For one Minnesota writer, winter creates unique opportunities for outdoor communion.
I love the snow—the crunch of it beneath my boots in subzero temperatures, the way it hushes the world when laid thick across the ground, how it hangs heavy on the boughs of pines and spruces. I love the blinding brightness that obscures everything and how snow smooths over the roughest of landscapes. I walk out into the cold, fine particles striking my face, and I return refreshed.
But winter brings with it a shrinking of physical space. Biting temperatures and thick drifts create ever-changing boundaries that limit the freer movement found in warmer months. While many might assume harsh winters push people apart by secluding us indoors, I have found that the snow and cold often push us closer together, creating opportunities for community care and deeper communion with one another.
Hyland Lake Park Reserve is nestled in West Bloomington, about 20 minutes outside of Minneapolis. The park is made up of restored native prairie land, wetlands, and thick woods of oak, white pine, and aspen. Paved paths and innumerable natural trails cut through the woodlands and over tall, rolling glacial hills thickly blanketed by forest. It is one of my favorite places to walk.
In winter these hills become a haven for cross-country skiers, the natural gentle sloped hiking paths covered by snowfall and creating an ideal place for skiing. There are makeshift walking paths as well, and as a result skiers and pedestrians often cross paths by necessity. The park entrance I use intersects with a ski path almost immediately, leaving no other option than to cross a steady flow of skiers. I watch carefully, intuiting a moment to make my move. Some skiers give me pointed looks and glares, others murmured apologies.
Over the years I’ve learned to swallow the irritation that bubbles up within me at such close contact. After all, each of us
wants to enjoy this place. One cold day I’m trekking around the reserve with my dog, following knee-deep troughs containing tracks from humans, dogs, machines, and even rabbits. These tracks comingle in places, creating a splay of glassy impressions in the frozen snow.
As we emerge from a shortcut through a dense thicket of trees to the opposite end of the reserve, we encounter a large family packed onto the main path. Decked in bright puffy coats and calling out to one another to watch their steps, they cautiously pick their way along on snowshoes. One, a woman, lets out a shout of surprise when she sees us—dog and human in dark coats materializing from the treeline like a pair of cryptids. She laughs, explaining that they are all visiting family in the area and that it’s the first time some children in the group have experienced snow.
I point back to the trail through the forest, explaining that the path will lead to a beautiful stand of pines that reach high into the sky. A boy overhears this and eagerly clomps his way to the trail, with several other children and an adult in tow. The woman asks me where the intrepid group will surface and I indicate, on a map pulled up on her phone, where they will appear back on the main loop.
My dog and I part ways with the family, but their voices carry through the hush of snow and forest. Periodically, my dog cranes his neck back to find the family amid the trees. I try to imagine what it must be like to be a visitor unfamiliar with this place so central to my heart, what it is like to see snow for the first time. A child’s joyful shriek pierces through my thoughts and my dog lets out a yip in reply.
There is an odd spark of intimacy felt between people who frequently walk these paths, who see one another so often but may never say much beyond a soft hello or perhaps proffer a small smile. I may not know your name, but I know you and I see in your eyes that you know me. That spark of recognition borne out of a place we both enjoy, and keep returning to, is a welcome kernel of community.