I went to a city an hour-and-a-half from home yesterday evening for work. I fulfilled my duty and was on my way back by about 9 p.m. It wasn’t long before I was on the Interstate, cutting east across a big flat part of Minnesota, listening to Retribution Gospel Choir loud and driving a comfortable speed in the right lane.
It is the darkness outside my headlights that I usually think of when I think of driving down a highway at night. I like doing that. I like the narrow cone of light in front of me and the vast blackness outside of it. Last night though, I had been driving along for a while when I noticed that it was not black outside the light of my headlights.
The moon will be full on Saturday night, but it was already big and bright in the sky. And it was a cold night, maybe -3 or -4°F, and the air was extremely dry and clear. So the big flat expanses outside my headlights were illuminated in this moonlight. Trees cast shadows on gentle hills a quarter-mile away, the snow was blue.
I thought to myself then that maybe this is a benefit of winter. I believe that to make it through winter you must find things you enjoy that you cannot do during the other parts of the year. Cross-country skiing is one example. And now I thought maybe such moonlit nights were another thing to look forward to. But then I remembered similar experiences on bright summer nights when a full moon throws its light on the lush landscape and you are on your way to and from swimming in the river. Alas.
When I got home, I just caught Katie before she retired to bed. I asked her if she wanted to go walk on the lake in the moonlight with me and Lola and no, she would not, but she told me she did it last night when I wasn’t home and it was wonderful and I should be safe.
I put long underwear on and a hooded sweatshirt and then boots and hat and gloves and my warm jacket. Lola was surprised when I asked her if she was interested in a walk. She is a creature dependent on habit and walks at 10:30 at night are not her habit. But she quickly got on board with the idea.
We walked down to the lake and then I slid on my butt down a path to the water. It has been cold lately and everything is very frozen. Out on the lake, the wind and sun have conspired to wipe the snow clean off big patches of ice, leaving a surface so hard and slick that you really can’t walk on it. Lola neither. So we picked our way along paths on the snow-covered patches, where the walking was really quite good, with just enough snow to give firm purchase.
It was beautiful out there. The moon was almost directly overhead, with Mars right next to it. I could see the whole lake and I could see Lola running to and fro in front of me, scouting our path through the ice, occasionally coming back to me when she went down a dead end.
I felt very good. I was enjoying winter. And I was doing something that I couldn’t do during the rest of the year. It was very cold, but it was also very still, and with no wind, a few degrees below zero is really nothing. I saw the landscape with eyes that seemed anew, and I felt deeply appreciative for the experience.
It is something else to walk across a frozen lake under a full moon. But you grow up in Minnesota and you maybe take it for granted. It was just another frigid night to many folks, and such nights have been nothing more than that to me, too. But tonight, I was warm and safe in my choices of clothing and just walking across a city lake felt like an adventure.
It occurred to me that to survive a Minnesota winter, it is necessary to maintain a childish sense of adventure. You must enjoy the very act of survival. You must want to prove your worth against harsh elements. And you must never tire of remarking on a cold night to anybody: gas station attendant, waitress, friend, family, coworker.
There’s no denying, though, as the frozen days stretch into weeks and months, that maintaining that youthful perspective can be pretty hard to do. But one should just think of a childhood hero like Will Steger, spending months crossing Antarctica by dogsled, just the gear in his sleds and thousands of miles of ice and snow, uncertain outcomes, a historic journey, and remember what it was like to dream those kinds of dreams.