Catamount big shoes
I inherited a couple of chronic ingrown big toenails. In the case of footwear of any kind — I’d rather not. But these red snowshoes I’ve just laced up make me feel big and ugly.
The other car at the Catamount Mountain trailhead has Quebec plates. The other feet have beat trenches into the trail alongside a blank roofed sign. The afternoon sun makes the snow glitter like broken glass in a parking lot. I’m unhappy and loudly shod — clomp, scrape and clomp I go for the first quarter-mile in these snowshoes. I will not see a single damn bird. They dislike loud and ugly things like me, but that is OK, who needs them. There’s all this moss and wood to look at.
Every few trunks along the way is spotted with pollen-yellow paint. Some conifers seem to take this worse than others, and these signs are soaked in sap like a scab. I can’t turn around; I can’t back up; this is the life of a wind-up toy in these snowshoes, and it is familiar. I used to want to be this big and ugly! Because my dad and brother have bigger, flatter feet than me. For much of my life I thought this was unacceptable and pretended otherwise. I’d insist on wearing shoes a size larger than my feet were — I’d trip up stairs. I’d scrape and clomp for the essential quality: Jesse has big, flat feet, too.
I think what it boils down to is that the largest figure in Assyrian relief sculptures is usually the king. The biggest figure on the gypsum alabaster tablet — he’s the safest one, because he’s large. This whole thing has been going on for millennia now, and I’m just starting to forgive myself for it, clomping up this mountainside.
A stop sign on a farm gate blocks a private path. There are no tracks on the other side. The trail inclines at the first creek crossing. Through curvy holes in the ice, moving water is visible. But for the most part, the logs, the rocks, the surface of the water are sleeved in ice. Clear stalagmites cluster on blockages. I am glad to hear the whole thing flowing.
I get average human dignity. I am bipedal. Around where the switchbacks begin, I’ve learned to stress the heel of the foot with each step. No more scrapes this way. I do not trip so much. I allow myself some hope to see a bird. The sun is up and behind me, throwing long shadows up the mountainside.
Then there is no more snow on the trail, only rocks, only ice, often the former inside the latter. This sucks, because I had just learned how to articulate my ankles, and now I need my hands. I slide the snowshoes onto my forearms, with my wrists through the binding like the specially adapted digging claws of a mole. I stab these into the crud snow on either side of the trail to haul myself upward.
My Toms get no traction, but they’re still cute and waterproof. I spend a lot of time on my hands and knees. Blood’s really pumping now. I’m grunting. I can’t hear anything but me, and then some French banter.
The francophones, a woman first and then a man, are making their way down. The trail is thin, about a foot wide, skirting the edge of an ice flow. I press myself into a corner as they pass, clucking over one another. They stab the ice with their poles, and stomp down in their crampons.
OK. Now I’m sweating. I use tree trunks as levers. I’m scooting up the mountainside. There’s a clearing where one can see the summit to the west and the valley floor to the north and east, where a pond reflects the setting sun. I assume a flat-footed squat and enjoy a granola bar. I cannot pull out my phone. Last I checked, we were getting our wallets stolen in the Colorado desert, we were heading into the city to grab donuts, we were busy mastering a mixtape for our lover. Any one of those things and it’s curtains for my career thinking about tree bark and dirt.
The snow at this elevation is crosshatched by half-inch pine needles. The trees are not tall. Clouds have rolled in and obscure the sun, leaving one pale yellow bloom in the otherwise gray sky, above the blue mountains. There are two gunshots and a dog barks.
The path gets technical once more. The birthing canal is the easiest — that slick narrow, passage on the mountain’s flank. If one has seen a opossum navigate obstacles, that’s how I did it, with my little hands and feet engaged all at once. The wind is obnoxious and my nose runs. I lick the snot away, and I understand why some kids develop a problem with booger-eating. See, I was a picker, sometimes I would turn my head sideways and drop them into my ears, but I was never an eater. The saltiness is not unpleasant. I would never do this at ground level, of course.
After much grunting I make a summit with my chapped hands. A summit, because there’s another, bigger one. The trail continues on to its crest, I assume. To the northwest the sky is grapefruit pink. Three of the more solid-form clouds glow like hard candies. I dine on a carrot and a shredded peanut butter sandwich. Don’t say I didn’t try to get to the bigger place. I leave my gear and follow the trail as it continues. The snow is soft up here, without much of a track. It doesn’t look like the francophones came this way, and I would feel better if they didn’t. But let me try to ascend.
I sink past my knee into the dough and can just say “Mnuh!” So I turn around, back to where the trail ends for me at the smaller of two places, where I am tired and watch the sun go down. I get a blurry shot of birds flying by. After it gets dark, I tie the snowshoes to my backpack like the vestigial wings of a emu.
It’s a lot harder to feel like I’m supposed to be on a mountain, in the dark. It shoos me off at speed, and I tumble on all fours down the ice flows. The shoes on my back clomp together and scrape the ice. Falling is great. There’s no one around, and I get little bloody, relying on my young, spongy tissues to take the hits.
A pink ribbon still bands the horizon above the ridge line, and I struggle to operate the flash on my camera. There are few sounds when I am not moving. The occasional chorus of wind through the tree tops. This is disconcerting. I don’t think my sounds are so ugly as I’m clattering along; in fact I wish I was bigger and couldn’t hear anything else. I wish I was large, Ashurbanipal II ninth-century B.C.E. Assyrian king large, and the woods would rumble with the huffing and squashing of snow underfoot.
Instead I hear stuff moving and am frightened. I do not remember being afraid of the dark. Back down at the creek crossing, I try and stage a photo of my winged backpack with my pill light. Something in the relationship between the swishing of my snow pants and the bass burble hum of the creek produces a voice and I do not like what it says. This is enough to get me shuffling on my way again.
Often I do wish the trail would stop here — at the small place where I am at, broadly speaking, where I can sit and be done with it. Watch the sunset and be OK with the fact that I never made it any further along. But, ooh man, a critter in the bushes at head height went ahead and chattered at me, “reet-reet-reet,” and I feel the sweet fear of being alive and wanting above all else to stay that way. I wag my light at the sound, being that woodland creatures fear the LED.
I keep my eyes locked on the trail, here at the end. The way my light swings as I slip and slide in the snow, it paints gooey shadows in the snow that I can’t bear looking at. The key is to fixate on the trail tracks. I’m scared of meeting whatever left these cloven hoof prints, and whatever stabbed the path with ski poles, leaving these little concentric circles. Most of all, I’m afraid of running into whatever left these big and ugly rectangular foot prints that loop on and off, stopping short of trees.