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Down the Road

That Robert Frost beauty of winter
By Milt Gross
Feb 27, 2011 - 9:24:42 AM

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As I look out the study window today, the woods, like those in Robert Frost's poem, are dark and green -- above the ground that is. The ground remains white with two to three feet of snow.

This means, I hope, I hope, I hope, that winter is starting to die a warm, possibly wet death. That's fine. I love the green of spring, the tiny buds and leaves turning the distant forest into a hazy green, even the flooding as long as it is not dangerous -- as I hope it won't be at our house with the road culverts totally clogged with a winter's snow and the driveway bordered on both sides by plowed snow drifts.

But the view I saw two days ago when I arrived home from my morning bus run to Bar Harbor was breathtaking. As soon as I teeter-tottered along the snowy paths a foot or 18 inches deep into the yet deeper snowy yards to feed the birds and squirrels, I raced inside for a camera.

Disappointing. The wide and high (spruce, fir, and hardwoods 60 to 70 feet tall totally covered with snow that weighted the spruce and fir branches right down to the white that blanketed the yard) scene was too beautiful not to stop me in my tracks as I stared. The beauty surrounded and me, but the camera could only catch part of it.*

But this awesome beauty left me spellbound, which is a pleasant change from grumbling about driving through early-morning snowstorms.

It also took me back to the lots of fun I've had in winter snows.

Our old film camera couldn't catch the entire height of this non-Christmas tree at the edge of our yard. Milt Gross photo.

Way back, way, way back, when I was a kid in Pennsylvania, we also had snow, usually a little but one storm dumped the most on suburban Philadelphia than any storm I've experienced anywhere since. That morning in 1957 we awoke to snow literally a yard deep. At the time, I was working in a supermarket part-time and had to tramp the three quarters of a mile to work through the stuff. What struck me was the number of dog sleds -- yup, dog sleds in suburban Philadelphia -- that pulled their owners to the store.

Others rode horses. No one drove, as none of the roads or highways had been plowed. Suburban Philadelphia didn't plan on 36-inch-deep snow.

The rest of the snow storms there were a few inches deep, but our neighborhood was never plowed out for two or three days. This gave us great opportunities to sled down the hill on our street and sometimes farther down a path we had created through a wooded hillside. When the plow did come and spread cinders on our street, we would brush them away and continue sledding. I never knew how the adults who had to drive up that hill felt.

I knew how I felt one day as I was nearly flying down that hill on my Flexible Flyer sled, the kind with metal runners and on which you could lie stomach down and steer the wooden steering bar with your hands, as I did that day, or sit up and steer it with your feet.** Occasionally a youngster who lived near the bottom of the hill would shovel a little mound of snow on the road, which sent a cloud of white into the air as you plowed through it. But on this day, a mean-hearted kid -- never found out who -- placed a log about eight inches in diameter under such a mound. My sled hit the log and stopped, while I sledded on down the hill on my stomach without benefit of a sled under it. That stomach trip was short.

On another hill, much steeper, on a large wooded piece of property, I was also doing the "flying-on-my-stomach" thing, when somehow I got off the track and slammed headfirst into a tree. This was not a happy experience. The first I knew about it was when some friends were kneeling around me when I came to from my ringing non-bliss.

In Maine, where the snow has yet to whack me on the head, I remember a favorite tree along a snowmobile trail in West Paris where I cross-country skied often. The snowmobilers were generally fellow members of the Norway-Paris Fish and Game Club and were prepared for Mr. Strange to appear just off the trail as they drove past on their motorized sleds. That group generally snowmobiled at a reasonable rate of speed, so avoiding their fun-to-laugh-at-news-reporter member was easy.

Late one afternoon I took with me on that trail a fellow reporter, a new guy at the paper and in the neighborhood. As we got on along the trail into the woods a bit, I remembered my tree acquaintance and told him about it. I explained it would be on the left side of a right hand curve on a downhill just before the trail left the woods for a field. It was dusky as we headed back out, and for some reason -- maybe because he was better at cross-country skiing than was I -- he was ahead. As I neared the start of the downhill through that final patch of woods, I heard his voice.

"I just met your tree," he shouted.

We seemed to still be friends as we drove back to Norway, and he didn't quit the paper.

On several walks, Dolores and I have encountered absolute beauty, breathtaking beauty, from a fresh snow which had buried the evergreens and brush in white. We have stopped and just gazed at it all, dumbfounded that this could result from the same snow that caused so many problems when we were driving. We have on a wall a print of such a scene.

This kind of beauty is rare, and we can cling to it best in our memories.

I also remember climbing trails in Acadia National Park, where the ice had packed a foot or so deep in places, usually at sharp turns which were above open space below. Not then being able to afford those ice grippers that fasten to the boots, I had to cling to saplings to make my way past those places. I'm not sure how much fun that was, but I remember it well.

I also remember walking through deep snow up the trail around Beech Mountain, the path that overlooks Long Pond comes perilously close to the edge of a steep rocky slope that drops straight down to the pond. I kept seeing strange open marks in the snow, where I could see almost all the way to the path's rocky soil or rock beneath. At the top, I turned to retrace my careful steps.

It was then I understood those open spaces in the snow. I had to sit down, grasp trailside rocks with my gloved hands, and slide to negotiate those places, afraid that if I stayed on my feet I would lose my balance and become airborne, crashing onto the ice and snow that covered frozen Long Pond far below.

That's what those open slide marks in the snow also had meant for others before me.

Another winter walk was up Streaked Mountain in South Paris one 12-below night. The walk warmed me some, but on top the bright, cold, starry sky reminded me just how cold it was there with all that snow to keep me company -- but my thick parka and warm boots took care of that. The scene around me, miles of twinkling lights and dark mountains in the distance created a beauty I'll never forget.

I recall many cross-country ski ventures, mostly in western Maine, the best of which were before around 1987. After that, a warm spell would occur in early February and the snow on the snowmobile trails turn to ice. I invented a sport I called cross-country ice skiing, which is especially fun when the trail winds a lot past lots of trees. It's amazing how cross-country skis don't steer on ice.

On a March afternoon many years ago, my first wife and I barbecued hamburgers on the chimney of the lean-to just north of Grafton Notch State Park along the Appalachian Trail. Snow covered all else, including most of the lean-to. What comes back to me best is how we stood and watched as the snow slid down the cliffs across the notch on Old Speck Mountain.

I also snowshoed up the AT from there once with a friend. The snow was so deep that in places we could not see the eye-level paint blazes that marked the trail -- marked it in summer, that is.

And, oh yes, the memory of those cross-country ski trips on more level ground when for some reason I lost my balance and fell.

I remember floundering around, up to my arm pits in soft snow, trying to figure out how I could get back on top of the skis instead of being held captive by them at the other end of my legs that were lying on all that soft snow.

I'll never forget those "good old white days."

As G.W. used to say from time to time, "Bring it on."

No wait, I don't mean that. Bring on mud season and those tiny green buds that will let me know we did it. The sun's out today and it's 30 degrees above zero, water trickles from the driveway to somewhere deep beneath the still very solid drifts.

Which might mean we survived another Maine winter....or, perhaps, Maine wintah.

* This camera was Dolores' ancient, manual Pentax film camera, great for scenics as you totally control the focus, speed, and light -- unlike today's digitals that automatically do that stuff better than I can. Our other camera was my not-so-old but not-new-either Minolta also film camera which I can set on manual, automatic, or totally programmed. We now use a Kodak digital camera, which could have caught the entire height of the tree. Since buying the digial, we don't understand why we waited so long to do so.

**I've never seen this type of sled in Maine, probably because the snow is usually too deep and soft for its use. The Flexible Flyer required a hard-packed base. In Maine, I've only seen those kind of rounded out plastic sleds on which kids can sit. I can't imagine them lying down in that plastic spoon.

Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at lesstraveledway@midmaine.com.

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2011


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