Here in Oxford, England, March started with the ‘Beast from the East,’ a polar vortex that came spiraling in from Siberia. Temperatures plummeted to -10oC, 15 centimetres of snow fell, and with a Red Alert weather warning issued, people all over the country were advised to stay inside. I couldn’t. Two days in a row with no traffic on the roads, and a lucky break in the snowfall, meant I made it into and out of central London for meetings in record time. In fact, I was left twiddling my thumbs.
On the first of these two unusual nights, I put on a pair of La Sportiva hiking boots purchased and worn only once in Reykjavik, Iceland, to hike the well-known Sólheimajökull Glacier. What an opportunity in my own backyard. With my Cairn terriers tethered to their stainless-steel dog coupler, we were off. They trekked along, excited by the severe conditions, while I took everything in—empty streets, fully lit homes, frozen ground and streetlights blind with snow. Hardly a dangerous journey, but there was something about it that called to me—the darkness, the wind, the cold, the quiet. The unexpected. The dead set?
Once past the narrow streets of my neighborhood, where road and sidewalks were now indistinguishable under their blanket of ice and snow, and over the main thoroughfare with the odd empty bus groaning and hiccoughing its way into the town center, a winter wonderland opened up majestically before us. No rugby pitches visible now, no all-weather tennis courts, golf course or famous cricket ground to be seen, only a vast, frozen, untouched tundra. With the sharp wind snapping across the seemingly endless wasteland, forming and shifting drifts before my eyes, I felt I could be anywhere: back on the Sólheimajökull Glacier, for example, teetering on my metal spiked crampons at the mouth of an ice cave, icicles and all. Undaunted by these conditions, clueless about Red Alerts and with senses heightened, the Cairns as usual only wanted one thing: to hunt. Must be something out there, somewhere.
I huddled deep into the recesses of my parka. The fur-trimmed hood did exactly what it should, deflecting the wind and repelling the snow. The dogs whined as something low-slung and black skittered in front of us in the distance. Another dog? A fox? Something on the trail of a deer? Except for the wind, all was quiet. I discovered I didn’t want to go home. A single file of streetlamps lit a pristine pathway through my tundra, hinting at a wrinkle in time, a matrix, or the undiscovered world in back of a wardrobe—a gateway to anywhere. It resembled an image from an old black-and-white movie. At any moment, I felt, someone might swing out from behind a lamppost and start dancing—or else approach with a much darker motive.
We were jolted by the unexpected arrival of a biker. The dogs froze, and the rider gave me a sexy salute. Partners in crime. Who would cycle on a night like this? Who indeed would walk dogs on a night like this? It was long past ten, could be midnight. A bell rang out, the sound muffled by the frost-laden air, and back on the main street a passengerless bus with foggy windows skated past the deserted stops. I was inhabiting a ghost town.
There’s an element of the eternal in braving the elements, I realized. Enjoying these arbitrary gestures of the hand of God, fate, the latest uncontrollable whim of the wild weather… however you like to think of it. What a gift it was, what a difference it had made in my own home town. Who now would have the audacity to mention spring? With everything buried, frozen, paralyzed, deep, down under, who would even believe the season officially arrives this month, with its fields full of daffodils and early-morning sunrises? But hadn’t there been a red sunset the night before the snow blew in, usually a sign of good weather to come: “red sky at night, sailors’ delight”? Only to be followed this time by ‘The Beast from the East,’ the polar vortex, the sudden stratospheric warming they say may have actually started with conditions in Tonga. Go figure.
The absolute stillness is what I like best about a snowy interlude. The emptiness. The absence. It reminds me of the moment when a decision is made, a line drawn, and there can be no proceeding in any other direction. The magnificence of winter; the dead set of ice and snow covering a path I’ve travelled for years. The lovely surprise of finding the familiar, otherwise dressed, proving still to be as interesting as any place else.
The Cairns and I made it through the last shallow drifts and pushed past the wooden gate, not yet entirely blocked by snow. Back home, I let myself in, while the dogs went for a final patrol, hoping still to find a lame bird, a squirrel or that pesky fox that sometimes steals their food.
“I’m back,” I shouted. “I’m home.” But nobody really knew where I had been—in that decisive stillness of decision-making before the brilliant burst of spring.
Happy Easter, almost,