Last winter, I frostbit my big toes. Not very badly, but the piggies still hurt now, they ache. Oh, my poor little piggies!
What brought about this abuse? How did the season’s icy teeth find their way into my flesh, my nerves? Was I dangling from a rope, climbing a frozen waterfall? Was I hucking a cliff on a snowboard, shredding the gnar? Was I struggling through a survival scenario, the snowmobile broken, night fast approaching, my socks wet, my desperation crescendoing?
No, no, and no. Believe it or not, I was merely sitting outside, butt to a crystally drift, shivering, awaiting the alpenglow, that soft rise and fall of peachy light. Basically, I was doing non-doing, trying my damnedest to quit trying, to just be, to go passive and thereby allow the place its, well, place—in my mind, in my senses, in my big toes.
Wait, you were frostbitten how? Doing what? You more or less invited the season’s icy teeth into your body?
As a kid growing up in Vermont, alpine skiing was my favorite sport. By the end of my teens, though, I had begun to lose interest in the scene, in the mountains scalped (trails) and plumbed (snowmaking infrastructure). For a spell, I got interested in backcountry touring, but even that proved too sporty for my taste. An athletic approach to the local terrain can be great, very stimulating, yet it can also be distracting, just as a game with an abundance of moving pieces and fine print rules can be distracting. Increasingly, my desire is elemental simplicity. I want to—pun alert—chill with landscapes.
These days the chilling looks something like this: On a wintry Sunday afternoon in, I click into my old scratched Nordic skis and aimlessly poke about the woods, tracing a crooked creek with pillowed banks. After three or four miles, tired of breaking trail, I plunk myself down and promptly commence spacing out. Seconds slide into minutes, minutes into the bottomless pool of an hour. Nothing happens, everything happens, and there I am, right there—at the center of both, center of the action.
Often, I bring a beer or two on these excursions. Always, I bring an intention to hang tight, hang on, go for the ride regardless of how uncomfortable a ride it may be, regardless of the uncertain destination. I nod at kingfishers: Stay warm dudes! I contemplate a leaning spruce, the elegant angle of its slant: Don’t topple, buddy! Eventually, the alpenglow rises, the alpenglow falls, and beneath early sparking stars I begin the homeward push. Teeth chattering. Happyish.
What it amounts to is an obsession with making winter itself—the cold, the stillness, the sharp shadows, the nuthatch’s faint nasal call, the fox’s paw print, the killer storms, the uncountable shades of gray, the calm black water—my recreation.
Do the place. Let the place do you.
Admittedly, it can feel odd, slouching there in my creekside drift, to consider that literally thousands of people are hooting and hollering, chasing adrenaline, having tons of thrills at nearby ski resorts. Odd, but okay. I choose the edge of hypothermia as my hobby, at least for now.
In the climate-deranged 21st century, it’s hardly uncommon to hear talk of winter fleeing, a desperate heat chasing it to the Poles and beyond, out to the frigid recesses of the universe. We can’t depend on winter, in other words. We can’t expect it, are not entitled to its regular presence in our lives. The question thus becomes: How do you engage with the beloved, the beloved that must, ultimately, like all things, depart—that is departing?
Some rush, rush, rush, pursuing “the stoke” through moguls and fresh pow. Fair enough. As a kid, that was my fancy, too. I don’t judge this pastime of my past. Heck, I recognize that almost everybody I know is having more fun (in the conventional, smiley-giggly sense of “fun”) than I am on a given Sunday.
Again, this is odd, but okay. Fun is fun. Doing the place is doing the place. All I really want is winter as a gateway to winter, the land as a gateway to the land. All I really want are those fleeting moments of alpenglow, the color rising, the color falling, here, here, here and then gone.
So yeah, I frostbit my big toes last winter—the place got inside of them, inside my flesh and nerves, and left its mark. And you know what they say about frostbite: Once your piggies have been nibbled, have been chomped, they remain sensitive for a number of years afterward.
This winter is going to be rough, no doubt. I’m going to relish every painful moment.
Ferrisburgh native Leath Tonino is the author of two essay collections, most recently The West Will Swallow You (Trinity University Press, 2019).