Last winter, on one of those warm February days that decades ago seemed rare as a unicorn, my wife and I went for a long ski on the Narrow Gauge Trail in Carrabassett Valley. Bright sun blared off the snowpack and refracted through icicles drip-drip-dripping from pine boughs. We overheated and sloughed off gear, leaving it like bread crumbs along the trail. It would prove later to have been, by consensus, the best day of the winter. The kind of afternoon in Maine that people wax rhapsodic about.
And I was, as we huffed along, the same slate-gray brand of miserable I had been for months.
The only thing that jolted me, however briefly, from the fugue that had shrouded my days since November was a flash of off-white just ahead that turned out to be a snowshoe hare. She was skinny and a little mangy and just generally looked like she and I were having the same lousy winter. I came to a stop to keep from frightening her any more than I already had, and she disappeared off the trail and into the trees. I hope she made it, but I’ve got my doubts.
You needn’t worry this is going to be another ode to the joy and beauty of winter in Maine. If you’re the type of person who cannot say enough about how much you love snow and smelting and ice sculptures, then great — you have both my admiration and my envy. But keep it down over there. Because just this once, we’re going to have some real talk about winter. Yes, it’s nice how the holidays bring people together. Yes, the cold months can be really pretty. You know what else can be pretty? Polar bears. They’re also said to be the only animal that deliberately stalks and eats human beings.
Winter is not something I enjoy so much as endure. Even when I was a kid, the deep-winter days, frigid and brief, filled me with ennui, unmooring me on multiple levels: temporal (Jesus, is it really dark at 4?), metaphorical (Winter comes for us all — what’s the point, when everything dies in the end?), and, most distressingly, psychological. I’m one of those people who, if I’m not careful, can slide into a deep depression in the weeks between Election Day and Thanksgiving.
Even when I was a kid, the deep-winter days, frigid and brief, filled me with ennui.
I think we all can agree that last winter was an unadulterated medical-waste fire. I won’t bother enumerating the End Times stressors that bombarded us every day, mostly because we’re still dealing with three-quarters of them and no one needs the reminder. But as my doctor noted in an effort to (I think?) make me feel better, even people who aren’t crazy were going crazy. As someone with loose circuits from way back, I didn’t stand a chance. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when the mother of all depressions snuck up behind me in mid-November and threw a burlap sack over my head. Suddenly, I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t write, couldn’t sit still, couldn’t think about anything but escaping from the solitary-confinement cell of my own mind.
This is not hyperbole. I’m keeping the tone light here, by design; if I wrote what it really felt like — if it were possible to articulate what it really feels like — this magazine wouldn’t publish it and you wouldn’t want to read it, and they’d probably send the orderlies after me to boot. If you know, you don’t need an explanation. If you don’t, then I can tell you I felt hopeless, like nothing mattered, but that’s like explaining the ocean by mentioning it’s wet. Doesn’t really capture the scope of the thing: you have to be out there, barely treading water between massive storm swells, to get it.
Anyway, it was late November, and the snows were coming, and winter fills me with unease and sorrow even in a good year. And, oh yeah, there was a pandemic on, and we definitely weren’t traveling anywhere, so winter was all I had.
So we rented a little place in Carrabassett Valley and fled there on the weekends from our place in Portland. Go even farther north, you say? Right into the teeth of the beast, you say? To which I reply: it was my wife’s idea. And god bless her for it.
On our first trip up, before unloading the car, we stopped at the airfield to walk Lyle, the dog. It was a patented early-winter Maine day, overcast in a way that can convince you the sun’s never coming out again. My nerves were raw, my heart full of dread; I knew all the reasons why I felt this way but understood none of them. I let the dog out of the car and followed him across the field toward the trailhead. From this spot, a panorama of glacial retreat unfurls in front of you: the field, bumpy and thick with dead grass, stretching hundreds of yards to the tree line, and beyond that, twin foothills skirted by low, swift clouds. It was lovely and grim, and I couldn’t appreciate any of it.
What do people go to places like Carrabassett Valley for? Recreation, obviously, but also for the semi-intangibles: slowing life down, the stars at night, all that frigid beauty. The sound of towering white pines clacking together in the wind after dark. People go, in other words, for the chance to be alone with their thoughts. Which was the absolute last thing I wanted.
Every morning, I drank my tea, took the pills that were supposed to make my head right again, and sat and watched the sun come up over the river outside our back door, waiting to feel something, anything, other than crazy. Foxes stalked mice hiding in the snow. Black ducks worked out mating politics in the eddies. Dumb turkeys did their dumb little march through the trees, pecking optimistically at this and that. The dog watched them all through the sliding glass door, rapt, for hours.
At the same time, out in the world, people were dying and arguing and continuing blithely on, somehow, with the steady business of destroying the environment and everything that relies on it. The holidays came and went. Merry, merry. Somehow, we managed to let this most remarkable experiment in self-governance teeter on the edge of the abyss for a few weeks — then we backed off half a step and tried to pretend everything was fine. I spent a lot of time thinking about how we’re all just shaved apes.
And though I had about as much motivation as a tree sloth, every day I got out there in what was left of nature. I hiked endless miles up and down the foothills with the dog, whose example of relentless good cheer and curiosity about the smallest things felt like a judgment. I skied a 7-mile stretch of the river so much that I came to know its every bend and burble. I worried about a juvenile moose that had for some reason more or less taken up residence on the edge of Route 27, where cars blasted by en route to and from Sugarloaf all day long. I was surrounded by life and couldn’t connect to any of it. None of it made me feel anything. None of it even seemed real.
And then, just as February was about to turn the corner to March, on a day when whiteout squalls blasted through the valley one after another, something changed. Not much, mind you, and not for long. This was hardly an Everything’s Going to Be Okay moment; real life leaves those to the movies. But it was proof that I could feel something other than nothing. On the way back from walking the dog, as I crossed the airfield toward the car, bent to the wind, I stopped dead without really knowing why. Lyle was maybe 15 feet in front of me, but I could barely see him through the scrims of snow. What was happening, I wondered? And the answer came, simple and clear: this was the first moment in months that I had actually occupied, been present for, not shambled through while troubling over the past or worrying about a decidedly worrisome future. I was just there, alone with my steadiest companion in a blinding squall in Maine’s mountain country, and I might have been the only person left on earth. I was feeling something too, but at first, I couldn’t identify what. Something tiny yet real, by God, something akin to a candle flame in winter’s wind. And then I realized: I was, somehow, at ease. My hands unclenched, for once. My breath coming deep and steady, cold air in, warm vapor out.
Joan Didion wrote a lot of lines worth pondering at length, little koans that, on reflection, open up into layer after layer of deepening significance, but perhaps the one that’s most relevant here is this: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” What she meant is that humans are hardwired to assign order and meaning where neither exists. To literally “make sense” of the random undulations of a capricious universe and, through subconscious adjustment and juxtaposition, fashion those meaningless, unrelated events into the stories we think of as our lives.
This was hardly an everything’s-going-to-be-okay moment; real life leaves those to the movies.
So I could probably do a pretty good job of convincing you the isolation and stark beauty of Carrabassett Valley conspired, bit by bit, morning by crystalline morning, to raise me out of the pit I’d fallen into. I could even employ a bit of neatly satisfying pop psychology to tell you that confronting winter forced me to confront myself, to sit with my unhappiness rather than run away or distract myself from it, and in doing so, somehow transcend it.
None of that really feels true, though.
Maybe it’s nothing more or less than the moment itself? That feels more honest, to me. And that moment wasn’t about natural beauty or the mental-health benefits of a middle-class existence that allows for weekends in the mountains. It was about simpler things. How the kind of cold that wants you dead focuses the attention, for one. How suddenly realizing you can neither see nor feel your hand in front of your face will remind you, if nothing else does, that hey, idiot, you’re alive. How being made to feel utterly alone and fragile can, somehow, bring us back to ourselves.