When I lived in Alaska, the local radio station (love you, Raven Radio) would announce the minutes of daylight we were losing each day. After December 21, we would be gaining minutes, and all of us looked forward to that. Light is not as scarce or precious here in Oregon, but I still breathe a sigh of relief on the solstice, because someday summer will be back.
But not yet, so the best thing to do is go skiing. Classic, old-school Nordic skiing. Can there be any better exercise than that? Many times I attempt the white knuckle drive to Salt Creek Summit to find hard ice or deep, deep snow. Each of those has its challenges. Often I have to walk down the Hill of Death instead of incurring yard-sale face-planting in the trees. Sometimes breaking trail is so arduous that it takes hours to go a few miles. But today is perfect: a skim of fresh over packed, my skis gliding as if I am skating instead of on two (free from my former boss) skinny boards. The woods are blue-shadowed and quiet. The only sound is my breath and the slide of skis on snow.
An icy wind burns the tips of my ears where they poke out from my wool hat. It is probably about fifteen degrees, with the wind making it colder. The breeze tosses handfuls of snow across my tracks, burying them. I am the only one out here, the rest of the unlucky souls at work.
As I ski I think of all the Decembers and solstices before this one. A few stand out. There was the party at a friend's yurt where we all scribbled on pieces of paper the things we wanted to let go (I can't even remember what I wrote). There was the time a group of us skied into a backcountry cabin, pulling sleds. It was well below zero and later, in the hot springs, steam obscured our faces and our skin glowed with residual heat. All those friends have scattered now. Then there were many years where I was on a fireline, the Florida years when snow was just a memory. There was the New Zealand December of only a backpack and no plan, and many Decembers on a little island. There were the two Decembers of relentless marathon training, and the one where I had to learn to walk again after knee surgery. There was the December that my marriage fell apart, and the one when I knew I would be all right, that winters come and go and things always get better.
I lose the blue diamonds and ski blind for awhile, not really worried, but with that undercurrent that can run through your head in the wilderness: Hmm, not really sure where I am. Didn't bring a pack. Warm clothes on? check. Somebody knows where I am? check. Plenty of daylight? check. Eventually I stumble upon my tracks, a lot farther downslope than I have expected. It's time to develop the winter eyes again, the ones that can pick out subtle changes in a white landscape. Time to fine tune the sense of direction, not really needed in summer.
I've come into this winter a reluctant participant. Our summer was so short, with snow in June and the backcountry melting out only late in August. It couldn't be winter already. I had to swim all summer in a wetsuit! We were owed some more summer! But surely as the minutes were lost to darkness, here it came, ready or not. And I wasn't. I grumbled, I complained, I tried to run the icy trails in my IceJoggers. I rode my bike, freezing my feet. Maybe if I ignored winter, it would go away. Denial could only work for so long.
I arrive back at the parking lot in a clatter of skis on ice. My fresh tracks stretch behind me. The sun slants at an ominous angle, soon to dip below Redmont Peak. Snow flurries dance from passing clouds. It's undeniably winter. Though summer is always my first love, I can work with this. Winter and I can become buddies, mend our fences, and get along. It's solstice. Summer is on its way. Happy solstice, everyone!