Winter is long in Ithaca. It can snow as early as mid-October and as late as mid-May. There are entire weeks when the temperature is below 20 degrees and the sun does not peek through even once. Because of the proximity of Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes we sometimes get these week-long slow motion storms where an inch or two will fall every day and every night and by the time it is all done, we have a foot or 18 inches on the ground.
This week has been one of those weeks. It has been cold and grey and snowy. In January we get well under 10 hours of light in a day, and usually even that is filtered heavily by thick overcast. It is enough to make a person want to stay inside by the fire until June, (well, THIS person anyway.) It takes effort to fight the urge to hunker down and cram myself full of comfort foods (and comfort wine) all winter.
This is where the dogs come in handy. They do not care that it is cold and dark at 6:45 in the morning—they need to get outside. And to be truly happy, they need to get outside for at least 30 minutes off-leash and free to explore.
This is how I came to find myself calf deep in the snow in the dark at Cass Park a few mornings ago. It was 6:20 in the morning, the temperature was 4 degrees, and there were six fresh inches of snow on top of the six inches that had fallen two days before that. The parking lot had been plowed and the walking path was cleared, but that was it. Every other square inch of snow-covered field was pristine and unspoiled. A few places had deer tracks leading from woods, across fields, and back into the cover of trees.
As I got out of the car I glanced up and saw that the sky was momentarily clear. The stars were thick and brilliant.
I didn’t care. I was simply there to get these dogs their 30 minutes and then it would be back in the car, back home, into the warm shower, and off to work for me. I opened the back door, let the dogs out of the car, made sure all my zippers and straps and ties were done up against the cold, and began my forced march down the only cleared path there was.
I spent the first ten minutes clenched against the cold, which was considerable. But slowly, the quiet of the morning, the crispness of the stars, and the obvious happiness of the dogs pulled my out of my clench. I stopped on the trail. I picked my head up and looked around. The sky to the east was just starting to lighten and the buildings of the Cornell campus were silhouetted up on East Hill. I looked west and was lucky enough to catch a shooting star as it blazed straight down toward the horizon on West Hill. I am fairly superstitious, but only about shooting stars. I took this as a great sign that it would be a good day.
From where I was standing on the path it was easy to see exactly how I had gotten to where I was. The path all the way back to the car was obvious. The way ahead was also obvious—at least to me. There was one cleared path in Cass Park—the Cayuga Waterfront Trail, (which is a real municipal treasure in Ithaca,)—and I was going to follow it all the way around and back to the car. This would give the dogs their thirty minutes and me my small bit of exercise for the day.
I was just about to begin walking again when Ginger made it clear to me that she did not want to continue ahead on the trail. She hunkered down a bit and seemed reluctant to come with me. I thought she had to pee, so I waited for a second. Rather than squat to do her thing, she just stared at me. We were stuck.
I could not figure out what she wanted and she could not tell me. So I asked her out loud: “Why are you looking at me like that? What do you want?” And as unbelievable as it may sound, Ginger turned her head toward the wide, snowy field next to us, raised her chin just a bit, and gave a small nod in the direction of the snow. I knew then just what she wanted and I reached down and unclipped her leash right away.
She took off like a shot, sprinted 20 yards out into the field, and then flopped over onto her back and rolled around in the snow for a good 60 seconds before coming up to shake herself off and look around. In the meantime, I had let Lotti off of her leash and she quickly follow in Ginger’s footsteps. The two of them wrestled around in the deep snow for a bit and then went off exploring around the edges of the field. I followed them out and took their lead.
No. That does not mean that I dropped onto my back and writhed around madly for a while. I simply followed wherever they went. There was no cleared path, no blacktopped trail to show them the way. I think mostly they were following their noses, though I cannot say for sure what leads a dog where she decides to go. By the time I was too cold to continue, we had made a mess of that field. There were footprints everywhere, a few yellow spots, and several patches were the snow showed signs of their tussles and their further floppings.
To get back to the car, I could have gotten back onto the plowed path, but instead we cut across the field and through some bushes, clearing our own path. It was about at that point that the whole metaphoricalness of the outing hit me.
I have always been a person who sticks to the path I am on until something knocks me off and onto another. I rarely choose to radically change directions of my own accord. It’s not even that I consciously choose to stick with the way things are—I just don’t entertain the idea of changing things. It was Ginger’s idea that we leave the trail and go mini-walkabout. And it was fun. Much more fun than doing our lap and going home.
When we got home I went upstairs to take a shower and get ready for work. There were boxes and furniture in the upstairs hallway. Erica had decided the day before that we need to switch the guest room with the office with the craft room. It was a three-way trade that was going to require a lot of furniture moving, some of it up and down the stairs. In the end, the arrangement of rooms will be much better and much more useful. But that did not matter when she told me. I had reacted with some pissiness, and I was still feeling a bit put out about the whole thing even the next morning.
Once the warm water of the shower hit me and I had time to consider my walk with the dogs, I saw that what Erica was doing with the rooms was the same thing Ginger and Lotti did in the park. She was simply changing direction, looking at what else was possible, and doing something new. She is good at this. And, almost invariably, I react badly. And then I come around.
This morning I told Erica in an e-mail at work how much I appreciate her willingness to change course, to question the way we are doing things, to take a new path. She is willing to juggle possibilities and take risks and do unexpected things and it drives me crazy. But in the end, it makes me a better person, too. What I consider a weakness in me is a strength in her—it’s one way we complement each other. It is also one of the things I have come to appreciate most about Erica, even if it means I sometimes have to carry heavy shit from room to room.
She e-mailed back right away to say thanks. And to tell me she quit her job this morning. JK J