By Kandace Chapple
It has to be a single leaf, floating through the sky by itself, sticking out of a snowbank upright like a wave, the last leaf clanking on a branch overreaching the trail.
When I see one, the right one, I think of my mother. I have a rule, that I can’t touch it or pick it up. I can’t look for it, or it doesn’t count.
Do you have a mom sign?
She has been gone for 13 years and, from the moment I lost her, it seemed that leaves started falling from the sky around me. Single ones. Tiny hellos.
Today, I walked Cookie, my Golden Retriever. The thermometer said 11; the wind said -2. I covered my face and hands and body in winter gear. I smoothed Vaseline along the edge of my face, up high beside my eyes, where the wind would come in below my hat and above my face mask.
The snow wasn’t deep, but it was soft, like walking in sand. It didn’t matter. The extra resistance might help with my attitude problem.
I had hiked 40 miles in the last 10 days, a personal record, but I still felt discontent, a restlessness, a sadness.
I had logged most of the miles with friends, a variety of friends: new friends, lifelong friends, strangers who had come along with friends. But it was doing nothing to touch the malaise of gray days and the anniversary of my mother’s passing. There was a dullness to the outings, no attention paid. One foot in front of the other, from icy trails to fresh snowfalls, up hills and down hills. It was mileage clocked, day after day, nothing more.
Today, though, I would go alone. I hadn’t gone alone in months.
I worked at home all morning. Then, with a huff, I stood up from my desk. I needed to get the task—my daily hike—over with. It was the middle of the day, so inconvenient—I had work to do!—but if I didn’t go now, I wouldn’t go at all. Normally I went at dawn, before anything was started. But I was tired of mapping out an exact hour, an exact route, an exact meeting time with others. Today dawn had come and gone, and I had stayed put.
I closed my laptop, stood up and pulled on my snow pants. I never walked in them, but the wind howled past my bedroom window. Today I would go at the wrong time, in the wrong clothes, with the wrong attitude.
I parked at the trailhead.
There was just one truck in the lot, and a short man with a gray beard and a smile. “You’re going to love it today!” he called out.
I was, mostly because he was leaving and the chance of seeing anyone else went with him. There were no other access points to the trail this time of the year, the snow too deep, the dirt roads unplowed. I felt the start of a little thrill, a little bit of the cure. I would see no one. I would hear no one. I would talk to no one.
There were three trails to take, and I let Cookie pick. She ran, her feathery tail in the air, down the one that would take us to the western shore of the lake.
The hike was slow, my feet turning over, hurting from the shifting snow and too many days of hiking without any breaks. I promised myself we would go to the lake and back, nothing more. Checkmark, done.
A month ago, the ice had been non-existent, but the cold had finally arrived and by now, in February, the lake was solid. The wind had built snow drifts across the lake, erasing the traces of yesterday’s ice fishermen.
“Come on, Cookie,” I said, heading out into the white expanse. “Let’s brave it.”
And no sooner were we out on the lake, that the gray broke up, revealing life above the clouds. The wind tossed snow into the startling sunlight like confetti. It was an instant transformation of the earth’s surface, from edgeless grays to iridescent sparkles.
It was stunning.
I walked several paces out, pushing past my fear, staying where I knew it was shallow. My summer paddles offering winter expertise.
I settled down into the snow on the lake.
Below me, the fish went about their business. Behind me, Cookie curled up to clean the snowballs out of her paws. I leaned back on her, a comfortable companionship between us setting in. I faced into the sun, letting it warm me, and closed my eyes.
I hadn’t expected to end up here, on the lake, in the sun, with my dog, on an endless white expanse.
But here I was.
It was what had been missing.
I felt a release, a turning over, a relief. The beauty and the simplicity and, yes, the cold, a welcome connection to life, something outside of myself. I let myself visit the memory of my mother, which was both a gift and grief, to let myself travel back. Today, though, the memories made me laugh, because no way would I have ever convinced my mother to hike out and sit on a winter lake with me. In fact, she would have forbidden me to do so.
I sat there for I don’t know how long. Long enough for my bottom to turn cold and long enough for Cookie to set her whitening nose on her paws and nod off. I stood, finally, when the raw wind reminded me that we had a one-mile hike back still.
On our way out, I saw it.
Walking down the snowy old two-track, taking the shortcut back, and it fell at my feet. Brittle and brown and… beautiful.
A hello from my mother.
Kandace Chapple is the publisher and editor of Grand Traverse Woman Magazine. She lives in Michigan and is married with two sons. She hiked the trails by the same lake with her mother every summer. Connect with Kandace on Facebook and Twitter.
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