bits when juxtaposed with the aerobic workout of the uphill and the warm ease of the flats. Going down hills, I feel the song of relief from my unusually exerted muscles; I feel the wind through my hair and hear it in my ears. I hear the hiss of the skis on the snow and the snick of the poles as I dig in to push myself farther and faster.

I love cross-country skiing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When Nikita and I arrive at [AREA NAME] where they hold the [AREA EVENT], there is a small bus of students there from an [CITY NAME] high school. I am annoyed and my annoyance shames me. If I were a responsible steward of the environment, I’d want everyone, especially kids, to learn to love and use our parks.

But I admit that I just want them all to myself and I hate it when I see other people there. I want to get lost in the wild spaces here, especially these ones that I left part of my heart in, these forests and meadows where I spent some time growing up. They feel like mine and it is always jarring to see others in my spaces.

I ignore the students and make sure Nikita does as well. I strap on my borrowed boots and skis, grab my poles and we are off.

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My mind is crowded with thoughts. I am lost in them like I get lost in a crowded room, jumping from bit to bit of thought like I would wisps of overheard conversation.

I zone out of my body and into my head, let my legs and arms and peripheral vision autopilot my skis while I drown in the wash of emotions and negativity that drove me outdoors in the first place.

I come out of it after 45 min of skiing. It’s taken a couple of kilometres and an unknown amount of burned calories for me to ‘wake up’ to where I am. I’m on a hill overlooking a small lake, more of a slough, really. It’s a bit chilly and the wind blows. I would shiver if I hadn’t been skiing for the past 45 min. Instead I’m steaming.

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The moisture from my breath has frozen into my hair and I can see it out of the corner of my eyes. My eyelashes are mascaraed with tiny icicles as well and I realize I miss this feeling. My eyes don’t get cold  and I love the unique phenomenon of icy lashes. It’s one of those things that happens only in this kind of cold climate.

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I check the time on my phone, which is when I realize I’ve been out for almost an hour. I would have guessed twenty or thirty minutes. I take a brief moment to take in the view and then I keep moving. I don’t want to get cold.

From here on, though, I’m able to be more in the present. I’m actually on the path, in the out, instead of stuck up inside of my head running on autopilot. I think of what Luke told me yesterday, that when I hike I walk with my head down. I know, I told him when he mentioned it. I’m bad for that.

Today I want to be alert and ski with my head up. Now that I’m awake, I want to see where I am and be here, in the present. Otherwise, the gas and the effort will be wasted.

I’m glad for the reminder when I round a corner to see a moose about 100 metres in front of me. I think she is just as surprised to see us as we are to see her. I saw a black blob on the path a moment before it registered as a moose and in that moment she paused on the path. Perhaps she had vowed to be more alert as well. Whatever the case, we both saw each other at the same moment.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This was a passage that concerned park staff since my dog is offleash, despite the fact that my dog is no match for the moose. But I understand. Responsible wildlife stewardship is important.]

It took Nikita a second to figure out what the heck this huge grey-brown-black thing was but when the moose took off down a gully, Nikita barked twice and bolted after her. I called to Nikita, worried for a moment in case the moose hurt her, but then I realized that moose legs are about as tall as I am and Nikita legs are about mid-shin height. There was no way Nikita would catch her. I stood and watched Nikita throw herself into the deep snow and fling her entire body in great, excited leaps through the deep white stuff, an intent scowl on her face and her ruff raised. It was as if the moose pissed her off by being there and Nikita wanted to show her who was boss. But eventually she gave up and joined me back on the path, grinning at her adventure.

The moose makes me even more aware of where I am. I feel myself fill with a sense of gratitude for the silence and the stillness of the path, of the small hills and meadows of this little park that is home to moose, deer, coyotes, birds and more.

I ski onwards and enjoy the feeling of being here. It makes me think of a yoga class I went to once. It was the last class taught by this very popular teacher. He was moving to another town the following day. The class was packed and I didn’t understand why, having never been taught by him. But then the class started and I began to understand. He used his voice to guide the students in a meditation on presence, repeating ‘I am here’ in a guttural whisper that was somehow as loud as a shout. He’d repeat the phrase and then guide us to breathe deeply, and repeat it again and I couldn’t help but be grounded deeply in the present. He talked about using this phrase to remain present at all the times when we would normally tune out, when it hurts or when things get hard. I don’t remember his justification. Something about how the pain doesn’t go away if you tune out of it, but only when you are present in it.

I like how this thought affects me on the ski path. It’s been more than an hour now and my muscles are tired and I’m uncomfortably sweaty and thirsty and a little hungry. I’m carrying my backpack full of food and water but I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to tune out.

I don’t want to chill but most of all I don’t want to interrupt my movement. It’s the first time all day, all week that I’ve felt any momentum, that I am moving towards something, accomplishing, achieving. Yes, it’s physical gain rather than the gains I want in my business; but all the same, it’s forward momentum and I don’t want it to end. I also like the idea of pushing myself, of proving to me that I can push through the hunger and thirst and fatigue a little longer, simply to prove my control over my own body. Out here, I dictate everything. This is my show and I call all the shots and I’m the only one here who needs, who expects anything from me. And I have a lot to give for me.

I push myself harder and try skating again–ski-skating. I don’t know what the technical term is. Maybe that’s it. But you basically move your skis in the same way you would skates and it creates movement just as if you were skating on ice. But it’s difficult and my legs are weak since my physical fitness isn’t what it used to be…for now. So I throw in a few cardio shots of skating here and there just to get my heart pumping, and it puts a smile on my face.

I learned to ski-skate when I was a kid. I had aspirations of getting into biathlon (skiing and shooting a rifle); one of my dad’s close friends was a strong biathlete. But for some reason I never got into it and today I feel a little sad. I would have been good at it, I’m sure.

But I am here, now, skiing today, not wallowing in the past. I think about the girl I met last week from Iran and wonder if she has ever been skiing or snow shoeing. I feel momentarily guilty. I interviewed her, intending to write a blog post about her but for some reason by creating that expectation for myself, I sabotaged it and didn’t write about her. So I think of her with guilt but that soon passes as I imagine what it would be like to take her skiing or snow shoeing, something I would bet she’s never done before. The thought makes me smile.

My thoughts continue to wander as I ski. I come to a junction and it’s been long enough and I turn back onto the trail that will take me to the parking lot. Now I am tired and can feel the good work I’ve done here. I feel myself slowing down; my nervous, pent-up energy has been spent and so has Nikita’s. She stays mostly on the wide packed trail now, rarely wandering off into the snow that comes up to her chest.

We crest a hill and come into a little stand of spruce. She catches a scent and is off into the trees, but then she starts barking. I look over to see what she’s after and see a young man set up behind a few trees. He is smiling at her and looks a little sheepish. I call her off and yell ‘hi’ to him as I ski on, but I don’t know if he hears me.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the other passage of concern to park staff. Despite the fact that i use the phrase ‘I imagine’ when referring to the behaviour of the other person, they are concerned that people will read this post and think overnighting is allowed in this specific spot. OVERNIGHT CAMPING IS NOT ALLOWED in this park. Use park as the park signs tell you to.]

It makes me happy to see him. I’ve been there. I imagine he is like me and wants to leave the cloud of busy life behind him for a little while. I imagine that he is setting up a tiny camp in order to stay the night in the park, hoping that no one passes by and notices him, hoping if they do, they aren’t people who would kick him out. I imagine his heart aches for the silence of the wild spaces, just like mine, and I give him a silent joyful hug as a salute to his free spirit. I feel a sense of kinship with him because I know how he feels and I’ve done the very same thing, years ago when I lived across the road from the park entrance. I slept out under the stars one summer with just my sleeping bag and a mattress pad. [AUTHOR’S NOTE: I did this without park knowledge, more than ten years ago. Overnight camping is not allowed in this location currently.] I did nothing but sit and enjoy the silence, the feeling of being completely alone with nothing between me and the air and the trees and Mother Nature. Maybe he is as I’ve imagined him. Maybe he is a wild spirit. If so, I hope he finds the peace he searches for.

I ski down the trail with a smile in my heart and now I begin to notice the little things. I’m moving slower and so I catch onto the tiny hidden gems of a prairie winter. I take the time to stop and take pictures.

The first thing I photograph is a small tangle of birch.

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The trunk is a dusky rose colour and it takes my breath away. It reminds me of roses and of my skin when I was younger. The bark peels and I can’t help but think of this tree as a little teenage girl, too eager to show off her skin in the summertime, paying for it with a burn that turns her skin a dusky rose colour and peels the top layer off. I laugh at this little birch tree, impetuous in her youth, and ski on.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I took out a passage here and a photo about some of my dog’s behaviour, which the park staff felt was inappropriate.]

———

I notice a tree beside me is decorated with fungus. Something about the stacked pattern catches my eye and it seems beautiful, despite the fact that it’s a bad sign for the tree. But generally they still live with this fungus growing out of them. I suppose it’s some sort of symbiosis, despite the fact that I assume it means the tree is sick.

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After the tree, I’m feeling antsy and keep moving, ready to finish my ski trip. I’m tired now and I just want to sit down, have a drink and eat something. But I have to stop for one last photo, an unusual gift in my mind.

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It’s a feather. I’m not sure but I think it’s an owl feather and it makes it a rare treasure to me. I don’t see many owls and haven’t seen them in years…until the past month, when I saw two within a few days of each other, snowy owls. This feather looks like it could be from a snowy owl, but perhaps it’s just a hawk. I choose to think it’s an owl, snap a photo and move on. I’m happy to see signs of animal life and for some reason it makes me feel blessed. The city has drained me more than I realized, I think.

But I’m ready to go back and the next thing I see is the very welcome yellow ‘400m’ sign which means the parking lot is just minutes away. I push on, push hard and get back to the car hot and out of breath.

There are three other cars there now, but they don’t bother me. I wonder which one belong to the kid, maybe it’s the sand-coloured Jeep with stickers all over it. Or maybe it’s the practical, fuel-efficient Toyota Echo. I don’t know and I no longer care who else is in the park. I got what I needed from the spot and now I’m ready to leave, my gear packed away in [car]. I leave Nikita outside while I make a few notes about my trip. I probably won’t need them but I don’t want to forget the main points.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following passage was apparently of concern to park staff. I don’t know why. My dog was outside, sitting by the back of the car for five minutes and I was watching her out of the corner of my eye the whole time. We look after our dog diligently and clean up after her too. We don’t leave dog feces laying around like many other dog owners. Anyway, the objection to this passage baffles me. What I understood from what park staff told me: Your dog must never, ever exist in a park without a leash on. At all times.]

As I finish, I see Nikita sitting primly by the back end of the car. She looks worried and it makes me laugh and feel really bad all at once. She is obviously worried I was going to leave without her. I just thought she wouldn’t want to be cooped up while I was just sitting in the car, but her separation anxiety knows no bounds.

I get out of the car and call her over and she greets me like she hasn’t seen me in weeks, then jumps into the car the second I open the door. We’re both ready for home and nothing but the drive stands in my way now. I forget about being here and instead I head home in my head with my body following a few steps behind.

In the car I’m again in autopilot, but it’s different this time. I retain the peace I found on the trail, in the wild spaces. I am calm now, ready to go back.

Once again I’ve found myself in the wild spaces.

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10 Responses to Where am I?

  1. bruce gainer says:

    We read this with a lot of memories. You notice and are able to describe what you see so clearly. I’m glad to hear how exelirated you felt and were able to communicate your enjoyment more than I ever knew you liled sking. I think you described more about how you feel about beiong in nature on your own terms rather than being forced or dragged along on someone elses terms. You’ve discovered anmd expressed how to truley get the most out of being in nature. Thanks for making me see this.

  2. Excellent story Aspen. I think this would be a great piece to submit to a literary journal.

  3. Aspen Gainer says:

    Thanks for the idea, James. I think I might give it a try!

  4. MargieFC says:

    There is a group called the “[group name]” who would be interested in this article. Also I think a travel or county of [location] tourist magazine, [location] puts out a tourist publication, how about the [name] magazine? We love to read your writing.

  5. Pingback: CENSORED | In the Wild Spaces

  6. Great read Aspen. I giggled when I saw your birch-bark photo…I have very similar pics from a snowshoe trip in Elk Island NP.

  7. Bruce says:

    I am so in admiration of you. You turned a very strong NEGATIVE experience into a positive! I love you descriptions in the rewrite and how you came back and made a MUCH BETTER story that I wish turned into an adventure short fiction that I could read and follow your hero’s adventure.

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