It was -7F/-22C, not including the wind chill factor yesterday. It took me half the day to convince myself to go for a walk. With the family home for a couple of weeks and driving made less desirable due to ice and subzero temps, I was feeling antsy.
You’d think, after living in Minnesota for the last 19 years, I’d have special cold gear. There would be outfits ritually unpacked each winter – thermal underwear, snow pants and jacket, accessories all matching in color.
Apparently when it comes to fashion, I like free-styling it. So I put on some compression shorts, long underwear pants, sweatpants, two pairs of socks, a long sleeve shirt, a short sleeve shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, a fleece-lined raincoat (to break the wind), mismatched hat and gloves and scarf. I slathered on some lotion and lip balm to cut down on the wind burn.
The first leg of my usual 3.5 mile walk headed west, straight into the wind. I felt the chill down to my bones. I kept having a conversation with myself. You can always go back if it’s too much. I wonder just how stupid I am being. My cheeks are always the first to feel the burn. I pull up my scarf, already covered with the crystals of my exhalations.
My tracks from two days ago are still the only ones on this stretch, crisscrossed by rabbit and squirrel tracks. I found myself stepping the same way, habitual and careful. Slipping in these temps can have a deadly outcome. It brings an element of meditation – each step is the only step you have to worry about.
A large flock of mallards flies overhead. Their conversation fades and I’m left with the sound of snow crunching beneath my hikers. Human beings are scarce and when I pass them, they are assessed quickly.
The dog people are easiest – hastily dressed people shivering, bouncing on their feet as their dog sniffs and putters. At any other time of the year, this would be a relaxing jaunt for them and to the dog, it still is.
I pass an older man. He is carrying a plastic drugstore bag and not dressed for the weather – in lightweight khakis and stiff leather dress shoes. I smile and say “hi”, but he keeps his head down. All I can think is that his legs must burn now, if they have any feeling left at all.
I pass by the empty outdoor skating rinks, the school lot where one vehicle sits, music thumping, exhaust sending up smoke signals. It’s an odd place to make out or sell drugs or do surveillance. More likely, and less of interest, they’re lost. Streets here are often interrupted by cul-de-sacs and sports fields only to be continued on the other side.
I’m in the last half mile of my walk. While I’m surprisingly warm everywhere else, my cheeks no longer have feeling and I know it’s time to get inside.
I pass by the church where I was married. It’s why I still have my maiden name. I am not a believer, but my husband is, so I said yes we can marry in a church, but…Occasionally he makes a pointed comment and I just shrug. I like my last name better than his.
A woman comes toward me carrying a cloth bag and a backpack, glasses iced up from the cold.
“Excuse me, but is there any place close, like a business, where I can get warm?”
She is in her twenties and has a Slavic accent. She was meeting some friends at the church and she got dropped off early, but the church was locked. She’d been out there for nearly an hour and sounded desperate.
I offered to walk her in the direction of a grocery store I knew a shortcut to, but it was still a six-block hike. I looked at her boots – fashion boots that I so often see women in Northern climates wearing and cannot comprehend. Thin black leather boots with a heel and no tread at all on the bottom.
She smiled uncertainly. I can be helpful when I’m in the mood and I felt rather sorry for her. So we began walking to the grocery store. I asked where she was from.
“Moscow. And it’s not as cold there as it is here!”
“Да, это очень холодно.”
I was delighted to practice a bit of Russian with her. She was an exchange student in a program in South Dakota, learning English to be a translator and visiting friends in the Twin Cities. We had a nice conversation, but I could tell she was concerned when I started to lead her across a wide field.
We finally reached the bottom of a small hill and I pointed her in the direction of the store. She smiled and thanked me profusely, likely out of relief that I was neither going to rob her nor try to bring her home to my serial predator boyfriend. I smiled the rest of the way home thinking up all the bizarre options that could result from following a stranger.
I woke up this morning uncharacteristically optimistic.
Over the last week, I’d been feeling some anxiety, noticing how much my body and face were aging. Thinking about how quickly time is passing by. Surprise heartburn two nights ago had me looking up heart attack symptoms in women on my phone in the middle of the night. My daughter just got her notification for high school open house and several relatives are in the last stretch of their lives. Time and mortality and fear were weighing on me heavily.
The unexpected encounter on my walk reminded me about what a fantastic world I live in. That I could be out on this routine walk in my little suburb and run into a Muscovite, have a conversation in Russian, and then be on my way home. Unexpected and surprising, which is what life really is, if you’re paying attention.
Wishing you a Year Full of Little Surprises & Big Meaning!