It will be three years, this March, since my daughter died. Over the last few years, I’ve found solace from grief by taking long walks on the many nature and rail trails in my area. This is something I can comfortably do in spring, summer and fall.
Winter is another story.
I live in New York, about ninety miles north of Manhattan. Winters can be brutal. Before Ana died, I didn’t mind so much. My family hunkered down, playing board games, sipping cocoa and watching movies on dark, cold evenings.
But now that there’s only three of us, and my younger daughter is nearly 16, our time as a family is more fragmented. The nights seem endless. Winter drags on as I await the warm weather so I can go outside again and walk on my favorite trails.
Staying inside is a fast track to depression. It makes my grief much worse. I hope to change that this year (at least, a little bit).
It’s fear that keeps me housebound during these long winter months. I’m afraid of the darkness that lingers on wooded trails even in the middle of the day.
I’m afraid of slipping on an icy path and breaking an ankle.
I’m afraid of getting lost.
I’m afraid of being unprepared.
I’m afraid that when I arrive at the trail, I will discover that I’ve wasted my time because there is nothing on a winter trail that I want to see.
But a few days ago, in spite of my fear, I drove to a nature preserve with my daughter. We’d been stuck in the house since Christmas and couldn’t stand being cooped up anymore. I brought my camera with me, even though it was overcast and the camera takes terrible pictures in low light.
We visited a place called the Shawangunk Grasslands. It’s a wildlife refuge where wintering raptors hunt for rodents in one of the few grassland preserves remaining in New York State.
We blasted Radiohead and Pink Floyd during the half hour drive and ignored the darkening sky. There was a storm warning in effect for that evening, but we went anyway, both of us needing to escape even if it meant driving through the muck out into the colorless winter.
By the time we arrived, the rain had turned to sleet, but I parked anyway, buoyed by the sight of a few bird photographers who’d set up their equipment in the parking lot. They had proper equipment — the kind of cameras that can photograph an owl in low light from 400 yards away. I grabbed my little camera from the car just as the sleet turned back to rain.
My daughter and I walked along a wide, muddy trail which circles the fields where the raptors hunt. I’d visited the Grasslands twice before, but had never walked the trails because there are bird viewing stations near the parking lot. You can bring binoculars and watch the raptors from within a few feet of your car.
On this dark, dismal day, there was very little color. The entire place was stripped bare, with nothing to see except for one northern harrier hunting for its supper.
We spotted many crows flying through the trees that surrounded the fields, returning to a roost somewhere in the mountains that surround the grasslands. They were noisy and busy, a surprisingly welcome sight after our long drive.
We walked, searching for some color, trying to gauge the length of the path, marveling at a little wooden shack — a bird blind — that sat in the middle of the field. We went inside and watched for owls, but it was too early. The sun wasn’t due to set for over an hour. I wasn’t wearing a hat and my ears began to burn from the cold.
I’m not someone who enjoys outdoor activities in winter. I’ve never skied or hunted and I don’t know how to ice skate. The winter things I love to do involve Christmas trees, roaring fires, hot cocoa, and cozy blankets.
The exception to this was when my kids were little. I’d bundle them up so they could play in the snow. I’d go outside with them, attempt to build a snowman, and chase them around our frozen yard until we all collapsed and made snow angels.
The winter trail reminds me of what I’ve lost. It’s a place full of endings and desolation. It is not cruel, but neither it is welcoming. You can see farther on a trail in winter. That’s the scariest part for me. Without any foliage to obscure the trail, you are completely exposed. This is the main reason that I’ve always avoided it.
It was much easier to face the trail with my daughter by my side. We stayed for less than an hour, enough time for me to feel a bit less frightened. My daughter found beauty on the trail, pointing out interesting textures and colors that are unique to the season. I photographed some crows and that northern harrier. I marveled at how the dormant milkweed plants looked like stone.
We left as the rain picked up, driving away with the heat warming our frozen faces.
I was proud of myself for facing my fear. I had braved the winter trail and it had been okay. The frozen landscape was foreign to me, but the birds were there, as they always are, and that made everything less frightening.
As we headed towards the safety (and warmth) of home, I made a tentative New Year’s resolution. I will venture out on more trails this winter. Maybe I’ll invest in a pair of snowshoes and I definitely won’t forget to wear a hat.