Gone two weeks from the cabin, and the natural world turned upside down. Two weeks previously, I walked around the shores of Lily Lake, the blue water ruffled by a light breeze, ducks floating on its surface, grasses fringing the lake. The next time I visited, the lake was frozen solid, a mass of solid black etched with white lines and spots of snow. The trail up the hillside was covered with snowdrifts that I had to punch my way through, and 70-mph wind gusts threatened to send me flying onto the lake’s hard black surface. By the time I get back to the car my hands and legs were frozen.
At the cabin, the chairs I left on the deck last time, in some silly expectation that the warm weather would continue forever, sat forlornly in the snow. With the sudden onset of winter, everything becomes more difficult, even carrying all my stuff from the car to the front door of the cabin through deep snow. Inside all the water containers are frozen, so I can’t wash anything until they melt. All day long I play “Move the Containers,” a continuous game to catch the warmth of the sun as it moves from one side of the cabin to the other.
When I sit at the table to work, the cold air from the empty space under the cabin seeps up around my legs. Through every crack in the thin walls, the wind pushes, and it feels like the separation between me and the outdoor world is very thin.
And yet I can’t complain. Unlike the first white residents of this valley, I don’t have to keep a fire going all day in order to survive. When I get tired of sawing the wood into small pieces and of having to constantly tend the fire, I can take advantage of the electric baseboard heat. Instead of getting out of bed in the morning in the cold and try to get a fire going, I can turn up the heat and crawl back into the warm cocoon of my heated mattress pad and electric blanket while the place heats up. Except for the few hours when I first arrive at the cabin and have to wait for the radiators to crank up, I don’t ever have to be cold.
I’m grateful for these comforts, but I’m also grateful that I have some insight into a different kind of life, where your comfort and survival depended on constant readiness, awareness and hard work, where life had a sharper edge to it. Hiking above Lily Lake in knife- like wind gusts and deep snow or sitting in front of the fire at the cabin, cold air enveloping me from all sides, I can briefly touch that edge, feel its sharpness. It’s the sharpness of life, of survival. It makes me feel grateful to be alive.