Winter Wonderland

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As I stood there looking out into the night as the snow was falling.  I can see the new big fluffy flakes settle on to the snow already on the ground.  I can just make out the pine and spruce trees which are scattered around.  I consider moving but I don’t want to disturb the virgin snow.  It just seems like I will tip nature out of balance by me walking through the knee high snow.  Although the circumstances could be better it is a beautiful Christmas Eve.

I stand there for another moment before I decide I better get moving or I was going to get lost in the falling snow.  My legs feel weary from the long day of traipsing through the country side in my boots and snow gear.  The boots were worn but lovingly so, as was evident through the look.  The waterproof bottom still kept my feet warm, well, it did when I was out for normal lengths of time, but this was not normal.  I have been hiking through snow anywhere from ankle deep to waist high as I canvassed the countryside.  My insulated overalls had begun taking on water and now I could feel the wetness creeping into my inner layers of clothing.  I knew that if my overalls were wet, my coat would not be far behind.  Waterproofing only can go so far.  I should have gone back and called it a day but I didn’t dare.  I knew what was at stake so I decided long ago it was worth the risk, so I pressed on.

My eyes fight to stay open as the falling snow became heavier and is landing on my face.  I scan the snow to see what I am looking for, but just as the last 8 hours, I see nothing but more snow.  I move a little farther back into the trees.  I know I was told to stay within sight of the road, but I cannot walk back and forth while seeing nothing, knowing that a sign might be just inside of the trees.  I keep a single tree that is near the road in sight as I venture farther from the road and deeper into the trees.  The tree is a little crooked and the top is leaning from the heavy snow it is supporting.  The snow is almost becoming like a wall.  I begin to look frantically knowing that any chance I have may only be a mere feet away, because the snow will cover any chance of discovery.  I dart into what looks like a clearing.  I look back and can no longer see the tree.  The snow has become too thick but I am not worried because I know I can just follow my tracks back out, so I keep on my hunt.

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I must look like the abominable snowman by this point.  My coat has taken on a little water, so now the snow is sticking where before it would just slide off.  This adds unwanted weight to the already bulky winter gear.  I begin to feel the cold seeping through to my warm body, but it barely registers with me.  I keep looking, squinting through the snow. I think I have spotted what I am looking for.  I can’t believe my luck, after looking for so long.  Most of the others have already gone in for the night.  Only the few who knew the area well stayed out, well, and myself.  I am not from around here but trees are trees, snow is snow and I am familiar to both.  So I was not going to be held back when the choice came.

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For some reason I knew I would be the one to discover it.  I pull out the signal horn and push down on the button.  Nothing came out, not a sound.  I look at it and shake the can like it was a can of spray paint.  I try again and this time it made a faint screech but nothing that anyone would here in this weather.  I had to make a decision, do I follow the tracks that I found or do I go back and hope I can bring the others here in the heavy snowfall.  I look around and over the last half-hour over two inches had fallen.  I knew that I would never find this trail again.  The snow would cover any of the tracks and be gone for good.  I try the air horn one more time but get the same result.  So I drop it, hoping that it would serve as a marker when I came back this way, all the time knowing that it wasn’t going to matter.  The snow would cover it long before I made it back this way.

I have a renewed energy as I start to follow the path.  It wasn’t much of a path, more like small indentations in the freshly fallen snow.  The trail led deeper into the trees.  I was risking getting lost in wet clothes without a way to signal for help, but if I could get to the end of the trail it would be worth the risk.  I knew it deep down that I just had to press on.  It was almost a panicked feeling.  I knew I needed to hurry so I push my legs harder and they burn in response.  I had only taken a few breaks throughout the day and only had a small lunch to eat, not wanting to take the time away from searching.  I would have eaten a lot more had I know what my day had in store for me, but that was too late and I could do nothing about it anyways.  The path was hard to follow and I had to backtrack a number of times in order to keep on it.

As I move through the deep snow I though back to the morning when everything had been perfect.

We had both woken to a fresh foot of powder.  The pristine country side was breath taking with the sunrise.  I sat there holding my wife hand sipping hot chocolate.  Well, it had been almost perfect.  While it felt like I was holding her hand I knew she was not here.  She had died a year ago suddenly.  She was hit by a drunk driver as she stopped to help a stranded motorist.  That was her, always trying to help others.  It made just as beautiful on the inside as it did on the outside.  Her chestnut hair and a seeming always tan complexion made her striking green eyes memorizing.  Her smile was infectious and and made her beam.  Rebel had interrupted my memory of her as he walked down the stairs rubbing his eyes.  He acquired his mothers hair and complexion but got my bright blue eyes.  He was 7 years old when his mother died and he still missed her, as did I.  Rebel had been my lifeline in getting through all the initial pain.  I knew I had to be there for him so I put myself aside and helped him.  We talked about memories of her, about her laugh, her smile, the way she would always tickle him as she tucked him in at night.  I wanted him to keep those memories because then she would live on in him.  By me helping him it helped me get through the loss.  He came over and smiled at me and without a word climbed into my lap and snuggled up.  I held him the and we talked about how much his mother loved to come here and sit just like we were right then.

I jerk out of my memory when I cannot see the trail anymore.  I look in every direction but it is not there.  I am almost running in circles (well as much of a run as a weary soaked man can run in knee high snow) searching, knowing that it must be here somewhere.  Exhausted, I stop just hoping something will stick out.  This can’t be it.  I scream in my head.  I must be so close I just need to look a little harder but my mind takes me back to earlier in the day.  

As I was cooking scrambled eggs and waffles he was talking about all the things he wanted to do in the new snow, build a snowman, a snow fort, go sledding, maybe have a snow ball fight, and the thing that excited him the most ride his snowmobile.  It was an early present from me to help get his mind away from missing his mother.  It was not a full sized snowmobile, but a mini version.  It would work great to ride in the field the stretched out to the side of our cabin.  He was so anxious to get out an play that he scarfed his food down in 10 seconds and then was off to get his snow gear on.  I smiled at how happy he was at this moment and thought that his mother would be happy to see him like this.  He came in the kitchen holding his new helmet in his arm by his side.  

I laughed and said “Going for the extreme fun right away?”  

He smiled and asked if he could.  I still needed to clean up a little but I could watch him for our large bay window that over looked the field.  I told him he could but he needed to stay in sight of the cabin.  I looked outside and the snow was beginning to fall again.  I also told him that if the snow got worse to come right back.

I watched him almost fly out the door and in moments I could hear the engine of the sled come to life.  Then slowly and timidly he began easing down the driveway toward the field.  I could not help but laugh out loud when I saw him try and go fast and he through himself right off.  Covered in snow he did not hesitate to jump right back on.  There was nothing in the field that he could run into so I was not worried about him hurting himself.  The snow had picked up a little by the time I finished the breakfast dishes but not enough to worry me.  He was still zooming back and forth taking bigger and bigger passes each time.  Knowing he wasn’t in any danger, I decide to check my email really quick.

The surge of adrenaline from the anger inside me pushes me out of my frozen state and I start looking again.  I can feel the warmth of the adrenaline coursing through me and I feel almost too warm.  I almost open my jacket to left some of the heat out, but I stop myself knowing some how that would be a mistake.  I would just get wetter quicker.  So I compromise by taking my hat off for a few minutes knowing I can quickly slip it right back on.  I use the hat to wipe more snow from my face and as I pass closely by a tree I see the faint impressions I was following.  Of course, why didn’t I think of that earlier.  I am refreshed that I was once again able to take up the trail.

I can move a little quicker under each tree the path darts under.  The path seems to be zigzagging quite a bit and this creates more fear in me.  I know what this means.  I know how fast I need to move to find the end of the trail.  The snow is still coming down heavily.  It is almost as if it is willing me to turn around.  It wants me to stop before it is too late but I know it may already be too late.  I pay no attention and move forward, forcing my legs to move even though everything in my body is screaming to stop, but I know I cannot stop.  I can’t do it again.  I know I won’t live through all of it again.

It seems like it only takes me a minute or two to answer the few emails I needed to respond to but when I look down I see it has been 15 minutes.  An unsettling feeling begins to form in the pit of my stomach.  I look out the window and the snow if falling heavily.  So heavily that I cannot even see the field anymore.  I wonder how long it has been like that.  I also am worried about where Rebel may be.  I told him to come back if it snowed heavier.  I rushed to put on my snow gear and run out the door.  I hop on my snowmobile and take off toward the field.  As I enter the field I cannot even see his tracks any more.  My sense of fear begins to take hold of me.  I quickly make a few quick passes around the field and still no sign of him.  I start to head back to the cabin knowing that he must of past me as I went out.  He will be inside struggling to get his gear off.  He always needs help.  When I pull up my heart is ripped to shreds as his sled is nowhere to be seen.  I rush inside hoping that maybe he tipped it and couldn’t get it going again and so he walked back.

I yell his name as I open the door.  No reply comes as I knew deep down there would not be.  I quickly pick up my phone and begin dialing the neighbors.  I then dial the sheriffs office and after a frustrating conversation the said they will try to get search and rescue out there but because of the remote location and poor weather there was no guarantee.  By this point I am panicking and grab my helmet to rush out the door.  As I open it I run right into someone and we both tumble to the ground.

The snow seems to light the ground and trees and even though it is coming down heavily I feel that I am on the right path.  I don’t even need to look for the trail anymore.  I just follow the feeling that I have felt before and I know it will not lead me astray.  I am worried that I will arrive too late, so I unzip my coat hoping it will make moving easier as I move through the snow.  I just realize that I have not felt my fingers in sometime.  With my focus on just keeping moving I stopped moving all the limbs in my body to keep the circulation going and keep them warm.  I try and move them, they respond but not without a lot of numbness and a little pain.  I push the thought of what it means out of my head.  I can warm them once this is done.  I think about my toes and they are the same as my hands and fingers.  They move but not with much feeling.  I think that maybe I should dig in and make a snow cave, but somewhere in the back of my mind I know that if I don’t reach the end then a snow cave will not help.  As I am moving and thinking about my limbs I don’t notice that the snow is letting up.  It is not completely stopped but it is very close.  I can now see much farther and I am certain this will make sure I find the end of this trail.  I still feel something inside of me, guiding me along.  It is so familiar that I trust it completely.  I gave up looking for the trail long ago, just relying on what I feel.

For a brief moment I am relieved to see Rebel, but then I realize it is only the neighbor’s son from a few miles down the road.  I quickly help him up and ask him if he is okay.  He assures me he is and wanted to let me know that his family is coming down to help.  They also called all the surrounding people from this isolated community.  He told me that his dad asked me to wait for him before I set out.  I almost laughed out loud, but then he said he was supposed to tell you there is no use getting two people lost because then the chances of both of them making it were almost zero.  He was to remind me that I would not want my son to make it only to know that he lost his dad in the effort.  The words hit me like a brick and I just sit down right there in the snow.  The neighbor boy tries to help me up but all I can think about is what if I lose him.  I can’t lose him, he is all that I have in this world.  He is what helps me get out of bed every morning.  He is what keeps me connect to my wife.  He is my heart and soul, without him I will die.  I know this as sure as I know I have to breathe to live.

After what seems like hours, but was mere minutes, people begin arriving.  One look at me and my neighbor Clayton begins organizing the people as they arrive.  He asks me questions over and over.  Where did I see him?  How long ago?  Does he know these woods at all?  What was he wearing?  How much fuel did him machine have?  Just question, after question.  I answered them all roboticly.  I knew they were important and I had to detach myself to get through them.  I kept going over and over in my head asking why did I need to look at that damn email.  I am on vacation, couldn’t I let it go for just a couple of days?  Someone handed me food and told me to eat.  I did but I really not know what it was.  I was just running it over and over in my head looking for some type of clue.  It wasn’t until Clayton began organizing the search parties that I snapped out of my trance.  There is no way they are going to keep me from looking.  I am sure Clayton recognized this and did not even try to stop me.  I think deep down he knew if it was his child he would want to do the same.  We are each assigned areas and in small groups so we do not lose anyone else.  The snow had lightened a bit but it was still snowing, which we all knew made time important.  So I set out with two others to the section I believed he would most likely have gone.

I can only lightly feel my wet clothes hanging off my body.  My steps feel lighter for some reason and it makes moving much quicker.  I just keep moving forward concentrating on what is ahead.  Looking, searching, hoping.  For some reason my foot catches on a tree branch hidden by the snow and I fall face first into a pillow of soft snow.  I feel all the energy I have left, leave me.  I can no longer feel my legs and all I want to do is rest.  I think to myself that just a few minutes won’t hurt and then I will be able to go again.  As I begin to close my eyes I see someone walk up next to me.

I look up, “Megan?  You..Your dead.” She does not respond but just hold her hand out to me.

“I can’t.  I just can’t.  I cannot get up.”

She just smiles.  The smile that I know so well.  The one that could light up a whole room.  The smile that I fell in love with all those years ago.  That smile seemed to warm something in me and I begin to feel a little bit of warmth.  It is just enough to get me to my feet.  I reach out and grab her hand as she helps me to my feet.  Once there she looks at me and begins to walk forward still holding my hand.  I stumble to keep up, barely being able to stay on my feet because of the numbness in my limbs.  She never wavers or stumbles.  She just seem to glide through the snow.  At one point I look back and can swear I don’t see her footprints in the snow, but I am exhausted and frozen so I think nothing of it.  I am just so happy to have her back.

She looks at me as a voice in my head says “Hurry! You need to hurry!  The end is just around the those trees.”

I look at her and beg her not to leave me.  I hear the voice in my head once again “I will not leave you.  I have been with you from the beginning and will stay until the end.”

I look into her eyes and feel a huge weight lifted off of me.  I have her back with me and I only need to go a little bit farther.

The day wears on and the snow gets heavier at times and then lets up a bit but never really stops. Everyone decides to stop for a quick meal.  I think this a waste of time, but Clayton urges me to get a quick bite.  So I come back to my cabin which has quickly became the base of operations.  I sit outside where coffee, hot chocolate and tea are being given out.  I can’t eat or drink.  I just think about why didn’t I just make him wait for me to finish the dishes and then we would be together.  Why didn’t I convince him to just make a snowman instead and then snowmobile later.  People come and go and say things to me, probably words of encouragement, but I hear none of it.  I can only think about finding Rebel.  After the short break we all head back out.  We stay in small groups again to not get lost and we each have air horns for signaling the rest of the party.  Hour after hour we continue to look with no luck.  I become more and more anxious, fearful, and filled with guilt as each hour passes.  Finally the groups are all called in for the night.  We all know what this means.  The chances of finding Rebel alive are next to nothing if we don’t find him tonight.  As people begin to file away a few who know the area well stay and offer to keep looking.  I am set that I will as well.  Clayton urges against it but I will not be held back so eventually he relents and make me promise to be back in an hour.

I think we both know that as I left I would be coming back with Rebel or I would not be coming back at all.  The small group of us went to a section that seems ridiculous to look into because it was right next to the house, however, the trees are very thick.  We were really moving through it to get to another area when we spotted it.  It was Rebel’s snowmobile.  It was tipped over and he obviously tried to get it righted again but the snow was too deep for his little legs and the machine too heavy.  There were track going every different direction so we did not know where to go.  It did not help that each set led into clearing where the prints would have vanished without the cover of the trees.  We decide to split up but stay within sight of the road.  We all still had our air horns to sound for help or if we found him.  I chose a one direction.  I am not sure why because it seemed the least likely direction for him to travel.  I moved into a clearing that was a little ways up the road but the path stayed parallel to the road.  The clearing did not help so I began searching the trees around the edges of the clearing.

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My weary legs carry me to the set of trees and as I pass them I see something up ahead.  It is something balled up under a tree, pushed right up against the trunk.  At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me but when I turned to look at Megan she just smiled and gestured me to go on.  I don’t hold anything back.  I begin to run but the snow slows me to what seems like a snails pace.  I fall a few times but each time she is there to help me back up.  Tears are streaming down my face and I begin calling out his name.  I keep getting closer, still calling his name, wondering why he won’t answer.  I finally surge through the deepest snow to the space under the tree and run up, fall down beside the tree trunk and pull him close to me. I am terrified that it is not him.  That it is a sick trick of my imagination like a mirage in the desert, but as I cradle him to my chest I see that it is indeed him.  He is cold, very cold.  His lips are blue but he is breathing.  My coat is still unzipped and I begin to try and comfort him with my words as I wrap my wet coat around him.  I try and rub his body to create any type of heat and get his circulation going.  He looks like he is sleeping so peacefully.  My tears drop onto his face as I stare down at him desperate for him to be alright.

I decide to lean back against the tree and hold him and try and share my body heat until I can get up and moving again.  I look in to his face and hope he is dreaming peacefully and that when we get home he will think it was all a dream.  I can picture us sitting around the bar in the cabin sipping on hot chocolate.  We take turns trying to throw marshmallows into each others drink.  We laugh as neither of us can hit the other person’s drink until he finally get mine and it splashes up onto me.  I can hear his laugh and it makes me so sad to see him here like this wondering if I will ever get to hear it again.  I close my eyes deliberately trying to pull back up the vision of us having our marshmallow fight but for some reason I cannot get it back.

As I lay with my back against the large pine tree, I continue to rub his arms and body.  I pull him tight just to feel him breathing but not wanting to open my eyes and see if he really is or not.  He feels warmer than he did before and I begin to have a little spark of hope.  I keep him tight against me knowing I would not let him go.  I start to see the vision of us throwing marshmallows and it brings me a little comfort believing that I may still get to live it.

I feel a warm hand gently grasp my shoulder.  I don’t need to look to know who it is.  It is my wife.  She is there to help us.  I feel her sit down next to me and I just sag with the weight of  everything that has gone on.  I feel her place her arm around me and give me a warming hug.  Her body seems to radiate heat, a bright heat that I can see as well as feel, even with my eyes still closed.  I am relieved that she is back with us.

I slowly whisper to Rebel “Open your eyes and say ‘Hi’ to your mother.”.

He doesn’t say anything for a minute and then I hear the soft croaky reply “I can see her better with my eyes closed.  She has been with me since I got lost.”.

We are both feeling warm by this point from her heat so I pull him up with me into a sitting position.  I tuck his head on the side of my chest where he can use the space between my chest and arm to just rest his head.  It used to be her favorite position and it just felt right.  I can feel him smile.  I don’t know how, as I still haven’t bothered to open my eyes, but I know it just the same.  I don’t bother to zip up my coat as the heat from my wife is keeping me warm enough.

We sit there for what seems like an eternity before I can feel Megan pull away.  I look in her direction and see her get to her feet outside of the branches of the tree.

She smiles at me and in the sweetest voice only she could make says “It is time to go.”

I feel Rebel get up with an energy that startles me.  He runs to his mother and she envelopes him in a loving embrace.

“Oh, I have missed you so much.”  She whispers into his hair as she buries her face in it to give him a kiss on the top of his head.

I am struggling to get up and look at them just patiently waiting.  I pause just briefly to look at them, knowing that once we get back she will no longer be with us and then I drag myself out from under the tree and get my legs under me.  Surprisingly, I feel refreshed.  I walk up to the two of them and pull them both into the biggest and tightest hug I could give them.  I take in her smell and try and burn it to my memory.  I let them go and slip my hand into hers.  Silently she starts walking, me in one hand and Rebel in the other.  We both somehow, after being nearly frozen, can easily keep up with her.  She begins to head to the trees where there are no tracks.

I pause and pull her to a stop and ask “Are you sure this is the way?  There are no tracks here.”.

“This is the only way, honey”is her reply and she begins walking again.

I have no choice but to follow but as quickly as I wondered if this was the right direction I can feel that she is right.  We need to go this way.  We keep walking as the trees get thicker and seem to bring us into their friendly realm.  I feel happy.  I don’t know why because I know it won’t last, but for this fleeting moment I am happy.  I stop questioning and just keep walking being grateful for every moment I get to spend with my wife and son.

____________________________________

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Clayton is worried as the sheriff walks up to the cabin.  He stayed there all night hoping one of them would return, but neither did.  A new rescue crew went out at first light and 3 hours into it he began to hear the signals that someone found something.  He doesn’t bother to wait for him to get all the way up the drive as he walks out to meet him.  One look at him and he knows all he needs to know.

“Can you come out with me?”   The sheriff asks as they meet.

“Of course.  Just let me grab my coat.” is Clayton’s quick reply.

He runs back into the cabin, grabs his coat and is back outside not even bothering to put it on.  He jumps in the the sheriff’s black SUV without a word.  The sheriff begins down the drive and then turns left as he hits the main road.  They road immediately bends behind the cabin and a grove of trees that hides the roads approach from the cabin.  Once they are around the bend they don’t go more than 100 yards before they will be right in the middle of the flashing lights and bodies seemingly flying around in a panicked state.  The sheriff parks the SUV right behind the ambulance.  For the first time since leaving the cabin Clayton begins to feel a sense of hope.  “Why would they call and ambulance if they were dead.” he reasons to himself.

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Clayton had waited all night for them to come back.  He jumped and ran to the door at every car that went by or any noise more than a mouse squeaking.  He desperately wanted them to be okay.  “This world can be so cruel.” he thought over and over to himself.  “First he loses his wife and now this. I don’t know how any man could endure what he has been through.”.  Every hour that passed, Clayton knew was a strike against them making it back alive, but now, here they are right behind the ambulance.

“How are they?” Clayton asks the sheriff as they walk towards the ambulance.

He looks briefly at Clayton, seemingly measuring his response “Well, that is what we need you for Clayton.”

Startled by his response Clayton just continues to follow the sheriff.  They pass the ambulance and then turn onto a trail that has been made from the feet of all the rescue personnel.  They don’t go more than 50 feet back towards the cabin before they rounds a small group of trees that conceal everything around them.  As they get around the trees Clayton pulls up quickly.  He is startled by what he sees.  He walks with the sheriff up to a tall pine tree.  The sheriff looks at Clayton and sees his confused look.

“They will do that.”  The sheriff says in a non-convincing manner.

Clayton just stares.  Here was his friend resting under a pine tree with his arm around his son who is leaning up against him.  Both of them with smiles on their face as if they were enjoying the best Christmas day.  His friend has no hat on and his coat open like he was not cold.

“As hypothermia sets in they begin to believe they are too warm, when in fact they are freezing.  Their bodies internal thermometer is shot by that point.  I had to have the paramedics explain it to me.” The sheriff continues.

“But..but why the ambulance if they are gone?” Clayton stammers out still not wanting to believe what he is seeing.

The sheriff’s replies while still staring at the two restfully looking bodies “Protocol.  We have to on every possible death.  I guess they hope that maybe a medic can bring them back.  All I know is I call them every time.”

“It is weird though.  I have been on a lot of these calls and I cannot remember a case where we have found the missing people so close to their own house.  Nor, have I ever seen such happy looking people after they have passed on.  It is like whatever was out there, was better than what they were going through here.”

Clayton just continues to stare until he looks at the sheriff and asks him “Why did you need me again?”.

“We needed someone who knew the deceased fairly well to identify the bodies. I figured it would be better done here than making you drive into the next county to the morgue. I am guessing from your reaction that these two are the two missing persons from yesterday.”

Clayton just nods and the sheriff pats him on the shoulder and begins walking back to the SUV.  Clayton stay where is is at just wondering if the two of them were truly happy.  As quickly as the question enters his mind a warm feeling passes through him and he knows his answer.  He knows this was the best Christmas present his friend could ask for, having his family back together.  Clayton then turns and walks back up the path passing the paramedics going in to disturb the resting family who were tragically reunited.

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